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Latin Music May Be Evolving, But It Can Never Grow Old


6 March 2005
Copyright © 2005 MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

NEW YORK - In late February, Eddie Palmieri was gigging at S.O.B.'s, the downtown Manhattan club that began as a Brazilian venue in the '80s and soon evolved into the top world-music showcase in New York. Still smoking, Eddie's keyboard playing was as deft as ever.

But this was no barrio club. World beat and jazz venues are where Eddie belongs these days, far from the East Harlem rent parties where he began, thrown by the young Ralph Mercado, who would become the city's top Latin promoter and a record label mogul. The last halcyon days of classic New York Latin music, music with deep roots in the Caribbean, music that spanned generations and nations, music that commingled with the deepest New York jazz, were the '80s.

Back then the masters of salsa -- a genre that evolved from the mambo craze that arrived with the Puerto Rican immigration of the '50s -- they were still commanding the Latin club scene. Pianists Palmieri, his brother Charlie and Larry Harlow, el judio maravilloso (The Marvelous Jew). Percussionist Ray Barretto. Flutist Johnny Pacheco, co-founder of the Fania label, which was to salsa what Motown was to soul. Tito Puente, who had segued from the mambo era to salsa. Trombonist Willie Colón. Celia Cruz.

Except for Cruz, these were all bandleaders. Some of their singers (soneros) were becoming superstars and starting their own bands, like Hector Lavoe and Ruben Blades, both with Colón's band. But for the most part, it was the instrumentalists who rocked the house, where people came not to listen to a crooner but to dance, dance, dance.


The decade brought changes. Puerto Ricans who made it were moving out of the barrio, while others were moving in. The biggest wave was Dominicans, who imported a genre already long established in the tropical Latin music scene, merengue. At first, salsa and merengue coexisted. But the latter started gaining ground as immigration exploded. And as Dominicans moved to Puerto Rico, merengue became a dominant genre in that island as well.

Other changes: The best selling genre in the Spanish-speaking world was Latin pop, the Julio Iglesias sound. A couple of salsa musicians and a producer had a bright idea: record those pop tunes with a salsa beat. The genre known as salsa romántica was born.

Traditionally, the classic bandleaders hired seasoned soneros, guys (and except for Celia and her fellow Cuban, the incendiary La Lupe, they were all guys) who sang in the old Cuban style: a timbre that owed much to African vocals, and an ability to improvise lyrics. But although some soneros were idolized in the barrios, they, like the bandleaders, were getting old. The new soneros were just pop singers with rhythm. They formed their own bands, and the only name on the bill was theirs.


In the ghettos that bordered and overlapped the barrios, a new sound was growing: rap. Dominicans, immigrants from other Latin countries, and young people with more experience on this side of the border than in their homelands, began to embrace the new sound. Trouble was that a Latin kid had to assimilate -- and many did -- into an African American to be down with the scene.

For a while at the turn of the decade there was a groove, with English lyrics spiked with Spanish, called Latin hip-hop -- a bespectacled, long-haired Puerto Rican called Marc Anthony was part of it. But what really took hold was dancehall reggae in Spanish from Panama, where the building of the Canal had attracted Jamaicans and other West Indians.

Dancehall reggae in Spanish was a natural for the barrio kids, hungry to hook up with the rap scene. In the barrios of Puerto Rico, always connected to those of New York, that sound grew strong under a new name: reggaeton, to this day, the sound of the barrio.

And the classic artists of salsa and merengue, -- genres that were sung, not rapped; played with instruments, not electronically remixed from someone else's recordings. Where did they go when the barrio music stopped?

''When Hector Lavoe and Mario Bauzá died, the music changed,'' says Dita Sullivan, who was a New York music journalist in the '80s. ``They were the heart and brain of Latin music.''

Lavoe was a white Puerto Rican from the sticks, a jíbaro (hillbilly) whose back-country twang gave his singing its funk. He had been the sonero for Willie Colón, who redefined Cuban-based salsa in the '70s by adding influences from Brazil, Panama, Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries. ''By the mid-'70s, Hector already had his own band,'' Sullivan says. ``And his own hits.''

Bauzá was not an idol, but the brains behind New York's most respected Latin act, Machito and His Afro-Cubans. Machito's sound was not unlike that of the original mambo king, Pérez Prado, or his contemporary, Beny Moré. In fact, Moré's Alfredo ''Chocolate'' Armenteros was Machito's lead trumpeter. And Machito's musical director was his brother-in-law, Mario Bauzá.

Both were part of an early black Cuban immigration to New York that was the foundation of the city's Latin music scene. Bauzá worked with the jazz greats and his influence was unmeasurable. In the late '80s he was rediscovered, formed a big band and cut several albums. Then, at the peak of his new fame, he died in 1993 at age 82.

Lavoe died, too, that year, only 47, felled by a life of excess. It was around that time that Sullivan met and married Juan Carlos Formell, a gifted bassist and songwriter from a distinguished Cuban musical family. Today, Sullivan manages her husband's career, centered around the hip downtown scene, not the barrio. Formell is a member of the latest wave of Cuban musicians in the city, which includes flutist Oriente López and percussionist ''El Negro'' Hernández; their scenes are jazz and alternative, not salsa.

Salsa peaked with Ruben Blades, who wrote and recorded a salsa opera, Maestra Vida. In the late 80s, he left New York, dividing his time between an acting career in Hollywood and a political one in his native Panama, and recording critically acclaimed, innovative music, but basically out of the circuit. On the Dominican scene, Johnny Ventura, whose hip-swinging moves and double-entendre lyrics had made him a king of merengue, also went into politics -- he was elected mayor of Santo Domingo -- as did Willie Colón, the definitive New York salsero.

Colón was backstage at the Hostos Community College auditorium on Feb. 26, representing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in whose office Colón worked as his Hispanic advisor. He was reading a city proclamation declaring Joseíto Mateo Day, in honor of the 83-year-old Dominican artist. ''I'd like to get back into the music scene,'' Colón said wistfully. But though he gigged occasionally, a political career seemed more viable.

Mateo was another matter. He sang his old hits like El Negrito del Batey of the '50s, and though his voice was frail, he danced up a storm, outdoing the younger performers at the ''150 Years of Merengue'' retrospective.

He had been booked by Jessie Ramírez, a promoter/journalist who had built up Latin nights at mainstream clubs like the Copacabana in the '80s and '90s. More recently, Ramírez had found a niche as promoter of Latin nostalgia. There was an appetite, mostly in foreign countries, for the classics, like Mateo and Cuban percussionist Patato Valdez. So Ramírez took the old masters on tour.


To someone who had been around for the last glory days of New York Latin music, time had stood still at the Hostos auditorium backstage. There was Colón, a bit heavier but his eyes still twinkling with the mischief from his Bronx days, when he was known as El Malo (The Bad One). There was Millie Quezada, who with her sister and a band made up mostly of family members made up the first New York-based merengue act with the first women to front a band. There was Mateo, more energetic than any youngster. And there was Jessie, who never entered a venue through the front door but, like the protagonist of Goodfellas, knew his way instinctively through backstage labyrinths.

It made an old denizen of the scene feel surprisingly young, in spite of signs of the passing of time among his peers. After all, if an octogenarian could kick up a storm on stage, what was starting one's 60s? Kid stuff.

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