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Evolution of a song: La Gata Loca

Most of my tunes don't go through as many convolutions as La Gata Loca did, but it did go through a lot of changes. It started out life as a simple Latin jazz tune, similar in form to a lot of the songs on the first Mamborama album. It was structured as a regular type of tune where you play the melody, everybody solos, then the melody is played again and then it ends. But I was getting bored with this approach, and was getting much more influenced to the Cuban tunes I was listening to. Most Cuban stuff is not cyclical like our pop music. They usually never repeat the cuerpo (literally, the body of the tune), but add coros, mambos, breaks, and entirely different sections. They are more like a suite than a typical pop tune, which deals with a lot (sometimes way too much) of repetition.

However, La Gata Loca was originally a simple 32-bar melody with a standard AABA structure. For non-musicians, that's verse, verse, bridge, verse. Repeat, rinse, repeat again. The day that I wrote the thing, I had a Latin Jazz gig that night, so I scribbled out a lead sheet and test drove it on the gig. The following completely embarrassing clip is the first time it was played anywhere, the musicians sight-reading in a dimly lit nightclub.

The first thing I added to it was the coro. Around this time, my cat had been torturing me with kung fu exhibitions at five in the morning, so that became the basis for the coro: Gata loca, baila rumba.

Then I added in the breaks for the conga solo, based on a slightly different harmonic pattern. Then, the final coros were played over those chords rather than the changes from the first coros.

But it was when I was in Havana, and asked El Indio if he would consider singing on a Mamborama record if I could manage to record there, that I realized that it had to become a full-on vocal tune. I wrote a new melody that would become the cuerpo. It retained the 32 bar form of the original. The lyrics came to me as I was writing the melody. I didn't want to lose the bridge melody of the original version, so I made that into a mambo that follows the trumpet solo and sets up the coro.

click to see full size

Now I needed to prepare the tune for the musicos in La Habana. I wrote out a score, and then made a demo for the musicians to listen to. I got out my trusty Mac Plus, dusted it off, and sequenced a cheezy demo with a synthesizer. Here's a clip of that awful thing, proving once and for all that you need real musicians to play this music. Drum machines and samplers need not apply.

Once we got everything together in Havana, we were ready to cut the basic tracks. We set up in an old theatre in Mariano where lots of bands rehearse, including Klimax. Gracias a Maestro Piloto for donating the use of the place. We recorded drums/timbales (Roicel Riverón), congas (Evelio Ramos), bass (Eduardo Mora) and piano (me, using Manolito Simonet's keyboard) live without a click track. Marcos Crego of Klimax showed up to help, and wound up taking the score and conducting the band, cueing in the mambos and various changes. Thank God for that, because I was heavily distracted, playing, engineering, producing and generally freaking out to be recording with the rhythm section of El Trabuco. This is what it sounded like when we finished.

A few days later, we overdubbed the rock-solid guiro of Jorge Luis Guerra in one take, and then it was time for the coros. El Indio took charge of the section, which consisted of him, Ricardo Amaray and David Bencomo. We did two tracks to thicken up the sound, and to be able to mix the coros in stereo. And they sounded great! Here's a clip of them just on their own, including the "meeoww" bit that El Indio completely improvised that day.

Now normally I would have recorded the horns next, so that Indio would have the whole arrangement to bounce off of when he sang. But time was running out, and recording horns is real time-consuming to do right, so I decided to get the lead vocals done. I told everyone, "I have some great horn players in LA, but I don't have El Indio in LA."

When Indio got to the studio, I asked him what song he wanted to start with. He said, "Gata Loca, because I don't know anything about this song." Ay-yi-yi, I had forgotten to give him the demo! I had the music there and the demo, and he learned it right then and there. David Bencomo was with him, and when Indio was in the studio, David sang the melody to him in solfege (non-musicians note: that's the do re mi fa sol stuff).

We got the cuerpo and first coro done, and then I told him that the next 32 bars were for his improvisations. He said give me five minutes, and he sat down and scribbled out a few ideas. What you hear is all first take. The guy is absolutely brilliant. He more than brought that tune to life. Besides being a great singer, he's dripping with personality, humor and charisma. And, he's a great guy, to boot. I'm proud to have him as a friend.

While I didn't have time to record the whole horn section, I did get time to record the trumpet solo by Julio Padrón, and he played beautifully.

Back in LA, Luis Eric and Francisco Torres did a great job on the horns. They each played two parts, two trumpets and two trombones. Now it was my turn to replace the electronic piano with an acoustic one, a Yamaha grand. Then mixing, mastering, and before long, I was back in Havana giving finished copies of the CD to the guys who helped me make it. The finished tune had its debut at Casa de la musica in Miramar, just before Manolito y su Trabuco were going on. El Indio and I stood there and watched, and the dance floor filled up. That was one of the most satisfying moments of my life.

OK, that's the story. If you haven't bought the CD yet, what are you waiting for? You see how much work goes into these things? If you have bought it, tell your friend that you burned a copy for to go buy the real thing, and give your mom a copy for her birthday. Every copy sold is your vote for another Mamborama CD, sooner, not later. And if reading this put you in the mood to hear the finished version of Gata Loca, just put a click here.

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