Xavier Cugat
Merengue! By Cugat!






I admire Xavier Cugat (1900–1990) for his tendency to come up with varied Latin and Exotica tunes, whether they are mere renditions or original cuts. His album Merengue! By Cugat!, released on Columbia Records in 1955, disappoints in this regard. While four of its 12 compositions are (co-)written by the Spanish bandleader, the soundscape does not differ all too much. Ubiquitous marimba cascades and omnipresent brass infusions are the main ingredients on each track, with maracas and bongos being the important columns on the percussion side; no stringed instruments are in sight. These limiting factors are not bad per se, as change and diversion take place in the realms – and within the boundaries – of textures, patterns and their interplay: the overwhelming majority of Merengue! is based on bedazzling tone sequences in major. Only two arrangements depict the archetypical Latin cliché of hot-blooded affection and yearning.


The Latin feeling is still successfully maintained thanks to the actual star of this LP, Puerto Rican singer Vitín Avilés (1930–2004) and his backing choir. They elevate most of the songs with their colorful cantos, chants and underlining echoes. The Latin way of life is always perceptible, so Exotica fans better enjoy its characteristic traits in order to make the most of this album. Unfortunately, the players and bandmates are not mentioned in the liner notes, let alone their amount, so this information remains an eminently curious mystery given the fact that the marketing buffs at Columbia Records usually provide such essential information. I presume that at least roughly eight to twelve people are involved in the process of creating Merengue!, with roundabout eight of them playing simultaneously, as the brass flourishes are as dense as the percussion thickets. Once the marimba and the occasional piano of this bustling album are taken into account, this number seems to be right to me. But enough of the numbers, how about some music?


There is no better way to start a Latin album than with lots of convivial chants and fiery shout-outs. This is what happens on the opener Aye, Que Merengue, co-written by Joseph "Joe" Gutierrez and Xavier Cugat himself. Especially the stereo version is worth anyone's while as it has a quirky stereo-panned shuttling effect attached to it. Soon enough, a jumpy marimba aorta accentuates the jocular performance by Vitín Avilés whose vocals are echoed by a purposefully childish choir of adults. Euphonious brass attacks with branched out solo instruments rounds off this pitch-perfect Latin starter. It is as sunny as an opener can get. The following La Múcura is a rendition of Antonio Fuentes' evergreen, and Cugat opens it with a bongolicious percussion layer and even stabbier horn hits. The reciprocation between acidic sections and a rather mild-mannered polyphony is the golden thread of this tune which is further augmented by sun-lit marimba droplets and piano bridges which work all the better encapsulated with the bongos.


While Ricardo Marrero's nocturnal mid-tempo lamento A Bailar Merengue is presented here in a hot-blooded fashion with archetypically sizzling Latin trumpets, Avilés' vocals in tandem with the backing choir and frizzling maracas, Jean Albertini's Compadre Pedro Juan leaves the lamenting tunnel vision behind in favor of a more joyful way of life. The percussion pool is larger on here, with maracas, bongos, claves and rhythmical marimbas providing the tropical backdrop for the brass instruments to gleam. The piano is especially noteworthy due to its silkiness and good-natured tercets. The gleeful "¡Baila!" chants mesh well with their blitheness. Lava Lavandera is the second Cugat/Gutierrez team-up and keeps the rhythmical particularities of Compadre Pedro Juan intact, but otherwise mediates between the slightest bits of Dixieland tone sequences and a Cuban euphony chock-full of iridescent staccato brass bits.


The final piece of side A is Gay Merengue, yet again delivered by Cugat and Gutierrez. Due to the changing allusions and conceptions of gaiety, the title was later renamed to Merengue Alegre on the 1987 re-issue of Merengue! By Cugat!, but both titles refer to the same composition; its tropical percussion is probably the biggest treat. In addition to this underbrush of verdure, multitudinous clinging cowbells are coupled with crisp double bass-backings. Vitín Avilés' vocals are dropped before this percussive background, for the carved out brass-fueled, piano-interspersed melodies are only being unleashed in the forms of bridges and interludes.


