“Palo Congo” is the first album as a leader by Sabu Martinez (real name: Louis Martinez, 1930–1979), an American conguero (conga player) and percussionist of Puerto Rican descent, who is known for his performing with Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, and J.J. Johnson, and his recordings of Afro-Cuban music.
The album was recorded and released in 1957 through Blue Note Records (Blue Note BLP-1561). Produced by Alfred Lion. Recording engineer is Rudy Van Gelder.
Martinez recorded three albums as a leader with his own quintet in the late 1950s: “Palo Congo” (1957), “Safari with Sabu” (1958), and “Sorcery!” (1958). The album “Palo Congo” is especially famous as a masterpiece of Afro-Cuban/Latin music among them.
The performance of the album centers on the Latin percussions (conga, bongo) by five percussionists including Martinez, and it includes Cuban musician and composer Arsenio Rodríguez’s guitar and tres (a three double-strings chordophone), double bass, vocals, and chants.
The compositions incorporate a variety of styles, such as Cuban traditional rumba and son, Puerto Rican plena, the religious music of Santería (a Cuban folk belief that arose through a process of syncretism between the Yoruba religion of West Africa, the Roman Catholicism of Christianity, and spiritism).
It is characterized by its complex polyrhythms combining Africa-derived rhythms and Latin ones, Spanish chants like gospel’s call and response, and indigeneity like folk music.
It is closer to pure Afro-Cuban music and African ritual music than modern jazz. The album is unique among the Blue Note 1500 series, which are mostly hard bop recordings.
The first track “El cumbanchero” featuring Martinez’s vocals is a cover of the popular song written by Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández in 1943.
The third track “Choferito-Plena” is a salsa song written by Ignacio Ríos. American guitarist and composer Marc Ribot covered this song on his album “Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos (The Prosthetic Cubans)” (1998).
The other six tracks are Martinez’s originals.
The sixth track “Rhapsodia del Maravilloso” features Rodríguez’s Latin guitar improvisation. This track includes a quotation from the Cuban pregón (a street-seller’s song) “El manisero (The Peanut Vendor)” composed by Cuban composer Moisés Simons.