El Gran Fellove Part 3

El Gran Fellove Part 3

When my parents bought their home in 1968, Sunset Beach was just another sleepy little beach town.


It spanned about one mile in length, sandwiched between Seal Beach and Huntington Beach in sunny Southern California.


There were two main rows of houses on the strip, one that sat on the beachfront and the other on the Pacific Coast Highway. Each row of houses had a small adjacent road, separated by a sand dune where the Red Car line had once passed through, but which had been ripped out sometime in the 1950s.


As kids, my sisters and I frequently found the old rusty railroad spikes still buried in those sand dunes among broken Nesbitt pop bottles and decaying Schlitz cans with the triangles punched into the tops (before the advent of pull rings & pop tops).


The beachfront was still being built up back then and for every two or three houses, there was a vacant lot waiting to be purchased and built.


Many of the houses were old, dating back to the twenties & thirties – little craftsmen, bungalows, and duplexes.


It was a time when people of any income bracket could afford to live at the beach, and we were part of a community that ranged from well to do professionals, to middle-class families, to bikers, hippies, and low-income surf bums who worked as waiters, boat workers, and carpenters.


There was a certain margin of transient culture found in beach communities back then and it seemed like people were frequently moving to and from the beach or to a different home within the neighborhood.


Because of this, there were lots of garage sales. There were also lots of great items frequently found dumped on the curbside beside the garbage cans; items that people had left behind when they moved.


In 1969, when I was only 6 years old, my mom came home from a garage sale with an Oscar Peterson album and two other records by Cal Tjader.


I didn’t know it at the time, but these two albums would be foundational to my love and involvement in Latin Jazz and Afro Cuban music, leading me to my collaboration with El Gran Fellove 30 years later.


One other element of Sunset beach worth noting is that there was also a holdover from the 50’s tiki bar influence that was still prevalent in some of the local watering holes.


One, in particular, was a bar called Turcs, which was opened in the early ’50s and which still to this day boasts its hand-carved bar stools & Polynesian decor as made originally by a local carver named Tiki Bob.

Turcs as it still stands today (courtesy of the Orange County Register)

Turcs as it still stands today (courtesy of the Orange County Register)

Tiki bars and Polynesian themed restaurants themselves had been created in the late ’40s and ’50s by U.S. military veterans who had served in the South Pacific during World War II and brought the influence back to the states as entrepreneurs.


I remember as a young teenager, hangin’ out with the legendary Tiki Bob, who at that time was already in his fifties.


The 1970s was a total  “free for all” in beach communities. It was quite normal for kids to roam the beach without any parental supervision and party (yes, alcohol and other illicit substances) with people who were in their 20’s through the ’50s. In fact, the majority of my friends during my teenage years were adults.


One, in particular, was my neighbor Bobby Redfield, who was a Jazz guitarist in Cal Tjader’s band. He also had a band of his own that played every Sunday night at Turcs.


It was a Latin Jazz group called “Montuno” and featured conguero Poncho Sanchez before he had a solo career (Poncho was also in Cal Tjader’s band at the time). 


The band itself really belonged to the Banda brothers – Tony on bass and Ramon on timbales, plus Charlie Otwell, piano, Sal Crachiolo, trumpet, Roland Mendoza, bongos, and Tom Casey on sax. 


This was a killer band that would later go on (without Bobby Redfield) to be known as The Poncho Sanchez Band, make 20 albums, tour the world with people like Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Mongo Santamaria, etc and even win a Grammy Award.

Montuno Band

Montuno (back row L-R – Tom Casey, Roland Mendoza, Poncho Sanchez, Tony Banda, Bobby Redfield; front row L-R Ramon Banda, Sal Cracchiolo, Charlie Otwell; photographer unknown) 

I was privy to see this band on countless occasions and come into a friendship with the members which has lasted over 40 years.


As a young upstart musician, they took me into their fold and mentored me (especially Ramon Banda), showing me Latin Jazz aka Afro Cuban Jazz.

This was part of a musical lineage that came from Cuba to Mexico, and up to California, L.A., and San Francisco in the 1950s, and the Montuno band was an extension of this legacy.

It’s interesting to note that although the tiki bars were influenced by the South Sea Islands, the music of Cuban origins was also intertwined because it’s tropical music, and also because of the big Mambo & Cha Cha craze that exploded in the U.S. during the ’50s.

I was very much influenced by Bobby Redfield, the Montuno band, and the records that they listened toMongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader, George Shearing, and later on (1987) they showed me Cachao and the famous Cuban Jam Session albums.


