Pérez Prado
Voodoo Suite






The pre-Exotica LP by Pérez Prado (1916–1989), released in 1955, is an Exotica – or Cuban Jazz, if you will – hallmark that is tremendously convivial, Latin in spirit and simply special. When people ask about the unique selling point or the single most important particularity, the answer will always be the same: the album is all about the title track Voodoo Suite. Running for a whopping 23 minutes and filling the whole side A, this eclectic suite is mind-blowing!


While Ambient listeners are used to long setups, incessantly meandering tracks and slowly introduced changes over the course of dozens of minutes, an Exotica song of the 50's that passes the five minute-mark is eminently rare – and this one is South of the border. The Voodoo Suite (the song) is a wild ride with relaxing recesses and a terrific presentation of Prado's imagination, though he didn't come up with the idea alone. Originally sketched by the RCA Victor label's Jazz director Jack Lewis and repertoire staff Herman Diaz Jr., Prado took the rough blueprint with its blurry shapes originating from the gentlemen's convenient chit-chat to a new level, intermingling his signature Mambo style with faux-African tribal rhythms and a big pinch of Afro Jazz.


22 musicians – 14 of them exclusively responsible for the brass! – plus consultant Shorty Rogers then went into the studio in order to realize the project. But not only do the horns gleam, the vocal sections shimmer as well, at times even in a sinister manner. This track could be a whole album in a nutshell! An additional set of six jazzy tracks is featured on side B, and this set meets the traditional Cuban Jazz or Exotica requirements in terms of their runtime, as none of them reaches the three minute-mark. Labeled on the back as "six all-time greats" that don't have too much in common with the voodoo setting, these songs nonetheless are brought to life by the same band that brings Voodoo Suite to fruition. Without further ado, here are my thoughts about the LP.

The Voodoo Suite is actually a set of many vignettes glued together in order to form a whole song. Various rhythms, moods and settings are presented, some of them bubbling with gloom, others wilder and more rustic. The suite starts with warm but dark double bass backings, almost Asian drums that grow into an African staccato drum solo which itself has about the runtime of your typical Exotica song. A lamenting male chanter sings in pitch-black darkness, only accompanied by the bass strings and the punchy drums. After a dialog with a like-minded individual, the suite morphs into a more common downbeat song structure with the eerie glints of a majestic brass section which is further backed by terrific drums.


A choir is singing along to the schlepped beats, the whole atmosphere is that of a procession, an uncannily solemn event takes place. Not only do the chants grow in intensity, but the brass eruptions almost jump at the listener. The dynamic range is incredible. Soon after the rather slow presentation, a much quicker, jazzier phase of the suite begins, with multiple layers of horn instruments and an awe-inspiring eclectic rhythm. The section ends on a spy theme note – years prior to the first James Bond movie – before the heavy downbeat returns with Dixieland-like warped polyphonies. The remaining nine minutes are filled with similar oscillations, but all in all, a more convivial mood enters as the dominant force.


Sure, the screams and chants are deliberately savage and the brass sections are anything but wild and hot-blooded, and yet are the fanfare interweavings even more majestic than before. The suite's logical conclusion consists of final gleaming brass bursts and menacing drums. A gargantuan song that hasn't lost anything of its magic (or voodoo curse) over the many decades. It is one of Exotica's darkest, longest and most intimidating examples. Heck, you can even view it as an early entry of a long concept piece as the liner notes imply. Just ace!

The remaining six songs on side B are rather pale … but
only in comparison to the pompousness of the suite. On their own, these hot-tempered Latin Mambo concoctions deliver big-time, whether it's Cab Calloway's Mambo St. James Infirmary with the various energetic chant outbursts, its wah-wah trumpet thrill and the most cinematic brass explosions you'll hear on the whole album, or an unsuspectedly sun-laden rendition of Glenn Miller's hit of the last century, In The Mood, with exhilarative brass bursts and rather thin accompaniments which form a strong Latin counterpoint to the original. I Can't Get Started is the slowest piece on the album with stomping percussion, a dizzy main melody played on the trumpet and redly coruscating staccato horn bits.


Count Basie’s Jumping At The Woodside is deeply embedded in the Latin purview due to the mean-spirited but harmless spy-like sections which are in constant interplay with a gorgeously vivid Latin afternoon feeling plus hummable melodies that are as cheeky as they are jumpy. Stompin’ At The Savoy is the silky foil of the previous song with the confrontation of rather romantic brass ambits with earth-shaking clarion sections. The final Music Makers, originally by Harry James, takes the cake with its colorful cheekiness, good mood and not one single cloud or overly incisive horn in sight. Prado's version reminds me slightly of Don Swan's iconic Cha Cha hilarity of Hooray For Hollywood. The atmosphere is exactly the same, plus it's as easy to hum along with.

It's crystal-clear: Pérez Prado's tune
The Voodoo Suite is an entry of the Exotica genre to remember forever, skillfully merging faux-African tribal rhythms with Mambo goodness and traditional Jazz sections. The percussion is top-notch, its plasticity almost touchable and the various brass melodies very varied. The African chants round off one of the darkest entries. As the mood becomes more joyful and slightly less savage in the end, you could even interpret it as a concept song.


Exotica music normally doesn't need to be explained, for its ephemeral, soothing qualities and Easy Listening nature make serious explanations or interpretations seem like a sarcastic joke, a fact that still doesn't keep me from trying exactly this in a genuinely frank way. The Voodoo Suite is a different beast, and while its runtime of over 23 minute is a highly unusual marker for Prado's sophisticated approach of the project and a show-stopper feature never experienced before, its darkness and rustically vigorous style are the actual elements of value. It's hard to create suites like this, that's the reason no neo-Exotica band does it today … despite the freedom and missing vinyl-elated limitations!


Side A is totally worth it, and the six Latin or latinized pieces of side B are more joyful, melodious renditions of already known and established material. The utter joy found in Music Makers makes it my favorite track, but there is no real dud on side B either; be aware, though, that some trumpets are played in a ginormously quavering wah-wah way, so if this isn't your kind of music, you better rely on side A only. Available on digital download stores and on CD. The vinyl isn't extremely rare and should be available on the net or dusty record shelves at a fair price. Totally recommended because the motifs of darkness and nightfall are most often presented in technicolored Hollywood string productions but not in such a threatening, intimidating fashion. So by all means, go get it. And while you are doing just that, consider its fitting counterpart Exotic Suite Of The Americas, Prado's counterpiece of 1962 – naturally with yet another suite on side A.


Ambient Review 084: Perez Prado – Voodoo Suite (1955). Originally published on Jun. 23, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.