Edmundo Ros Heading
South Of The Border






The British-Trinidadian orchestra conductor, arranger and composer Edmundo Ros (1910–2011) has crafted many a Latin-based album, and it is a hopeless endeavor to present all of them here at AmbientExotica. But occasionally, there is that certain something spread all over an album. This luckily applies to Heading South Of The Border and its 12 tracks, released in 1970 on Decca Records as part of its Phase 4 Stereo series. A Southern travelog album played by a Latin orchestra, well, that cannot be big news anymore, and granted, this has been done several times before, even by the skilled composer and big band leader himself, if not necessarily in the exact wording of the title. However, I believe that his album is a valuable entry in this regard, for Ros really has to juggle on it by keeping both the faith and pace: he faces the slowly waning interest in orchestral settings on the one hand, and is keen on delivering many a brand-new song which his contemporaries adore and absorb like crazy on the other hand.


The writing was on the wall when smash hits were suddenly delivered by The Doors, The Beatles and whatnots instead of the big orchestra leaders à la Billy Vaughn, Bert Kaempfert, Stanley Black and innumerous other fellows. What a coincidence, since the talent of these rioting gentlemen (I mean those rock bands, sonny, not the well-groomed orchestra leaders) is transfigured into something else: Cha Cha Chas, Merengues, Foxtrots, you name it. The material Ros chose can be considered brand-new and well-known at the same time, so instead of the same old renditions of The Peanut Vendor, Andalucía or Malagueña, Edmundo Ros gives us highly contemporary material, but played in vintage style! No electric guitar or keyboard is on board, this is all bongos, flutes, horns, pianos and superb percussion. Read more about Edmundo Ros’ trip to the South. Exotica wasn’t dead in the water in 1970 after all.


The album has just started spinning, and ardor is in the sulfurous air. Thankfully, it is not of the lovestoned rather than the convivial kind, and unique it is, too. Edmundo Ros launches the party with his own tune Heading South, a Merengue-based fanfaronade supercharged with six-note brass flourishes, gleefully spiraling piano tones and shedloads of timbales, triangles and other plinking percussion devices in adjacency to a soft bongo undercurrent. The uplifting vibe of the tune makes for an eminently catchy start, and best of all for vintage fans: Heading South drowns in the past and does not show the balancing act between the big band 50’s and funky 70’s as of yet.


This won’t be the case on Paul Simon’s Mrs Robinson either, its status as a brand-new hit notwithstanding. No one has ever asked for an exotified version of it, but blimey, here it is indeed, immediately kicking off with delicately antediluvian brass overtones that carry the eponymous lady’s whole corset, yikes! The saltatory piano and its Latinism seems like an antagonistic device due to its Honky Tonk style, but it works well next to the silkened maracas and a morse code-like percussion device whose texture sits in-between a Casio keyboard (!) and a cowbell. With Light My Fire by The Doors, however, Edmundo Ros feigns a synergetic Funkadelica, even though no electric guitar is on board. A clear-cut Cha Cha Cha, it is perfectly Latin, but some horn expectorations sound dirty and delightfully off-key. In other news, the infinitesimal Crime Jazz fusillade of dubious keys rounds off a wondrous and successfully transformed tune.


Gilbert Bécaud’s What Now My Love oscillates towards a Beguine rhythm, a Foxtrot-like dance of West Indian origin, and so the album temporarily becomes smoochy, veiled in streamlined brass mountains and softened bongo aortas. The lead trumpet is perfectly down to earth, the created colors range from lilac to pink. The Southern feeling is still strongly noticeable, but its aggressive, quasi-bellicose eruptions remain enchained in wadded polyphony.


Forbidden Games by Narciso Yepes then floats over the listener out of the blue, that is if the liner notes were not studied heretofore. It hands-down remains the greatest tune of side A, maybe not for its curiously cloudy and hazily doleful sidesteps, but the fact that the maestro himself grabs the mic for the first time out of two: Edmundo Ros sings along to the acoustic guitar-backed Waltz. Fans of Don Tiki’s legendary Delmar DeWilde will rejoice, as Edmundo Ros precedes the oily nastiness and laissez-faire of the entertainer’s voice. The voice of Ros is embedded in large-grained maracas, yearning alto flutes and a bemoaning superimposition overall, rolling his eyes in the face of a woman's faults and flaws. I would not have raised a brow if an instrumental take thereof were actually included in Hugo Winterhalter’s Goes Gypsy (1960). The percussion scheme really is based on plasticity and wideness. Side A closes with another Cha Cha Cha, United We Stand by Tony Hiller and Peter Simons. Naturally no Cha Cha Cha in its original form, Edmundo Ros’ band unleashes aqueous Space-Age guitar licks and lets them bask in auroral oceans of trumpets. The main melody is strongly visible and works well in its new surroundings.


