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'Hit the Bongo: The Latin Soul of Tico Records'

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Spanish-language music is all over the pop charts these days, but back in the 1940s, Latino musicians reached U.S. audiences through what were considered specialty record labels. One of the most storied was called Tico Records, based in New York. NPR Music's Felix Contreras reviews a compilation album celebrating Tico's 75th anniversary.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANG! BANG!")

JOE CUBA: (Speaking Spanish).

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: In the late 1940s, mambo was king in New York City, and nightclub owner George Goldner noticed that there were no record labels dedicated to Latin ballroom dancing here in the U.S. So he started one, and for the next 30-plus years, Tico Records was the home of the recorded mambo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANG! BANG!")

CUBA: Bang, bang. (Speaking Spanish).

CONTRERAS: The new album "Hit The Bongo! The Latin Soul Of Tico Records" celebrates a subgenre of mambo, the mashup of Latin and R&B. For my money, "Bang Bang" by the Joe Cuba Sextet from 1966 was the perfect mashup, capturing the reality of African Americans and Afro Caribbeans living in the same neighborhoods of New York during the era when self-awareness, soul and salsa were all in the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANG! BANG!")

CUBA: Bang, bang. (Speaking Spanish, singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: The piano and bass are strictly Afro Cuban, but that first vocal shoutout...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANG! BANG!")

CUBA: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: ...Was all soul food. In the mid-1960s, the Cuban vocalist known as La Lupe was at the top of her game, having performed with both Mongo Santamaria and Tito Puente after she arrived in New York from Cuba. In an early crossover moment, La Lupe took on an obscure R&B song that jazz vocalist Peggy Lee had recently turned into a jazz standard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEVER")

LA LUPE: (Singing) Never know how much I love you, never know how much I care. When you put your arms around me, I get a fever that's so hard to bear. You give me fever, ay.

CONTRERAS: Her heavily accented English is offset by the traditional call-and-response lead vocals, known as soneos, at the end of the tune, turning "Fever" into "Fiebre" and creating a classic that made La Lupe known as the Queen of Latin Soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEVER")

LA LUPE: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: Tito Puente was one of Tico's biggest stars as he skillfully maneuvered his career from the era of ballroom dancing through the arrival of rock 'n' roll. He is represented on this compilation four times, and it includes an obscure collaboration with vocalist Celia Cruz.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AQUARIUS / LET THE SUN SHINE IN")

CELIA CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: 1969 was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius in both languages, and on this track, a drum set shares the stage with the congas as Puente sets his Juilliard-trained arranging skills behind the magnificence that was Celia's voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AQUARIUS / LET THE SUN SHINE IN")

CRUZ: (Vocalizing).

CONTRERAS: Conguero Ray Barretto lived a dual life as the first-called jazz session man during the day and a salsa star at night, and one of his first bands actually made it to the Billboard Top 40 charts in 1963 with this Cuban charanga-styled homage to both the Afro part of Afro Caribbean and a popular dance craze at the time, the Watusi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL WATUSI")

RAY BARRETTO: (Speaking Spanish).

CONTRERAS: Tico Records had a storied history and was eventually bought by Fania Records in the mid-1970s, as salsa became a worldwide phenomenon, sweeping Tico's more mainstream approach along with it. But for a few bright and very danceable years, Tico Records was the exact spot where soul and salsa met.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL WATUSI")

BARRETTO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTÍNEZ: The album is "Hit The Bongo! The Latin Soul Of Tico Records." Our reviewer was Felix Contreras, the co-host of the Alt.Latino podcast at NPR Music, and he says he dances a decent mambo. (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL WATUSI")

BARRETTO: (Speaking Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.