One of the people on these records was El Gran Fellove, but I wouldn’t know him by name for another ten years or more because he was never credited on the back of those album covers.


I was highly inspired by this album series and this is what really propelled me into playing Cuban Jazz. I would discover much later that what we refer to as “Latin Jazz” in the states was called “Filin” (feeling) in Cuba.


Filin was a very niche musical movement in Havana, beginning in the 1940s and one of the key figures in its development was Francisco Fellove Valdez aka “El Gran Fellove”.


Fellove took everything I loved about Cuban music and Jazz, and put it all together in a way that’s enigmatic and uniquely him.

He combined the rhythmic syncopation of Yoruban/Cuban drumming with the sophisticated scat vocal styles of Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie. His showmanship was that of a Sammy Davis Jr, a James Brown, a Cab Calloway, and his improvisational instincts were off the charts.


Flash forward to 1988 – I was appointed to be the musical director and booker of a now-legendary Hollywood nightclub called King King, located on 6th & La Brea.


It was there that I developed a weekly Tuesday evening Latin Jazz jam called Afro Cuban Sessions. Inspired by Cachao and those Cuban Jam Session albums, my idea was to host a night where we could play this type of music and provide musicians from L.A.’s Salsa and Latin Jazz community to really stretch out and showcase their talents.

Joey_Cachao_Tony Banda_Berkley 1992

1992 with Cachao and Tony Banda in Berkeley, Ca. (photo by Sal Cracchiolo)

Nobody was offering something like this at that time and part of its success had to do with my beginner’s naivete.

I was just beginning to learn how to play this genre of music on the bass and I knew a few musicians in the Salsa scene, but some of them were skeptical and told me that nobody would want to come to something like this.


Well as it turned out, the night was a stellar success and became an L.A. institution, lasting five solid years and hosting many guest players of note from LA, New York, Miami, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other South American countries.


In the process I was able to really get my playing together, preparing me for what was ahead 10 years later with Fellove. I was somehow instinctively connecting the dots without having much of any context.

Joey_King King Latin Flier

The Cuban Jam Session albums were also known as Descargas, a Cuban slang term for a jam session, “cutting loose”, etc.  The Descargas were what inspired me to learn and create similar music, never knowing that it was Fellove himself who was one of the few true inventors of this idiom.

The Machito Orchestra and composer Chico O’Farrill were both big influences on me early on in my quest for Cuban music, yet I had no idea that they were both directly connected to El Gran Fellove. It was as if Fellove was hidden in plain sight for years.

I had come to know Mario Grillo aka “Machito Jr.” and Chico O’Farrill personally during the early to mid-90s yet I never heard mention of Fellove from either of them. It wouldn’t be until my collaboration with Fellove that I would finally know the bigger picture of this rich ecosystem of creative geniuses; a nucleus known in Cuba as “Filin”.

Stay tuned for the next installation of The Fellove Backstory.



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Are you a fan of Afro-Cuban music? What was the recording that first drew you into it? Leave a comment below about that, or any of your thoughts about this post.

Cheers, Joey

El Gran Fellové: Part 2- Enter Chocolate & Celio Gonzalez

El Gran Fellové: Part 2- Enter Chocolate & Celio Gonzalez

Joey Altruda and Chocolate on set for the album, “Fellové & Joey,” October 1999. Photo by Katrina Webb

Early Sunday morning

I awoke to the pleasant surprise of a Google Alert in my email. I clicked to find Variety Magazine had published an article about the upcoming world premier of Matt Dillon’s documentary “El Gran Fellove” at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain. It included two clips from the film, one which conjured up a lot of deep memories. 


Featured in the clip alongside Fellove are two other historical icons of Cuban music – singer (and musical hero to many) Celio Gonzalez Sr. and a close friend of mine, trumpeter Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros.

Clip from Matt Dillon’s documentary, “El Gran Fellové” of the recording session for the album, “Fellové & Joey”


I first met Chocolate (pronounced chō-kō-lah-tay) in 1996 when we participated together in an all star Latin Jam Session recording in L.A. Three years later, I was embarking upon the recording for Fellove’s album- his first one since 1979. I had spent a month preparing musical arrangements and copying out all the individual music parts for each musician, not knowing that Chocolate would be participating in this.   


