Sabu: Palo Congo
Blue Note Records (1957)
Number 991, of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Infectious is where I have to start describing this record. Palo Congo promotes unashamed booty shaking and pure joy. This record is a lot of fun.
Sabu Martinez was an American percussionist who played with everyone from Thelonious Monk to Charles Mingus to Sammy Davis Jr, at a time when ‘Cubop’ was all the rage. Palo Congo was his solo debut and to me it feels like the first recording made entirely for dancing.
This makes sense given Cubop’s roots in African music, which is highly rhythmic. Even Martinez’s shaman-like ranting and raving reminds me of African tribes dancing in ecstasy. I’m not well informed about the history of Afro-Cuban music, but the percussive vocal style sounds a lot like today’s Hip Hop MCs, and overall this record makes me feel as if I’m privvy to some retro rave. In fact it has the sound of Drum n’ Bass lying dormant in its syncopated, bongo rhythms.
Palo Congo is an amazing listen on headphones. The songs consist almost entirely of voice, percussion and simple guitar lines. The recording overflows with natural reverb which gives it an incredibly live vibe. The band are right there sweating on you. Parts of it are lo-fi and blown out in an intimate and charming way that many contemporary acts desperately want to replicate in today’s digital age. The guitars in particular sound spiky and post-punk, distorted and gritty as if they’re blasting out of cheap amplifiers cranked up too loud.
It’s unlikely that Palo Congo actually was the first record made to inspire dance. But I can’t help thinking that it has inspired plenty of musicians to explore rhythm over melody in the decades since.