JOE CUBA SEXTET / “El Pito”
[T]here had been precedents by the time the Joe Cuba Sextet's releases filled dance floors in 1966, and there were other Latin acts who cut successful boogaloo records, but none of them became as identified with the style in the minds of non-Latinos. … Formed in 1954 from the remnants of the Joe Panama Quintet, the group consisted of vocalist Willie Torres, pianist Nick Jiménez, bassist Ray Roy Rosa, Jimmy Sabater on timbales, Tommy Berríos on vibraphone and leader Gil Calderón pounding the congas. Calderón got the stage name "Joe Cuba" from the owner of one of the clubs where they played. Cheo Feliciano took over lead vocalist duties when Torres quit in 1957 to sing with the José Curbelo Orchestra, and shortly thereafter, Jules Cordero replaced Ray Roy Rosa. The Sextet's appeal to English-speaking crowds had much to do with their unusual habit of putting English-language lyrics to Latin dance numbers. They were among the first Latin acts to do so. Cheo Feliciano has confirmed this to interviewer Abel Delgado. "When I came into the group, they had instituted many English tunes," he recalled. "Willie Torres…used to sing most of the tunes in English even though they were salsa. We did all the (English) tunes because we used to cater to a Jewish crowd, to an Italian crowd, to black American crowds, and to Latinos, too. Crossover (for Latin bands) really started with Joe Cuba.” —From “Mambo Gee Gee: The Story Of George Goldner And Tico Records”Back in July, in a post about Dizzy Gillespie and the genealogy of Latin Jazz, Kalamu talked about “Manteca,” a tune composed by Gillespie along with famed Cuban congo player Chano Pazo. Recently, I accidentally came across a connection to that song. I was checking out the history of something called ‘boogaloo,’ a short-lived Latin musical craze that both hit and ended in the late Sixties. It turns out that one of the biggest boogaloo songs was the Joe Cuba Sextet’s “El Pito,” a million-seller that, along with another big hit of theirs, “Bang Bang,” established the Cuba Sextet as the most popular Latin band of the time. (Both songs are available on The Best Of Joe Cuba Sextet.) From the first time I heard “El Pito,” I liked it a lot. Frankly, it’s hard not to. By ’66 when the song hit big, Gilberto ‘Joe Cuba’ Calderón and his band had been together for over a decade. They were accomplished club musicians who knew how to work a crowd into a dancing frenzy. The Sextet’s hit “El Pito” is one those records that has the spontaneous, improvised feel of something that one fine day in some recording studio somewhere ‘just happened,’ but I doubt it. If you pay attention, the arrangement is actually quite involved, if not actually complicated. Chances are, Calderón’s band had played “El Pito” live in dance clubs many, many times before they actually went into the studio to cut it. The infectious wildness and ‘accidental’ stops and starts are more likely the result of in-concert trial and error and in-studio professionalism rather than the ‘made on the fly’ feeling you’re left with while listening to it. As for the Dizzy Gillespie connection, that’s his and Chano’s bassline and melody you’re listening to. Not to mention that the “I’ll never go back to Georgia” refrain is the same one Dizzy used to intro his 1957 re-recording of “Manteca” (taken from At Newport). So, with the help of Chano Pazo, Dizzy Gillespie created Latin Jazz by borrowing the percussion instruments and cadences of Cuba. A decade later, Puerto Rican musicians from New York incorporated R&B and soul (and Dizzy’s bassline!) into their dance styles to come up with the first major Latin crossover hits in American pop history. It’s been mentioned before, but it’s worth mentioning again: African-derived and/or influenced music isn’t something that can be neatly categorized or organized. The music seldom, if ever, develops in neat, straight lines. Long before digital sampling, musicians felt free to borrow what they needed to express the feeling they wanted to express at the time, to say whatever they had to say. And thank goodness for that. Without that freedom, the world would be a quieter and much more boring place. Next week, look for more boogaloo tracks, including a little something from the Latin Funk Brother Joe Bataan and probably the best-known boogaloo track of all, Pete Rodriguez’ “I Like It Like That.” —Mtume ya Salaam Latin Jazz? What a huge misnomer, if you think about it, study the history of it. Most of us have a general idea of what Latin Jazz is, but the truth be told, it really has nothing to do with “Latin America” per se. Latin jazz is, for the most part, Salsa and Afro-Cuban music filtered through a jazz aesthetic. The main roots of Latin Jazz are Cuban first and then Puerto Rican, which essentially means African rhythms as preserved and practiced in the Caribbean context. Of course, the Bossa Nova jazz movement was huge, but check this, even though Bossa Nova is geographically more Latin Jazz than is Salsa, Bossa Nova is seldom referred to as Latin Jazz. It’s usually just called Bossa Nova. Whereas Salsa and Afro-Cuban musics are seldom called what they are: Carribean Jazz. Why? Undoubtedly, it's easier to type Latin than it is to type Caribbean. Plus, back in the Sixties, most mainstream typewriters had a hard time typing "African" and then if they did, they would have to explain how something that came from the Western Hemisphere could be African, which, by extension, is a denial of the fact that a great deal of the population of the Western Hemisphere is African, which, if you acknowledge that, inevitably forces you to end up talking about how Africans became Americans (or Latins, or Caribbean, or whatever the West calls us other than "African"). I think what the music is called gets all mixed up mainly because the namers of the music are mixed up (politically, socially, genetically, any kind of way you want to put it). The main truth is that those who control and name the music seldom tell the truth about the origins and social foundations of the music. All of which is to say, BoL will featur a lot more so-called “Latin Jazz” (i.e. jazz that is based on African derived rhythms rather than African-American rhythms). “Swing,” for example is an African-American rhythmic concept. And for sure, whenever you hear a heavy “backbeat,” you are listening to either African-American music or music that is heavily influenced and informed by African-American musical aesthetics. To be continued; I can hardly wait…. —Kalamu ya Salaam
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