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When Tropical Truly Cooked

A new compilation of Afro-Cuban oldies puts contemporary efforts in the shade.

March 04, 2001|ERNESTO LECHNER | Ernesto Lechner is a regular contributor to Calendar

The grainy black-and-white image caught me by surprise on a lazy Sunday when I was trying to program the channels in my new cable system. In between the formulaic TV movies and the hapless infomercials, I suddenly caught a glimpse of Machito, the legendary Cuban singer and bandleader, in a vintage '50s movie clip playing on public access.

There he was: the man whose exhilarating music has become an intrinsic part of my life, yet whose image I had never seen except for a handful of photos on record covers and reference books.

The scene lasted a little over a minute. I sat transfixed, watching him singing and playing the maracas as he led a glamorous-looking big band, smiling in the infectious, good-natured way I had heard so much about from people who had the good fortune to see him perform.

Listening to his music that evening corroborated a theory I've had for the last few years: that Latin music is not what it used to be, that the genre's apex occurred during the '50s, '60s and '70s, and that more recent recordings don't match the quality and innovation of the past.

This kind of complaint isn't unusual in pop culture. There are those who say rock today lacks the experimentation and adventure of the '60s. Others bemoan the current state of jazz compared to the glory days of Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis. In country music, people reminisce about the time when Johnny Cash and George Jones ruled the charts.

Critics with these opinions are usually accused of idealizing the past, of preferring the old stuff only because it brings back memories of their own adolescence, a time in life when records have the power to change who you are and make you see the world in different ways.

I don't think that's the case with me. I'm 32 and I wasn't even a thought on my parents' minds when Machito was releasing his best albums and playing regularly at the famous Palladium in New York. I have no reason to feel nostalgic about his recordings or the sound of that specific era. Still, I am able to sense a warmth and a magic in them that have been sorely absent from the tropical field for the last two decades.


Machito, who died in 1984, is at the center of "Mas Mambo Mania," a superlative collection of Afro-Cuban oldies that Rhino Records released recently. He is the only artist in this anthology who is represented with more than one track. The disc opens with a rollicking version of "Ven Conmigo Guajira" recorded during a 1958 concert in Los Angeles, and also includes a glittering mambo from the sessions Machito did with jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker.

Most of the tunes here make a good case for the superiority of the golden era of the Afro-Cuban genre versus today's fluffy, overproduced confections. Like its predecessor, 1995's "Mambo Mania," "Mas Mambo Mania" was compiled by Alan Geik, a DJ with "Alma del Barrio," a KXLU-FM (88.9) salsa radio show with a rabid following.

Geik's inspired sequencing of the material reveals a deep understanding of this music. At times his choices are illuminating. Take the beginning of the record, where we feast on the condensed, staccato bravado of Machito and Tito Rodriguez. But then he follows Celia Cruz's brisk "Caramelos" with "Colombia Te Canto," a 10-minute epic workout and one of pianist Eddie Palmieri's most demanding compositions.

Simple and flavorful, the preceding warmup enhances the hypnotic effect of Palmieri's track. It's almost as if Geik were illustrating the entire genre's coming of age in one single transition.

Geik also throws in the best of the best (La Lupe, Celeste Mendoza, Joe Cuba and more) like an inspired magician engaged in an endless crescendo of artful illusions. The disc ends with Tito Puente's punchy timbale workout "Pa'Los Rumberos," from the classic 1956 album "Cuban Carnival."


Puente was one of the many artists I interviewed in my ongoing quest to determine whether my preference for the music of the past is rooted in logic or is just some Proustian obsession. I was gratified to discover that the timbalero, although prolific and successful until his last day, regarded the '50s as a remarkable period.

"The competition was so good, you had to work really hard," he remembered in 1999. "The orchestras paid a lot of attention to the arrangements and the recordings, much more so than now. These days, it's all about the pretty-looking singers. Everybody has a band and it's become a routine. There's no musician-bandleaders anymore, like in the old times."

In another conversation, Palmieri compared the recording process of the '50s with that of the '90s. At one point, I remarked that his classic '50s albums ("Dancemania," "Top Percussion" et al), which were recorded with no overdubs, sounded better than the new ones, where there was ample space and opportunity to correct the odd glitch or mistake.

"Back then, you had a more acoustic sound," he agreed. "There were less microphones, less electronic machinery getting in the way. You got the pure sound of the orchestra. I think it's fundamental to record with the whole orchestra together in the studio, because it is then that you can feel the full energy of the music."

It remains to be seen whether the Latin field can experience a creative renaissance any time soon. There are a few encouraging signs: the incorporation of a Latin tinge into the American mainstream, as well as a new openness in pop culture to alternative sounds.

But for the time being, the cult of the past might be simply unavoidable.

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