Pérez Prado
Concierto Para Bongó






There is the theory that the genre of vintage Exotica slowed down decidedly around 1963. All subsequent releases weren't the real deal anymore, maybe at best short-lived revivals or further addenda of the ideas established in the late 50's. I however am known to be less adamantly specific about the genre term. A bongo does not necessarily make an Exotica LP, sure, but the various Lounge, Space-Age or even Surf Rock and Funk records implicate some form of tropical escapism I deem so worthwhile and enchanting. Why am I retelling this story right at the beginning of this particular review? Because it is time to expand the boundaries of Exotica once again, although the review-worthy work is created by an artist who not only visited the genre regularly during his career, he actually foresaw it: Mambo king Pérez Prado (1916–1989). He and producer Leroy Holmes create one of the best – and also last – exotified percussion works ever: the eight-track Afro-Cuban album Concierto Para Bongó is released in 1975 on United Artists Records and gathers Pérez Prado and his band in another jungle.


Much has happened since his pre-Exotica opus Voodoo Suite (1955) and his equally successful Exotic Suite Of The Americas (1962). Prado plays the organ on this release, an instrument that is completely neglected in the aforementioned works. The same can be said about the bass guitar backings which replace the jazzier double bass accents, although the latter are also featured, namely on the title track. And what a title track it is! Even though it may be featured on side B, its whopping 17 minutes are enormously exciting and vivid. Notwithstanding the impetus of side B, even the first seven tracks on side A are valuable Mambo additions built on Prado's known brass sections. Strangely enough, Concierto Para Bongó does not live up to its name on the first string of tracks, but if there is one late Exotica album that gets continually better over its course, it has to be this one.


Pérez Prado's own composition Claudia launches the album, and while the writer and bandleader is known for his many tracks about women, this one is as good as any and not necessarily all too flattering for female beings with that name. Launching with a prowl-insinuating six-note melody on the bass guitar and much greater iridescently bright organ stabs and counterattacking brass bursts, the "Claudia!" chants of the – naturally all-male – band are tremendously outdated and de trop in 1975, but the ensuing coalescence of the cheerful instruments makes it a good-enough Latin-coated entry in Prado's discography. The following Virgen De La Macarena, originally composed by Ortiz Calero and Bernardo Bautista Monterde, is much more successful, for it comprises of a cool three-note bass guitar accentuation, Mexican desperado-like sunset horn melodies and a sleazy Funk guitar whose sun-dried trait injects scents of Jamaican Reggae into the scenery. The lead trumpet is especially convivial, its state ranges from piercing over muted to vivid oscillations, and the ubiquitous "ugh!" chants delicately boost the feeling of freedom in this red-tinted ditty.


While Prado's own Mamma A Go Go stacks syrupy Hammond B3 bachelor pad chords onto the effervescent choir of three people and widens the mercurial presentation with amicable trumpet sections in adjacency to the obvious bass guitar setting, the appendix A Go Go gleams and glows thanks to its sizzling-hot brass eruptions, their sunnier counterparts as well as the overall uplifting aura of this composition. The classic drums never break out of the given pace and strictly gyrate around the bass guitar, Prado does not allow a drum solo yet. The following Estoy Acabando by Homero Jimenez is built on a three-note organ motif, cheerful lyrics by the backing choir as well as a much more interesting show tune-evoking supercharged euphony of the brass instruments. One of my favorites, as it is genuinely catchy.


Up next is Prado's Cayetano, and things really get more and more interesting, as the scope of the textures and the timbre is decidedly interpolated: not only does the Cuban composer finally advect wonderfully aqueous bongo droplets which themselves prove to be the first referrer to the album title, he also allows hyper-hectic golden-shimmering staccato brass backings and meshes them with slightly dissonant klaxon horns which boost the good mood further. The inclusion of a cool guitar accompaniment as well as the lyrics in the second half round off a blithesome tune. Side A is finished with a frantic bongo arrangement called Fantasia; it is, as its name almost implies, fantastic! Bongos, congas, drums, cymbals and energetic chants provide a mild-mannered but nonetheless fulminant Chaino-esque atmosphere. The lack of melodies makes it so refreshing and prepares the listener for the big thing to come, namely the eponymous suite on side B.


Concierto Para Bongó is that long suite of 17 minutes, and it is here where Pérez Prado returns to form. Side A got better during the end of its runtime, but the long compositions of the Cuban maestro are regularly impressive and imaginative, Concierto Para Bongó being no exception to this observation. As usual, Prado reserves the whole side for his envisioned concoction and shifts the tempo, changes the rhythm and augments the instrumental pool. This is shown in the first minute already, as the echoey liquidity of cricket-evoking claves meshes with pompously droning timpani blebs in the veins of Morton Gould's Jungle Drums (1957).


Frizzling maracas, voluminous bongos, clanging congas and another dose of "ugh!" shouts evoke a tropical jungle setting that can even be linked to a ritualistic coterie due to the fast-paced rhythm. The percussion thicket ebbs and flows, and every state of this piece is impressive, especially when the timpani are the only audible source does Concierto Para Bongó become wonderfully shady and portentous. The first melodious traces are injected after almost three minutes in the form of polyphonous horns and a lead trumpet which towers above their presence. Double bass waves are included at one point, a remainder of Prado's works of the 50's and 60's which did not feature the bass guitar that is so commonplace on this particular album. The punch and verve of the drums is truly impressive, but instead of his two famous suites Voodoo Suite and Exotic Suite Of The Americas, their aura is only energetic and upbeat, not threatening or orchestral, though this is perfectly fine and meshes well with the sun-lit side A. Concierto Para Bongó (the song) works so well due to its focus on the drums and its lack of melodies, and this is also how it ends: with an organic green-tinged junglescape.


Concierto Para Bongó is a very late Exotica entry by the mighty Pérez Prado, and once again, this LP is pieced together with the aid of the Cuban bandleader's well-known formula. One side is dedicated to an exciting piece, whereas the other one features joyful Mambo material below the three-minute mark. This time, Prado saves the signature tune till last. The stream of seven Mambos on side A turns out to be  dangerously lackluster, at least so at the beginning – I'm looking at you, Claudia –, but soon enough, the arrangements grow and finally feature the titular bongos during the last two compositions. But make no mistake, the title track is indeed the real deal and much more accessible than Prado's suites which shift and change their shape, tempo and settings because they are actually pieced together by many songs and feature various sections. Here, however, we have a real tune of 17 minutes, and its accessibility is caused by both the vivid percussion layers which altogether keep the pace and the tempo and the lack of eclectic over-the-top brass infusions.


Fans of Karl Zéro's cheeky millennial Exotica-Latin conundrum Songs For Cabriolets (And Otros Tipos De Vehiculos) will spot many stylistic similarities and will probably dig Pérez Prado's album best. It definitely sounds much more modern and is clearly rooted in the 70's, whereas side B somehow brings back that vintage Space-Age feeling avec beats that many an LP with the term Percussion in its title induced heretofore. Concierto Para Bongó is luckily available on iTunes and Amazon MP3 among other music stores, and I advise fans of Mandingo and Chaino to check it out or listen to it again if it has not been considered for a longer time. 


Exotica Review 204: Perez Prado – Concierto Para Bongó (1975). Originally published on Apr. 13, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.