Classic Afro-Cuban jazz albums are not so plentiful that any can escape being called "essential." By 1958 the idiom had lost its original spontaneity and excitement, but new life had come from the recording possibilities of high-fidelity stereo. Kenya belongs to the style typified by Tito Puente's great work for Victor in this period. There are colorful African masks on the jacket, the obligatory dozen tight arrangements, three first-call percussionists, and a horn section guaranteed to be heard at least from one edge of Manhattan to the other. While Kenya can be thought of as formulaic, at least the formula was still relatively fresh and highly desirable. For all its homegrown, New York credibility, Kenya sounds very much like 1950s Hollywood. Television and film crime dramas of the period relied heavily on Latin and jazz, which helped to popularize Afro-Cuban jazz. The bombastic horns created suspense and excitement, while the bongos and congas signaled the exoticism and feverishness of a world slipping out of control. But the old complaint about Afro-Cuban jazz is the same as for other Hollywood jazz and even standard pop albums of the period: The tight arrangements and rhythm are fine for ensemble playing, but the horn solos fail to communicate the individualism and passion one expects from jazz. Consequently the most successful pieces, such as "Manteca," have a live, gritty sound, like a riot in an old New York nightclub. Kenya ranges in tempo from a Cuban blues "Blues á la Machito," to a fast rumba "Wild Jungle." Everything else falls between these, but mostly on the upbeat side. "Congo Mulence" is played in the "bata" style (though probably without bata drums), and "Tin Tin Deo" is the Chano Pozo classic. "Minor Rama" and "Tuturato" are the most adventurous pieces. Overall, the Kenya powerhouse falls just short of being fantastic by sounding hurried, as if the studio clock was ticking. Perhaps too, a sense of anachronism (even in 1958) affected the recording. In any case, it could have been produced as two very welcome albums, if not several.
AllMusic Review by Tony Wilds