Aside from the standard “Afro Blue,” a Santamaria original recorded here for the first time, most of Afro Roots places itself pretty firmly outside the Latin jazz style. But it’s much more lively than collections of traditional Cuban music I’ve heard (I recommend the Lydia Cabrera & Josefina Tarafa series on Folkways for a good idea), perhaps because the spirit of improvisation lies at its heart. One song is titled “Chano Pozo,” a tribute to the great Cuban percussionist who first brought Afro-Cuban rhythms to the US during his brief stint in Dizzy Gillespie’s 1940s orchestra. And indeed, on “Mazacote,” Santamaria satisfies listeners with a lengthy jam session featuring Tjader on vibes (that is, according to the liner notes – but I hear no vibes, only bass), Guaraldi on piano and Jose Silva on tenor sax. Right from the start, the pianist lays down a repetitive vamp, each chord chiming with that particularly Latin quality before Mongo begins filling the space with his array of congas, bongos, cowbells, and other assorted percussion instruments. It’s a tour-de-force, filled with breathtaking solos and complex polyrhythms.
Songs like “Rezo” and “Onyae” show Mongo’s softer side, with gently trilled flute passages and congas that serve more as ambient, cavernous backdrops than beatmakers; the whole group floats along a steady stream of shakers and rattles, creating an atmosphere of meditation and tranquility. “Ayenye” and “Monte Adentro” hark back to the tradition of son montuno (as it was invented by musical god Arsenio Rodriguez), giving the spotlight over to Jose Gamboa’s beautifully plucked tres guitar and joyous vocals. But aside from these exceptions, most of Afro Roots falls into the realm of fierce percussion workouts, sometimes with vocal singalongs, often not. “Congobel” is a blistering exercise between the group’s conga players and the shimmering triangle wizardry of Pablo Mozo, “an expert in the dexterous use of sticks on any object that will produce a sharp resonance,” according to Ralph Gleason’s liner notes. Bobo, Aguabella, and Santamaria are all legends of Latin music, so to hear the fantastic rhythms they cook up again and again should be no surprise for the seasoned listener. But if songs like “Conga Pa Gozar,” “Che-Que-Re-Que-Che-Que,” and “Timbales y Bongo” don’t get your ass moving or, at the very least, make your head swirl amid a storm of intoxicating grooves… well, your case may be terminal.
Mongo Santamaria - Conga Pa Gozar.mp3 (192 kbps, 5.7 mb)
Mongo Santamaria - Afro-Roots (Prestige, 1989)