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  • Writer's pictureJoel Dwek

CUBA: Beautiful - Cándido

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

Latin jazz with some infectious drumbeats, percussionist Cándido shows off his immense talent and flair for fusion music

When I first listened to the album Beautiful by Cuban percussionist Cándido, who passed away last year at the grand old age of 99, the emotion I associated it with was joy. It is a joyous album. Like much Cuban music, it has an infectious rhythm throughout, and Cándido’s mastery of the congas and bongos creates a musical atmosphere that I would wager is impossible to listen to without wanting to move your body in some way. Recently, however, I have not been feeling very happy. Without wanting to go into details, I think it’s sufficient to say that my mood recently has been far more Johnny Cash than ABBA. And so, it has felt like a slight irony that this week of all weeks is the one where I have to review one of the most buoyant and cheerful albums I’ve ever come across. Nevertheless, the review marches on. I think, however, approaching the album with a slightly more sober head, has helped me appreciate the album more. Cándido’s fusion of jazz and Cuban son and rumba is far more interesting than I had initially given it credit for, with a great deal of interesting aspects to the album, both musically and culturally.

“It sounds both Cuban and North American, with Cándido’s mastery of the congas providing a vital rhythm throughout, while his cast of superb musicians are able to bring jazzy flavours over the top.”

First off, I think it is worth appreciating Cándido’s contribution to the world of Cuban percussion, and he did indeed revolutionise conga playing. His innovation on the congas is one of those things that seems so simple you’ve got to wonder why nobody did it before – instead of playing just one, Cándido added another drum, sometimes two extra drums which he could tune, to create a more complex and unusual rhythms not previously possible in traditional rumba and conga music. In doing so, he set a new standard, where tuneable sets of congas of varying sizes are the norm. Furthermore, his addition of the foot-operated cowbell (which he also invented!) created a set-up more in line with a standard drumkit, but one that was able to produce Cuban rhythms suited to the Latin jazz music he wanted to make, having been around in New York City at the time Latin jazz was at its nascent stages.

Beautiful is a, well, beautiful album full of energetic songs that take the best parts of Latin music and jazz music and combine it into one glorious whole. It sounds both Cuban and North American, with Cándido’s mastery of the congas providing a vital rhythm throughout, while his cast of superb musicians are able to bring jazzy flavours over the top. But the continental exploration does not end there. The album also makes reference to the intrinsic links that Cuba has with West Africa (previously explored on this site on our review of the Malian-Cuban joint venture Afrocubism), this time taking inspiration from Ghanaian music on the final two tracks named Ghana Spice, which diverge from the more continental American feel of the rest of the album. And yet, because this is music performed by a man who is so clearly in his element, its hard to pick out outstanding moments or particularly excellent songs. Beautiful, released in 1971, may not be the album where Cándido reinvented the wheel – that would have been during his early days in the 1940s and 1950s in the jazz clubs of New York City – but this may be one of the records where he expressed his musical vision the most clearly. Though it is hard to pick a favourite song, Ghana Spice and Serenade to a Savage might be the best songs from a drumming perspective, whilst I can’t help but love New World in Morning, a song that really captures the joy of those early hours of daylight – and I’m saying that as someone who hates getting up early. Listening to that song, you can easily imagine yourself walking around a hustling and bustling city with a spring in your step.

If you’re a fan of Cuban music, Latin jazz, good drumming, or fusion music, you’ll find a lot to love in this album, and even if Latin music is not usually your thing, I’d say this album is worth your time just for its vibrant energy alone. It is short, coming in at a relatively brief 37 minutes, and as such serves as a great introduction to Cuban conguero music as well as Latin jazz. While I do love the album, it is not the most revolutionary or mind-blowing album we’ve reviewed as an 'album of the week'. Rather, it is wonderful music performed to an extremely high quality, and for that alone it deserves its spot. It is also undeniably perky and upbeat. It is true that I have not been in a mood for upbeat music recently, which I thought might mar my enjoyment of the record. And yet, when I came to listen to this for the purposes of writing this review, I was still able to enjoy it, and even crack a smile. That, for me at least, is the power of this album.


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