Various ‘Saoco! Volume 2. Bomba, Plena and the roots of salsa in Puerto Rico 1955-1967’ 2LP/CD (Vampi Soul) 5/5

Here is one of the strongest roots releases of the year so far and a fascinating exploration of the roots of Puerto Rican music which would eventually morph into what we now know as salsa. Madrid-based label Vampi Soul have quite simply assembled the principal sources of archival material for this high quality re-issue anthology with major labels such as Ansonia, Gema and Seeco all showcased within, lavishly packaged it all in a gatefold sleeve with a superlative booklet in English and Spanish that provides historical notes on the evolution of bomba and plena, and virtually all the major artists are covered to some degree (following on from the excellent volume 1). One of the key singers is the legend that is Ismael Rivera, affectionately known as ‘Maelo’ to his fans and he in particular plays a pivotal role in the development of bomba and plena into modern day salsa during the late 1950 and throughout the 1960s. In a very real sense he is the equivalent in terms of influence and stature of Celia Cruz and in fact both belong to the ‘sonero’ school of singers who can ad lib and embellish any song with their own individual voice. As for the twenty-eight numbers on this fantastic value for money compilation that is just a tad under eighty minutes, a few key songs nonetheless stand out among the generally high caliber of numbers. They include the collaboration of Maelo with master percussionist Cortijo (who later turns up on the mid-1970s Latin-fusion classic ‘Time Machine’, an album long overdue for a deluxe re-issue) on ‘El negro bombón’ that has become a Latin standard, another duet on ‘Moliendo café’ and a third on ‘Oriza’ – all of which stand out. Trombonist Mon Rivera is another key musician who re-surfaces at a later date during the salsa revolution, but here he kicks off a new format of trombone playing that would be called ‘trombonga’ with two numbers on offer and subsequently Eddie Palmieri would draw on this influence for his early La Perfecta formation of the 1960s. Elsewhere bandleaders Joe Cotto and Moncho Leña impress as does lead singer Chivirico Davila (who also later became a seasoned salsa singer in the 1970s). What is important to recognise is that the majority of the folk music contained on this compilation, and more generally, was actually recorded in New York and the Puerto Rican diaspora in the Big Apple is crucial to understanding how the roots of Puerto Rican music along with the Cuban son and jazz all fused into a cohesive whole that would commercially be titled ‘salsa’. To find out how the music started off, you need to investigate this anthology urgently. Tim Stenhouse

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