To a ‘Babalu’ish New Year 2023!

Music

There’s always the guy who did it first — and did it great. Then there’s the guy who ‘covers’ the song, as did Desi Arnaz on October 19, 1946, recording this marvelous, if somewhat tamped down, version of Babalú years after the seductive anthem was associated with the original “Mr. Babalú,” Miguelito Valdés.

What on earth are these two men wailing about? Non -Spanish speakers will fascinated to learn:

Babalu. Babalu aye
Ta empezando lo velorio
Que le hacemo a Babalu
Dame diez y siete velas
Pa ponerle en cruz.
Dame un cabo de tabaco mayenye
Y un jarrito de aguardiente,
Dame un poco de dinero mayenye
Pa’ que me de la suerte.
Quiere pedi
Que mi negra me quiera
Que tenga dinero
Y que no se muera
Ah! Vo le quiero pedi a Babalu ‘na negra
muy santa como tu que no tenga otro negro
Pa’ que no se fuera.
Babalu. Babalu aye
Jungle drums were badly beating
In the glare of eerie lights:
While the natives kept repeating
Ancient jungle rites.
All at once the dusky warriors began to
Raise their arms to skies above
A a native stepped forward to chant to
his Voodoo Goddess of love.
Ah!
Great Babalu!
I ‘m so lost and forsaken
Ah, great Babalu

Arnaz, similar to others who follow, surely covered the song out of respect for Valdés. But it’s still a copy, a re-tread. But in 1947, Desi had the matinee idol looks and hip moves to make something more of this winsome song. It hit a vein in post-war America’s Latin fever. Arnaz not only had a hit, he had a theme song. The ‘second guy’ hitting pay dirt is a phenomenon throughout pop-music history — think Rolling Stones, think Elvis Presley, think Peggy Lee. It’s everywhere. And that is the story of “Babalúa” to my eye — and ear.

Like all red-blooded American women, I think Desi Arnaz was a dreamboat and muy-talented … but let’s listen to Miguelito Valdé’s chops on Babalu. I think Valdés’s piercing voice and burbling authentic scatting slightly more compelling.

Here’s a killer rendering of the song by Desi, loosening his tie in that matinee idol way and wailing on his conga drum.

So ya’d think they were sworn enemies. In fact, according to this story out of Miami, the two soneros were pals. Baba-buddies.

Valdés and Arnaz were good friends and a friendly competition developed between the two over “Babalú.” Legend has it that they would take turns showing up unannounced at each other’s nightclub performances and wait patiently in the audience for “Babalú” to begin, then launch into a mock-competition over the song with each trying to out-do the other.

Read the entire story in the Miami’s South Beach Magazine.

Now that sounds like fun. Enjoy both — and have yourself a Babalu-ish 2023!

artsmeme wishes to thanks The Wolfsonian–FIU for the incredible photo of miguelito valdes.

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