November 11, 2020
Putumayo Presents New Orleans Mambo: Cuba to NOLA

During the stressful days between our recent presidential election and the announcement of the result, I could not resist the news. Voices reporting minute-by-minute updates went on non-stop throughout. But by the second day, this relentless stream of information called for a musical soundtrack. I tried a few things, but once I hit this marvelous collection, I knew I had hit paydirt, and round and round it went behind the news until the suspense was over. Nothing (not even the bourbon) eased the tension and reaffirmed my shaken belief in the country the way these tunes did.

The reason New Orleans mambo works so well is that it embodies the essence of the American soul. It’s bold and jaunty, gritty and real and it reflects so many aspects of our complex history and demographics. The intertwined histories of Indigenous, African, English, French, Spanish and Caribbean peoples is deeply woven into the textures of New Orleans music; we literally see who we are when we listen deeply. No surprise that the seminal forms of American popular music writ large—blues and jazz—began here.

Pancho Sanchez’s “Going Back to New Orleans” kicks the set off briskly with a reassuring message of spiritual homecoming. Then Dr. John’s “Mos’ Scocious” rolls in with a Cuban piano montuno, the full on N’Orleans funk of the Meters and the Dr.’s signature rasp. By the time we get to the rollicking boogie of Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias, we’re swimming in the stream. And on it goes: The Neville Brothers with their trenchant “Yellow Moon,” The Iguanas, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the New Orleans Heartbreakers with Big Al Carson putting a Dixieland spin on “Jambalaya.” It says a lot that such a familiar tune can still sound so freshly joyous.

There’s nothing new or groundbreaking in these jams with their twangy guitars, elegant brass arrangements, soul-cry vocals and funky grooves, but they’re truly timeless. And if you ever get to feeling down about America, there’s nothing better to restore your faith.

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