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01/01/93
Tito Puente, Top Percussion CD

Review: Classic In Review: Tito Puente's Top Percussion

by David PeŮalosa

Every now and then in the recording industry a classic comes along, a record with such vitality and creative genius that it endures for decades to come. Recorded on July 29, 1957 in New York City, Tito Puenteís Top Percussion is one such classic.

This record was made during an Afro-Cuban musical renaissance that occurred in America roughly from the mid 1950ís to early 1960ís. Quite a few recordings were made which featured the small handful of Cuban master percussionists living in the U.S. at the time. The range of styles from this era included Afro-Cuban folkloric drumming to Latin jazz collaborations between Cuban percussionists and the leading jazz artists of the day. Unfortunately, there were also some watered-down and commercialized attempts made during this period to wed Cuban and American popular music.

Not to worry though, Top Percussion is anything but watered-down. the musicians on this record have given us a wonderful gift by showing what they are capable of doing. Because of itís musical integrity, itís as hip today as it ever was.

Even by today's standards, the sound clarity and high production quality of Top Percussion is note worthy. The late fifties was the era of hi-fi and the beginning of the stereophonic revolution of the LP. RCA promoted it as ďLiving Stereo!Ē This re-release on CD was digitally remastered directly from the original stereo analog tapes.

New York born, Puerto Rican-American Tito Puente is at his peak here, living up to his title as ďEl Rey Del Timbal.Ē Joining him are master Cuban percussionists Mongo Santamaria, Francisco Aguabella, Julito Collazo and the late American born Willie Bobo. Each of these artists are legends in their own right. On Top Percussion they are all young, in their prime, and hot!

Puente created two distinct parts to this record. One half consists of Afro-Cuban folkloric percussion with call and response singing, and the other features the heart of the latin bands rhythm section: congas, bongos, timbales and string bass.

On the first six cuts Julito Collazo and Francisco Aguabella demonstrate their expertise in the sacred music of the Lucumi (Yoruba in Cuba). We hear Bembe, Guiro and Iyesa. Collazo plays exquisite chekere and sings the lead on "Eleguara," "Bragada," "Oguere Madeo" and "Obaricoso." Aguabella sings lead on "Obatala Yeza" and "Alaumba Chemachť." These two also took a few artistic liberties within the traditional musical forms. For instance, on "Obatala Yeza" thereís a Iyesa lead drum being played as well as a lead Bata drum(lya). Aguabella plays the Iyesa lead taking turns improvising with Collazo, whoís playing the lead Bata drum part.

"Conga Alegre" is a Comparsa. This is the music thatís played in the streets during the time of Carnaval; a sort of Cuban Samba. The smoking quinto heard on this cut is played by Mongo Santamaria.

I have to hand it to Tito Puente for giving his side-men the opportunity to shine like this. However, Iíve always felt that one of the cowbells on the Iyesas and the snare drum on Conga Alegre were a bit too high up in the mix. Could these be the instruments that Puente is playing? If so, itís a forgivable indulgence.

"Four by Two" and "Hot Timbales" are a couple of unique compositions that feature the timbales. The intensity is almost too much to bear. "Mon Ti" is a five minute timbale solo by Puente with Mongo holding down the bottom on congas. In my opinion this is one of the greatest timbale solos of all time. I donít seem to ever get tired of it.

"Ti Mon Bo" is a moderately slow number featuring Tito on timbales, Mongo on congas and Willie on bongos. Willie Bobo made a name for himself as a timbale player, but on this cut he shows what a gifted bongo player he is as well.

Finally, the ďCD bonus cutĒ is "Night Ritual" from the LP Night Beat also recorded in 1957. "Night Ritual" is an Afro-Cuban Jazz suite played by a large band consisting of seventeen musicians. The "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite" was made popular by Dizzy Gillespie and Machito and can be heard on Mario Bauzaís recent release Tanga. "Night Ritual" is important from a historical perspective but itís the only selection on the CD that sounds dated.

One consequence of the political polarity between Cuba and the United States has been a shortage of authentic recordings of Afro-Cuban percussion available in this country. Because of that sad fact, Top Percussion has been for many years, one of the few works of this type in American record stores. Many percussion teachers and performers today grew up listening and studying it.

Things started to change with the 1980 Mariel boat lift in which great scores of Cubans arrived in America. Since that time there has been more recorded Cuban music here as well as actual Cuban master percussionists. That has meant much more information has become available on Afro-Cuban percussion. However, it was those few records such as Top Percussion that paved the way and gave us all the foundation necessary in order to absorb the newer information.

Iím very happy to have a CD of Top Percussion. My old LP was worn out.



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