Musica para las Fiestas!

Just before Christmas, my wife borrowed some LPs from her grandmother so we could digitize them. These were albums her family listened to every December for decades. I was not familiar with any of them because these were albums of traditional Puerto Rican holiday music.

While digitizing these records, I was able to listen to them for the first time, enjoyed them immensely, and thought they would make excellent listening any time of year. This is in part because my knowledge of Spanish is limited, thus blunting the Christmas-ness of the lyrics for me. It’s also due to the unique qualities of Puerto Rican holiday music, which tends to be more about partying and patriotism than it is about things Americans think of as “traditional” Christmas song topics. (Lots more on that subject here.)

I couldn’t find out too much information on these albums online, at least not information I could understand (see above in re: Spanish, difficulties with). Nearly all of these albums were released on small specialty labels that are now defunct and, near as I can tell, have not been reissued by anyone. So I figured I might be the world’s last best hope to preserve these albums in all their glory, which show an interesting transition point between traditional musica jibara (“mountain music,” more or less) and the music that came out of New York starting the 1960s that came to be known as salsa.

navidadeneltropico2This first album is the one I find the most intriguing, a compilation called Navidad en el Tropico (Ansonia ALP 1226). The album is great, capturing a very specific sound from a very specific time and place that did not last very long. I wish I knew more about this record or the label that put it out, but the internet yielded nothing. My mother-in-law surmised this album was given away at a bank for opening a new account, which seems as likely an explanation for its origins as any.

The LP sleeve has notes, with details about each song, but most of the text is so clumsily translated it creates more questions than it answers. Example: “Baltazar Carrero specializes in a festive air called ‘Bomba’ and has been successful in singing this kind of music.” Nice backhanded compliment, LP sleeve. “Good job, Baltazar. It really looked like you were having fun up there!”

My guess is that the English translator (some dude named Herman Glass) understood Spanish even less than I do, or perhaps operated without the benefit of a native speaker to proofread his work. He also seems to want to present this album as some sort of good will gesture between the peoples of the world.

ANSONIA RECORDS is always anxious to co-operate in spreading the joy of good will and therefore; having the sentiments of all Latin Americans close to its heart, they have prepared this LP with the fervent wish that it will please everyone this Christmas and every Christmas to come.

Ew boy, that’s a mouthful. The music more than makes up for it, though.

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Download entire album here.

The second LP I digitized was Aguinaldos Navidenos by Pedro Padilla y su Conjunto (Alma LP-105). Aguinaldos are traditional carols that are usually sung in church or as part of the parranda, a Puerto Rican Christmas tradition where you go door to door, singing songs and gathering more singers as you go along. This kind of thing is done in many cultures around Yuletide (the English wassail, for instance), and just like in these other cultures, singers of the parranda often have a drink or two at each stop as they go along. That’s probably what inspired the title of this tune from this collection, “Borracho y Pelao” (“Drunk and Broke”). Did I mention this was a Christmas album?

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Download entire album here.

$T2eC16Z,!)!E9s2fDPrhBQm(Ooy44g~~60_35The third album comes from Angel Luis Garcia, “el profesor que canta.” (Cuando Mires a Tu Hijo, Astro Records ALP-224) Garcia wrote innumerable hits for Puerto Rican artists, usually in the jibara style. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get much info on Garcia’s career on the web in English, as he shares his name with a Puerto Rican basketball player currently plying his trade in the Spanish professional league. According to this bio, Garcia curtailed his songwriting and recording activities once he took a job with Puerto Rico’s Department of Social Services in 1966. “Curtailed” apparently means he was only able to write 600 songs and record 37 LPs in his lifetime. That’s like 3/5 of an Irving Berlin!

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Download entire album here.

celia-cruz-festejando-navidadFinally, I have a Christmas collection from the legendary singer Celia Cruz, Festejando Navidad. Cruz is now known as The Queen of Salsa, but the music on this LP is closer to mambo, mostly because it was recorded in the early 1960s and salsa hadn’t been invented yet. Even Cruz’s voice sounds a little different on this record than it would in later years; my wife remarked that she comes across as slightly less “edgy” here.

The label that issued this record, Seeco, is the only one of this bunch for which I could find substantial background info. They specialized in Latin music in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, making a name for themselves as a home for mambo and cha-cha records at a time when those genres crossed over into the mainstream. It looks like their output petered out in the late 1960s, however, when Latin musical genres veered into the harder-edged territory of boogaloo and salsa.

Nonetheless, this is an interesting artifact of Cruz before she “became” Cruz, so to speak. Here’s her take on “Jingle Bells.”

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Download entire album here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1716983818 Carmen Martinez

    Matt, you are amazing, you captured the essence of the old Christmas music and history so beautifully and thoroughly.   I know this was a labor of love.  Congratulations.