Viva! The Music Of Mexico
“Hallo Mr. Faith, Columbia Records here. Please produce a Mexican album for us!” Well, isn’t this the phone call of one’s dreams? Probably not. But prolific composer and arranger Percy Faith (1908–1976) never shied away from work, and so he comes up with 13 tracks for Viva! The Music Of Mexico, released in 1957 on said Columbia label. Bolstered with strings, wadded in horns and fluffed up by flutes, glockenspiels and castanets, Viva! is the expected orchestral take on Mexicanisms and related traditions. Granted, a congruous Exotica album it is probably not, especially not to Californians who share the border with that country, but Faith had many fans in Europe, and the prospect of enjoying aural trips to Guadalajara or Acapulco is utterly welcome and targets the needs in the wake of a truly global tourism.
What Percy Faith’s album obviously lacks in Polynesian particles, it delivers in Space-Age strings. There are even four cases where the Canadian artist is especially successful, all of them examples of the famous case that one should not judge an LP by its cover, let alone its title. The majority of the material is based on renowned folklore songs, but there are Mexican songs on here that lack the chintzy trumpet infusions and bubbling joy of life, rather replacing them with a soothing panorama. Read more about these tunes and the whole album below. This is not necessarily all about a stereotype galore, hombre!
Warm brass fanfares, that hyper-melodramatic mélange of pride, manhood and elation: Agustín Lara’s Grenada must have this trio of emotions, regardless of the rendition, artist or genre. And sure enough do the brass players of Percy Faith’s orchestra unleash the beast, complete with huge reverberations that inherit the wideness of coastlines and inland mountains. I particularly like the sunset-colored Flamenco guitar solo, but despise the military march particles and threnodic strings. The second half, however, lives up to the strengths of this evergreen: a shrapnel of castanets and "looped strings à la Moebius" succeed big time.
Up next is La Golondrina, originally envisioned by Narciso Serradel, and this arrangement is the contrapuntal force to the opener, as it features lilac-tinted strings of love and glorification, besotted flute tones and lovestoned glockenspiel blobs. This is not Mexican at all, and indeed, it could have well been featured on Faith’s The Love Goddesses (1964) in rearranged form. The traditional La Cucaracha then features volleys of castanets, itchy trumpet tones that sound like laughing hyenas and sees trombone tones taking over the titular lyric portion. Paroxysmal and joyous, this is one of the better renditions for sure.
Percy Faith keeps the traditions in high regard and continues with another folklore called Chiapanecas (The Mexican Hand-Clapping Song), an equally bustling artifact of cheekiness. Instead of clapping various hands, it is filips and flicks that are used in adjacency to the pizzicato strings and the hammering brass staccato. While Manuel Ponce’s Estrellita (My Little Star) enchants with thickets of stupefyingly gorgeous fairy tale string billows and sparkling glockenspiel scintillae that make it tower above the album’s Mexican leitmotif, El Rancho Grande celebrates the ownership and daily maintenance tasks of this well-known classic via galloping beat structures and polyphonic gold works on the brass site, with Sebastián Yradier’s La Paloma finishing side A in a masterful way, with two stacked lead fiddles, guitar twangs, pointillistic celesta crystals and cavalcades of Space-Age strings. Only marginally chintzy, but all the more enthralling, La Paloma works well in tandem with La Golondrina and Estrellita as technicolor anthems of love.
Side B features a bunch of six – more or less Mexican – cuts, but does not feel like a bland addendum at all, keeping the quality level as high as ever. María Teresa Lara’s and Sunny Skylar’s Noche De Ronda, also known as Be Mine Tonight, marks a new chapter, however, as it is the first and only instance to feature truly lamenting Latin strings and piano sequences that then pave the way for the idolization of female attributes. Once this point is reached, the arrangement remains in these sugar-sweet Space-Age climes. The stereotyped classic Mexican Hat Dance has to be on board as well, and it is presented here in an astute breakneck tempo with clinging tambourines, pulsating strings and castanet-interspersed rhythm shifts, all the while Pepe Guízar’s Guadalajara worships the coastal city via sun-dappled brass hymns à la Billy Vaughn and amends it with staccato eruptions, glissando phases and warbled flute shards. A festive aura lies in the air, unstoppable and oddly alluring despite the occasional cheesiness.
The composition called Zandunga: Jesusita En Chihuahua (The Dancing Donkey) is something special, as it is written by Percy Faith himself, but seems to have been perfectly traditional all along. Rhythm shifts, warped horns and quasi-ferocious brass blasts conflate, upwards trembling xylophone vesicles and mountainous string washes turn the pizzicato string-infested polyhedron composition around, making it the shapeshifting ditty of the album, shuttling between festivities, danger and cheekiness in equal parts.
Cuanto La Gusta by Gabriel Ruíz then features whistling sounds, rose-tinted flute euphonies and that spirit of movement and traveling. The glowing strings and sugary trumpets coalesce very well, the pizzicato strings are, for a change, truly enchanting, the melody is hummable and feels majestic. The Honky Tonk piano aorta and the brass blebs around it accidentally mimic the long-forgotten German folklore dioramas of Werner Müller, but the remainders are strongly Mexican, with the end point Solamente Una Vez by Agustín Lara, better known in North American lands as You Belong To My Heart, ending the album in a nocturnal way with dusky clarinet melodies and superb string washes which altogether transform the uplifting melody into a more dreamlike state.
No secrets here: potential buyers of the album are exclusively of North American or European descent. No contemporary Mexican would have been proud to even know about this album. It is always hard to be situated on the wrong side of the fence, i.e. seeing beloved customs and traditions used as the base by an outsider in another context. And Canadian Percy Faith is an outsider alright! Regardless of all stereotypes, Viva! The Music Of Mexico has something unexpected in store which makes it a wondrous artifact, and that are its superbly arranged string ballads with no Mexican trait whatsoever, regardless of what each listener understands as typically Mexican motifs in music.
String-interpolated phantasmagorias such as Estrellita, La Golondrina, Noche De Ronda and partially so Solamente Una Vez (You Belong To My Heart) are hopelessly unfitting in the overall scheme, but irreplaceable, for it is these arrangements which augment the Space-Age scenery. But even if the listener despises romantic notions in Exotica-related records, he or she can still feast on beautiful takes on Granada, Guadalajara and La Paloma, three additional classics which are not transmuted into something entirely different rather than being ameliorated with free-form sections and unique segues.
If, however, one is really keen on the traditional material found in chintzy Saturday morning cartoons, B-movies and advertisements – the mandatory La Cucaracha and Mexican Hat Dance come to mind – one should not feel ashamed, for Percy Faith may deliver the umpteenth rendition of those, but always in great style and with a wideness that hints at the high budget of Columbia productions. The aforementioned four dreamy string infusions are essential to me, but in all honesty, Faith’s Viva! is no necessity for Exotica fans at the end of the day. Available on vinyl, CD (coupled with 1962’s The Music Of Brazil) and as a download version.
Exotica Review 481: Percy Faith – Viva! The Music Of Mexico (1957). Originally published on Mar. 30, 2017 at AmbientExotica.com.