Album Review: Cortijo – 1969-1971, The Ansonia Years [Vampi Soul, October 2015]

The 1950s saw the emergence of what it is now known as salsa. The combination of bomba and plena, two Puerto Rican traditional musical styles, was encouraged by Rafael Cortijo Verdejo (1928-1982). For 30 years, Cortijo took inspiration from these rhythms, and explored the musical diversity of the Afro-West Indian, with an emphasis on a dialogue between their Puerto Rican and Cuban forms. Cortijo’s style featured spontaneity and locality, with an energetic and impulsive percussion, and voices that were recognised as the tropical music and dance of his time, different from that of the tropical big band.

Since the middle of the 1950s, El Combo was one of the most renowned orchestras in Puerto Rico. In 1954, Cortijo became a member. Mario Román, leader of El Combo, stopped working, and the next year (1955) it was known as Cortijo y Su Combo. This was an opportunity for Cortijo to know and play with artists such as Sammy Ayala, Rafael Ithier, or Ismael Rivera. From this time on, Cortijo recognised that “Afro Caribbean music was known worldwide” and that his success as percussionist, orchestra leader and composer was due to the sound of his percussion.

Having founded Ansonia Records in New York in 1949, the Puerto Rican entrepreneur, Ralph Pérez, was concerned about Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican and South-American artists related with traditional and popular music. Ansonia became a very well known recording company.

At the end of the 1960s, Ansonia was directed by Herman Glass, who enriched the Latin American music catalogue. Between the 1960s and 70s, Cortijo had already moved to New York. There, he formed and played with many different orchestras, and also signed many recording contracts. One of these was with Ansonia Records, which became an opportunity to be an ambassador of the most important Puerto Rican rhythms: la bomba and la plena.

Cortijo’s production of Ritmos y cantos callejeros (Street Rhythms and Songs) brought an identity of Salsa, both in New York and the Caribe. Due to the success of this project, Cortijo recorded two more records EP, between 1969 and 1971, for Ansonia Records: Noche de temporal (Storm Night) and Volumen 2 (Volume 2). The Nuyorican version of Cortijo’s music in The Ansonia Years recalls, as a first instance, his 1950s’ success. These recordings are characterised by the participation of the Cuban pianist Juan Vázquez, the singers Johnny Vega and Chivirico Dávila, and the use of the piano and bass as innovations for his music, the dialogues between different rhythms such as  guajeos and tumbaos, the best of Santurce traditions of Puerto Rico, genres such as merengue, samba, Cuban son and rumba, and a compact and inclusive musical character.

All of the songs in the album are the expression of the Afro Cuban, West Indian and Puerto Rican mixture, through which Cortijo paid a sincere tribute to his musical roots. Almost a half-century later, Cortijo’s honest, spontaneous and original playing still produces a huge emotion and enthusiasm, as well as influences new generations of artists.