Palo Congo by Sabu

Sabu : Palo Congo (#11)

Sabu | Palo Congo (1957)
Blue Note (USA)
Latin Jazz 40:52

Pity poor Phil Selway. Despite being great at his job, nobody knew who he was. He would turn up to work, put in his hours, and go home, all under the shadow of anonymity. Yet, fortunately for him, people did take notice and before long admirers were flocking to show their love and support. For those still struggling to place the name – and I suspect that will be a fair number of you – Phil is the drummer with Radiohead, one of the biggest bands in the world. After once admitting in the interview that nobody really noticed him sitting at the back, one follower of the group set up a fan club just for him; soon thousands were flocking to his cause. He finally had the recognition he deserved.

Naming famous percussionists is no easy feat for the average music fan. Sure you can probably list the obvious ones (Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, Phil Collins) and possibly a couple from a favourite band, but then it gets tricky. Perhaps it is because of the bad reputation they have garnered, unjustly assumed to not be doing anything but mindlessly hitting something with a big stick. Many have suffered the oft-told joke: “What do you call somebody who hangs around with musicians? A drummer.” While the singer is standing at the front, getting all the glory, the poor drummer has to hide forgotten to the audience at the back of the stage (as Charlie Watts once commented, his 50-odd years in The Rolling Stones has largely consisted of staring at Mick Jagger’s arse).

Yet, for all the mockery, the drummer is the pounding heartbeat of any musical enterprise. They keep the beat, ensuring that all the other musicians are able to stay in time with one another; take out the drummer (as well as the bassist, that other forgotten instrumentalist who is usually dismissed) and who knows what will happen. The frontmen – singer, lead guitarist etc – find the fame; but they do it on the back of the hard work of their percussionists. It isn’t an easy skill to master – let’s be honest, it’s one thing to pick a few strings but quite another to co-ordinate your hands and feet together to keep time. Have you ever tried it? It’s no mean feat, I can tell you. Despite what Mark Knopfler once insisted in Money for Nothing, there is much more skill involved than just banging a drum.

So it is pleasing that, just a few albums into the list, we come across somebody who aims to change that perception. Louis Martinez – better known as Sabu – was an American conguero. Despite his sound having a “World Music” feel to it (a terrible phrase, essentially meaning any music that doesn’t sound like American pop), he was born and raised in the United States. Falling in love with the congo drums at an early age, he became a percussionist and worked with numerous big names, including Charlie Parker, Tony Bennett, Dizzy Gillespie and Harry Belafonte. Deciding to lead his own band when he was 27, he opted to focus more on his Latin roots; the result was the album Palo Congo.

After working my way through the pioneers of jazz and rock, it is interesting listening to an album that turns everything on its head. The drumming of the other two genres may have driven the sound, but they were still very much underlying the other musicians. To suddenly hear drumming at the forefront – in fact, to only hear drumming in some cases – is a strange experience. Even coming from a context that has heard groups such as Stomp turn percussion into more than just a backbeat, there is an initial sense that, when the beat of a song starts, it will be quickly followed by another instrument of some kind of another. That it doesn’t is one of the album’s greatest strengths. Because the congo-playing is so beautiful, it would be criminal to try to mask it in any way.

Percussion obviously comes to the front, but this album is not just about the drumming, and a number of tunes have some form of voice work as well (I’m loathe to describe it as singing; it is more of a call and response above the sound of the drums) and even some gentle Spanish guitar playing. The album opens with El Cumbanchero and the listener is instantly introduced to a sound very different to the “traditional” pop album. And, it has to be said, it takes some getting used to. Without question, the drumming is superb, with a wonderful beat keeping things moving. The guitar sounds sparse alongside it (there is no bass), in many ways emphasising the drumming. A repeated refrain, sounding more like a chant, is repeated throughout. It was only on my third or fourth listen that I began to appreciate it. Perhaps I needed that time to acclimatise my ears to an entirely new sound. But, the more I have heard the album over the past 24 hours, the more I have enjoyed it.

That said, the second track (Billumba Palo-Congo; perhaps the closest to a ‘title track’) is hard work. It opens with a voice calling out and hearing a response, but the sound is so monotonous and the drumming so repetitive, it threatens to undo the good work of the first number. At six minutes, it is also the longest track on the album (and, boy, does it feel it); if there was one number to skip, this is it. Fortunately, the best is yet to come.

Asabache, the fourth track on Palo Congo, is essentially four minutes of congo playing. No other instruments, this is the sound of the drums being hit in time. And what a sound it produces! If you have any doubts about the merits of percussion as musical instruments in their own rights, prepare to blown away. The skill in it is incredible with a beat that draws the listener in. This was the point when I stopped trying to hear for the sake of the project and began to enjoy a new experience.

Clearly this type of music won’t be for everybody; but for those wanting to hear something a little different from the classic pop songs that we are constantly thrown by our radio and television stations, this is definitely one album to track down.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:

Next time: Birth of the Cool by Miles Davis

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