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Posted August 12, 2003 by publisher in Cuban Music

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Reviewed by Chauncey Mabe

King Bongo | By Thomas Sanchez | King Bongo book on eBay

The title character of Thomas Sanchez’s King Bongo - set in Havana in 1957 - is an insurance man who does a little private investigation work on the side, or a private investigator trying to make the transition to insurance sales because the P.I. dodge is getting too risky. He is also a genius bongo player who sometimes takes the stage, unpaid, at the Tropicana.

The opening sequence begins with King Bongo driving along the Malecon and ends with an explosion that rips through the Tropicana and kills his sometime girlfriend, Mercedes, before Bongo’s eyes.

Born to a white American father and a black Cuban mother, Bongo and his sister, a dancer known as the Panther, are identical except that he is white with black hair while she is black with white hair. Sanchez beautifully delivers their back story through the eyes of Zapata, a police captain who is now Bongo’s enemy, but as a young man was present at the death of Bongo’s mother.

Outraged at news that Bongo’s father had cheated on her, she cut her throat in the bathtub of a cheap beach motel, leaving her distraught husband and children behind. The children attempted to drown themselves in the sea, but Zapata rescued them. After screaming over his wife’s body, Bongo’s father shaved the heads of his children and taught them music by wordlessly slapping their heads as though they were bongo drums.

Zapata, for his part, fell in love with the Panther, or at least with her charisma, even though she was only 7. By now, when Bongo is in his 20s, Zapata has succeeded in separating brother and sister, much to Bongo’s distress.

As Bongo seeks his sister, other characters seek their own destinies. Johnny and Betty PayDay seem a typical Midwestern couple on holiday, except that Johnny is a hit man for the Detroit mob and Betty is a knockout who catches the eye of the Bad Actor, a rakish pedophile patterned on Errol Flynn. Johnny is in Cuba to carry out a murder for crime boss Larry Lizard.

It doesn’t matter that Sanchez, a fourth-generation Californian of Portuguese and Spanish descent, has no roots in Cuba. He has found in the famously troubled island a locale, and a time, in which he can pursue his characteristic interests. And with the big, confident narrative style on display in King Bongo, he has found the perfect tool for bringing them to an audience likely to be well-entertained and appreciative.

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