For those who know the world of Afro Cuban music, Chocolate Armenteros is considered to be Cuba’s Louis Armstrong. His musical legacy and larger than life personality precedes him, going back to his first recordings in 1947 with Rene Alvarez’ band, then Arsenio Rodriguez (one of the most important figures in all of Cuban music history). He played trumpet in Bebo Valdés’ Tropicana Orchestra from 1950-57, was Beny Moré’s cousin and put together the brass section for that legendary orchestra, then hopped over to New York by request of Mario Bauza, to play trumpet in The Machito Orchestra for decades. Each one of those mentioned played a key role in defining and designing Cuban music of the twentieth century, leaving behind rich and prolific amounts of recordings. 


And these are the broad strokes. Choco also enjoyed a solo career of his own for several decades. 


One other group that he was part of, that I feel important to mention, is Grupo Folklorico Y Experimental Nuevayorquino, created by Andy Gonzalez with Jerry Gonzalez and produced by Rene Lopez. (Without going into a full blown geek-out here about the hows & whys, just look into their 2 albums  – Concepts In Unity (1974)  and Lo Dice Todo (1975).  (You can thank me later.)

Joey Altruda and Chocolate, 2004. Photo by Drew Carolan

Ray Bradbury might have easily labeled Chocolate a “time machine” much like Colonel Freeleigh in Dandelion Wine. 


Choco’s stories were endless, putting you right in the middle of that golden age of Pre-Castro Havana; the nightclubs, the music, the people, the endless parties. As someone who had been listening to his music since the late 80’s it was almost surreal for me to then have a close, familial friendship with him a decade later. 


Unbeknownst to me, Matt Dillon had flown Chocolate down to Mexico City to perform a few songs on Fellove’s album, as a special surprise for my birthday (the recording sessions were scheduled during the week of my 37th). You could imagine my surprise when I showed up to the rehearsal and found Choco hanging out in the kitchen of the studio. At first I thought that he just coincidentally happened to be in town for a gig of his own and wanted to come say hi to all of us. 


“Chocolate?!?! What are You doing here?!” 


“I come to play with you Altruba”. (He always  called me “Altruba”, reversing the ‘d’ in my last name to a ‘b’)


It was one of the most amazing and thoughtful birthday surprises I could’ve ever wished for. What I hadn’t thought of in the moment was that I was now faced with adding one more instrument into the musical arrangements that I had made for the specific size ensemble. It required a bit of thinking on my feet, but we worked things out nicely and even came up with one more song for the album.


Choco’s participation was something special for Fellove, since they had been friends since 1949 in Havana and had never recorded together before. It was a joy for me to see them reuniting as friends of 50 years for a project that I had helped instigate.

Fellové and Celio Gonzalez on recording day for the album, “Fellové & Joey,” October 1999. Photo by Jacobo Braun

Celio Gonzalez, Sr.


Fellove hired Celio Gonzalez Junior to play timbales for our recording. Celio Jr. had been a member of Fellove’s working band in Mexico City for some time and had known Fellove since he was a small child. Fellove was like an uncle to him. Celio Gonzalez Sr. and Fellove shared a close friendship since Cuba which continued in Mexico after Celio Sr moved there in 1959 (after the Cuban Revolution).



Already established as lead singer with the band Sonora Matancera since 1956, Celio Sr. was best loved for his hit bolero records and considered to be the Frank Sinatra of South America. 



Because of his decades-long friendship with Fellove, it was no surprise to have him hang out with us during the sessions. The big surprise came during the recording of “Descarga Chocolate”. In the middle of the tune, an inspired Celio (Sr.) left the engineering booth and joined Fellove in the vocal booth to sing backup vocals. This was a special moment for all who were there, to see such true love and humbleness coming from someone who was  legendary in their own right. 

Still image from Matt Dillon’s documentary, “El Gran Fellové,”  during the recording of “Fellové & Joey,” October 1999

What you’re seeing in the clip is that exact moment, and the great love and mutual respect these two friends had for each other.

Celio enjoyed himself so much that he sang again on several of the other songs on the album- this time with his wife, and Celio Jr., making it a family affair.

Now, all three of these musical giants are gone, ascended back into the ether – Celio in 2004, Fellove in 2013, and Chocolate in 2016, but I remain here to share my memories of the time we spent together. 


Many more stories to come!


