20 February 2008

Mad Hot Book Review #6

¡Oye Como Va!
When The Drums Are Dreaming
A Biography of Tito Puente by Josephine Powell
Reviewed by Donny Jacobs
In appearance, Ernest Anthony Puente was perfectly ordinary. He was short and stocky. He was cute, but not handsome. He was a fairly good dancer. He was jealous, impatient, stubborn, had a volatile temper, cursed a blue streak, and liked strong drink a little too much for his own good. There was nothing particularly special about him, until he got a pair of drumsticks in his hands. Then he was magnificent. His idols were Jazz drummers Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich; first he emulated and then surpassed them in skill. His specialty instrument was the timbales; Puente was most responsible for popularizing their use in the United States, both in Latin and non-Latin bands. Honing his incredible sense of rhythm was the intensive study he made of Afro-Cuban music which, although he was of Puerto Rican ancestry, he learned to love as his own. Certainly, nobody played la música típica better than he did. Sure, there were other musicians who were equally responsible for spreading the appeal of Latin rhythms around the world (Xavier Cugat, for one), but none did so at his high level of craftsmanship. As an arranger, composer, multi-instrumentalist (he also played saxophone and keyboards) and performer, Tito Puente earned the unofficial title he was bequeathed in the later years of his life: King of Latin Jazz!

Journalist, consultant and dancer Josephine Powell knew Puente as a fan, a friend, a confidant, an event organizer, a mambo dance partner, a fellow scholar, and perhaps, a lover, too. It comes as no surprise that she would want to share her personal memories of this Latin legend. UCLA music professor Stephen Loza documented Tito’s music and career in a 1999 book called Tito Puente and The Making Of Latin Music. However, that book was scholarly in tone. Powell knew that Puente’s life story needed to be told, and told with a personal touch. The result of her efforts is an engaging new biography, When The Drums Are Dreaming. She gives Puente’s fans their first in-depth look into the background, education, travels, triumphs and tragedies of the man behind the flying timbale sticks. Few secrets are disclosed (for instance, she keeps the exact nature of her own relationship with Puente shrouded), but enough is revealed to make her book a mighty interesting read.

Ms. Powell, a classy lady, invites you for a ride in the paperback equivalent of a white stretch limousine. She takes you cruising through the major events of Puente’s colorful life, starting in Spanish Harlem where he was born in 1923. You’ll travel to famous Latin-themed nightclubs in New York City, Miami Beach and Hollywood, where he apprentices with the Machito, José Curbelo and Pupi Campo bands. You’ll sail the Pacific with him as he serves military duty on an aircraft carrier during the thick of the Second World War. You’ll fly with him to Havana where he meets the superstars of Cuban music and becomes an initiate into the Santería religion. You'll cheer for him in Mexico City where he goes head-to-head with Pérez Prado in an all-out battle of the bands. You’ll have the best table at Broadway's famed Palladium Ballroom where Puente rules the bandstand. You’ll be an extra on the set of the 1991 movie Mambo Kings where he’s featured in a starring role. You’ll celebrate with his friends and family when he receives a long-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

It’s an awfully thrilling ride, but there are a lot of detours along the way. Josie Powell isn't what you’d call a focused writer. She frequently veers off topic to pursue tangents, some only marginally related to Tito Puente’s life. This can be quite exasperating, such as the chapter where she spends an inordinate amount of space describing wartime battle strategy. However, it can also be rewarding. You’ll appreciate the way she incorporates mini-biographies of the Latin music’s major movers and shakers: Miguelito Valdés, Beny Moré, Machito, Graciela, Tito Rodríguez, Xavier Cugat, José Curbelo, Pérez Prado, Celia Cruz, and any number of other notables who crossed paths with Puente over his 77-year life span.

Despite her penchant for writing incomplete sentences, a tendency to confuse timelines and a less-than-skillful use of punctuation, Ms. Powell does an excellent job of taking her readers back to the heyday of rhumba, mambo and cha-cha-chá. Her descriptions convey plenty of atmosphere. When she writes about legendary exhibition dancers like The Mambo Aces, Cuban Pete and Millie, Brascia and Tybee, Augie and Margo and “Killer Joe” Piro, she does so with authority; and when she drops celebrity names like Frank Sinatra, Antonio Banderas, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Esther Williams, Mexican movie queen Ninón Sevilla and 1940s gangster’s moll Virginia Hill, you can almost taste the excitement and glamour.

There’s one really glaring flaw in the book. Ms. Powell devotes less than a page to La Lupe, the controversial artist who became Puente’s girl singer in the ‘60s. Readers are left with the impression that they hated each other, but that doesn’t begin to describe the complexities of their professional relationship. Among female Latin performers, La Lupe is highly respected; a much fuller picture of her work with Tito Puente (which encompassed at least a half-dozen albums) should've been presented.

So Josie Powell’s story isn’t the full story, but that’s not unusual for a biography; more often than not, there’s room for another biographer to take up the threads of a subject’s life at some later date. Until that time, When The Drums Are Dreaming fills the void nicely. Filled with rare vintage photos, it’s essential reading, not only for Tito Puente devotees but for anyone who digs that deep Cuban groove. Add ese libro to your music library ¡muy pronto! ¿Compréndeme?

50 Years Of Swing

The best compilation of Tito Puente's music is a box set 

released on Ralphy Mercado's RMM label in 1997. 
Buy Fifty Years Of Swing at amazon.com:

No comments: