Tuesday, July 19, 2016

La Cucaracha

A contemporary corrido song sheet of
La Cucaracha
issued during the Mexican Revolution.
(source: wikipedia)
La Cucaracha, is one of Mexico's best-known folk songs, a corrido that became popular in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution (1910-20). The song consists of verse-and-refrain (strophe-antistrophe) pairs, with each half of each pair consisting of four lines featuring an ABCB rhyme sceme. The lyrics of the song have many different versions, a printed version from the time of the Mexican Revolution exists (here)
The refrain reads:
La cucaracha, la cucaracha 
Ya no puede caminar 
Porque no tiene, porque le falta 
Marijuana que fumar.

(The cockroach, the cockroach
Now he can't go traveling
Because he doesn't have, because he lacks
Marijuana to smoke.)

And the verse continues:
Ya la murio la cucaracha 
Ya la lleven a enterrar 
Entre cuatro zopilotes 
Y un raton de sacristan.

(The cockroach just died 
And they carried him off to bury him 
Among four buzzards 
And the sexton's mouse.)

The origins of the song are obscure, some versions refer to the Moorish wars in Spain, which concluded with the conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Probably the song itself doesn't go back that far, but in an 1818 book, according to one source, the Mexican writer Jose Joaquin Fernandez de Lizardi claimed the song was brought to Mexico from Spain by a captain of marines. Some lyrics of the song are commemorating 19th-century conflicts in both Spain and Mexico, but verse production didn't really increase until the Mexican revolution of 1910-1920. So many stanzas were added by partisans on all sides during this period that today, despite its Spanish origin, the song is associated mostly with Mexico. Some say the mentioning of marijuana was directed at the dictatorial Mexican president Victoriano Huerta (ruled 1913-1914), ridiculed by his many enemies as a drunk and dope fiend who lived only for his daily weed. Other claim that la cucaracha refers solely to Pancho Villa, a famous bandido/revolutionary general. Whatever the origins and meaning of the song, La Cucaracha is the Spanish equivalent of Yankee Doodle — a traditional satirical tune periodically fitted out with new lyrics to meet the needs of the moment. (excerpted from this source)

The song's verses fit a traditional melody separate from that of the refrain but sharing the refrain's meter (either 5/4 or 6/4). The melody and the refrain are instantly ear catching and the song has been performed successfully in various settings. Here's a traditional Mexican performance of La Cucaracha by a mariachi trio

Original film poster (1934)
In 1934, an American short musical film titled La Cucaracha directed by Lloyd Corrigan was released to show the new full-color Technicolor Process No. 4 ("three-strip" Technicolor) at its best. Process No. 4 had been used since 1932, mainly in Walt Disney cartoons. A synopsis of the screen play is available at the AllMovie web, here  and you have the opportunity to watch the film in HD at YouTube, here. The song is a major part of the intrigue. - In 1935, a MGM movie, La Fiesta de Santa Barbera, has Judy Garland and her sisters performing the song, the sequence has been uploaded at YouTube and is available here.

Maybe the exposing of the song on screen helped La Cucaracha to gain popularity with an American public. Fact is that many American popular bands and performers included the song in their repertoire from about the same time as the mentioned films were released. One of the first performers to include La Cucaracha and record the tune with lyrics in English (- different from the Mexican versions) was Louis Armstrong, who recorded the song for Decca in October 1935 (De 580)

Other popular performers also included La Cucaracha in the repertoire, among them was Benny Goodman, who performed the song with his orchestra in a "Camel Caravan" broadcast August 31, 1937. Also Glenn Miller and his orchestra performed the song in two CBS "Chesterfield Show" broadcasts, January 22 and March 25, 1941. Woody Herman and his orchestra recorded a mambo version of the tune for Capitol in 1954 (CAP EAP2-560), and on January 23, 1952 Charlie Parker and his quintet  used La Cucaracha as a vehicle for a stunning bop improvisation, recorded by Mercury (Mercury/Clef 11093)

In Europe, La Cucaracha also became popular during the 1930s. An early example is the recording by Lud Gluskin and his Continental Orchestra for French Columbia (Co 2952-D) (1934)

There was also made recordings of the song by accordionists in France with lyrics in French, an example of a musette inspired version was recorded by accordionist Adolphe Deprince mid-30s, available at YouTube, here - However, my favorite version of La Cucaracha recorded in France is by Mexican female vocalist and actress Lina D'Acosta featuring Oscar Alemán for the Pathé label, Paris March 5, 1935.
La Cucaracha_ Pathé (PA 531)
I have not found much info on Lina D'Acosta. She was apparently in Europe promoting Agustín Lara`s songs in France and starring of the films: Maria de la nuit (Willy Rozier - France 1936) and Il grande appello (Mario Camerini - Italy 1936).
Lina D'Acosta
She recorded six sides for Pathé 1935-36 as a singer and is accompanied by Oscar Alemán (g) and César Ríos (p). My favorite of her recordings is as mentioned La Cucaracha featuring great accompaniement and solo by Alemán, one of his best non-jazz recordings from the Paris stay, I think.

Cockroach cartoon
La Cucaracha has had several interpretations in contemporary music, nursery rhymes have been added, cartoons have been released and even Lady Gaga performed a version of the tune. To end this small presentation of the song, I'll insert another notable performance of the tune. Have fun!


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Sunday, July 10, 2016

Chu Berry Jam - 1937-1941

Tenor sax giant Chu Berry
Giant of the tenor sax Leon Brown "Chu" Berry (1908-1941) made a considerable number of records both as a side man in various ensembles and as a member of Fletcher Henderson's and Cab Calloway's orchestras from the mid-1930s up till his untimely death in a car crash October 1941. Some years ago the Mosaic label released a box set devoted to the Columbia and Victor sessions featuring Chu Berry in various settings worth looking for.
Classic Chu Berry - Columbia and Victor Sessions (Mosaic, MD7-236)
Only four times Chu Berry recorded under his own name, two sessions for Variety March 23 and September 10, 1937 as Chu Berry And His Stompy Stevedores, and two sessions for Milt Gabler's Commodore label  November 11, 1938 as Chu Berry And His "Little Jazz" Ensemble, and August 28, 1941 as Chu Berry And His Jazz Ensemble. In all, 16 sides from these sessions were released and later re-issued in the Chronogical Classics series shown below.
Chu Berry 1937-1941 (Chronogical Classics, CD 784)
The first session by Chu Berry And His Stompy Stevedores from March 23, 1937 yielded four issued sides. The ensemble comprised Hot Lips Page (tp, vo), George Matthews (tb), Buster Bailey (cl), Chu Berry (ts), Horace Henderson (p), Lawrence Lucie (g), Israel Crosby (b), Cozy Cole (dm). The recorded titles were Now You're Talking My Language, Indiana, Too Marvellous For Words and Limehouse Blues. My favorites from this session are the instrumental versions of Indiana and Limehouse Blues, inserted below from uploaded YouTube audio-videos.

In his Solography on Chu Berry, Jan Evensmo had this comment on the March 23, 1937 session: "Although some music is good, the general result is not what one should expect from this group. The main reason may be that the rhythm section is too heavy. On neither side a satisfying easy rhythmic balance is achieved. As the band title indicates, this is simply "stompy" swing music without ambitions." The comment may be correct to some tastes of small group swing, however, in my opinion the two inserted examples of the music from the session are red hot and swing like mad, great stuff, indeed!
Columbia 37571 - Chuberry Jam
The second session for Variety was scheduled on September 10, 1937 and again yielded four issued sides. This time the ensemble comprised bandmembers of Cab Calloway's orchestra: Irving Randolph (tp), Keg Johnson (tb), Chu Berry (ts), Bennie Payne (p, vo), Danny Barker (g), Milt Hinton (b), LeRoy Maxey (dm). The recorded tunes were Chuberry Jam, Maelstrom, My Secret Love Affair and Ebb Tide. Again Jan Evensmo is not too enthusiastic with this session, he writes in his Solography: "Chu's second session under his own leadership, with musicians from Cab Calloway's band, is, like the first, not wholly successful. The rhythm section, which does such an excellent job with the full orchestra, is in this context much too heavy and without swing. There are no ambitions behind this music, though the idea is probably to make simple and solid music, and, as such, it is in many ways both efficient and enjoyable. I would also presume it had a wide public appeal." Indeed, the music appeals to my taste of great swing music, and I agree with Evensmo in his choice of best recordings of the session being Chuberry Jam and Ebb Tide, inserted below.

On November 11, 1938 Chu Berry And His "Little Jazz" Ensemble recorded four issued sides for the Commodore label. The ensemble comprised Roy Eldridge (tp), Chu Berry (ts), Clyde Hart (p), Danny Barker (g), Al Shapiro (b), Sid Catlett (dm). Two up-tempo tunes,Sittin' In and 46 West 52 (- actually a rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown) are high quality swing, while the ballad versions of Stardust and Body And Soul leap to a sentimental level, here I fully agree with Evensmo's opinon. The two first mentioned are inserted below.

Commodore 541-A - Blowing Up A Breeze
The second session for Commodore was recorded on August 28, 1941 and yielded four issued sides. This time Chu Berry And His Jazz Ensemble comprised Hot Lips Page (tp, vo), Chu Berry (ts), Clyde Hart (p), Al Casey (g), Al Morgan (b), Harry Jaeger (dm). From this session are inserted the issued takes of Blowing Up A Breeze and Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You, great examples of both up-tempo swing and a ballad with a blues feeling.

The two remaining titles from this session are On The Sunny Side Of The Street and  Monday At Minton's, both played at a medium/slow tempo and with many fine details in the solos.

All sides presented in this small review are re-issued at the above shown Chronogical Classics CD. Jan Evensmo's Chu Berry Solography is free accessible as a pdf. download, here  

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