Machito| Kenya (1957)
Roulette Jazz (USA)
Latin / Jazz 35:46
It is sometimes surprising how quickly something radical and innovative – perhaps even deeply controversial – can become the accepted norm. When Monty Python released their seminal film Life of Brian in 1979, it was to outrage and screams of blasphemy. Councils banned it (Truro have only just allowed the first public showing of it in the cinema in the last few months); outraged Christians, mistaking Victorian values for Biblical principles, condemned the maker to Hell (thereby judging others and breaking one of the Ten Commandments themselves). And yet, 35 years on, it barely raises an eyebrow. Many Christians have a copy of it on DVD (myself included). Aside from the dubious theological arguments against it, it simply doesn’t shock any more. Similar outrage had greeted the publication of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover a little over 15 years previously; now, it is regarded as a modern classic and yet only 50 years ago – well within many people’s lifetime – it was banned for promoting smut.
The same is true whether we look at literature, theatre, film, art or music. Something new comes along that causes a shock then slowly becomes the norm. It doesn’t always need to be particularly controversial, dealing with sex or religion. Bob Dylan aroused the ire of folk fans when he did the unthinkable and plugged in an electric guitar (a moment that we will doubtlessly come on to later in this blog). And yet that one simple act proved to change the course of popular music. Listening now to songs on the hit parade, the influence comes from far and wide; no longer do we categorise the tracks into easy genres and instead find artists drawing on sounds from across the world. I still remember hearing Paul Simon’s Graceland (an album that will feature – eventually – in this blog, although not for another three decades of music) and being amazed by these African sounds (albeit ones that had been heavily Westernised). World music, while not necessarily controversial, has lost its edge when introduced to our ears. When George Harrison headed back from India, sitar in hand, it was to push music in a radical new direction. Now, it would seem perhaps seem gimmicky – we’ve heard those sounds before.
All of which, in a roundabout way, makes Machito’s album Kenya an interesting find. It was clearly a radical sound when it was released 58 years ago; blending Afro-Cuban beats with the jazz sounds of the Big Bands playing in places like New York. Frontman Frank Grillo had created a blend that managed to combine the smooth sounds of the cool cats with the passion underlying that Latin beat. But while it was undoubtedly a revelation to those who heard it for the first time six decades ago, to our modern ears it has sadly lost its revolutionary air. We are used to fusion in our music – the oh-so-popular mash-ups of the 1990s giving way to an endless combining of styles and genres. And yet, while I can never go back to a time when it would have been new, the album still manages to sound fresh.
I have an image in my mind of certain types of films from the 1940s and early 1950s. A hero walks into a bar somewhere south of the American border – Brazil or Argentina – and a Latin groove can be heard bouncing out of the speakers. It was a cliché that managed to survive well into the 1960s – witness James Bond when he heads to the Caribbean in Dr No. For some reason, there is a certain sound that, to this day, is still associated with that part of the world. But Machito does something interesting; by combining this sound with those of the jazz scene, the band is able to create something which transcends that place and time. Don’t get me wrong – in my head, the music still conjures up a certain scene of Rita Hayworth or Cary Grant in a South American join. But there is something else to it which allows it to sound like an up-to-date soundtrack too.
Perhaps it is the shortness of the tracks or the skill of the performers; guests such as Cannonball Adderley and Doc Cheatham bring a tightness to their improvisations that means they never outstay their welcome. Above all, it is the vibrant nature that each number possesses which makes this whole album such a joy to listen to. From the opening notes of Wild Jungle to the final blast of Tururato just 35 short minutes later, there is not a duff track on the album. It brings joy and sunshine as it sets up the template for the Latin jazz genre. Musical director of the album, Mario Bauza, has been quoted as saying: “If you’ve got rhythm, you have everything. Without rhythm you have nothing.” Kenya has rhythm in spades – it grabs hold of you and refuses to let go until its dying beat. World music may be passe these days, but Machito’s African-influenced album is still as fresh as ever.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Kenya here:
Next time: Here’s Little Richard by Little Richard