Any music fan that digs the Latin music sounds of the 1970s from late pachuco soul to Latin funk and disco and salsa, or, any serious fan of sampledelia in hip-hop circles knows the single "Jungle Fever" by Chakachas. It was a truly infamous hit in the United States in 1971 and 1972, mainly for the moaning, breathy, sexual overtones of its female vocalist (though there are some male grunts in the mix too) but it was also beat crazy. The band that created this smash, were, to all but hardcore music connoisseurs, virtually unknown. That's OK, its record company at the time Polydor, wanted it that way. That's because this group from Belgium was almost completely white, made up nearly entirely of Northern European men (with the notable exception being vocalist Kari Kenton who was of Cuban origin), most were either Dutch or Belgian. Chakachas have a curious history. Formed in the late '50s by pianist Nico Gomez and percussionist Gaston Bogaert, they were imitators of the Latin sounds that were taking the world by storm at the time, from cha cha, to mambo to hybrid exotica to rhumba. They made records and seldom played outside Brussels or its environs. They disbanded in 1965 and Gomez began making his own albums (most are killer and are now very collectible), often using former bandmates as session players. Later in the decade, other groups from the region began making Latin-style recordings and making some headway in sales and in the press. The group's producer, Roland Kluger, convinced all but Gomez to return and recorded the Jungle Fever LP, of which the title track was buried at the dead end of side two. Polydor nonetheless issued the cut as a single and the rest is history, except for one interesting fact: they understood the record would die if anybody knew this band was white. For an appearance at the Apollo, they hired a group of African-American men to impersonate the band on-stage. Since no known photos of the real Chakachas existed, they were in the clear.
The hit was a one-off, a fluke, but what a boon. It has had a steady life in the whisperings of DJs for the past three-plus decades and is oft-sampled in both dance music and hip-hop circles. As an album, Jungle Fever is a revelation. While their single is the stuff of legend, the album in some ways places it in its rightful place at the end of the disc. Dusty Groove, with their impeccable good taste as both a record store and as a label, reissued this baby on CD and let the rest of us in on the secret. This is one wild, unusual, infectious set of Latin funk with killer horns that play against the rhythms, in some cases, and vocals that seemingly come from Latin music's past and are at odds with the more contemporary grooves being laid down by the band. According to the liners, this is because of Will Albimoor, the group's arranger and new composer (mostly under the nom de plume Bill Ador). Though some songs remain from the Gomez repertoire, they have been radically altered in terms of contrapuntal polyrhythms, strange key signatures, and weird fills by the horns, vocals, and piano. And there are mad loads of drums; they are everywhere, breaking, slipping, twisting, turning, spiking and hovering about these tunes. Checkout "Un Rayo del Sol," for the great drum breaks, or the smooth vocals with the razor wire electric guitars and horns in "Cha Ka Cha," with Sergio Mendes-like choruses blended with weird Latin soul cadences. "Yo Soy Cubano," is as pure a rhumba as one is likely to hear anywhere — until the choruses — and one hears the odd harmonic structure written in between the guitar and piano. Then there's the tough, barroom cha cha of "Ay Mulata" and the seamless, nearly psychedelic mambo-meets-samba that is "El Canyon Rojo," with bits and pieces of a spaghetti western soundtrack thrown in just to stretch the listener's brain a little further. This disc is not some insider avant-garde joke; there is no irony here. The playing is sincere, innovative, and breaks an intentional sweat. It's no academic exercise made by studio hacks. It's as accessible an early Latin-styled funk recording as one is likely to find. It's only after repeated listens that the quark strangeness in its mix sets in, but that doesn't detract from the listening — and dancing — experience. There is also a beautiful cha cha reading of Earle Hagen's classic standard "Harlem Nocturne" with a funky bassline and tight guitar break. Here again, the horns' contrapuntal arrangement adds an even deeper element of mystery to the well-known noir-ish tune, while keeping it firmly in a danceable groove, especially in the middle eight. When one gets to the title track at the end, it's almost superfluous; the set is so delightfully, joyous, sophisticated and hip, "Jungle Fever" is just some naughty, nasty, icing on this exotic cake. As an album, Jungle Fever is singular, not only for its origins, but also for its achievement as music. Its endurance is well-deserved: this is a finger-popping, hip-twitching classic.