Augie Colón
Sophisticated Savage






Yikes! On the brink of their success, percussionist and birdcaller August "Augie" Colón (1928–2004) of the Martin Denny Group decides to release a solo album in 1959 that was even complemented by a second installment shortly thereafter. Sophisticated Savage is released in 1959 on Liberty Records, the "house label" of Martin Denny. So don't worry, it all remains in the family. And that's not the only harmonious sigh of relief in regard to this positively wild Latin album: Colón's fellow musicians are all involved at some point in the production-related process, and while the majority of the tracks is played with the help of unknown session musicians, both Martin Denny and vibraphonist Julius Wechter dedicate two original compositions to Colón's exotic solo debut, while the remaining nine arrangements consist of mostly classic Latin material with a few less known offerings thrown in for good measure.


The aesthetics of Colón's sound, however, have next to nothing to do with the tropical glitz of Martin Denny. So in the end, this is no halfhearted release to cash in, but in fact one of the roughest, frantic but also warmest Exotica releases ever, with a lot of unique selling points: firstly, there is a multitude of vocals and chants to be found on this release. Since the Exotica genre is mostly based on instrumental material, the lyrics definitely provide a wonderful addition, and they're even sung in parts by Augie Colón himself. Secondly, even though a lot of classic Latin compositions are included, they are presented in a vivid, wild and punchy manner. As the liner notes point out, "this is not the polished Hollywood Latin much loved by hotel orchestras … it is the music heard in the side street bars."


Even the good people at Liberty Records see Colón's album as a side note to Denny's complete works, but it's a highly interesting addendum for sure. Lastly, Colón is naturally in the limelight of this release, playing a nice variety of percussive instruments such as the mandatory congas and bongos, but also boo bams and related devices. Unfortunately, Sophisticated Savage is not available on CD or in digital music stores at time of writing this review. Only its much more streamlined follow-up Chant Of The Jungle of 1960 is. However, this exotic debut is totally worth it, so let's not give up hope yet.

The album launches in the most vivid way: Colón, a track specifically written by band mate Julius Wechter, paves the way to the forthcoming Jungle craze. It can be seen as a tutorial or introduction to the specific percussion instruments used on each track of the record. It starts with a male choir singing "Colóóón" and is shortly thereafter chock-full of percussion goodness. The formula is clear-cut, as the choir chants the name of the specific instrument which is then played by Colón. Starting with a reverberated conga, this tribal performance then worships the boo bams, followed by the bongos and finally the guiro, before every instrument is repeated once more in a short vignette. All instruments sound jumpy, vibrant and alive, and there are no additional devices to be found on there. It's a great concept track, very pumping and rapid-firing.


A rendition of Mariano Merceron's Tierra Va Tembla is next, and it's a rustic composition with a chanting and laughing Colón, two alto flutes, reduced Latin piano chords and an interesting shift in rhythm where the bongos are fired in a wild staccato. Up next is Okolehau, a marimba-flute song written by Martin Denny for his pal Augie. This instrumental couplet plays the ten-note main melody in great style, and the flute sounds wonderfully mellow. Frantic bongos accentuate the melody, and during the song's second phase, the instruments are actually torn apart and play different themes. Colón speaks in a fake accent over the beats, thus boosting the tribal aspects of this great piece of Exotica.


It gets even better: I'll Always Be In Love With You (Siempre Te Quiero) by Sam Stept, Harry Ruby and Bud Green is presented in a magnificent version here, bringing back the mild-mannered Exotica approach for a short time thanks to the upbeat melody that is completely realized by Colón and his choir and carefully accompanied by Brazilian double bass strings, golden-shimmering marimbas and a sun-soaked acoustic guitar. It's a Latin song by the numbers, but a great gleeful performance with not one threatening savage note in sight.

Johnny Rodriguez's El Doctor continues the good mood of the previous song with very catchy acoustic guitar twangs, clanging percussion and hooking vocals that inherit the boldest Latin feeling yet. The polyphony of the choir works tremendously great in the given setting, and the warmth of the slightly blurry guitar is fantastic. While the choir is singing the chorus, Colón toasts (!) in plain English over the lyrics, thus translating them in a sophisticated manner, as the title of the album promised the listener. It's yet another huge song with a strong Latin flavor that is completely down-to-earth, humble and much more real than the fake jungle vistas of Hollywood-based Exotica songs. A huge hit in my book.


