Xavier Cugat
Viva Cugat!






Viva Cugat! What a cool, colorful title for an album! And while this is a good title, Exotica fans might – no, in fact do – overlook its great existence and soundscape due to the Spanish title and the bandleader himself, Xavier Cugat (1900–1990), whose work falls decidedly into the synergetic Latinized Space-Age genre with its shimmering brass eruptions and lush strings. And sure enough are these instruments used incessantly on each of the 12 tracks on Viva Cugat!, released in 1961 on the Mercury label in both mono and stereo versions, but there is much more to this LP, for it is based on a third style-related column, namely the Exotica genre, thank the tiki gods. For one, the album comprises of many jungle-evoking and clear cut Exotica masterpieces. Secondly, the percussion is eminently exotic, not just by accident on one or two tracks, but deliberately so in a whopping eleven tracks: bongos, congas, goblet drums, guiros, a melodious as well as a percussive use of marimbas, all of these are prominently in place, making Viva Cugat! an excitingly exotic effort which is not the least bit implied by its title. T


hree sessions recorded in three days make up the album, with each of the respective orchestra layouts and arrangements given as a sketch on the backside of the sleeve. The names of the orchestra members remain unmentioned, but rest assured that they know how to treat their signature instruments in order to unleash the most powerful or dreamiest tone sequences and convoluted percussion schemes. Read on to know more about one of Exotica's lost works: it is readily available in digial music stores and on LP, but mostly remains out of sight of the Exotica fan. Maybe my review can change things, if only on a whimsical level.


Xavier Cugat's own Jungle Concerto marks the hyper-hectic gateway to the Latinized form of glee, but actually starts in a decidedly Polynesian way thanks to the soothing and dreamy alto flute melody which is then answered by a deliciously frantic exotic percussion section of manic congas, furious bongos, cracking guiros and liquedous marimbas. Brass blasts and polyphonous violins initiate a shift into Latin territory, with only another marimba-fueled flute segue providing a return to the Polynesian realms before the song ends with clarion horn eruptions of the trenbling kind. Jungle Concerto is a huge opener, eclectic and uplifting, enthralling and adrenaline-boosting. This tune alone provides a livelier panorama with its Polynesian percussion than the eponymous album of George Cates. A real treat and unique cut!


Moisés Simons' iconic The Peanut Vendor follows, and even though Cugat does not deliver a quirkiness similar to Michel Magne's outright crazy take as featured on his masterpiece Tropical Fantasy (1962), the sun-soaked seven-note marimba polyphony, the hollow bongo aorta and the sky-high violins in tandem with the bubbling deep brass bits and vivacious flutes make this a welcome rendition nonetheless. The Latin trumpet flourish in the second half is particularly effective, as it delivers a counterpoint to the tropical setting and remains true to the hidden overarching formula of Viva Cugat! which merges Polynesia with Brazil. Whereas Jimmy Kennedy's and Will Gross' Isle Of Capri is an ode to the Italian island in its original form, Cugat's Cha-Cha incarnation is chock-full of exotic percussion, the highest possible notes on the marimba which are coupled with Space-Age flutes and the many good-natured big scope brass stabs as a Latin answer to the Polynesian vista. Cugat's way of Latinizing these tunes is awesome, always expanding the perceived largeness. Here it works especially well, as the percussion-focused plasticity allows for a well-placed melody over the dense thicket of goblet drums.


Tropical Merengue, originally written by Don Marsh, Lawrence Elow and Rafael Muñoz, unleashes the brast chords almost immediately as Cugat juxtaposes them to marimba droplets and similarly aquatic swirls. Short intersections of triangles and flutes inject the feeling of a parade, but this is still no military march rather than a upbeat, joyful stroll through a jungle near an urban epicenter. Xavier Cugat's second and final composition follows which he co-wrote with Fred Wise and George Rosner, the essential Nightingale which Les Baxter transfigured into a nocturnal serenade on his – in my humble opinion – best album of the 50's, the string-heavy Caribbean Moonlight of 1956. Cugat's version differs very much in that it places a bongo-focused and guiro-interspersed percussion scheme next to much thinner and way less dreamy violins. The mellow horns are overly melodramatic, only the iridescent marimba blebs inject a dose of mystery. I have to admit that this doleful ditty has its moments; these are mostly destroyed by the missing harmony between the strings and the brass instruments, I'm afraid. I really recommend Mr. Baxter's unbelievably cozy Space-Age mélange if you want to discover the whole potential of this tune.


