Words by Chris Moss
Surprising sounds from a small island in a different age
Decades before Ricky Martin and reggaeton, the little island of Puerto Rico bounced its booty to the Afro-Spanish rhythms of bomba and plena. Brass-led, characterised by rippling African beats on the conga, a pitter-patter pulse on tambourines and maracas and tongue-twisting lyrics that worked like an additional line of melody, it was a driving kind of dance music.
This double-album showcases for a new audience the work of a once much-admired orchestra – (Rafael) Cortijo y su Combo – as well as the equally fine talents of singer Ismael Rivera and plena star Mons Rivera. In the early 60s, Rivera put the trombone centre-stage, opening the way for boogaloo and salsa and a new crossover dancehall sound. But the smoothly urbane bomba and plena heard on the 30 tracks here evokes a native scene that was romantic, joyous, balletic, black, sexy, and playful. There are delights on every track, from the sweet tones of Odilio González on ‘Sacude Zpatao Viejo’ to the manic strumming of ‘Camelia’, from the gorgeous chorus of ‘Belinda’ to González again on ‘Ni de Madera son Buenas’, sounding like a street singer.
There are proto-versions of calypso, son, cumbia and even dub on here. According to the detailed liner notes in Spanish and English, saoco is a word of African origin that describes the quality that some music possesses to move and excite the senses. It’s a word that hits the spot perfectly for what is a stunning double album and a beautiful blast from the past.
Track to try: Sacude Zapata Veijo