Tito Puente & His Orchestra - Oye Como Va
"El Rey" Tito Puente
To begin with, a humorous Tito Puente related anecdote… About 26 years ago, when I was just a lad, still in high school, some friends and I got tickets to the “big” show at what was the the Kool (used to be Newport, and not the cigarette…) Jazz festival in NYC. Each year (at least back then) there were one or two big thematic, all-star showcases that anchored the rest of the festival. That year we had tickets to ‘Dizzy Gillespie Presents Unity with Diversity’. It was Dizzy and a gathering of jazz and jazz-related drummers, including Max Roach, Roy Haynes and on the Latin side of things, "El Rey' Tito Puente. Living in close proximity to New York City, I was certainly aware of Tito Puente, but only as an “exotic”, Salsa type guy who I assumed hailed from either Puerto Rico or Cuba. The “Tito Puente” area in my brain was reserved for the fact that he had written ‘Oye Como Va’, which Santana had covered. That was pretty much it. So… the program goes on, and my friends and I are thrilled to be seeing not only Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach, but Patato Valdez and a bunch of other people the mists of time have erased from my already faulty memory. The time drew near, and Tito Puente was announced. He started playing – as brilliant and energetic as you’d imagine - and when he was finished, walked up to the microphone, where to my complete surprise started to address the audience in a New York accent. There I was, expecting to hear the rapid-fire staccato Spanish heard daily spilling out of boom-boxes on the sidewalks of New York (and on Univision), and I get a regular (albeit lively) New York guy. In some ways I think that little surprise – aside from exposing my naivete - made Latin music more accessible to me. Later that year, Santana rolled into New York City on its 10th Anniversary Tour. My buddy Tim and I got tickets to see them at the Palladium (used to be the Academy of Music). Aside from the obligatory “new” songs, which we weren’t digging, Santana was absolutely smoking on the classic stuff, the highlight of which (at least for me) was ‘Oye Como Va’. Say what you want about latter-day Santana (ugh…), but those first three albums feature a very hot band (especially drummer Michael Shrieve) and the mixture of Latin percussion and West Coast rock still makes me turn up the radio whenever I hear stuff like ‘Jingo’, ‘Soul Sacrifice’ or the brilliant three-play of ‘Black Magic Woman / Gypsy Queen / Oye Como Va’ that takes up most of the first side of ‘Abraxas’. Anyway…(many) years later, thanks to my pal Haim, I’d started to pick up Latin 45s, mostly the funkier stuff (Ray Barretto, Monguito etc) on Fania, but also boogaloo stuff by Joe Cuba, Fred Rodriguez, Willie Bobo (another cat who saw his tunes resurface in the Santana catalog) etc. So I’m out digging one day, and what do I find but today’s gem, the original version of ‘Oye Como Va’ by Tito Puente and his Orchestra on Tico. The tune, which first appeared on Puente’s 1963 LP ‘El Rey Bravo’, is as infectious and lively - if a touch more stylish and restrained – in it’s original form as when laid down by Santana in 1970. The coolest thing – at least to my ears – was that Santana hadn’t strayed from the original arrangement that much. Certainly, the cover version has a much harder “rock” sound, with Santana’s guitar replacing the flute and trumpet from the original, but the structure was still there. In the liner notes to the reissue of ‘Abraxas’, Carlos Santana, speaking about why he chose to cover the song is quoted:
“I thought, this is a song like ‘Louie Louie’ or ‘Guantanamera’. This is a song that when you play it, people are going to get up and dance, and that’s it.”
Old Carlos hit the nail right on the head. ‘Oye Como Va’ is the kind of song that gets normally sedate people out on the dance floor. The rhythm is strong, and the tempo builds slowly but surely with the scratch of the guiro, the congas, and above all the timbales of El Rey. The horn section, led by the soloing trumpet – as well as sundry shouts and whistles from the bandstand – pushes things to another level entirely – until there’s a party spilling out of your speakers. It also helps to know, that the four lines of lyrics to the song (when translated) are basically a chant of “Hey how’s it going? My rhythm is good for partying, babe.” Ain’t that the truth.