Sabu – Palo Congo (1957): Review


Produced by Alfred Lion
Label – Blue Note

There’s probably thousands of Afro-Cuban musical records that are totally unheard by Western ears, even jazz fans, and for that reason it’s difficult to form a reasonable critique in comparing this debut record by Louis “Sabu” Martinez to his generic peers. By performing with Dizzy Gillespie, Congo drum instrumentalist Chano Pozo opened the door for other musicians of similar skills, and Martinez for one benefitted. Upon Pozo’s untimely death in 1948, Sabu began a career contributing to performers including Art Blakey, J.J. Johnson, Horace Silver and Louis Bellson. “Palo Congo” contains a host of tribal rhythms, derived from Africa and overlaid with Latino vocals, yelps, calls and responses. Sabu’s skills are that of a dance creator rather than a structured songwriter, making it perfectly obvious that to enjoy the record one has to embrace the primal beats. Mostly it’s just chant like vocal accompaniment that overlays the rumba and son styles, occasionally illustrated by modern salsa hero Arsenio Rodriguez. His tres guitar is a more than welcome addition, adding improvisational skills for greater dimension.


The most famous song from “Palo Congo” is a cover of the Rafael Hernández penned “El Cumbanchero”. It’s faithful to the Puerto Rican origins of the composer, and carries the most infectious melody. The call and response songs are just incredibly repetitive, bare and frankly far too long. Shrieking over conga rhythms may appeal to some, and there’s a likelihood that they would have a greater effect in a live environment, but on record it just fails to grab one’s attention. The songs that work proficiently are those that contain Rodriguez’ bright guitar interplay, including “Choferito Plena”, ” Rhapsodia Del Maravilloso” and “Tribilin Cantore”. The solo “Asabache”, is basically a technically skillful, mind numbing equivalent of those horrible days in the 70s, when live rock recordings would regularly degenerate into a unwelcome drum solo, with fans cheering in relief at the eventual conclusion.

Live, “Palo Congo” could probably go down relatively well over a few liquid liveners, but delivered through your home or car stereo, there’s a definitive lack of pulling power. However much you turn the volume up and lights down, it’s a flat record with a super cool cover.


Track Rating
1 – El Cumbanchero (7)
2 – Billumba Palo Congo (4)
3 – Choferito Plena (6)
4 – Asabache (4)
5 – Simba (4)
6 – Rhapsodia Del Maravilloso (6)
7 – Aggo Elegua (4)
8 – Tribilin Cantore (6)


3 responses to “Sabu – Palo Congo (1957): Review

  1. Pingback: Sabu – Palo Congo (1957) | 1001albumsin10years·

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