Ramón Urbina just cannot help himself. On the newly reissued Que Bellas Son, the Charallave, Venezuela-raised bandleader falls in and out of love with a new woman every time the trombones start up again. And if the four girls in hot pants lounging on its cover were not sufficient proof, then listen to the man himself. In a recent interview shared by El Palmas, the Barcelona label responsible for the reissue: “I dedicated [the album] to women because one always has the tendency to do things for them.”
Indeed one does. And one suspects that Urbina is the most lethal of seducers, one who — to borrow from (bear with me) the Mamma Mia! sequel — “genuinely falls in love every evening, only to fall out of it again the next morning.” As such, Moncho y Su Banda’s salsa is passionate and deliciously brassy but light on its feet. Sharpened by years on the Venezuelan club circuit, the band is tight as can be, but loosened up by the sambuca that allegedly flowed during studio sessions. Case in point: the rhapsodic piano interlude on album opener “Olvidame,” the harmony tossed over to the trombones at just the right moment.
And true to its genre and its historical moment, it’s shot through with sweeping emotion. The specific juxtaposition of musical liveliness with lyrics expressing desperation, devastation, and the like is analogous to the 20th century Latin American experience — carrying on, not unpleasantly, amidst an unstable sociopolitical climate. Venezuela of the ‘60s and ‘70s was no exception, still reeling from the Marcos Pérez Jiménez-led military dictatorship and flush with the cash and corruption that inevitably accompany sitting atop enormous oil reserves.
Salsa responded in kind, sometimes politically. Que Bellas Son’s dramatic emotional and music shifts, however, are almost exclusively directed toward the fairer sex. (That said, the band’s singers swell with Venezuelan pride and promise to do right by his country on the title track. Although they also remember to mention that Venezuelan girls are stunning and dance the best rumba.) On “Las 12,” he is forlorn as he watches the front door, desperate and clingy the moment she finally returns, then sours on her before the song is over. He’d die without her love on “Alma Rosa”; he bemoans her jealous ways on “La Envidia.” He considers fighting a married woman’s husband after getting lost in her smile (and then some) on “El Amor de una Mujer”.
Married or not, the love of a woman — the more torturous, the better — is fertile creative ground for Moncho y Su Banda. She’s always just out of reach, but 40 years on, Que Bellas Son is as accessible as ever.