El Alcalde del Barrio

Joe Cuba

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El Alcalde del Barrio Review

by Thom Jurek

Joe “Sonny” Cuba finally gets his own volume in Fania’s series of double-disc retrospectives, and it’s a doozy. The material was compiled and annotated by Bobby Marin. It has been cross-licensed from the Seeco, Mardi Gras, Tico, and Fania imprints -- offering a view of Cuba and his various bands from 1956 all the way through 1979, with the vast majority of these 34 tracks cut in the early to mid-'60s -- and is assembled aesthetically rather than chronologically. It begins with a remix of “Do You Feel It” from 1972’s Bustin’ Out, with Ray Pollard on backing vocals. The most startling thing about the cut is how much it reflects the influence of Sabu Martinez on Cuba, with its layers of congas and timbales under his spoken word narration and a beautifully sung chorus. Next is the anthem “Hey Joe, Hey Joe” from 1966’s Wanted: Dead or Alive (better known as Bang! Bang! Push, Push, Push), with longtime vocalist Willie Torres. The set follows Cuba’s bands through all their various singers: Torres, Cheo Feliciano, Jimmy Sabater, Willie Garcia, and Mike Guagenti. Check “Bang Bang,” which is arguably the first boogaloo ever recorded, and the burning “Boom Boom Lucumi,” recorded live at Carnegie Hall with the Tico-Allegre All Stars, for proof of the excitement Cuba could generate on record. The big international hits like “El Pito (I’ll Never Go Back to Georgia)" and “My Man Speedy!” are here, but so are lesser-known ones -- at least by Anglo audiences -- such as “Componte Cundunga” with Feliciano from 1961 and “This Is Love” from 1965 with Sabater; the latter is the epitome of the cooled-out Latin soul ballad with gorgeous vibes by Tommy Berrios. Two other smoking numbers are “Joe Cuba’s Mambo” with Torres and “Pregón Cha Cha,” both from 1956. Throughout these sides, cha cha, boogaloo, Latin jazz, early New York salsa, tropical, mambo, and other styles are articulated effortlessly, often melding into one another. They reflect Cuba and his band at the forefront of the groundbreaking New York scene during the seminal period of Latin music's transition from the late '50s through the early '70s. Remastering has been done painstakingly at Wax Poetics' studio. Given that it is the only release that even begins to capture the sheer range of Cuba’s contribution on all his labels, it cannot be recommended highly enough.

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