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Artist Profiles

Mongo On My Mind, Part I

By Published: March 6, 2003
Betancourt, a Cuban from Matanzas –albeit thoroughly assimilated to Puerto Rican and Hispanic New York mores– was one of my favorite Salsa singers at the time. He was quite popular throughout all international Salsa markets featuring a blatant street-wise, chauvinistic, inventive, swinging and quite flavorful style of singing. Betancourt’s public image was that of the quintessential barrio womanizing bully. Image was close to reality and –in due course– his vocal cords were damaged because of a fight over a woman whereupon someone stomped his throat. Then, however, the Cuban’s singing was nearing its prime. The sonero’s timing, intonation, delivery and feeling were ideal for a production that –according to author César Miguel Rondón in his influential Salsa: Crónica de la música del Caribe urbano – was conceived by the producers as an unabashed return to “the fundamental style of the Cuban guaracha of the 50s.” The guaracha was a Cuban musical style –akin to the Son– that evolved from its theatre roots in the 19th Century into the dance halls and its lyrics –according to Helio Orovio in his Diccionario de la música cubana – are “generally, picaresque, mocking, satirical. They reflect the times and gather popular issues or humorous events.”

Rondón, nonetheless, mistakenly names the record as Ubané. He also misidentifies Orestes Vilató, Patato Valdez and Bobby Rodríguez as participating musicians –when they apparently didn’t. The noted Venezuelan Salsa authority, however, correctly states that Ubane “was radically different: for the first time an idea was offered of what an authentically Cuban salsa could be and not Cuban music focused from New York salsa, which was the habitual scene” (Emphasis in the original). The album featured deep bad asses from the New York scene such as Julito Collazo, Gonzalo Fernández, Andy González, Marcelino Guerra, Virgilio Martí, Manny Oquendo, Víctor Paz, Barry Rogers and Adalberto Santiago. Hence, this recording produced a fatter, denser, harsher, bolder, Mongo-like sound with attributes that could very well be described as updated old school ; which in turn can also define much of importance in Santamaría’s career as Mongo had a penchant for using lesser known and –at times– extinct rhythms updating them into Jazz, various Hispanic musical modalities, Boogaloo, Funk, etc.

In Ubane Mongo’s spacious and tasteful golpes are highly infectious and extremely effective. Paired with Oquendo’s distinctive style of playing, striking horn arrangements, a sound dunked into several Latin musical periods and styles with its own street markings, intrepid accompaniment and solos, this album is truly unique and a medal of honor in Santamaría’s career. Steve Berríos timbale solo in the opener “Cantándole al amor” and its delicious mambos, the swaying tight onomatopoeic swing of “Kindimbia” with a killer flute solo by Fernández, the romantic macho vocals of Betancourt that work so well in “Miedo” and “No me importa” and such a professional band that can enamor you with the same ardor as they swing, the exoticism and depth of the title cut with a rhythmic base from the mysterious Cuban Abacuá society established by Nigerian slaves in 1836, the hot homage to a percussive predecessor of note called Manana –not “Mañana” as the album credits misprint– and the equally heated “Come candela” with yet another driving wooden flute solo by Fernández, Mongo’s bongo solo in “Vengan pollos” as well as Paz’s trumpet incursions, and the deepest treatment of the Colombian Cumbia in the Salsa repertoire, made this jewel shine around Mongo’s sweaty brow and grand smile.

This celebrated recording also introduced me to Marty Sheller in full force. “Who is he?” I asked in 1976 to some friends. “He plays the piano on 'Cumbia Típica,' arranged five tunes and produced and conducted the LP,” I found myself explaining. The answer didn’t delay much.

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