Side B opens with El Merengue, originally written by Cándido Dimanlig and Bobbie Ramos, and say what you will, but the percussive opening section is again top-notch, and sometimes I wish the brass-heavy flourish would wane for just a few more seconds in order to enjoy this background even more. In regard to El Merengue, it would be a pity though, for Avilés' vocals and the backing choir deliver an even better performance here than on the majority of the material. And the trumpets really go wild, with distinct dissonances woven in. A Space-Age dreaminess is farther away than ever. The same cannot be applied to the second song of Ricardo Marero's roster, the ebullient Las Chismosas whose brass stabs are frantic as usual, but there is an even cozier mélange in the background that has not been included before on this album, nor will it appear anytime again.


Cugat's take on Fernando Castro's and Enrique Avilés' Mi Jaleo revs up the marimba spirals in this otherwise maracas-driven horn-focused ditty which offers the warmest legato brass fanfares on the whole album next to Avilés' vocals, whereas Cugat's own instrumental mid-tempo concoction Caballito De Madera is keen on displaying more trumpet surfaces and saxophone textures than the endemic soundscape previously suggested.


Alfredo Mendez's Merengue Flamenco brings back that Latin feeling of dole and scents of yearning, with blood-red horns and sunset-colored maracas. As its title implies, worship and affection are all over it, and the many olé and aah-aah chants in juxtaposition to the piercing trumpets do not suggest anything else than a love theme. The final Ritmo Tropical by G. López unchains sun-soaked trumpets for the last time, and the tipsy marimba adds much glee to the already catchy melody. Señor Avilés mentions the various Latin genres that appeared throughout the album's duration, and it is here that the percussion lives up to the title, as it is definitely audible and in the foreground all the time: maracas, guiros, caixhas, claves, you name it. The rhythm is unfortunately still not that unique or different from the previous material, but it is a closing track that maintains the overall quality of this strictly Latin-flavored LP.


One cannot expect a boldly exotic flavor awash with flutes, celestes or vibraphone coils on this LP due to its year of release being 1955, i.e. almost two years prior to the official kick-off and coining of the genre. Regardless of this historical timeline, Merengue! By Cugat! succeeds with its many bongos and maracas that fuel this brassy album. Vitín Avilés delivers one great performance after the other. Naturally, he does not drift astray too much from the Latin formula, so his vocal range is pretty much reduced to a few sleaky vocals and large amounts of ignited shouts. The choir usually echoes these good-natured lyrics in the background. The instrumental side is equally successful, but only seldom are there distinct changes in the formula: a little bit of dole here, some silkier than usual horn streams there, and last but not least the occasional guiro provide the infinitesimal varieties of this utterly cohesive album. Once you know one song, you know pretty much all of them. This is always the worst statement to issue, but in regard to Merengue!, it is truthful and unavoidable.


I am stressing in every review of Latinized works that I am more fond of the cheery kinds of material than the melodramatic compositions, and this is the reason why I am nonetheless fond of Cugat's album. It is still highly contrastive to his 60's technicolor works which sparkle and glint, whether it is the surprisingly Exotica-focused Viva Cugat! (1960) or the Space-Age Lounge boozorama glitz of Cugi's Cocktails (1963) whose tracks are all dedicated to famous cocktails and longdrinks. Merengue! By Cugat! lacks the variety but unleashes a bubbling joy and celebratory aura that makes Retro Latin so intriguing. Due to its theme of tropical percussion, it does not hurt Exotica fans to check this pre-Exotica album out, be it in its original LP incarnation, in the shape of a re-issued CD or purely bits and bytes-based as a digital download. Cugat's arrangements of 1955 provide the cornerstone for his later success and his more interesting and stylistically diversified albums.


Exotica Review 229: Xavier Cugat – Merengue! By Cugat! (1955). Originally published on Jun. 22, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.