Tito Puente - Tambo [RCA Victor, 1960]

Woah! What a record; the perfect example of the Savage Native in suburbia, South Pacific fantasies of continental North American bachelors. Tambo is a soundtrack that captures primitive passions and raw emotions of a mythical native people who exist deep inside the sometimes frightening jungles of exotic lands.

Tito Puente was a hugely successful band leader with an infectiously captivating Latin sound. Apparently, from how the liner notes present this particular album, Tambo was really a departure from what fans of Puente would expect to hear. The writer hints at this different direction, noting that the LP “opens a new vista of sound for lovers of Latin music.” Well, not only does this recording take you to a new vista, it hurls you off of it with a whollop of wild voodoo drums!

Mentioning a “thrilling array of savage, passionate rhythm,” the liner notes implore would-be purchasers that “if your taste runs toward the torrid and tropical, then Tambo by Tito Puente should suit you to a T.” This record really doesn’t need any liner notes to make you aware of what’s in store. The front cover is a great shot of Tito bent over an array of bongo/conga drums; he holds a mallet in each hand and stares out with wild eyes, his mouth wide open as though he’s in the midst of hammering out a jungle rhythm for the masked native who dances wildly in the dense jungle behind him.

Unlike the tropical fantasies of genre great Martin Denny, Tito places emphasis on driving drums and supports his rhythms, not with an array of necessarily “exotic” instruments, but with more “standard” sounds provided by piano, flute, and brass. Puente succeeds immensely with Tambo where other percussion albums like Les Baxter’s Skins (although, to be fair, there are a couple of good cuts on Baxter’s LP as well) lose listener interest with lengthy drumming and even MORE lengthy drumming. Tito manages to heat-up his percussive fireworks with brief flourishes of melody that push the arrangements ahead, never allowing the drumming to get too stale or repetitive.

Pieces like Guaguanco feature a simple arrangement of bells and drums that rise in intensity to create a complex rhythm punched along by blaring trumpets which frame the beats with a flourish of melody. The cut Voodoo Drums at Midnight hits the mark dead-on, as a huge fanfare of brass and percussion introduces a fast and penetrating conga drum rhythm that perfectly creates an image of whirling voodoo priestesses flailing and spinning with wild abandon in front of a huge bon fire deep within the confines of the jungle.
The recording job on Tambo is top-notch, the various drums pounding away at the same time are all discernable from one another and have a deep, resonating presence that creates a feeling of cavernous depth. All of the tracks feature excellent percussive shenanigans along with thumping bass, and a brass section that clambers over the top of this percussive wall of sound to punch up the intense rhythms to an even greater degree.
Occasionally, the bongo fury resides to make way for a few cuts like Call of the Jungle Birds, and Velorio, which conjure up sunny skies and cascading waterfalls. Both of these cuts are arranged along the lines of a more “rudimentary” song structure, and feature flute or piano while the rhythm section is notched down a few levels to back the featured instruments. However, the majority of Tambo is all about the power of drums, and Tito creates an entirely engaging album from beginning to end with a mixture that includes these more quiet melodies.

Imagine a vintage Hawaiian backyard luau; things are wrapping up after Webley Edwards and Don Ho pay their audio respects to the fiftieth state, the sun begins to set, the food has all been eaten, and it’s time for marshmallows over the barbeque pit (“Like it?” “I built it myself!”). Someone drops Tambo onto the turntable. There’s passion in the air as savage drums incite beautiful maidens to enthusiastically twirl and dance. The torch-lit backyard becomes overgrown with vegetation as you race along what was once a sidewalk, but now appears as a jungle trail to your rum soaked noggin’. Ahead of you a giggling female laughs over her shoulder as you attempt to catch her. Your chase leads up carpeted stairs where you finally seize your prize in a blue lagoon of bed sheets and pillows. Jungle drums continue pounding with a primitive fury long into the night……such is the power of Tambo.

Nathan Miner

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Tito Puente - Tambo