From Trinidad to Cuba on one 79 cent record… quite a deal for a New York saxophonist to offer music loving tourists.

We don’t know if Freddie Mitchell had been vacationing in the Caribbean during the fall of 1950, more likely he or Derby Records were increasingly aware of the immigrant population in the Big Apple and wanted to try and coax them into buying music from their own part of the world even though it was being re-filtered through a decidedly American genre called rock ‘n’ roll… or perhaps Mitchell just got around the playing his Xavier Cugat collection and felt inspired.

Whatever the case, this single was one of the first times where rock ‘n’ roll looked outside its own native borders and tried corrupting other cultures… it wouldn’t be the last.


Coffee Grounds A Record?
On his rendition of the Trinidadian calypso song Mary Ann that adorned the other side of this release Mitchell managed to sidestep all of the usual pitfalls artists had when taking music from other countries and trying to make it palatable for American audiences who had neither the interest nor inclination to take the time to learn about and appreciate foreign culture.

To meet with their shallow approval artists frequently adopted a humorously bad accent to deliver lines (which Mitchell may have done himself for all we know had it not been an instrumental), but here he’s got a slightly different issue to contend with… and that’s the song itself.

The Cuban song Mama Inez – or more accurately Ay¡ Mama Ines – has lyrics which are already offensive before translation or insensitive American interpretation… again, something an instrumental record won’t have to deal with, but which makes ANY praise for this song conditional at best.

The tune was famously done in 1927 by Rita Montaner which along with a later rendition by a singer known as Snowball (Ignacio Villa), made it one of Cuba’s most internationally known songs. Maurice Chevalier recorded a popular version in 1931 (with more – and new – lyrics that aren’t really bothersome, but not really worthwhile either) and Vanity Fair magazine had an entire article calling it the Song of Cuba in 1933. The aforementioned Xavier Cugat, the most well known interpreter of the Caribbean sounds in America over the past decade, came out with his version in 1940, so it was a well known song by the time Mitchell decided to record it.

Within the original song however is the line “Todos los negros tomamos café”, which translates to “all black people have (or drink) coffee”.


Not true of course… coffee is repulsive, who on earth would drink that stuff voluntarily… but I digress.

Over the years the line has been defended and criticized in equal measure but it’s been so ingrained in people’s minds that it unfortunately persists. Of course Mitchell isn’t singing – thank goodness, not just because he’d offend us with the words, he’d also surely offend us with his voice – so the success or failure of this record will come down to how his saxophone can make the musical side of this song percolate.

Hum And Strum
It starts off fairly well as you get a rolling bongo intro, finger-popping as percussion and a bank of horns riffing over the piano faintly tinkling the treble keys before Mitchell’s tenor takes off on its own as the other horns keep up their patterns, changing it up when he starts to improvise.

All of it is certainly lively, vigorous even, the interlocking sections work nicely, but it’s still curiously lacking something… like a more memorable melody and a more insistent rhythm.

It’s not that those two elements are absent entirely, but it’s just the two main components needed to make Mama Inez get into your brain are just kinda… subpar. Not awful, not off-putting, but not very compelling either.

For off-putting we turn to the piano break which for the second time on this single causes more harm than good. The solo on the other side was technically worse, but the rest of that song was far better which alleviated the problem to a degree.

Here though Harry Van Walls wanders around aimlessly on the higher end of the keyboard, looking for inspiration, looking for a melody or looking for his glasses so he can read the sheet music. Twenty five seconds of indulgence on a record that needs more hooks, not less, is hardly the best game plan.

Mitchell’s sax is clearly the best aspect about this, his playing is assertive and unwavering, but by now we’ve come to expect that out of every tenor sax in the rock business and just fulfilling those basic requirements is no longer enough.

What he needed was a better song, a more dynamic arrangement and a more focused pianist. This is hardly something you’ll shut off when it comes on, but it’s doubtful you’ll crank it up either.


Brand New Fandango
Though Freddie Mitchell’s guided tour through songs from every conceivable source has been mildly interesting – and occasionally illuminating and exciting – it’s time to move on to something original.

Part of his inability to do so surely stems from the fact that Derby Records continues to want to release a new Freddie Mitchell single every other Thursday afternoon and so with that much material required – and no time to unwind and maybe come up with some ideas of your own – he naturally is going to fall back on songs that have ample evidence that they’re appealing to audiences.

But while cutting something like Mama Inez might be broadening his – and his audience’s – cultural horizons somewhat, it’d help a lot more if he satisfied that audience’s main requirement which is the constant need for excitement.

Though he’s given us some surprisingly good renditions of some left-field choices along the way, it’s still not the best sign when a rock fan’s first question when seeing a new Freddie Mitchell release is… “I wonder what song he’s pulled out of the back of the pantry this time around”.

Unfortunately this one was jammed way in the corner, next to those unused coffee beans you keep meaning to throw out.


(Visit the Artist page of Freddie Mitchell for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)