Hugo Winterhalter Goes…
South Of The Border






Composer and arranger Hugo Winterhalter (1909–1973) knows how to travel the world and ride the sound waves, and he proves it time and again in his series of travelogs called Hugo Winterhalter Goes…, with each of them sounding refreshingly different despite being based on a shared set of instruments. Whether it is Hawaii, a community of libertarian gypsies (!) or the whole continent, Winterhalter visits many a destination. 1961 sees him venture south as he Goes… South Of The Border.


Released on RCA Victor, spanning eleven arrangements and two unique compositions, chances are that the dear reader did not even care to read this far. The reasons are quickly explicated, as I can wholeheartedly relate: As a regular vacationist in the realms of Exotica, I cannot help myself but shake my head in disdain due to the flood of releases that target all of the Americas. Believe me, one does not need to be a self-proclaimed reviewer to sometimes open Pandora’s box full of cynicism in the face of this uniformity. Luckily, that box remains closed whenever I am talking about Hugo Winterhalter’s Goes… series, and even firmly so. The material is actually chequered and diversified, features a wonderful amount of congueros and bongo players, adds clicking castanets to the scenery and surprises with a few remarkably unforeseen ingredients which I do not want to give away in advance. Only this much: they prove to be even spacier than the genre alloy named Space-Age allows, and much more ruggish than a lost poncho. Winterhalter’s arrangements are furthermore keen on synergies: Exotica, said Space-Age mannerisms, Crime Jazz vestibules as well as show tune pieces become enmeshed in order to transform the traditional South American material. If this is for better or worse is up to the listener to decide, business as usual. I for one think that Goes… South Of The Border has many a great polyphony in store. 


The traditional Mexican Hat Dance cannot be truly loved anymore, regardless of whom you ask. Decades of Saturday morning cartoons, cliché extravaganzas and its omnipresence in soap operas and carnivalesque DJ sets all cause havoc. The melody has deeply graved itself into the collective knowledge of human mankind. Hugo Winterhalter’s arrangement does not deliver anything different, but if one knows and loves his Goes… series, one will at least dig the unexpectedly convivial mixed choir, the olé chants, la la lyrics as well as the wild hand claps. The sun-soaked horns, gleeful marimba drops and clinging tambourines, meanwhile, are not surprising at all. Anyway, warmth is all over this piece. And this is meant as a compliment. The arranger then goes on to make use of an enjoyable formula in the next tidbit, as the second track of side A is always dedicated to Hugo Winterhalter’s own composition. Brasilia Romantica it is called on this album, a truthfully bedazzling mirage of soothing acoustic guitar twangs, softened marimba protrusions, short Space-Age string segues and horns veiled in silk. The melody and setup literally beg for an uplifting rhythm, but Winterhalter only injects the melodies, not the adrenaline, making this seem like a phantasmagoric outtake of a wild ride through the prairie. Magnificently laid-back!


Whereas Jeri Sullivan’s and Paul Baron’s Rum And Coca-Cola find the choir singing the title in a cheeky off-key way, with the following lyrics being presented in a thick Mexican accent amid transcendental (!) string airflows, rhythm guitars and gorgeously reverberated bongos from behind, Edward Eliscu’s, Gus Jahn’s and Vincent Youmans’ faux-Polynesian Exotica classic Orchids In The Moonlight is transmuted into Mexican climes, a feat the Rio Carnival Orchestra (aka the 101 Strings) anticipated on their debut album Honeymoon In South America (1958) already. Winterhalter’s take is truly otherworldly and remarkably estranging. The castanet cavalcades are a given, sure, but the ferocious, mean-spirited and eminently raspy trombone layer in-between the glacial clavichord keys make this as black as sheep as ingenious an arrangement! Once the elysian and partially yearning strings recover the clime, things get even more complicated, as the mood is now torn and severely unbalanced. This is undoubtedly Hugo Winterhalter’s most asymmetrical and peculiar arrangement ever!


