Jack Medell & His Orchestra: “Umbe” (United U-213, 1957)
If you’ve ever followed conversations about music, you know that one topic that rears its head fairly often, no matter how many times we think we’ve banished it, is authenticity. The debate around Vampire Weekend was soaked in various interpretations of and reactions to this notion, to name a recent example, but it rears its head more subtly, too, all the time.
I hate this line of debate. Not least because it has the effect of positioning the debaters as arbiters of other people’s sincerity and qualifications to sound or act a certain way, but also because, frankly, a lack of authenticity, however defined, doesn’t mean a piece of art can’t be awesome and fulfilling, for the artist and the experiencer of the art.
One of my pet genres, one I’ve always collected in the background of my various obsessions with prog rock and Afrofunk and post-rock and soul and all the other things I’ve dove deeply into, is exotica, which is in some ways built on inauthenticity. It’s not real African or Latin or Asian music, it’s a simulacrum of same, or at least somebody’s second-hand idea of it.
But it’s more than that, even. Surely a lot of it was garbage, uninspired cash-in trash that rightly moldered in people’s basements for decades after the hi-fis got put away.
But at its best, exotica was inspired, and in the hands of its most creative practitioners, like Les Baxter, it became an imaginarium where borrowed rhythms from locales its creators and listeners might never visit collided with early stereo experimentation, new-fangled electronic noisemakers, unusual harmonic and arranging decisions, and a spirit of adventure and excitement at the new that dovetailed nicely with the Space Race that kicked into high gear at the end of the 50s, exotica’s peak decade.
"Umbe" was recorded in Chicago in 1957, the year that physical exploration reached beyond terrestrial destinations for the first time with the launch of Sputnik 1. Little is known about Jack Medell, the bandleader of the recording, and it doesn’t appear that he had any releases beyond this, which was paired on a 45 with a tune called "Enchantment."
United released mostly blues, gospel, and r&b, and I wonder at the circumstances that led them to put out a moody orchestral instrumental that opens with a chant that may or may not be based on something actually found within Afro-Cuban music. It sounds like it could be, which is the kind of blurriness that makes exotica compelling to me. One thing that definitely is real is Dom Garaci’s fantastic trumpet solo. I particularly love the way he slinks away after stating the main theme with that series of rough, descending notes before the strings and then piano move forward (just guessing that it’s Medell on piano). Geraci may also have played on this LP.
I don’t know who the singer was or what he’s saying, although I think he does say “incendio” in the intro, which means the lyrics have something to do with fire, a not uncommon element of the imagined rituals of exotica. Regardless, his performance matches Garaci’s for intensity, and between the two of them, they elevate this from a humid little mood piece into something captivating that earns all the motion in its rhythm section.
Does it exploit ignorance and the ideal of the exoticized Other in the hopes of selling a few records? Probably. Does it sound exciting and full of vitality almost sixty years after it was recorded? Absolutely. “Umbe” is ersatz Afro-Cuban music with enough fire in it to claim a personality of its own. It’s not authentic world music, but to me it sounds authentically awed by the possibilities of the world outside immediate experience, and that makes it worth listening to.