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Jubilees and Living Histories

IN April 1962 the Beach Boys recorded “Surfin’ Safari” and “409” at Western Recorders in Los Angeles; the demo tape soon became their first single on Capitol Records. The following month El Gran Combo formed out of the remains of Rafael Cortijo y Su Combo, a brilliant band that had come to symbolize the new Puerto Rican popular music: black, working-class, Cuban-influenced, tight and urban but rustic at the middle. In July Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones gave their first performances, as the core of a band called the Rollin’ Stones, at both the Marquee and the Ealing Jazz Club in London. And in November the Chieftains, a group of virtuosos who sought to play traditional Irish music in a new way — in precise, small-group arrangements — started rehearsing at the house of Paddy Moloney, the group’s leader. The groups began amid redefinition, industrialization, liberation: 1962 was a particularly rich-soil year. For the Chieftains it meant the lessening of Ireland’s economic and cultural isolation. For the Stones it meant teenagers with spending money: Britain’s post-austerity explosion of style. For the Beach Boys it meant California culture, when hot rods, surfing and summer kicks entered the mainstream. And for El Gran Combo, staying put while many fellow Puerto Rican musicians had moved to New York, it meant a rapidly modernizing island, and a fully formed Afro-Puerto Rican dance-band music, playing to a huge and growing diaspora. They’ve all been seen as standard-bearers, if not for an entire culture, in the case of El Gran Combo and the Chieftains, at least for a sound or a disposition. They’re all, effectively, scholars and popularizers. They’ve had to negotiate nearly compulsory changes of style without abandoning the audiences that value them most. And they’ve all been playing both sides of the fence, working both at authenticity and, occasionally, its opposite — whether that be ersatz country music (the Rolling Stones’ “Far Away Eyes”), self-indulgent surrealism (parts of the Beach Boys’ “Smile”), American pop with a Puerto Rican accent and boogaloo rhythm (El Gran Combo’s “Goin’ Out of My Head”) or full-on crossovers like the Chieftains’ 1995 album “Long Black Veil,” which includes a jam with the Stones on “The Rocky Road to Dublin,” a jig that briefly breaks out into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” The Beach Boys and the Stones both played on the “T.A.M.I. Show” in 1964, a live-performance feature film shot at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in Los Angeles. And though they obviously sound different on the surface, the Beach Boys’ set, starting with “Surfin’ USA,” had its own indirect connections to El Gran Combo. That song used the surf-rock beat, a sped-up cousin of the Afro-Cuban habanera; it had a nearly constant vocal chorus with high-pitched harmonies (Brian Wilson sang in a falsetto, like Eddie Perez, the saxophonist and background singer in El Gran Combo); it used hard breaks and dropouts to drive up the energy of dancers. And it drew its power from the drums — Dennis Wilson’s rude kick-drum and snare beats were rawer, but not so different in impact, from the attack of the percussionists Roberto Roena, Martin Quiñones and Milton Correa in El Gran Combo songs from the same period, like “Meneito Me.” El Gran Combo, led by the pianist Rafael Ithier, was the regular band on the Puerto Rican television show “El Show de Las 12,” starting in 1963. Cortijo y Su Combo had started in 1955, one year after the beginning of television in Puerto Rico, and its appearances on “La Taberna India” had helped break down the kind of institutional racism on the island that kept black bands out of high-visibility jobs. There had been black Puerto Rican pop stars before but no important black band, and none who had so effectively adapted the old Puerto Rican bomba rhythms into a dance-band context. So when the Cortijo band ended after a drug bust, and Mr. Ithier, the pianist, formed his new group with all the members but Cortijo and the lead singer, Ismael Rivera, El Gran Combo’s mandate was clear: continue the same formula and expand. Source:


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