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Cortijo Y Kako y sus Tambores, Ritmos Y Cantos Callejeros CD

Review: Puerto Rico's Funk: Cortijo/Kako/Rivera

by Bobby Sanabria

Facts are facts. The two most dominant forces in the field of commercial Latin dance music today are Afro-Cuban rooted Salsa and the rock steady 1,2 beat of Afro-Dominican Merengue. Although certain other styles such as the Afro-Columbian based Cumbia and, of course, West Indian Soca vie for some of the commercial market today, it seems there is little room for the dance rhythms of other countries no matter how infectious or profound they may be. Case in point — Puerto-Rico’s own indigenous Afro-centric forms: Bomba and Plena.

Born from the descendants of African Slaves in the central regions of Puerto-Rico, Bomba is a general term for various styles of African derived Puerto Rican music. Two common examples are the Yubá, which is in 6/8 meter, and the Xicá, which is the common rhythm that was adapted by dance orchestras. The person responsible for bringing this aspect of Puerto-Rico’s culture out of the closet and adapting it to the dance band format was the late, great percussionist Rafael Cortijo who left us in 1982.

Born in 1928 in Santurces Puerto-Rico he formed his first band in 1954 at the height of the mambo era at the urging of Cuba’s “Mr. Babalú”, singer Miguelito Valdez. Cortijo’s orchestra would eventually give birth to Ismael Rivera, Nacho Sanabria, Roberto Roena and his Apollo Sound, and the world renowned El Gran Combo. He came to the public’s attention with his first hit "El Bon Bon De Elena" with Ismael Rivera on vocals. This Rafael Cepeda composition (Cepeda being the undisputed patriarch of Afro-Rican culture and composer of some of the most well known bomba’s) is representative of the Plena tradition. The Plena was born in a now non-existent area of Ponce Puerto-Rico known as Joya del Castiillo (jewel of the castle). Joya was really an impoverished area where a legendary figure in Puerto Rican music lived. Joselino “Bum Bum” Oppenheimer was a plowman in Ponce and would sing songs to the rhythm of his oxen’s hooves. He played the accordion, güicharro (gourd) and the primary percussion instrument in Plenas, the pandereta (a jingleless tambourine that sounds like a conga). He is accredited with forming the first organized Plena band and composing some of the style’s most well known numbers. Because Ponce’s population was made up of ex-slaves from the West Indies, fans of Calypso and Soca as well as “house” reggae will hear many similarities with this criollo (creole) form of Puerto Rican music which has an undisputable driving “riddim.”

Ritmos Y Cantos Callejeros is a 1970 Ansonia release that features Cortijo and fellow Puerto Rican percussionist “Kako” (timbalero with the legendary Alegre All-Stars) in a virtual potpourri of now classic Bombas and Plenas. In addition, the now mythic Ismael Rivera (“Maelo”) is featured as a background vocalist with Gilberto Cruz and a chorus made up of friends and family. One of Puerto-Rico’s most underrated talents, Chivirico Davila, is the featured lead vocalist interpreting all the tunes with Sabor Boricua (Puerto Rican taste and panache) and pure unadulterated swing.

For those listeners who are Puerto Rican this recording will bring images of “La Vila del Encanto” (the island of enchantment) to mind immediately. For non-Boricuas it will be an enlightening experience and an education in Puerto Rican rhythm. Plenas such as "Chiviriquiton," an Ismael Rivera composition, and classics in the genre like "Yo No Baila Con Juana" (I Don’t Dance With Juana) literally jump out from the speakers and invite you to dance. The Bomba tradition is represented by standards like "Alegria Bomba Es" (Bomba Is Happiness) and "María Teresa" as well as "Que Le Paso" (What Happened?) by legendary Cuban composer Justi Barretto. On all the tunes the interplay between percussionists Cortijo and Kako, pianist Paquito Pastor (one of the most unsung heroes and most talented arrangers in Latin music — he was performing with Arsenio Rodriguez when he was 15) and legendary bassist Bobby Rodriguez is a clinic in and of itself. What is even more interesting is that no horns were used on this recording, which is in keeping with the “street” theme of the album’s title.

For those of you who are seeking, as Monty Python would say, “...something completely different”, check out this unheralded diamond in the rough. It’ll not only put “da juice in your caboose”, but will also hip you to Puerto-Rico’s funk.

Ritmos Y Cantos Callejeros

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