Side A closes with a take on Alberto Dominguez's Perfidia, a similarly mellow tune with manifold saccharine wraithlike strings and earthen bongos. This arrangement is only remarkable due to its omission of the brass instruments, but otherwise resides in all too kitschy and heart-warming territories of blinding brightness. What rescues this tune from the Easy Listening label, however, is the exotic percussion which prominently points to a proper Exotica release.


Since this is a Latin album: where is the material written by Ernesto Lecuona? Well, it is scattered on side B, with three tracks co-written by this famous writer, starting with Siboney which he co-wrote with Dolly Morse: a splendid high-plasticity exotic percussion section serves as a lead-in for spy theme horns, their much warmer brethren and sparkling marimbas. The spy flavor is then neglected throughout the remaining duration of the song. While Lecuona's Jungle Drums is presented by Cugat with a superb focus on the vibrant drums – in strong contrast to Morton Gould's rather common timpani-heavy interpretation on the identically titled Jungle Drums LP (1957) – which underpin the main melody played on mellifluous strings, silkened horns and staccato marimba waterfalls, Roman Vatro's and Francesco Giordano's El Negro Zumbon, better known as Anna in the U.S., reintroduces the triangle-backed alternating nine-note flute conviviality and mixes it with sunny bass guitars and an embracing brass euphony, making Anna the catchiest tune of side B.


The next woman is close at hand, though: Lorenzo Barcelata's Maria Elena is taken by Xavier Cugat into Cha-Cha realms with shedloads of horns, yellow-tinted marimba vesicles and a few allotted maracas and bongos. The scope is definitely the largest of side B, with the hammering horns causing joy and happiness; there is something about Cugat's Cha-Cha material that makes me smile big time. The penultimate offering is the eternal classic Poinciana by Buddy Bernier, Manuel Lliso and Nat Simon, and sure enough do the superb conga base frame and the guiro craftsmanship provide a wonderful accompaniment to the string heaven. The strings have underwhelmed throughout the album, but here they work marvelously with the flutes, maybe due to the well-known catchy melody. The final Say Si Si by Ernesto Lecuona and Al Stillman is a magnificent Rumba with dark brass rumblings and cheerful ugh! chants by Cugat's orchestra. There is not a single shady cloud in-between the marimba droplets and the trumpet polyphony. This is really a pitch-perfect Latin tune with no Exotica traces whatsoever.


Xavier Cugat delivers yet another Cha-Cha-based Mambo-inspired Rumba-fueled Merengue album par excellence, as he usually did when he was on his creative height in the Golden 50's and Swinging 60's. Viva Cugat! impresses with its boldly exotic percussion that is not just added as an afterthought or due to luring the Exotica connoisseur into the Latin camp, but definitely serves as a Polynesian counterpart to the South American feel. This dichotomy is maintained throughout the album: hot-blooded horns meet paradisiac flutes, Brazilian guiros meet jungle marimbas, and the experience of plain old Cha-Cha rhythms is improved via a green thicket of bongos and congas. And let's not forget the third ingredient, the Space-Age violins; they are not as lush and expanding as the performances of Les Baxter's orchestra or the 101 Strings, but they nonetheless augment the style of the album.


Torn between three subgenres, Viva Cugat! doesn't fall into pieces, but unites them harmoniously. Be it the tremendously catchy flute tones of Anna, a Latinized take on the symphonica italia Isle Of Capri or the first opening bangs of the bongos on Cugat's own Jungle Concerto, this album deserves all the attention of the Exotica connoisseur it can get. If only the good people of Mercury Records would have added a jungle to the front cover, the Exotica world would then admittedly have gotten the gazillionth clichéd artwork, but as a result people would be much more fond about it by now. Cugat would later decidedly move into the Space-Age era, for instance with his boozorama "concept album" called Cugi's Cocktails (1963), but Viva Cugat! provides a much more jungle-related soundscape and is thus Cugat's best album of the 60's for fans of exotic percussion and that emerald-green feeling of the mind.


Exotica Review 149: Xavier Cugat – Viva Cugat! (1961). Originally published on Nov. 24, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.