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Are you a fan of Afro-Cuban music? What was the recording that first drew you into it? Leave a comment below about that, or any of your thoughts about this post. Cheers, Joey

El Gran Fellové: Part 1- The Beginning

El Gran Fellové: Part 1- The Beginning

It was a sunny summer afternoon, 1999…

Cruising Wilshire Blvd towards Venice Beach, top down of my ‘57 Caddy Biarritz, I compulsively rewound the cassette tape that Matt Dillon had recently sent from New York. It was something he had taped for me off an old record he’d found on his last trip to Havana, a record that had obviously been thoroughly enjoyed, judging from the ticks and pops that accompanied the music. I was completely captivated by what I heard flying out of the speakers, turning the volume up even louder for the passersby. It was this otherworldly blend of Cuban Mambo music  played by a small combo, using their voices as a horn section instead of brass, singing “Chua – Chua” behind the most fiery, crazy scat singing improv in Español. Did I mention it was from another Universe?


How was it that after 20 years of collecting Latin Jazz records and Cuban music I had never heard of this?  How is it that none of the Afro Cuban musicians who had mentored me over the years never hipped me to El Gran Fellové??? I became obsessed with his music and nearly wore out that cassette within the first month. 


You’re probably wondering how a guy like Matt Dillon plays into all of this and  what is his relationship to Cuban music. Good question. In a nutshell, we became friends through a mutual friend, actor Max Perlich who also has a love of Afro Cuban music, Jazz, eclectic record collecting, nostalgia, retro culture etc.

Matt had been a long time music head and record hunter since his days of hanging out with The Clash and their manager Kosmo Vinyl.

Through Kosmo, Matt was exposed to a huge amount of great eclectic musical genres, including early Jamaican music, Blue Note Jazz, 60’s garage psych and so much more in between. But it was Matt’s New York experiences in taxi cabs which veered him towards Salsa, Boogaloo, Latin Jazz, etc. It was an essential soundscape of the city at that time. 


When we met in ’94, we instantly clicked about old Latin records and he began picking my brain about Cuban artists and records that he should keep his eye out for. I made him a short list of essentials ~ Arsenio Rodriguez, Chappottin, Chocolate Y Sus Estrellas, Cachao, etc and set off his fuse. Before I knew it, he was unearthing the most amazing records, many of which I had never heard before, and giving me the most killer mix tapes (remember mix tapes?) .


Back to ’99 and the Fellové cassette; one day I received a call from Matt in NYC, telling me he had recently heard Fellové was still alive and well, living in Mexico City.

Joey Altruda and Matt Dillon, 2019. Photo by Jacobo Braun

With great enthusiasm he said, “You should find him and make an album”. 

I got off the phone and called a friend of mine who was a talent booker for one of LA’s largest Latin music clubs at the time, repeating to him what Matt had just told me. About ten minutes after the call, he hit me back with contact info for someone in New York who was currently repping Fellové. This was manifestation at it’s finest (IMHO).


In brief, what followed was several trips to Mexico City in the fall of ’99, meeting with Fellové, playing music with him and his group of young trailblazing Cuban expat musicians, and producing an album. He hadn’t recorded an album of his own since 1979 and this was a big deal for all of us. Matt followed me down to Mexico along with our friend Drew Carolan, a well noted photographer and line producer, and captured the whole recording process on film. What I had in my mind as being a really great EPK (electronic press kit), turned into a full blown documentary about a little known musical movement in Cuba called “Filin” (phonetic for Feeling). 

Filin was the birth of American Jazz sensibilities as applied to traditional Cuban styles.

It began in the 1940s and reached its zenith during the 1950’s in Havana. Artists such as Bebo Valdes, Cachao, Jose Antonio Mendes, Quarteto D’Aida, Omara Portuondo, Chico O’Farrill et al were integral parts of this fringe development, and right in the center of it all was Francisco Fellové Valdes, later known as El Gran Fellové. Filin was the birth of what was later termed “Latin Jazz” here in the states.


Needless to say, the process of creating this documentary was monumental in all of the research and interviews involved,  and was also put on the back burner for some time due to other prior commitments on Matt’s end. At the same time, 1999 wasn’t the greatest time to be releasing music due to so many file sharing sites pirating practically anything.  I decided to wait for the film to see the light of day before releasing the album in hopes that the time would come sooner than later. 

A clip from Matt Dillon’s documentary, “El Gran Fellové”

Production finally resumed about eight years ago and the film is finally set to premier at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain on September 22 of 2020. The album release is also pending at this writing. 


This has been a long, arduous journey for me, one of many emotional peaks and valleys, and I am beyond pleased to finally see this release happen, for the story of Filin to be told to the world, and for the genius of El Gran Fellové to finally gain the recognition he so rightly deserves.



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Are you excited to see the film? Leave a comment below to tell us what you’re looking forward to, or any of your thoughts about this post.

Cheers, Joey