We have to forgo the beach today in favor of sitting poolside instead. I guess you could say that all those plumes of back hair and outlines of sausage encased in tight European Speedo’s was becoming a bit too overwhelming. So after a breakfast of “slow roasted dogs arse” and sweaty cheese, we’re camped out in our deckchairs at poolside to soak up some more rays, sip a few more cocktails, read the first few chapters of my new book ‘Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock n’ Roll‘ (Peter Guralnick) and begin my whole Cuban-inspired holiday music beginning with the ‘Our Man In Havana‘ album by Mongo Santamaria.
Since the 19th century Cuban music has been hugely popular and influential throughout the world. It has been perhaps the most popular form of regional music since the introduction of recording technology. It’s styles and genres have contributed to the development of a wide variety of genre and musical styles around the globe, most notably in Latin America, the Caribbean, West Africa and Europe. Examples include rhumba, Afro-Cuban jazz, salsa, soukous, many West African re-adaptations of Afro-Cuban music (Orchestra Baobab, Africando), Spanish fusion genres (notably with flamenco), and a wide variety of genres in Latin America. So, yeah, besides having great educational and medical institutions, Cuba is also a huge contributor to the World music scene as well.
Large numbers of African slaves and European, mostly Spanish, immigrants came to Cuba and brought their own forms of music to the island. Fernando Ortiz, the first great Cuban folklorist, described Cuba’s musical innovations as arising from the interplay (‘transculturation’) between African slaves settled on large sugar plantations and Spaniards from different regions such as Andalusia and Canary Islands. The African slaves and their descendants made many percussion instruments and preserved rhythms they had known in their homeland. The most important instruments were the drums, of which there were originally about fifty different types; the most important today being the bongos, congas and batá drums. Ramon “Mongo” Santamaria is one of those popular percussionists that Cuban music has become known for.
Born Ramón “Mongo” Santamaría Rodríguez (April 7, 1917 – February 1, 2003), he was a rumba quinto master and an Afro-Cuban Latin jazz percussionist. He is most famous for being the composer of the jazz standard ‘Afro Blue‘, recorded by John Coltrane among others. In 1950 he moved to New York where he played with Perez Prado*, Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Fania All Stars, etc. He was an integral figure in the fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms with R&B and soul, paving the way for the boogaloo era of the late 1960’s. His 1963 hit rendition of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Watermelon Man‘ was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
‘Our Man in Havana’ is in fact a compilation of two albums (‘Our Man in Havana’ and ‘Bembe’) recorded by conguero Ramon “Mongo” Santamaria in Havana in the early 1960’s. By then, Santamaria, who had left Cuba in 1948, had already made his mark with Tito Puente and Cal Tjader and had released his classic piece ‘Afro-Blue’. In the songs from the original ‘Our Man’, Santamaria tinkers with the standard instrumentation of the Cuban conjunto and the orquesta tipica and revisits classic styles such as cha cha. The second part of the set explores the ritual music of the Orishas (often referred to as Santeria) and traditional rumba. For this project, Santamaria assembled a group that included singers Merceditas Valdes and Carlos Embale and, for good measure, his friend Willie Bobo, the only non-Cuban. The austere recording and crisp playing bring out the beauty and power of this music, at once deeply spiritual and earthy. Mongo went on to make his name in Latin jazz history with his playing, his bands, and his writing. But this album, showing his more traditional side, is a classic and a perfect place to begin my whole self-exploration into Cuban music poolside with pina colada in one hand while overlooking a poolful of happy, drunken vacationers.
The first set is superb, featuring an unusual mixture of instruments for a Cuban band: two trumpets, flute, piano, tres (Nino Rivera), bass, timbales, bongos, guiro, conga, and two vocalists. The playing by the local musicians is of high quality, and the ten selections are quite enjoyable. The latter project has the music performed entirely by vocalists, other than the percussion of Santamaria and Bobo and mostly consists of folk melodies and religious songs, with the emphasis totally on the chanting and singing. The music is intriguing from a historical standpoint but the jazz content is nil. Whatever it is at this point though, it’s perfect in that it also just happens to be drowning out all the other Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, and whoever it is that does that god awful ‘Whip Whip, Nay Nay‘ (not even worth linking) bullshit that is currently pumping over the poolside stereo system. There’s just not enough rum in the world to ever get me to appreciate that.