Ken Griffin
Latin Americana






Latin Americana is one of organist Kenneth “Ken” Griffin’s (1909–1956) many albums that have been released posthumously, and Columbia Records is well interested in making a legend out of a well-skilled organist. Sporting twelve tracks that are solely played on the organ, with no percussion or stringed instrument to ever trespass the realm, the organist is obviously very limited in his way of arranging the album, let alone the presentation of a cornucopia of textural possibilities. The latter, however, turns out to be false: scintillating textures are all over this album, all of them unchained, invoked and spread by the carefully tweaked Hammond organ.


Whether it’s Gothic material, gypsy interludes or sunbursts in Salvador, Latin Americana breathes a certain eclecticism that augments its pale complexion with a lot of colors. There are obviously listeners who shy away from albums that only feature one single instrument, be it flutes, harps, or even a widened set of drums. Then there are listeners who prefer the works of the oft-cited organists and Exotica luminaries Korla Pandit and Georges Montalba, but their fanbase might as well give Ken Griffin a chance. What else there is to know about the diversified monoculture that prospers through the use of organ seeds will be carved out further over the course of this review.


What’s a cartoon villain’s most favorite tune to behold? Well, there is many a different answer to give to this strange question. This very album even sports two possible choices. But first, how about Ken Griffin’s rendition of El Choclo? Originally written by Angel Villoldo, the dark nothingness of the background suits the murky soul well, as does the pedal-based oompa rhythm amid the recondite glissando washes. A Rumba at its heart, Griffin turns it into gypsy gimcrack, but he does it in all seriousness, without any hidden moment of comic relief akin to Mr. Pandit. Up next is the much more uplifting Yours which is also known as Quiéreme Mucho; envisioned by Gonzalo Roig, Albert Gamse and Jack Sherr, the dubious portent is replaced by cajoling barrel organ mirages and a bleepy Rimini-esque apex which suits both the organ connoisseur and the post-millennial Vaporwave fan equally well. In a possibly weird twist, Ken Griffin therefore both suits the needs of his contemporaries and lovers of weird textures.


If the names of Adolfo Utrera, Eddie Rivera and namesake Eddie Woods appear in this very order, it usually means one thing: the inclusion of their classic Green Eyes. And what a surprise, Ken Griffin does transmogrify its besotted languor into a viscid tyst of absconded fairground whooshes which hold together the pointillistic Polka pericarp, all the while Sebastián Yradier’s majestic La Paloma sees its powerful physiognomy run through a plasticizer, leaving a spineless ice cream van jingle that is elasticized beyond the mark of two and a half minutes. On the plus side, Griffin evokes the feeling of sunbeams due to multitudinous tones in major. Victor Schertzinger’s Marcheta then presents a different set of textures, at least partially so. The organ is even more emaciated, emulating an accordion-like stature, and with such an impression come the strolls through Portuguese alleys and Argentinian side streets, before Helen Stone’s and Jack Tenney’s Mexicali Rose finishes side A with a feisty, well-nurtured organ moiré of quavering beams of light, diffusive and crystalline, vaporizing the thermal heat of – no surprise here – Mexico.


Side B, however, houses one or two surprises, an allegation which itself is unexpected due to the limited corset instrument-wise. However, Jacob Gade’s and Vera Bloom’s Jalousie would fit in the category of astonishment, intrinsically speaking, due to its fast oompa rhythm that merges the shady El Choclo which graces side A as an opener. On Jalousie, the backing chords are only slightly cryptic and rely more on the euphonious serration with the blotchy singalong blebs. Afterwards, the mysterious Until Tomorrow tries to work its way into the heart via fibrillar legato lines and polyphonous chord progressions as the light-hearted illuminant. This effect comes into play in the last third especially. With La Golondrina by Narciso Serradel, Ken Griffin meanwhile succumbs to a dedicated Waltz, naturally structured in 3/4 time which provides the perfect opportunity to feast on the intercommunication between the bolstered lead sinews and the picturesque pedal parade.


Ernesto Lecuona’s Siboney soon takes over but cannot leave a lasting impression due to the increasingly tiresome concoction of the same set of sun-dried textures and midday haziness, but oh boy, the listener most definitely awakes from the slumber when Jack Jordan’s and Stephen Gale’s Little Red Monkey appears: another song for a cartoon villain, this wonky gypsy titration spawns plinking prongs, scything streams and asthenic afterglows aplenty, and when Jimmy Kennedy’s and Raul Ferrão’s April In Portugal kisses the listener goodbye with its ligneous pedal-based burps (!), one is advised to double-check the artist: maybe this is Korla Pandit in disguise?


At the end of a long night, Latin Americana can serve as an artifact of foreboding daylight, a first instance of a technicolor hue reaching the listening subject that is entrapped within the boundaries. Alternatively, it is at times Gothic enough to make it an album to fear! It is not necessarily gruesome, nor is it supposed to be downright scary, but the expected focus on the organ – and nothing else – make Latin Americana a monotonous ride in terms of its structure. But there is something deliciously vivid about this LP that is severely amiss in Ken Griffin’s Hawaiian Magic (1957): the complemental aesthetics, varying pillars and textural cornerstones. With just one Hammond organ, the artist is able to emit light, exude the impression of holidays and suddenly presents a vestibule that leads to much darker climes. Other famous organists do this very thing as well, time and again even, but on Latin Americana, the effect is mildly kaleidoscopic.


However, it doesn’t last overly long, and so the premise of a truly varied organ album cannot be fulfilled. It’s to no avail: seven or eight songs into its roster, and even the most diehard Exotica or Space-Age fan will hit the critical threshold and enter the realm of boredom; and attached to it, the dangerous decrease of one’s attention span. In smaller doses, the album is quite worth it, and since it has also been digitally reissued, there is no harm done in checking it out. Give that Little Red Monkey a chance!


Exotica Review 383: Ken Griffin – Latin Americana (1957). Originally published on Oct. 25, 2014 at