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CONJUNTO CASINO

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When Ansonia released Conjunto Casino’s self-titled album in 1959, the renowned Cuban group had already been in existence for over two decades. It was originally founded in 1937 as Sexteto Casino and served as the resident band at Gran Casino de Marianao in Havana. Before traveling to New York in October 1959 and signing a one-album deal with Ansonia’s Ralph Pérez and Herman Glass, Conjunto Casino had cut quite a few records on a variety of Cuban labels, expanding to an exciting 12-piece with four trumpets, piano and rhythm section. The group had already toured throughout the Americas and was seen as emblematic of Havana’s urban conjunto sound, finding more commercial success than rivals Arsenio Rodríguez and Félix Chappottín, and equalling La Sonora Matancera’s stature at the time. Singer and guitarist Roberto Espí (1913 - 1999) had taken over the leadership of the band in 1944. By 1959, after a number of personnel changes, his pianist and arranger was the young and musically progressive Francisco “Paquito” Hechavarría (later of Miami Sound Machine), and current co-vocalists were Orlando Morales and Felo Martínez. Roberto Faz, arguably the band’s most popular singer, had recently left to start his own conjunto and therefore was not part of this session.

The entertaining, onomatopoeic “Ocoricoco” is a hot, brassy guaracha penned by René Barreras and features an exciting double percussion duel (bongos and timbalito from Rogelio “Yeyito” Iglesias and José “Perico” Hernández respectively). The lyrics tell of the title girl who drives the singer crazy with her looks and moves. Many historians cite the influential Conjunto Casino as one of the archetypal templates for the salsa sound of the late-1960s and 1970s, and it’s easy to hear similarities with artists of the Fania era. In fact, Orchestra Tentación covered the song in 1971. After the Cuban Revolution, despite dwindling opportunities on the island, Espí continued to lead Conjunto Casino until 1974 when he retired from music and dissolved the group.

-Pablo E. Yglesias 

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