Side B continues to maintain the Southern atmosphere, no surprise here. The material remains enchanting though. Jimmy Webb’s Up Up And Away is gorgeously aeriform and not only sees golden-shimmering guitar globs grafted onto mandatory horns, there is also an outstanding adjuvant admixed in the shape of a scintillating acoustic guitar whose Woodstock aura is not even one year old when Edmundo Ros’ album is released! Henry Cosby’s, Stevie Wonder’s and Sylvia Moy’s My Cherie Amour may open with all too chintzy glissandonades on the piano, but soon lets the Latin Cha Cha Cha rhythm take over. This may well be the best song of side B, as the soothingness and languor of the piano and guitar chords mesh fantastically well with the trumpet chorus. The bongos and timbales function as the finishing touches.


While Roger Cook’s and Roger Greenaway’s I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman is another successful transmutation of a comical piece, envisioned here by a quirky lead fife, clicking claves and argentine maraca rivers before the show tune-compatible horns set in, Émile Waldteufel’s The Skater’s Waltz offers a heterodyned twilight between Copa Cabana serenades and Vienna forest Waltzes with accordions that are clearly no mere figments but surprisingly real. The guitar lets the song appear cool, the Honky Tonk piano and accordion make this seem like a fairground setting. Wonderfully cheeky! Burt Bacharach’s and Hal David’s I Will Never Fall In Love Again then sees Edmundo Ros appear a second time in front of the microphone, now entrapped in a conga coppice filled with fairy tale flutes, rural guitar segments, the archetypically good-spirited trumpet fanfare and the same lamento about women, with the finale being a tropical rendition of John Lennon’s Hey, Jude. Yes, for real. The tempo is strongly increased, the horns are shimmering in all colors, and while this interpretation of the Beatles song does not lift off in the vein of Enoch Light’s Spaced Out (1969), it is somehow galactic enough to remain iridescent and awash with technicolor.


Edmundo Ros’ journey through the South offers a successful transcendence, one that is not as common or superfluous as one might think at first. The secret of Heading South Of The Border, for better or worse, is not to be found in the talent of the conductor, arranger or orchestra, let alone the instrumental pool. It is simply based on the year of its release. 1970 proves to mark the decade of the big band decline. There is anything to stop the upcoming Disco craze and Funk phantasms, there is no way to rescue the decreasing importance of Exotica (was it ever important per se?), Les Baxter‘s Que Mango! (1970) and Nardini’s & Roger‘s Jungle Obsession (1971) notwithstanding. This is the bad news. But these gray thoughts turn into vivacious ones immediately. Of course, we are allowed to view this and all other releases from a contemplative or historic angle, and we might as well enjoy them. In terms of Edmundo Ros’ Heading South Of The Border, this translates to the absorption of the Pop- and Rock-oriented material by The Doors and The Beatles.


To be honest: compilations of Beatles interpretations are highly toxic and picayune, but exotic versions, well, they change eeeeverything all of a sudden, and so I cannot help myself but adore Edmundo Ros’ take on Hey, Jude as much as I am keen on the really quirky inclusion of Waldteufel’s The Skater’s Waltz. The sound quality is top notch, the horns gleam, and the only wish I have would be a greater focus on the bongos and congas which actually grace each and every song, but remain under the radar arrangement-wise. Well, this problem is at least solved on Edmundo Ros' Bongos From The South (1961). All in all, the Cha Cha Cha material, the coruscating guitars and carefree pianos ought to be enchanting enough to even lure vintage Exotica fans who stopped caring for the genre after ’64. Heading South Of The Border is available on vinyl and a remastered download versions.


Exotica Review 316: Edmundo Ros – Heading South Of The Border (1970). Originally published on Feb. 15, 2014 at AmbientExotica.com.