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NYC: Where Styles, Generations and Politics Happily Meet


September 11, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rican pride and New York City innovation danced into the night at the 26th annual New York Salsa Festival on Saturday at Madison Square Garden. The concert doubled as a political rally, with appearances by candidates for mayor (Fernando Ferrer) and City Council (Felipe Luciano) and a performance by Willie Colón, the only candidate for public advocate who sings, plays trombone and has been transforming Caribbean music for decades.

The concert was dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the Fania All-Stars, a loose aggregation (named after the Fania record label) that has included virtually all of New York's best Latin singers and instrumentalists. In the 1970's the Fania All-Stars' version of Latin music – built on Afro-Cuban basics, played largely by Puerto Rican and Nuyorican musicians, and open to ideas from jazz, soul and rock – made its way from Manhattan jam sessions to arenas around the world. The group and the label also put the term salsa in circulation as the category for all sorts of Afro-Caribbean dance music, new and old.

Saturday's show had a streak of nostalgia now that Latin pop, merengue and hip-hop have challenged the domination of salsa. (Even the word salsa is giving way to a new term, tropical.) The video screens sometimes showed parts of "Nuestra Cosa," the Fania All-Stars movie from 1974, while the pianist Larry Harlow made an entrance in full 1970's regalia: fringed jacket and a curly wig complete with long sideburns.

The All-Stars have never attached themselves to one style. As true New Yorkers, they stay omnivorous. Backing the singer Adalberto Santiago, they harked back to jazzy big-band mambos from the 1950's. Accompanying Mr. Colón in "El Gran Varón," they moved from hymnlike piano to trombone-driven salsa while he sang about the life and death of an AIDS patient.

One of the All-Stars' mainstays, Yomo Toro, plays the cuatro, a 10-stringed guitar from rural Puerto Rico, but he deployed it with urban audacity, moving from traditionalist riffs to high-speed runs and jazzy dissonances. The pianist Richie Ray and the singer Bobby Cruz took over the band for songs that fused salsa with soul and merengue. As Rubén Blades sang his lean, percussive story-songs, the Latin Madness dancers acted out the life and death of "Pedro Navaja," Mr. Blades's answer to "Mack the Knife." And backing Cheo Feliciano, the All- Stars took up the old Cuban style called danzón, with their leader, Johnny Pacheco, taking the flute solo.

The core of the Fania All-Stars is descarga, the Latin-jazz jam, and as they revived old songs, they recharged them with improvisation. Ray Barretto on congas and Nicky Marrero on timbales sparked the rhythm section, while the two main pianists, Mr. Harlow and Papo Lucca (who was praised by the singer Ismael Quintana in a song), each found ways to lace the percussive dance riffs called montunos with bristling jazz harmonies.

Part of the show was given over to tributes to lost members of an older generation. El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico opened the concert with glistening, brassy mambos, including a few addressing the connections between Puerto Rico and New York City; it also paid tribute to Tito Puente, splicing a videotaped timbales solo by Puente into a song praising him. The Fania All-Stars' set included tributes to the singer Pete (El Conde) Rodriguez, with his children Pete Jr. and Cita singing some of his old hits, and to Hector Lavoe, who was eerily impersonated by Domingo Quiñones.

Yet even as he imitated Lavoe, Mr. Quiñones slipped contemporary comments about Vieques and the mayoral campaign into his improvisations. The All-Stars' salsa takes history for granted while it's busy moving feet, hips and hearts.

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