ALBUM TITLE: Palo Congo
ARTIST NAME: Sabu
YEAR OF RELEASE: 1957
Holly: Rhapsodia del Marvaillosa
Kelly: Rhapsodia del Marvaillosa
Palo Congo is the first album by conguero (a person who plays congas) Sabu Martinez, and features the brothers Arsenio, Raul, and Quique Rodriguez. The album was released on Blue Note in 1957.
This Afro-Cuban album has some spiritual influences as well as some modern improvised jazz connotation. This music comes from African tradition, relying on a constant riff over which the singers relate colourful stories in Spanish. It’s often a call and response from the singers and somehow sounds historic in message.
Sabu’s band uses five vocalists and five pairs of conguero hands. The only other instruments involved are a guitar and a very very background acoustic bass.
Louis “Sabu” Martinez was born in New York City in 1930. Martinez grew up with music in his life, and made his professional debut at age 11. From there, he replaced Chano Pozo in Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra in 1948, and started playing in Benny Goodman’s orchestra in 1949. Over the next 15 years he played with many of the biggest names in jazz like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Tony Bennett, and Sammy Davis Jr.
In 1957, Sabu became a bandleader, and recorded his debut album, Palo Congo. He followed up this successful album with several more before moving to Sweden in 1967 and recording there. Despite his growing fame, Sabu struggled with heroin addiction. Although he overcame his addiction in 1956, it took a few years more before he felt psychologically free from the drug. Sabu died young, just 47 years old, from a gastric ulcer.
I had never heard of this album, or Sabu when starting this review and was fascinated to hear that he was from New York, that he played with all the biggies of jazz, and released these amazing Afro-Cuban records.
The album on the whole is composed mainly of vocalists and congas, and with just those two items there is still a great diversity of sound and ideas. Rhythm drives this album much more than harmony, lyrics, or form, even though the rhythms of the 5 conga players sometimes sound somewhat muted or muddied, there’s a definite forward motion to the songs.
The first track starts a bit mysteriously and almost like it is being spun into existence, and then it really gets into a groove that will keep going throughout the whole album. This track more than the rest has a lot of clarity in the different congas, with slightly different timbres bringing out different bits of the rhythms. This is a very high energy number that even has a conga solo in it.
Next is Billumba-Palo Congo, which is a bit of a weird one. It starts with a long intro of call and response from a raspy-voiced preacher-like figure and his congregation. Eventually it opens up to include the congas, and the singing continues to sound more like chanting than singing. Not my favourite.
Choferito-Plena is the chill song of the record. I like the slower beat, and the addition of the guitar. In some of the tracks, especially this one, I wish I could hear some of the vocal harmonies a little clearer, but the dance-like quality of this track really appeals to me.
Next is Asabache which starts with just the congas and they sound so cool and complex, with these accented polyrhythms and repetitive movement. This album seems to have some things in common with minimalism, where repetition is exploited and change happens gradually over a bunch of time.
And after that, Simba – this one has almost a triple meter feel to it, and I didn’t care for the singing much and kind wanted him to stop wailing so we could hear those cool polyrhythms!
My favourite track is Rhapsodia del Marvaillosa. I love the weird sounding guitar, the bass that sounds like its strings are just barely tightened, and the ease with which the guitarist goes from rhythmic playing to melodic playing. There are some really wacky harmonies, some complex rhythms, and it’s just such a quick little journey of a song.
Next up is Aggo Elegua which is another example of call and response chanting over the rhythms set down by the congas. These call and response tunes are not my personal favourites, but I feel like they really do add a layer of authenticity and storytelling to the album.
Tribilin Cantore rounds out the album, which features women’s voices with male harmonies, and guitar. This one is just so dance-like and joyful. It sounds a little less boisterous and loose than the other songs, but is a great, relaxed yet energetic end to this album. The bass still sounds weird and kind of out of tune, but most of the time I don’t mind it.
In all, this was a really fun listen, completely new to me in every way, and I think I’ll keep my eyes out for this album!
I’m not going to lie, it was hard for me to get into this. Let me correct myself – I love Latin music, and I love Afro-Cuban music, so I was super excited to listen to this. And on first listen, I liked it! Second and third listen too. But then when I had to actually write about it, I was a bit stumped. Honestly a lot of the songs blended together so I had to make a conscious effort to listen and pay attention to the different tracks. This is not to say that I didn’t like the album, it’s just a little harder for me to write about. I think my order of things I liked about it from best to worst are instruments, then percussion (congos included) followed lastly by vocals. I really wasn’t crazy about any of the singing and I’m not sure if I can blame that on the poor old time-y recording or if the singing was just poor. Anyway, let’s get into it!
Track 1 is El Cumbanchero and I really liked it! I was hooked by the first few guitar notes and the congos coming in really set the mood for the record. It’s definitely the kind of sound I imagine when I think of a Congo album.
Next up is Billumba-Palo Congo, and I found this one a bit weird. No instruments but congos and voices. The congos sound good and steady, but the singing is this strange call and answer. The leader sounds pretty good, but for some reason the answers sound sloppy as hell. I don’t love this track.
Track 3 is Choferito-Plena and I think this is one of the better songs on the album. It starts with Latin guitar and a really catchy rhythm on the congos, followed by the singing. Again it sounds like another call and answer type of song with a cool guitar solo in the middle. It definitely makes me think of what I would hear drinking a mojito in a dark and smoky club in Havana.
Next up is Asabache, which is all congos all the time (save a shout or two from the band leader). I’m not sure how many people are playing but it’s cool how they seem to play different parts and end up in a rhythmic unison.
Simba is next, and I think we have ourselves a cowbell? Rhythmically this song is cool, but I find it slightly ruined by the nasal shouts and whoops of the bandleader from time to time.
Rhapsodia Del Maravilloso is my favourite song on the album and I think it’s because I like how tropical it sounds. The guitar is the focus in this one and it plays beautiful little melodies over subdued congos. I actually didn’t notice the bass in it until Holly mentioned it! But it’s a pretty song and I like it.
Aggo Elegua reminded me of the second track, so much so that I had to make sure the album hadn’t started over and I wasn’t paying attention. But this one I would say is better than the 2nd song, the “congregation” is much tighter and a lot less sloppy. I still don’t love it.
Finally we have Tribilin Cantore, which is my second favourite song on the album. Again, a beautiful little guitar melody, some (slightly out of tune) singing, and that constant Congo rhythm. I can imagine people dancing and moving to this song, skirts flowing and swaying and lots of foot tapping! A great way to finish off the album!
Although there were a few songs I enjoyed here, this isn’t a record I’m going to rush out to find. It was neat to listen to, but one I don’t super care about having in my personal collection.
Average grade out of 10:
Link to the album on Spotify: