Bert Kaempfert
That Latin Feeling …





Bert Kaempfert (1923–1980) is among the prime candidates for the Easy Listening olymp, only sharing the throne with fellows like James Last and possibly Nelson Riddle. His music is cheesy and foreseeable as hell, but oh my, are his compositions sugar sweet and excitingly melodious. Given the context of the Exotica section, I could have chosen between quite a number of Kaempfert's records, among them April In Portugal (1958) and The Magic Music Of Far Away Places (1965); and yet for now, I decided to review That Latin Feeling of the same year, as it encloses everything that's perfectly right and horribly wrong with the Exotica genre in general and Kaempfert's music in particular.


Indeed, the album title seems to give you a good hint of the things to come, as it is a Latin album with a strong focus on the Easy Listening side of the spectrum, right? Well, no, that would be wrong. It isn't even vice versa. The title could be entirely different and would still be completely detached from the table of contents. Apart from a stronger focus on brass sections, this album is as Latin as U.S. Exotica albums are Polynesian, even though it features Kaempfert's interpretation of a few Latin classics, so the title has indeed a relevant meaning after all. Anyway, it is sometimes melodious and full of colorful settings and catchy riffs and hooks. It doesn't hurt anyone, it is perfectly streamlined, and yet, there's that certain something that puts it over the top of the remaining thousands of Easy Listening albums … and way down below. For one, the already excessive use of horns is exponentiated on this release, making the brass sections towering.


But there is also a horrible blandness in many pieces, and it's usually the adaptations of classic Latin tunes that turn out to be boring and deliver the venomous kind of kitsch. I will exemplify why this album gives me quite a headache. I won't pan it in its entirety, even though this would make things easier. No, I am in fact quite fond of several exotic Kaempfert pieces, but That Latin Feeling is a prime example for me to explain Kaempfert's strengths and wrongdoings compactly. I can say in advance that there are two superb tracks on it anyhow, so there is definitely no mindless bashing.

Bandit (O'Cangaceiro) starts with mellow but festive brass blasts, a gallopping percussion and playful marimba backings. Ladi Geisler's trademark guitar sound is featured prominently as an accompaniment to the smooth brass. His instrument sounds remarkably similar to a harp, but is played much more cheekily and joyfully. While this is a good first track, it misses the Latin concept completely: neither is there any bandit-like cliché to be found, nor are there any energetic trumpet sounds. Still, it is a warm and lush piece, just not a great first track. I would have wished for more pathos, since the first song is considered the most important mood-setting piece on albums.


Sweet And Gentle (Me Lo Dijo Adela) is more successful in transporting a possibly Cuban atmosphere full of sunny hooks, accentuating strings, lively percussion and drum interloops. Here, the title fits the setting perfectly, and the polyphonous brass sections work well with the incisive string parts. Maria Elena is a slowly meandering song with a dreamy acoustic guitar melody and distantly droning brass sections and much clearer string interludes. To my liking, it is too sweet, but as I've said, the pompous but way too quiet brass is a solid addition. Next is Mambo Mania, and yes, this original composition by collaborators Kaempfert and Brusewitz is quite Latin and catchy with its incisive trumpets, brass backings, sustained strings and stripped-down percussion that doesn't distract from the melodies. Especially the last 7 seconds are of a John Williams-like quality with sky-high brass fanfares. So far it's the very best tune off the album and one of my alltime favorites! 


Poinciana (Song Of The Tree) is a remarkable last track of side 1: deep bass guitar notes make the listener think of a dark rock album. The bongos and warm acoustic guitar pluckings, however, destroy this predominantly dangerous setup, and as soon as the shimmering trumpet melody sets in, the mood shifts to conviviality, and the interplay between sunset strings and their glowing-red brass counterparts is gorgeous, if not overly effective and strong. 

Kaempfert's interpretation of Ernesto Lecuona's The Breeze And I starts the second half and is freed of every Latin spirit it once had in its various interpretations by all kinds of artists. I don't know how Kaempfert does it, and it is surely an achievement on its own, but there is no nutrition, no Latin quality, no fuego latino, no matter how far you fetch the term of the genre yourself. And due to this fact, Kaempfert's version is interesting at the end of the day, for it fails as a Latin song but works as an Easy Listening hymn. I still find its guitar riffs utterly boring and what little majesty is left in the brass sections isn't enough to deliver an interesting result, but your opinion might be entirely different, and I would well respect and embrace a different point of view – I just don't find it in my heart.


Cha Cha Brasilia finally evokes that Latin feeling much to my surprise. Vivid staccato interplays between two different brass ensembles, a distinct maraca groove and additional marimbas make band mate Lutz Templin's offering a minor hit. Trumpet Fiesta is a Kaempfert original, and again, the Latin cliché works really well with quavering polyphonous trumpet sections that are interchanged with dusky strings. The atmosphere is amplified by the torrero groove and one impassioned, overly dramatic trumpet. Say what you will, but this is a good exemplifation of a bad taste if you get me. The song is so clichéd that it is a success, and I really mean it and am not kidding you. While I'm scratching my head a few times during Trumpet Fiesta, I am smiling in the end. It's a winner.


Bert's Bossa Nova suggests that this is another Kaempfert arrangement, and indeed, it sure is. Sneaky brass bursts, slight crime-scene fragments and an unexpectedly jazzy and supposedly improvised flavor of the trumpet sections make this the outstanding track of the album on the positive side of the spectrum. Chicken Talk is the final piece and yet another Kaempfert original that is too cartoon-like and playful for my liking, as the oscillation between joyous trombones and Hollywood strings is destroyed by deliberately funny melodies. This is not my kind of music, but if it was played on a ukulele, I probably would have liked it, as the setup screams for a rendition on that instrument. Anyway, the last song is a dud, I'm afraid.

"What is That Latin Feeling? It's a magic country of the heart … an exhilaraing state of mind." That is what the liner notes say, and even though they were most definitely not written by Kaempfert himself, they can be seen as a key in understanding his approach which is completely congruent to the nature of all Exotica albums: creating aural mindscapes in the listener's head with the help of very few moments of truth plus a pinch of tradition by blending Latin rhythms and some instruments that are usually found in Latin music with entirely made-up settings of supposed and presumed characteristics of Latino people, their lifestyles and their beliefs. That Kaempfert is German is only of minor importance – and causes less irritation than you might think –, for the artful entanglement of tradition and faux-adaptations is a golden thread in most fields of art, be it literary fiction or Exotica music. Keeping all this in mind, Kaempfert is able to evoke a feeling of satisfaction and care-free joy.


Whether you call this feeling Latin, Exotica or Easy Listening is up to you. Kaempfert justifies the first term due to the inclusion of Latin classics, but they are lime-washed and altered with paradisiacal ingredients whose origins cannot be pinpointed anymore. The continuous interplay of orchestra strings, conga rhythms and coruscating brass ensembles are pure overkill … but the concept works, as every Les Baxter fan will tell you! It's just not working all too well for Bert Kaempfert. While in most cases less is more, Kaempfert's Easy Listening style consists of the credo "more is everything." His music saturates me all too soon, and I prefer the works of Nelson Riddle over Kaempfert's style, but That Latin Feeling is still a lukewarm album whose strongest tracks are curiously Kaempfert's own compositions, with the bold exception of Chicken Talk. Yes, I might have been quite direct and harsh in my review, but again, let me tell you that I do no pan the whole album or Kaempfert's interpretation of the term Latin. In the end, the album still shows his genius, and while I Iove certain Kaempfert songs of his various albums on their own, I'm still not convinced about any of his albums as a whole. That Latin Feeling is no exception. Since I keep on cherry-picking, just call me Sakura.


Exotica Review 039: Bert Kaempfert – That Latin Feeling … (1964). Originally published on Feb. 25, 2012 at