Machito and his Orchestra - Kenya - Review
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critics' view

Far from being the obligatory “essential Latin Jazz” album, Machito’s Kenya escapes this glib epithet by the skin of its teeth. Drumming out the “Afro-Cuban Jazz” theme on its very cover are the exquisite masks shot with Hitchcock-like highlighting, the colour only added to accentuate vibrancy in a static image. The 50’s were also an era of Hollywood overkill: hyped-up African exotica as done in a manner that only the illiterate screenwriters were capable of, the accompanying music became but a caricature of the real thing. At a pinch, even the salsa loving bands might have been accused of pandering, although it may not pay to name some rather well-known ones out of deep respect for the impressive body of their work.

But not Machito. Stubbornly true to the music, Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo was ever willing to stretch the limits of the so-called genre being touted as the “new thing” by further blurring the lines that separated the music, eschewing the formulaic for the sound of surprise. And so even when the title (in this case Kenya) appeared to be almost anachronistic the music continued to be infused with dramatic new twists and turns. Calling the arrangements of these eleven charts that appear to be sequentially arranged as if to suggest a moving picture “tight” might be playing into the hands of the severest of critics of the music of that period. Yet you can’t help but marvel at the magnificent arrangements. These, it seems with hindsight, are timeless and incomparable, for who could make music like Machito?

Of course the presence of jazz luminaries such as “Doc” Cheatham, Joe Newman and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley is like paying obeisance to the invisible God of All Music. The wild magnificence of “Doc” Cheatham on “Holiday” turns the festive cha-cha-cha into a thing of true beauty. The “great one” also returns on Chano Pozo’s classic “Tin Tin Deo”. “Cannonball” Adderley makes one of several star turns on “Oyeme”, a deeply soulful chart written and arranged for the orchestra by featured composer A. K. Salim. These provide but a glimpse into the darkly beautiful world of Machito, whose marque seemed to shimmer interminably in the skies above America. All of this appears at the end of what may be regarded as Machito’s early period that began with Mucho Macho Machito in the late 40’s.

Machito went on to reincarnate himself several times until his passing in the 1984. Throughout he continued to build on his strengths of visceral energy, a deeply-felt soul that rose in Africa and danced inside Machito with all of the resident spirits that made him the force that he became. Small wonder then that his music – no matter when in his career he produced it – has always come to be regarded as cornerstones in the history of the Americas. Kenya is no exception. It bears listening over and over again as its musical stories come to life in ways that continue to surprise even today.

Raul da Gama
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