CD: Che! (1969)

December 15, 2014 | By


Che_CDScore: Excellent

Label: Aleph Records

Released:  1998

Tracks / Album Length:  16 tracks / (45:58)

Composer: Lalo Schifrin

Special Notes:  Includes colour booklet.




Even though Fox’s Che! was a cash-in biopic – the film was released roughly two years after Che Guevara’s death – Lalo Schifrin approached the project as a golden opportunity to apply his musicological interests to the rhythms of Latin America.

The film soundtrack is more restrained in instrumentation, and parts suffer from edits designed to tightened the film to its rather short 90 mins., but the soundtrack album is another creature, offering richer and longer rerecorded versions, plus a few source songs heard briefly in the film.

Originally released on Bill Cosby’s short-lived Tetragrammaton Records and later reissued by AEI records, Che! never sounded great – why the recording is so poor remains a mystery – because although in true stereo, there’s a shrill distortion in high notes, and an overall dryness that robs the music of its incredible colour.

Twilight Time’s DVD isolates the film soundtrack in an isolated mono music track with characteristic edits and fades, so there’s no ideal presentation of Schifrin’s music. Even the composer’s own reissue of the rerecorded score on his Aleph CD label featured most but not all of the LP cues, and while the sound quality is considerably improved, it’s still a dry sounding album (newly recorded cues excepted).

Even if the music could be rerecorded, the energy level would be different because of the incredible talent involved in the score’s performance, especially the lavish percussionists handling an exotic array of Latin and African instruments; the best solution is a fantasy hybrid album that re-sequences the LP and CD tracks to something more fluid, and more faithful to the film’s narrative.

Che’s main theme is a lament which evokes a fallen heroic figure as Che Guevara’s body is seen reposed on a long table in the film. The LP version blends orchestra with native percussion and woodwinds, but it’s not a grandiose piece: groups of instruments slowly drift forward, adding a little more colour to the theme, and a warm bass line adds a little groove to the cue, but it remains a somber piece for the charismatic figure whose final years were devoted to agitating uprisings in neighbouring Latin American countries like Bolivia. The slow tempo is contrasted with some flowing strings, whereas the woodwinds chosen by Schifrin allude to Guevara’s Argentine roots and death in the Bolivian mountains.

The track “La Columna” follows the gathering of revolutionaries as they trek towards Havana, pushing forward in a wave of excitement. Schifrin begins the cue with African percussions in a lengthy intro before introducing strings and a variation of his main theme, with stirring harmonics and rhythmic accents on piano.

The theme next variation is among the score’s highlights – a gorgeous rendition performed exclusively on native instruments, with woody percussion claps and backbeats, light yet militarily precise drum hits, and ethnic woodwinds, while acoustic guitars strum heavily on opposites sides of the stereo spectrum. Also potent is “Charangos” with full orchestra and massive percussion which support some short but intense solos on piano and flute.

The mostly intimate “La Ruta” is designed to showcase piano, although there’s a midsection where strings luxuriously swell with warm tones. Schifrin’s use of low, breathy flutes adds subtext to the film’s first half in which tired revolutionaries struggle to survive within Cuba’s mountains, plotting strikes while morale wavers among the rank and file. It’s a simple cue that’s fully evocative of the men’s difficulties in staying disciplined, focused, and balancing tough political and social goals while longing for the comfort of their past lives in more placid, bourgeois surroundings (symbolized by the heavy strings). “Los Andes” is another cue light dance cue with flute and slight piano accompaniment, and is exclusive to the Aleph CD.

Unique to the AEI LP is the vocal “Tiempo Pasada,” a great song with a supporting male chorus with sparse instrumentation, and lovely rhythmic textures typical of the Cuban son. Also exclusive to the LP is a solo guitar version of the “Che” theme which is close to the version heard over the Main Titles. Slow, somber, and free from a fixed tempo, Schifrin’s acoustic version is a perfect summation of the controversial historical figure whose deeds were recorded in the history books, but not the fire that fueled his ambition. Schifrin recorded a new version for the Aleph CD featuring guitar, piano, and slight percussion that extends the theme’s melody to a meaty 6 mins.

Also exclusive to the CD is “Los Olvidados,” one of the newly recorded pieces which features two guitarists, sparse vocals, and intricately performed melodic material and rhythmic patterns. “Tango” is another CD-only track performed on guitar, as is “Malambo” with lively performances by dual guitarists, whereas the guitarists extract tender elements buried within the Che theme in the gently flowing “La Ultima Careta.”

“Los Andes” combines orchestra with ethnic woodwinds and while nice, feels a bit sudden on the Aleph CD, switching from the older, cruder recordings to a more pristine version with significantly different instrumentation. (Perhaps the cue was written for but never used in the completed score.)

Source cues include the Latin jazz “Fiesta Numero Uno” with trumpet, elliptical piano figures, and metallic percussion dominating this gyrating tune; and “Fiesta Numero Dos” is sly, alluring, yet more celebratory with flute and trumpets giving the theme variation a cantina sound. “La Barraca” is a more intimate piece with danceable rhythms, and features a great midsection where Schifrin’s piano seems to spiral endlessly.

Music rights may have prevented Schifrin from porting over all of the original LP tracks to his Aleph CD, but at least fans have cleaner versions of most cues with improved instrumental details and less high-end distortion. The newly recorded guitar material also feels more complete – they’re versions with full intros, middles, and finales, whereas some of the LP’s best cues – especially “Charangos” – fade away after hooking the listener with its magnetic offering of percussion textures and jazzy improv.

If Che’s ever re-recorded again, Schifrin has more than enough material to create a lengthy series of suites for jazz orchestra and Latin percussion. Now that would be a dream album.



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



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