El Maestro Tito Puente

Posted on Apr 28, 2021

I love Tito Puente. There’s something in his way that made him special. King of Mambo after Dámaso Pérez Prado, but much more than just that… He mastered mambo, son in its various subgenres (montuno, guaracha, guajira, etc.), boleros, Latin jazz, you name it.

One thing I respect him a lot for was his total respect for Cuban culture and the Afro-Cuban origin of the rhythms and genres he played. Unfortunately, some of his fellow Puerto Rican colleagues obscured this, especially during the Fania Era. I know, I know… American-Cuban relationships are complex and were even more so during the Cold War, I get it… and there was financial risks for artists if they openly associated themselves with anything Cuban.1

Puente, though, was true to the roots. He famously despised the term salsa, which was coined to hide the cultural appropriation of Cuban music under an umbrella term that is musically… utter nonsense. He almost never used the dreaded term,2 he mocked it by saying: “La salsa se come” (You eat sauce, playing on the word salsa, which means ‘sauce’ in Spanish).

So, the best way to show who a maestro like Puente was is by showing some of his music. Let me tell you my favorite Top 10 Tito Puente songs, annotated! The list is in no real order, though… It’s written while I was listening to the songs, actually.

  1. Para los rumberos: This is a descarga, a loose composition that is meant to showcase the power of the orchestra mixing up different rhythms and improvisation.
  2. Amor verdadero: First, the legendary Lupe in vocals. This is a son-cha! There’s a lot of hidden references to Cuban santería in the lyrics and the percussion. Don’t sing it out loud, this is meant to be a magical love spell…
  3. Salsa de tomate: This must be a joke against the term salsa by both Celia Cruz and Tito Puente. The song is about, literally, tomato sauce!
  4. El agua limpia todo: 100% Tito Puente mambo from the 1950s. A classic with even more santería in the mix.
  5. Hong Kong Mambo: Latin jazz mambo instrumental… Puente is usually not a show-off in his studio albums. Timbales are sort of a secondary actor in Afro-Cuban music except in solos, but it is on the vibraphone where Puente loves to shine!
  6. Take five: This one needs some previous explanation. Dave Brubeck wrote this very well-known jazz piece in 5/4… it’s so well-known as an example of a 5/4 composition that it’s almost a cliché. Puente rearranged it into 4/4 here, to make it fit into a mambo measure. Nope, it’s super hard to do that without butchering the whole thing into pieces.
  7. Babalú: This is one of the classics of Afro-Mambo, originally from Ernesto Lecuona… covered by thousands of artists, even in modern Cuba. It’s a chant in honor to the orisha Babalú, divine spirit of healing and the elderly. Vocals by the amazing Abbe Lane, who later became singer (and wife) of Xavier Cugat (his version of this song was sung by legendary Miguelito Valdés!)
  8. Oye cómo va: Very, very, very well-known chachachá… but it’s so perfect to dance to.
  9. A gozar timbero: Another chachachá, vocals by Santos Colón… and that timbales solo by Puente is… hot.
  10. Last, but not least Mambo gallego: This one is heavy… I like songs like this with a heavy bass line: I find them very sensual to dance on the bass line… This is one of my favorites on the dance floor.

Yeah, I know. This has been a very different post today: I just wanted to scratch an itch. I intend to revisit some more Afro-Cuban music and culture on this blog occasionally… so stay tuned for more!

  1. Unless you were a Cuban expat yourself, like Celia Cruz. ↩︎

  2. The only time I’m aware he used the term was in Salsa y sabor. I find it more like Cubans used the term, though… as a generic term to claim something was a hot rhythm, not as a claim that his music was Salsa. It’s ambiguous, though, and I am definitely taking into account the whole context of Puente’s numerous claims against the term. ↩︎