Alberto Dominguez’s and Leonard Whitcup’s Frenesi pompously returns to tasty Space-Age climes with glaring big band show tune placentas, tramontane hills full of strings, bongo-and-conga coppices as well as sunlit guitar licks, with Enrique Pedro Maroni’s, Gerardo Hernán Matos Rodriguez’s and Pascual Contursi’s nocturnal Tango La Cumparsita being only illumined by the coruscating castanets, for the downwards spiraling string movements and their screeching counterparts are covered in darkness and severely perpetuated by the rhythm guitar. The echo of the pizzicato strings fathoms into the blackness, accordion-based adjuvants emanate dark matter particles. That’s South America as well, folks, when seen from Hollywood. Since this is the last composition of side A, things then get really dark.


Luckily, side B is filled with sound waves as well and one very rare second treasure written by Winterhalter for this album. Called Chile Cha-Cha, it is a Space-Age arrangement par excellence: delicately hollow bongos, a Cool Jazz guitar, warmhearted four-note horn helixes and a powdered harpsichord surrounded by these ingredients cause excitement. Warm and flamboyant, this tune is good-spirited and mightily exotic. Jimmy Kennedy’s and Michael Carr’s eternal standard South Of The Border is a smaller letdown, but no less scintillating. The exotic drum undercurrent is definitely most welcome, as is the handclap-infested classic drum kit performance, heck, even the transformation from a choir-accentuated private party to a big show tune corker works really well, but some brass textures remind painfully of Billy Vaughn’s arrangements, but those who can defy these oozing entities are in for a specifically shapeshifting treat.


While Edgar "Yip" Harburg’s and Johnny Green’s I’m Yours celebrates the encore of the super-dark raspy trombone in tandem with shiny new desperado guitar twangs which then open the curtain for rose-tinted string washes full of unashamed euphony, the trio of Edward Eliscu, Gus Kahn, Vincent Youmans is considered a second time with their composition Carioca, a Crime Jazz-oriented Bossa Nova with faux-badass guitars in a magnificent amount of histrionic horns and twirling flutes – a first on the album and not a minute too late, as the closer La Cucaracha is nigh and has been severely missed in the given context, right? The choir sings the lyrics in English and later ooh-oohs to the melody, a rare treat in the ocean of instrumental interpretations. The horns emit the archetypical Mexicanism, the strings are virtually towering above the scenery, cowbells and bongos ameliorate the scenery further, making this a splendid take on an antediluvian smash hit.


Hugo Winterhalter Goes… South Of The Border, and he is greeted there with open arms. Considering the endless amount of similarly themed albums, ranging from Stanley Black’s Festival In Costa Rica (1955) over Percy Faith’s Viva! The Music Of Mexico (1961) to Yavaz’s Sea Of Cortez (1997), there is no need for a particular work anymore, as you can choose whatever suits your fancy. Let all of these songs shuffle in a playlist, and bewilderment ensues. Now who delivered this take on La Cucaracha again? It needs decades of experience to filter them out as I painfully realized, and granted, Exotica should never be about grave experience, but joy and a certain gut feeling.


The very good – if posthumous – news for Hugo Winterhalter is that he does indeed deliver an outstanding work with this artifact. Outstanding does neither equal a reign over the competition nor a highly remarkable must-have release, but its balancing act between clichéd horns, Space-Age strings, castanet groves, guitar gyrations, marimba bubbles, choir standoffs, malevolent trombones and buses full of bongos make this a feisty work of vivacity. Indeed, the bongos and congas are probably the most remarkable addition, if not in the overarching sense, then at least in terms of Winterhalter’s way of arranging things. You will not find more bongos or congas in any other work that is part of his Goes… series of travelogs. His own composition Brasilia Romantica is particularly great due to its beatless, spineless gestalt that resembles paradisiac plateaus of jelly, and yes, this quirky expression also delineates the amount of Space-Age alloys that are prominently interwoven here, be it on the sunlit Frenesi, the show tune version of South Of The Border or the living dead called La Cucaracha and Mexican Hat Dance. Available on vinyl, as a digital download and on streaming websites.


Exotica Review 315: Hugo Winterhalter – Goes… South Of The Border (1961). Originally published on Feb. 15, 2014 at