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Beyond Santana: Malo And The Forgotten Wave Of '70s Latin Rock Bands

Morning Edition's series called One-Hit Wonders / Second-Best Songs focuses on musicians or bands whose careers in the United States are defined by a single monster hit, and explains why their catalogs have much more to offer.

In this installment, NPR's Felix Contreras, the host of Alt.Latino, argues that the band Malo, known primarily for its 1972 Top 20 hit "Suavecito," deserves to be remembered alongside other '70s Latin rock bands like Santana. (In fact, Carlos Santana's brother, Jorge, played guitar for Malo.) Read Felix in his own words below, and hear the radio version at the audio link.

Malo was part of a Latin rock movement in the early '70s that included, of course, Santana, but there were other bands — like El Chicano, Azteca and even War — that were combining rock and roll and Latin influences.

"Suavecito" was the breakout hit on the first album, principally because it was so radio-friendly. It was in English and it really dug deep into the mixture of African American soul along with the Latin rock thing at the same time.

I've always thought that the band Malo really reached their potential, really struck at what they were all about, on their second album, Malo Dos. The track, "Momotombo" is a perfect example. This band was musically more sophisticated than some of the other bands that were out there at the time. Their interplay between the rock and the Afro-Caribbean was more organic, less clumsy. The horn arrangements reflected some of the music that was going on with the band Chicago and even Tower of Power.

And then some of the musicians themselves: they included a Cuban conguero named Francisco Aguabella, who had direct ties to Afro Cuban folkloric music. They also had three musicians who would eventually go on to play with Santana: Raul Rekow on conga, Richard Kermode on piano, and Pablo Tellez on the bass. Pablo is the hero on this track. You can hear him play traditional Afro Cuban tumbao patterns, but he plays them with the dexterity of a jazz player and the funkiness of Motown's James Jamerson. He just absolutely drives this track.

Of course, Santana is the only survivor of that brief, early 1970s Latin rock music, but there's room for other bands as we look back at the legacy. They were all different. They all had different approaches to that cross-pollination. Most of them broke up or fell apart, but in 1972, Malo Dos and "Momotombo" was absolutely the best thing out there.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Felix Contreras
Felix Contreras is co-creator and co-host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.
Phil Harrell
Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.