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The Boston Phoenix Latin Soul

Mongo and Pucho

By Wayne Robins

SEPTEMBER 11, 2000:  From Ricky Ricardo to Ricky Martin, from Carmen Miranda to Carlos Santana, Americans have always had a jones for Latin music. The recent elegies for the revered Tito Puente may have served as a reminder that for decades Latin music has been a sturdy, reliable, and accepted part of American musical culture.

It's no surprise that Mongo Santamaria once worked with Tito Puente. Everyone who is anyone in Latin music did -- at least anyone on the New York-San Juan connection. What's as interesting is that Mongo was, in the 1950s, the conga player for Cal Tjader, and the two of them set the standard for what might be called Latin soul that's unmatched to this day.

Born and raised in Cuba, Mongo first came to prominence as a solo artist in 1963, when he rocked the charts with "Watermelon Man," Herbie Hancock's greatest composition, for a small indie label. Two years later, he re-recorded it for Columbia, along with a slew of what were then considered pop-compromise albums, Mongo-ized versions of the hits of the day.

But as those of us who dug the neglected Mongo on Symphony Sid's radio show in New York in the mid '60s know, this was great stuff. With the brilliant arranger Marty Sheller, and a steady band that included flute majordomo Hubert Laws, horn players like Bobby Capers and Sonny Fortune, and drummer Bernard Purdie, Mongo not only covered pop and soul tunes, he rewrote them. On the recently released Mongo Santamaria's Greatest Hits (Columbia Legacy), you'll see titles of familiar soul hits from the '60s: "Cloud Nine," "Twenty-Five Miles," "Green Onions," even "(Sittin' on the) Dock of the Bay." And you may assume that what you'll hear is schlock.

Wrongo! Producer David Rubinson and arranger Sheller have reconstructed every riff in Mongo time. "Cloud Nine" is a tease: it starts with the riff that Norman Whitfield gave to his breakthrough production with the Temptations. And it keeps going, and going, and going, a vamp like a santeria chant, Mongo's congas front and center, until a few reeds break the tension. "Dock of the Bay" requires a little less bravado but a lot more finesse: Laws, on flute, doesn't mimic Otis Redding's melody but puts his own spin on it.

Although Columbia was happy to have Mongo jingling the cash register with this excellently underrated stuff, it never released the roots album that really let him roam free. Afro-American Latin, which is also part of the new Columbia/Legacy series, is that album, and it's wondrous. But you can see why the label was shy about putting out a record that opens with a 10-minute instrumental called "Obatala" that sounds like a furiously played and very welcoming invitation to paganism.

Rubinson again was the producer. He had also produced Santana and Moby Grape, among many others, for what was then CBS Records, and I guess that gave him the courage (that and probably a piece of the publishing) to have Mongo record the Grape's hippie anthem "Naked If I Want To." (Rubinson must still have some publishing, since there is a studio version and a bonus live version on Afro-American Latin.) But there's no taking away from it: from the boogaloo groove of "Mama Papa Tu" to the pure salsa moves of "Mi Reina Guajira," this should've been out there in 1968 or 1969, to take Latin soul to its next level.

Instead, Latin soul fans had to tolerate the likes of Pucho and his Latin Soul Brothers, whose Cold Shoulder (Prestige) is another recent re-release. Although they had the right name, they were a few matches short of a torch of being really soulful. They might have sounded great at the Cheetah Off Broadway when Symphony Sid was giving out free tickets, but something about Pucho -- who's still out there (he played the House of Blues not long ago) -- always seemed a little slow.

Like Mongo, he covered familiar R&B hits of the time. Mongo did not sing. Pucho, unfortunately, does, and he does no worse than Wayne Newton might have confronting Ray Charles's "I Can't Stop Loving You." The same ridiculous fate befalls "Georgia on My Mind" (especially the "G-E-O-R-G-I-A" chant, as if Pucho had confused "Georgia" with "Gloria"). The bottom falls out when Pucho too attempts "Cloud Nine," which might as well be "Cloud 99" -- it comes up so short of Mongo's rendition that you worry about raindrops falling on Pucho's head.

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