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The joy of Puerto Rican Christmas, with its cultural richness and the diversity of festive and gastronomic traditions, pulses to the utmost level of expression on this 10-songs-long historical album by Jose Cheo Feliciano, “Felicidades.” It’s an enormous pleasure to write, 33 years after its original release, about an album this humble collector and connoisseur considers one of the five best Christmas albums of all times, along with both volumes of Willie Colon’s Asalto Navideño with Hector Lavoe and Yomo Toro.
“Felicidades,” the third phase of Tite Curet Alonso’s Cheo Feliciano Project that he conceived to resume Cheo’s career as he completed the Hogares Crea rehabilitation program, is a gift of happiness. It’s unavoidable to imagine the old times’ parranderos travel through the starry December nights to visit their good friends with music and wishes of health and wealth each time one listens to this album.
Listening to this album brings out the flavors of lechón asado (roasted pork), arroz con gandules, gandinga, morcillas, coquito and pitorro. It’s about the nostalgia of lost times where people treated each other with kindness, and where families shared together in material poverty, but with a great wealth of friendship, God loving and respect to life.
With the help of Tite Curet Alonso, Cheo Feliciano captures the magic and the joy of year’s prettiest time. And these ten songs, written by Tite, Raul Marrero and Wito Gonzalez, were done with the Latin American dancer in mind and with the signature of the Fania All Stars’ explosive, pounding and overwhelming musical accompaniment, as Cheo is joined in this unprecedented Christmas salsa explosion by the likes of Ray Barretto, Larry Harlow, Bobby Valentín, Roberto Roena and Nicky Marrero.
The musicality and swing of Barry Rogers’ trombone is palpable on each cut. His solo on “Comadrita” is worth to be transcribed for the means of analyzing how Christmas traditions and comradeship can be translated into music.
The fusion of Puerto Rican seis chorreao and mapeyé with Cuban son, as exemplified on “Mapeyé,” is still Cheo’s Christmas salute to the Pan-American countries. “Me La Gozo Entera,” with hints of Puerto Rican bomba at the beginning, is an invitation to forget old worries by dancing and partying with friends. “Felicidades,” perennial wishes of wordly health, peace and prosperity, is another vehicle for melting down your shoe heels dancing.
On “Aleluya De Los Campos” Cheo transports us to those campesino dawns surrounded by fog and dew cushioning. “Pa’ La Gente Panameña,” with Puerto Rican décima jíbara lines intercalated with the chorus, is homage to the hospitality of the brotherly country. “Mañana Boricua” is a catchy Puerto Rican bomba evoking the beauty of the countryside and the campesino’s agricultural tasks. “La Fiesta” and “El Parrandero” elevate the adrenaline and furor to unsuspected heights, to keep on dancing whether it rains, thunders or there’s lightning. Drawn to the furious beats of rumba and comparsa, “A Las Alegres Campanas” is a chant of peace and the joy drawn to the world on Christmas’ Eve with the birth of our Lord and Savior in Bethlehem.
“Felicidades” is a master work. Scenes of the Three Wise Kings, cockfights, the dawn at a batey jíbaro, the festive solemnity of the Misas de Aguinaldo, and the flavors of good arroz con dulce and other typical dishes are stripped down into this masterful recording, Cheo Feliciano’s legacy for Puerto Rico and the world.
Ray Barretto – congas
Tony Jimenez – congas (“Mapeyé,” “Aleluya De Los Campos,” “La Fiesta”, “A Las Alegres Campanas”)
Larry Harlow – piano
Roberto Roena – bongos
Bobby Valentín – bass
Nicky Marrero – timbales
Barry Rogers – trombone
Jon Faddis – trumpet
Hector “Bomberito” Zarzuela – trumpet
Larry Spencer – trumpet
Luis “Perico” Ortiz – trumpet
Ismael Quintana – maracas
Yomo Toro – cuatro
Chorus – Adalberto Santiago, Tite Curet Alonso, Johnny Pacheco, Heny Alvarez,
Justo Betancourt, Hector Lavoe, Ismael Miranda, Ismael Quintana
Produced by Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso and Jerry Masucci
Recording director: Johnny Pacheco
Arrangements – Bobby Valentin
Recorded at – Good Vibrations Sound Studios, New York City
Written by Jaime Torres-Torres