While Margarita Lecuona's world-famous Exotica anthem Tabu features melodramatic vocals by Colón and an equally doleful alto flute melody, it is the glaring bongos that really shine and make this rendition something special. The performance is rounded off with a frantic interlude of incredibly fast bongos and various "Olé" chants, before Sergio Mendez's similarly titled Tambo launches with exhilarative lyrics, followed by sizzling eruptions of a mysterious percussive instrument and the delicate plasticity of the bongos. Manuela Boy, originally written by Johnny Noble returns to areas of sunshine with a realization of the famous twelve-note motif on an acoustic guitar, a mixture of English and Spanish lyrics, Colón's happiness-evoking voice and wood-pecking xylophone notes. The chorus is tremendously catchy. It’s embarrassing to sing along with it if people around you get the wrong implication about its title, but hey, it’s too good a tune to neglect its blithesome aura.


The following two compositions Tu Has Sabido by Ralph Seijo and Minamahal Sinsamba change the formula in the most definite way by first and foremost decreasing the tempo. The smooth guitar melodies, the gently shaken maracas and the lyrics make these the second and third Latin songs by the numbers sans any savage way of life. The galloping marimba cascades on Minamahal Sinsamba are among the best solos of the album, depicting a phantasmagoric mellifluousness that is seldom heard on this album, even in the warmer, sunnier songs. The final instrumental The Peanut Vendor by Moiyes Simons revs up the quirkiness and can almost compete with the creative weirdness of Michel Magne's version of his 1962 classic Tropical Fantasy. Quickly paced xylophone droplets, quavering paradisiac flutes and staccato bongos mesh into a vivifying concoction of which Colón's bongo solo in the second half is of particular quality. The album ends on a sophisticated note, with a bit of savage behavior attached. 

Sophisticated Savage is a unique and real release. Considering the facts that this was released during the heyday of Martin Denny's band and that Denny and Wechter stood behind this project and gave their credits to its production is a wonderful addition to the story. This is a real Latin album with the typical tone sequences, warm guitar layers and terrific vocals. The signature inclusion is based on Augie Colón's percussion skills, and the related instruments make up the unique selling point, as are the two compositions by Denny and Wechter. This is a true Latin album, but it is strongly influenced by the attitude of that usually fake genre named Exotica. Sophisticated Savage sits right in-between: it captures the real essence of the Latin classics, not the alienating iridescence of violin-heavy orchestral productions.


And yet, the classics are polished and never sounded more savage than here. The percussion does make the difference, and together with the marimbas and the xylophone (but without any vibraphone), Colón and companions create a one-time hybrid that tends to be more real than fake. The follow-up Chant Of The Savage of 1960 not only got rid of the vocals – despite its title, damn it! – but also of the pumping, thunderous percussion sections. This isn't bad per se, it just stresses the signature trademarks of Sophisticated Savage all the more. This is a fantastic work from its percussion-related opening tutorial to the instrumental closing track. It's only a little curious that the musicians involved aren't mentioned anywhere on the back of the LP.


I can understand that this release is all about Colón, but still, it would have been nice to know who and how many singers are part of the choir and who plucks the guitar, for instance. The Latin material is tremendously sunny and friendly, and only Lecuona's Tabu moves into lamento lands for a few minutes. Most songs are catchy and almost syrupy in their friendliness and accessibility. That this album isn't available in digital form on iTunes or Amazon is a metaphorical crime, for it is really utterly great. If you can find the vinyl version of it, go get it. But let me have a go at it as well, for my version starts to show its age, as it crackles and pops increasingly. All in all, Sophistiated Savage is one of the best Latin albums ever released due to its bold percussive-related twists and traces of Exotica.


Exotica Review 087: Augie Colon – Sophisticated Savage (1959). Originally published on Jun. 30, 2012 at