Every so often a great musical talent will flower far from the source of its inspiration.
Such was the case with some of the great British dance bands of the late 'twenties
and 'thirties which played American music in the heyday of the large orchestras better
than most American outfits except that of Papa Whiteman himself. And in the field of
jazz criticism, some of the most knowledgeable writing has been in French, by critics
who might never have heard live performances of the top groups, but formed their
opinions from records and movie shorts.
So it is no more than passing strange that one of our
exponents of Cuban rhythms should be a native New Yorker. Tito Puente was born
some thirty years ago in New York City's then comparatively small Latin American
colony and he served a wartime hitch in the U.S. Navy, but his musical reputation is as
Cuban as rum-and-cola. He skyrocketed to fame and fortune on the slightly off-beat
rhythm of the mambo, but he's equally deft in his handling of the later cha-cha-cha and
guaguancó and the standard rumba, in addition to such other Latin rhythms as the
merengue, samba and conga. And he and his versatile combination often vary their
dance programs with some smoothly handled fox trots and velvety waltzes.
But it is in the Latin rhythms that he lias achieved his
position as one of the great
recording and performing artists of our day. Tito began his career as a dancer, and
was going places as a hoofer until some badly ripped ankle tendons turned him into a
musician. His dancing background aided him greatly in his musical career, however,
as you can see as you watch his body movements while he's working up a good
lather on the vibes or timbales. (He also plays piano, sax, bongo and legitimate drums.)
And it unquestionably helped him become the mambo master, since, as he puts it, "The
mambo is tremendous because it's a great exhibition dance everybody who
dances it is a star!"
In addition to being an outstanding conductor and
instrumentalist, Puente is a top
arranger and composer, as you'll realize when you listen to this album, in which eight
of the eleven numbers are his original compositions, including cha-cha-chas,
guaguancós, rumbas and mambos. Together they represent an exciting cross section
of the Cuban styles, recorded by three different-sized combinations: a small, a
medium and a large group.
After you've heard these sides, I think you'll agree that
they are great music. They're in
the best of the Afro-Cuban and Latin American traditions, but they ofttimes have the
drive and the swinging perfection of Count Basie, while never losing the authenticity
of the Latin rhythm.
This is modern music, powerful music, and somewhat
avant-garde for the Latin idiom.
Nevertheless it's enormously evocative of Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba in
particular. Listen to it, and you'll be in Havana, just as day is ending in the soft,
twilight. The one-day cruise tourists are rolling out of Sloppy Joe's, the dos Hermanos
Bar and the drink-tasting counters of the rum distilleries and are heading for the piers,
and the town is beginning to really jump. The sidewalk cafés opposite the national
capital are already jammed, their girl orchestras are filling the dusk with music, and the
shoeshine boys and the traveling salesmen of lottery tickets, postcards, gadgets,
gewgaws or what-do-you-want are traveling from caf
In all kinds of night clubs in and around
Havana, from the luxurious and spacious
outdoor places such as Tropicana and Sans Souci on the edge of town, to smoky little
cellars, where the pounding rhythms rattle the sidewalk overhead, you'll discover that
Cubans are just about the dancingest people on earth. Everybody dances in Cuba,
from cabinet ministers to street kids selling lottery tickets.
You'll find every sort of night club in Havana, but if you
want to go where the music
comes from, drop in to a few of the little native joints in the old part of town. The air
will be heavy with all kinds of smoke, but you'll hear the real Afro-Cuban sounds. It is
in places like these that many Latin American hit tunes first are worked out with
pounding hands and feet on battle- and bottle-scarred pianos. And these are the
rhythms you hear and the mood you feel when you listen to the wonderfully exciting
Cuban Carnival of Tito Puente.
Travel Editor, Esquire
© by Radio Corporation of America, 1956