Augie Colón
Chant Of The Jungle






The percussionist and birdcaller of Martin Denny's group does it again: August "Augie" Colón (1928–2004) comes up with another – and final – solo album that is produced and arranged by Denny and played by unnamed session musicians, with Colón revising his role on exotic instruments such as the congas and the bongos. Whereas Colón is keen to present a true and down-to-earth take on Latin music that is freed from Hollywood's influence and its symphonic glitz on his solo debut Sophisticated Savage of 1959, the follow-up Chant Of The Jungle, released in 1960 on Denny's house label Liberty Records, makes quite a few striking omissions and changes the style in a bold way.


For one, he gets rid of the the lyrics, chants, birdcalls and vocals… despite the title of the LP! Only two mere tracks consist of short vocal sections, with the rest being strictly instrumental. Secondly, Colón's goal in regard to the presentation of true Latin compositions has shifted on this release; now he presents colorful Exotica tracks of all kinds, whether Latin or not, among them a rendition of Martin Denny's own Primitiva. Since Denny is also the producer of this second album, his sound is all over it, with interspersed piano sections on most of the material. What has remained, though, is the gleeful nature of the chosen compositions. Only very rarely are there notes in minor. The mood is sunny, and the bongos are always in reach. Even though Colón is a percussionist, the melodies are as important as the bongos. There are many tunes, however, where they outshine the melodies, probably a calculated move during the production process in order to let Colón's skills come through all the better. Twelve tracks are gathered on this LP, ten of them being renditions, one track being the aforementioned Primitiva, and another song being written by Denny specifically for this album.

The first location is Hernando's Hideaway that's hidden from the public eye deep in the jungle. Originally written in 1954 by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross for the musical The Pajama Game, this world-famous and instantly recognizable Tango ditty is appropriately interpreted by Augie Colón. The main melody is played by a flute that's coupled with a xylophone and accentuated by a bongo groove whose reverb implies the cave-like architecture. The accompanying guitar mimics the Sicilian vocal style to great success and boosts the shadiness further. A great intro tune that relies as much on the catchy melody as on Colón's bongo skills, although he plays them in a laid-back fashion, saving his powers for later.


Primitiva is next and another great Exotica tune of the feather from Martin Denny. The xylophone-accompanied backing melody is played on a funky clavichord, but it is the great interplay between the paradisiac flute and the punchy string twangs that makes Denny's iconic seven-to-nine-note melody so great. The focus, however, seems to be on the percussion base frame, for the melody isn't carved out in a concentrated way due to its ever-changing, overloaded nature. Denny's original isn't outclassed, and it's not necessary, for Colón's entirely differing skills are pulled into the limelight in most of the songs. The melodies are only of secondary importance. This becomes all the more apparent in Alberto Dominguez' Frenesi which is launched and maintained by Colón's galloping bongo beat and soft shakers. The sun-soaked acoustic guitar licks and bass flute melodies stroll along gently and are accompanied by tremoling xylophones. Once again is the clichéd Hollywood aura of a harmless jungle perfectly depicted by Colón and his men. Denny's production skills are all over this friendly take.


While Ernesto Lecuona's Jungle Drums offers a superb cocktail of downbeat Latin pianos, slightly Middle Eastern flute melodies, Sicilian strings, trembling xylophones and the percussionist's craftsmanship on the congas, the famous Chiu, Chiu by Nicanor Molinare – which millions of people know by heart, but not by its proper title – revs up the eclectic percussion rhythms and gives Colón the chance for a rapid-firing performance. But this time, the melodies are also well embedded, with occasional accordion notes and a particularly warbled flute giving the performance a unique flavor. Side A closes with a funny pun: Odé Colón, specifically written by Martin Denny for this album and slightly reminiscent to Frenesi, mixes convivial flutes with heart-warming string instruments and punchy percussion sections. Of particular interest are the quiet mumblings of Colón during the short breaks, as they recall the style of his exotic solo debut Sophisticated Savage. A gleeful entry.

Side B launches with the plasticity of the bongos in the fantastic Manigua, a song whose flute melodies oscillate between the Middle East and faux-Polynesian styles. The xylophone droplets are particularly warm, the Sicilian strings inject a strong Western flavor into the song, and to my surprise does the bassline resemble the base frame of Les Baxter's Quiet Village which is usually played on the piano by Exotica trios or quartets. Amando Peraza's upbeat composition Mambo Balahu brings back the Latin flavor to the album thanks to exhilarative flute-xylophone couplets and mad bongo accompaniments, and the following composition of James F. Henley called Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart, written in 1934, reintroduces the deep clavichord backings and places them in juxtaposition of the Sicilian string instrument, the flutes and eminently punchy bongos, the latter featuring a great attack rate.


Copacabana picks up the threads and lets the surprisingly loud strings play for the most part, while the glinting xylophones swirl in the background, evoking both the sun and a wafting breeze. Colón's bongos are especially hollow on this piece, painting the location of a lively bar in Brazil. Additional accordion chords round off the catchy tune. The titular Chant Of The Jungle, written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed for the 1929 film Untamed, presents something that should have been included way earlier on this album: a long solo performance on the bongos and congas by Augie Colón. It is here that the album really shines and brings back the hectic frenzy of many a tune off Sophisticated Savage. The oscillation between sunset-red flute melodies and their brighter counterparts make this an intriguing rendition and a real feast for fans of Don Ralke. Alas, there's no room for improvement anymore, for the final piece called Witch Doctor is already near. Written by Ross Bagdassarian in 1958, it's yet another tune that harks back on the formula of Colón's solo debut, with lamenting ethnic chants by Colón and a threatening atmosphere. However, the song morphs into a syrupy-mercurial skit of conviviality with banjo-like Sicily licks, quavering flutes and shedloads of bongos. 

Whatever led to the almost complete demise of the Latin flavor and the many vocal sections which were an important constituent of Sophisticated Savage, Colón's second and last Exotica album under his own name is a worthwhile addition to every collection and luckily available on digital music stores (though with a new cover artwork). It is indeed so completely different in style from his previous offering that I'm all the more intrigued about the stylistic shift. Since both albums are so hugely different from each other, it is simply a question of personal taste whether you prefer the vocal-heavy Latin feeling of the first album or the bright jungle vista of the second offering.


Chant Of The Jungle is bright, joyful and catchy, though quite a few melodies seem to be more complex and consist of many coupled instruments, probably because of the emphasis on the percussion, which is oftentimes a much neglected or unnoticed part of Exotica records. The album title is problematic, as it actually is Sophisticated Savage that introduces several chants in less-heard Latin compositions. Be it as it may, Chant Of The Jungle is no mere opportunity to cash in on the Exotica craze, but a well-produced album with a thick jungle atmosphere. The Italian violin is a particularly quirky inclusion and is used prominently and to great effect. My personal opinion about which of Colón's works is the better one varies regularly: there are times where I am very fond of the Latin roots found in Colón's debut and the wonderful Portuguese and Spanish lyrics. Then again, the instrumentals on the second album are also very catchy and derive from wider sources.


It's best to get both albums, and at least Chant Of The Jungle is available for a fair price on iTunes, Amazon and similar shops. Oh, and it's one of the strange music history-related signs of prowess that Augie Colón didn't want to perform even one single birdcall on both his albums. He had his chance. He didn't use it, and deliberately so. As it is often the case, he surely didn't want to be reduced by the public or the music press to his birdcalls. It's a small pity, for these calls would have greatly enhanced many of these jungle-related compositions. But even without them, it's one hell of a catchy album!


Exotica Review 120: Augie Colon – Chant Of The Jungle (1960). Originally published on Sep. 15, 2012 at