Sabu Martinez
Afro Temple






The 70’s do not provide particularly friendly surroundings for Exotica fans, but New York-bred conguero Louis “Sabu” Martinez (1930–1979) is indeed one of the top players whose stellar percussion prowlers and unique compositions outlast every trend and fad, and so it happens that with Afro Temple he continues his path and delivers another bunch of nine tracks. These are specifically written for this surprisingly transparent and accessible work, recorded with a band of 13 musicians – among them Sabu’s wife Christina and son Johnny – over the weekend of March 23–25, 1973 at the Europa Film Studio in Sweden and released in the same year on the Grammofonverket label. Comprising of four dedicated congueros and two drummers, most of them of Swedish origin due to the country and site this record was recorded on or in, Afro Temple bursts at the seams when it comes to exotic percussion layers, and this is exactly what one expects from Sabu.


In addition, saxophonists Bernt Rosengren and Christer Boustedt, the latter of which also serves as the flutist, ameliorate the aural temple of the mind with their semi-complex melodies which more often than not emit glinting beams of euphony. True Sabu fans who favor his epics from the 50’s and 60’s are admittedly slightly disappointed at the well-groomed, oily appearance, stating the almost eternally truthful adage that “an artist’s earliest works are his best,” but the rather streamlined approach and constant rhythms allow for two particular advantages, firstly a better reception of the still splendidly multifaceted percussion strata loaded with congas, bongos, boo-bams, claves, cowbells, timpani, guiros, maracas and so on, and secondly a less savage topic with well carved out thoughts and announcements as delivered by Sabu himself and bassist Red Mitchell on three songs. Afro Temple worships cameraderie and togetherness, but is the implied temple an eerie one, a house of friendship or even amiss in the greater scheme of things? I am going to explain just that and hence enter the mighty Afro Temple below.

The album launches with the quirky title
Martin Cohen Loves Latin Percussion, an ode to the brand of percussion instruments as envisioned by the eponymous founder who, due to the Cuban missile crisis in the 60’s, started manufacturing his own instruments which became well-known in the world of Jazz. This track is dedicated to Cohen (and to "eternal piece and love", but more about this in a minute) and naturally uses his instruments… almost exclusively. Considering the savage percussion chaparral Sabu is able to plant, grow and nurture, the opener is enormously tame and streamlined, starting with a coruscating triangle plink, venturing to delicately vaulted temple-like reverberations on the snares and kettle drums and rounding the crepuscular darkness off with creaking guiros, claves and an additional six-note double bass aorta. Sabu Martinez himself talks over the flute-accentuated duskiness and looks forward to presenting the album which is created with "sweat, stink, dirt and above all soulful love." As mentioned above, "eternal piece and love" is what Sabu wants to deliver, and he succeeds indeed; as he carves out his manifesto, the percussion backdrop becomes illumined and brightens up ever so slightly, without becoming chintzy or melodramatic. An unusual but strong and ultimately very important anacrusis of the things to come.


And these things come in several shapes: Meapestaculo is archetypical Sabu material, comprising of wonky boo-bams, a jungular bongo tribalism, Chinese gongs, cowbells, cheerful handclaps in proximity to Bernt Rosengren’s tenor saxophone and distant Latin chants, all of them captured in a strongly captivating 6/8 rhythm. Even though a saxophone is integrated, it is advised to not search for particularly catchy melodies, for even 15 years after Sabu’s masterpiece Sorcery! (1958), the conguero’s arrangements have not lost anything of their wild devotion and convoluted helixes. Wounded Knee then features the narration of Red Mitchell in front of a menacingly muffled but orderly timpani aorta with added bongo flecks. Christer Boustedt’s warbled Pagan flute tones twirl and cut through the heavily moist air.


