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.

CONTINUE TO READ PART 2…

 

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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

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”

Chocolate

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

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