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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sabu Martinez, "Palo Congo"

Sabu Martinez
"Palo Congo"
Blue Note (1957)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

I may or may not have made some claims a few posts ago that Machito's "Kenya" would be the last Cuban jazz album that we'd be looking at for a while. Alas, it was not to be, for next up in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die is "Palo Congo," a Cubop record from New York City conguero Louis "Sabu" Martinez.

Like fellow New York congo player Ray Barretto and vocalist Machito, both of whom we have already looked at, Martinez got his break as a bandleader thanks to his work with a more prominent (and less Latin American) jazz musician. Martinez played with Dizzy Gillespie before releasing "Congo," his debut under his own name, in 1957.

Unfortunately, due to the recent wave of similar albums, there isn't all too much for me to tell you about "Palo Congo." The obvious focal point is, again, the percussion section. Martinez, like Barretto, filters in solos on tracks like "El Cumbanchero," but spends most of his energy keeping the rest of his fellow drummers in line with the beat. An interesting change in pace from Barretto and Machito is that Martinez is both the primary vocalist and bandleader (Barretto kept his mouth shut while drumming, and Machito only complemented his vocals with maracas). The call-and-response style vocals are nothing special however, and the most relevant tracks on "Congo" are instrumentals like "Asabache," which revel in polyrhythm-ania.

Worth mentioning from a music history standpoint is Martinez's bandmate and fellow Gillespie standout, Arsenio Rodríguez. Rodríguez played the tres, a Cuban string instrument similar in nature to a 12-string guitar, on "Congo." The tres features only three sets of double strings (hence the name), creating gentle melodies that are often associated with the Caribbean islands and often mistaken for the ukulele. The instrument is a dud on this album however, filling space that is more than properly occupied by the impressive percussion section.

Rodríguez deserves credit for making this style of music a reality however. For one, he was the first to introduce the conga drum to son montuno (the genre upon which all Cuban dance music is based), and he also added additional trumpets to complete his complex melodies, creating the prototypical "Latin horn section" brought to fame by Herb Alpert and others, in the process. Rodríguez also claimed to have invented the mambo, but this statement is more hotly contested by music experts.

Again, I'm sorry for the seemingly repetitive nature of recent posts. Hopefully this time we'll get a break before the next Cuban entry. But hey, if you like what you've been hearing, check out "Asabache" below and maybe the rest of the album, because it's still a shining example of the "Cubop" genre.

INTERESTING FACT: Interesting facts on Martinez are in short supply, but fans of the film "Christmas Vacation" will appreciate this blip about Rodríguez (and its correlation with Cousin Eddie's daughter Ruby Sue). Rodríguez was blind…as the result of getting kicked in the head by a mule at a young age.

Rhapsodia Del Maravilloso by Sabu on Grooveshark

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