What could have become a meaningful centerpiece is unfortunately all too short, for Wounded Knee clocks in at a mere two minutes. It is strikingly similar to the opener in terms of the presentation, i.e. a told story or important message underlined by percussion prowess, but whereas the opener sets the mood for the whole album, Wounded Knee suffers from the shortness. In the late 50’s, Sabu would have made a composition of nine minutes out of it, but be that as it may, the listener is treated very well in the following piece of seven minutes that lent the album its title: Afro Temple is astonishingly melodious in the given endemic topic, but before the saxes are gleaming, an accessible, uplifting midtempo thicket of guiros, bongos and congas is established. Rosengren’s prolonged saxophone tones drone in a nightly fashion and fade into the aural temple’s entrance. And that – without ridiculing the collaborative effort – is it. The song remains in this state, with the percussion layers being revved up ever so slightly with maracas and similar shakers. If Exotica fans were not sure heretofore whether Sabu’s material is compatible with their love for beautiful compositions, here is the moment where this is indeed the case. Side A closes with the jocular All Camels Hump, a breakneck congasphere with a Middle eastern tonality. Christer Boustedt's alto sax conflates with Bernt Rosengren’s tenor counterpart, the flutes are hectically swirling, the drums and gongs accompany the free flow until a brazenly distorted earthquake puts side A to a halt.


Side B features four songs and remains true to the carefully erected motifs of side A. Hotel Alyssa-Sousse, Tunisia provides a superb start and offers an upper midtempo glitz supercharged with cowbells, cymbals and similar plinking devices. Congas, boo-bams and djembes underline the spiraling sax serpentines, and despite the impossibility to hum along to the tune, the glaring opalescence and loftiness of the percussion makes this unique composition so enormously catchy. Everything dribbles or glints and yet feels staggering enough to sound timeless and cool even by today's waning standards. A marvelous trip!


Para Ti, Tito Rodriguez is next and features a shrapnel of multitudinous classic drums, hi-toms, Chinese gongs and clashing cymbals. What sounds good on the pixels of your reading device is unfortunately less than optimally resolved: the first part is simply too dry and boring by Exotica measures, albeit showing a strong prestidigitation. The second part shines all the more though, with Sabu’s chants and prayers, the spiky flute tittles and snake-rattling underbrush. The wideness is astonishing, making Para Ti, Tito Rodriguez an emerald-green jungle par excellence and one of the strikingly hyper-exotic pieces! The final two tunes form an autobiographical duo: whereas My Son Johnny And Me augments the impetus of the bongos and congas and lets them unfold their designedly hollow alcove-like purity in tandem with their wonderfully reverberated afterglows and chants by Sabu and Johnny, My Christina is the divine breakbeat apotheosis and chock-full with chants, funky basslines by Wounded Knee narrator Red Mitchell, a superb granularity regarding the frizzling shakers and a free form interplay between the various flute flumes and sax splinters. Ethnic and pristine, it is a great outro of a tame brute.


Afro Temple is a great and almost audaciously accessible album considering both Sabu Martinez’s iridescent and severely murky concoctions which sit on the brink of many a genre’s rough ravines. However, it is a bad work at the end of the day if one tries to link the album title to the presented material, and for doing exactly that, I need to take over the role of the good-natured spoilsport for a short moment: Afro Temple only partially and infrequently worships the connotations of its mystical title. Whether one thinks of a fictitious temple full of African cultures and freely flowing souls or rather interprets this as a figurative hull – or hall – which encapsulates the heritage of the conguero and his used percussion instruments, there is one production-related trick that could have worked wonders and were easily applicable to the presented sceneries, and that is the construction of a designedly diffuse, slightly blurry reverberation or echo effect.


There are compositions that do exactly that in a splendid way, the opener Martin Cohen Loves Latin Percussion being but one example where vaulted vestibules meet calcined cavities, although there are much more instances of crystalline, clinging or bedazzling thickets. And here is where the listener comes into play and his or her aesthetic impression. It can be astutely summarized in one quick question: who cares? Turns out that I do, and this is why I as a reviewer forgive the few missed chances. Afro Temple is simply too good an album to only pinpoint its less than optimal realization of the album title. The gently labyrinthine Meapestaculo, the accessible title track, the gorgeous faux-Oriental atmosphere in Hotel Alyssa-Sousse, Tunisia, and last but not least, that gorgeous second part of Para Ti, Tito Rodriguez do not feel like parts of a temple rather than views onto open territories and landmarks, but the percussionists know how to take the material ever further. Add the saxophone and flute spirals to this enchanting mix, and Afro Temple is a perfect starting point for cautious Exotica fans who do not immediately want to submerge into the voodoo-oriented 50's material of the great Sabu. Afro Temple is available on vinyl, CD and a download version on iTunes and Amazon MP3.


Exotica Review 271: Sabu Martinez – Afro Temple (1973). Originally published on Oct. 12, 2013 at