Bob Rosengarden & Phil Kraus
Like Bongos!






Bongos, congas, marimbas, cowbells, timbales, jawbones, tambourines and whatnot: percussion-focused albums and savage drums are a frequent motif in the realm of Exotica. Absorbing the accompaniments of Latin music and marrying those nuts and bolts with scintillating melodies, aural rain forests and lush garden settings is the task for many a band, short-lived act or even bandleading veteran. The bongo craze kicked in around 1959, approximately one year after Exotica could be rightfully called a coherent theme in the effulgent scene.


Enter Robert “Bob” Marshall Rosengarden (1924–2007) & Phil Kraus (1918–2012), two drummers whose skills as arrangers are put to the test on Like Bongos! and its 12 tracks. Released on Time Records in 1960 during the peak of percussion-related albums, they gather a band of talented musicians in the studio in order to merge the sound of Exotica with the versatile drums of Latin. The band is called The Bongo All Stars, and while this band contains five percussionists in total, among them Rosengarden & Kraus, there is also more than enough room for enthralling melodies and catchy segues. Even famous guitarist Al Caiola is on board and further assisted by pianist and organist Nick Tagg, bassist Frank Carroll and super-multi-instrumentalist Phil Bodner whose various flutes and horns form the baseline of more than a few songs. Here is what you can expect:


An interbreeding of Korla Pandit’s steamy organ melodrama and Robert Drasnin’s insouciant technicolor copses full of bongos, The Bongo All Stars envision a wild opener and add a huge twist, for it is actually Margarita Lecuona’s Taboo they are dishing up, one of the murkiest, remotest and most devotional Latin cataracts you can imagine. Here, however, the darkness wanes under the supervision of Bob Rosengarden and Phil Kraus, be it via the absolutely stellar percussion interlude full of half-crepuscular bongos and timbales or Phil Bodner’s softly glowing lead clarinet. The glissando of Al Caiola’s three note riff meanwhile exudes the scents and textures of moist harps. Despite the humongous superstructure of the drums, Taboo remains a surprisingly minimal construction in terms of Exotica and this album in particular, for Johnny Mercer’s, Paul Lincke’s and Lilla C. Robinson’s Glow Worm is a different and much more uplifting affair, first being carried by Bodner’s piccolo fife before the double bass-accompanied scenery opens up with a vibraphone/guitar mélange which resembles that certain spirit of Martin Denny. The Haitian exhilaration is rounded off via rhythm shifts and plinking glitters.


Mack The Knife off Bertolt Brecht’s eponymous little opera is a curious choice in terms of Exotica, but not when the congruent concept of transmutation is applied, an omnipresent force to reckon with in the Space-Age genre. The result is breath-taking in that the constant tambourine chinks and Al Caiola’s languorous guitar interstices make for an alluring first half of hammock-compatible mirages. The second half sees its physiognomy revved up by organist Nick Tagg’s signature instrument that is hot like lava, spraying molten stenches of Rock all over the endemic atmosphere. In short: a corker!


Duke Ellington’s Exotica classic Caravan is next, and since the percussion and drum pool is so large on this album, one can expect aggrandized helixes of augmented patterns and a gleeful frenzy. This is exactly the case here, and then outclassed: not only does Mr. Caiola sneak the famous melody of Funiculi Funicula in and thus adds a crunchy counterpart, there is furthermore an organ/saxophone interplay wonderfully akin to the later Ska genre, making this rendition both far-fetched and energetic. Whereas Ary Barroso’s gold standard Bahia turns out to be a soothing marimba-fueled downtempo coppice with disharmonious organ splinters juxtaposed to the Exotica pipe dream, Bongo Frailich by Rosengarden & Kraus is a smoking fast gypsy/Spy Jazz amalgamation whose hectic tunnel vision anticipates the slick verve of the soon to be composed Bond theme. Phil Bodner’s wildly spiraling clarinet and jungle flute concoction amid the piano-accentuated oompa ride serves as the exotic pillar. This is an exciting way to end any side A.


Side B opens with the infamous Hawaiian War Chant by Johnny Noble, Ralph Freed and Ray Noble, the benchmark for drums and percussion. Whenever it appears on Exotica records, rest assured that the bongos and congas nearly burst. Here, things are a tad different, for the focal point lies on, in and around Nick Tagg’s blazing organ flare that outshines the swinging drum bokeh by a wide margin and still leaves the melody intact. Margarita Lecuona’s second offering Babalu then opens the rift to the rain forest again, enchanting with pristine jungle flutes, raspy guiro backings and Al Caiola’s bubbling guitar protrusions. The melodies themselves aren’t necessarily remarkable, but the simultaneity of the laid-back textures creates a mellow flow.


While Mabel Wayne’s Monterrey sees the same tropical spirit boosted via harpsichord-esque organ surfaces and ebullient staccato waves bongo-wise, Bob Rosengarden’s and Phil Kraus’ second original tune Bongolina sees saxophonist Phil Bodner in-between magnanimous drum cascades, making this more of a scapegrace rather than a lady. The subsequent traditional Yankee Doodle Dandy sports an unnecessary hillbilly charm and is one of the instances where the tropicalization cannot rescue the material before the producing duo comes up with their third – and last – unique piece called Tony’s Wife: squeaky-aqueous guitar chords, equally liquid marimba bubbles and frilly flute flumes among the cowbells and timbales let the album end in a drenched but oh so lovely cesspool.


Bob Rosengarden, Phil Kraus and their Bongo All Stars have created a bongolicious work that is more than capable to stand out. The competition is huge, orchestra leaders and drummers alike release one bongo and percussion album after the other, and while the occasional Exotica visitor might be more familiar with Don Ralke’s works such as The Savage And The Sensuous Bongos and But You’ve Never Heard Gershwin With Bongos (both 1960), the connoisseur should equally embrace Rosengarden & Kraus whose LP gyres closer toward a quintet sound, its many woodwinds and horns notwithstanding.


Al Caiola’s prestidigitation is once again underused as is often the case when he collaborates or plays in bands. Instead of twisted licks and raucous strumming, he does not cross the threshold of a three-note riff often enough, but this works to the advantage of the arrangement: the timbre as spawned by the guitar is wonderfully soothing and a great foil to the smashing bongos, cowbells and other vehicles. Best of all is the non-gimmicky injection of the drums. Since the melodies are always upfront and the classical instruments outweigh the already well-stocked pool of drums, Like Bongos! feels like a true-bred Exotica/Space-Age intermixture. In lieu of a sulfurous flavor that occurs when a label or band uses the latest trend in order to cash in big time, The Bongo All Stars deliver a melting pot to behold… on vinyl only. 


Exotica Review 363: Bob Rosengarden & Phil Kraus – Like Bongos! (1960). Originally published on Aug. 2, 2014 at