October 25, 2021

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Put on those dancing shoes and celebrate the Afro-Boricua soul of salsa


Oct. 11 is still on (most) books as Columbus Day. I’d rather pay homage to the Indigenous people of the Caribbean.

Anacaona was the legendary female Taino cacique (chief), from the island now known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Anacaona was hanged by the Spanish invaders for treason, but her memory lives on in the hearts and souls of the people of the islands.

The late (and great) Black Puerto Rican salsa singer Cheo Feliciano pays tribute with his rendition of “Anacaona,” which is sure to get your feet tapping. 

Lyrics, in both Español and English:

Anacaona, india de raza cautiva
Anacaona, de la región primitiva
Anacaona, india de raza cautiva
Anacaona, de la región primitiva

Anacaona, Indian of captive race
Anacaona, from the primitive region
Anacaona, Indian of captive race
Anacaona, from the primitive region

Anacaona, areito de Anacaona
India de raza cautiva,
alma de blanca paloma…Anacaona
Anacaona, areito de Anacaona
Pero india que muere llorando,
muere pero no perdona, no perdona no
Anacaona, areito de Anacaona
Esa negra negra que es de raza noble y abatida
pero que fue valentona ¡Anacaona!
Anacaona, areito de Anacaona

Anacaona, areito of Anacaona
India of captive race,
soul of white dove … Anacaona
Anacaona, areito of Anacaona
But india who dies crying,
dies but does not forgive, does not forgive
Anacaona, areito of Anacaona
That black black woman who is noble and downcast
but that was valentona Anacaona!
Anacaona, areito of Anacaona

“Anacaona” was written by the acclaimed Afro-Boricua composer Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso.

Last November, music historian Tomas Peña profiled Curet Alonso on his blog, Jazz de la Peña.

Any discussion about popular Puerto Rican music is remiss without the name Tite Curet Alonso. In a career that spanned roughly 30 years, he was one of the most prolific and vital composers in Puerto Rico’s history.

[…]

When he was fifteen (1965) he composed his first tune and had his first big hit titled, Efectivamente with Joe Quijano. Initially, Fania Records hired Tite Curet as a promoter, but they quickly realized he was a gifted composer. His first worldwide hit was La Gran Tirana, interpreted by La Lupe.

Throughout his career, he composed roughly 2000 songs. Of those, about 200 were hits, and 50 are widely considered salsa classics. A short list of the artists who interpreted Tite Curet’s compositions include Joe Quijano, Susana Baca, Airto Moreira, Iris Chacon, Willie Colon, Cheo Feliciano, Celia Cruz, La Lupe, Tito Rodriguez, Olga Guillot, Mon Rivera, Hector Lavoe, Ray Barretto, Ruben Blades, Los Papines, Son 14, Tito Puente, Ismael Miranda, Roberto Roena, Bobby Valentin, Marvin Santiago, Willie Rosario, Andy Montanez, Ismael Rivera, Rafael Cortijo, Tommy Olivencia, and Frankie Ruiz.

The big band sound in “Anacaona”—with the amazing horn section and the piano solo by Papo Lucca—as well as watching Cheo’s interaction with the dancers, made me think about the fact that back in the day, people like my parents danced to the big jazz bands like those of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway. When jazz got the reputation of being “music for serious listeners only,” the musicians who inherited the dance mantle were Latin bands.

Feliciano died in a tragic automobile accident on April 17, 2014. Immediately after his death, graffiti artists BG183 and HEF painted this mural in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, which has a large Puerto Rican population.

Murals celebrating Feliciano continue to be painted to this day; this one is in Puerto Rico.

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While surfing through YouTube for Feliciano songs to post in this story, I came across a video from the Telemundo daytime TV series El show de las 12, which ran for 40 years. I couldn’t find the broadcast date.

It is a stunning performance by Feliciano with the Joe Cuba Sextet, though it isn’t the Latin boogaloo for which Joe Cuba became famous. Afro-Boricua “cantante” Jimmy Sabater not only shows his chops as a crooner in his famous ballad sung in English, “To Be With You”; first released in 1963, he also demonstrates his mastery on timbales.

There is no way to talk about salsa music without exploring its “other half”: salsa dancing. In 2017, the Museum of the City of New York mounted an exhibition called “Rhythm & Power: Salsa in New York,” which brought the halves together. The museum promoted the exhibit with this short video.

“Rhythm & Power: Salsa in New York” illuminates how the diversity of New York City gave rise to salsa, an up-tempo combination of percussive Latin music and poly-rhythmic, Afro-Caribbean infused dance. The exhibition brings the history of salsa in New York to life through a collection of nearly 100 objects—from Tito Puente’s musical instruments to garments worn by Celia Cruz.

The New York Times’ review, written by Jon Pareles, noted that the exhibit offered “A Little Bling, a Little Politics, [and] a Lot of Salsa.”

“Rhythm & Power” celebrates the Latin music that was forged in New York City from diverse Caribbean, Pan-American, African and European styles, and savvily marketed under the catchall term salsa. Musicians initially disliked the word; they preferred more specific designations like rumba or bolero. But using “salsa” could “put everything under one roof,” said the Dominican musician Johnny Pacheco, who was the chief executive and creative director of Fania Records, which popularized the term. Calling the music salsa blurred specific national origins, drawing a broader audience in the New York City melting pot.

Salsa in its heyday — from the 1960s into the 1980s — was simultaneously an outlet for immigrant traditions, an experiment, an evolving art form, a cultural bulwark, a commercial product and, at its most idealistic, a voice for social change. It was also purposefully irresistible dance music: movement for a movement. “Rhythm & Power” touches on all of those roles.

Like so much art of the African diaspora, salsa is made not for typical museum-style contemplation, but for motion and participation. Entering the compact but copious exhibition, visitors are greeted by a video projection displaying dance steps, perhaps to carry them through the rest of the show, which has salsa playing unobtrusively through speakers. Around the room, artifacts from musicians — instruments, album covers, stage wear, sheet music — are displayed, pointedly, alongside photographs of dancing audiences and memorabilia from dancers.

Twitter offers some images from the exhibit.

Co-curator Jessica Lipsky wrote about putting the exhibit together.

Salsa is more than music. A movement born abroad and nurtured by immigrant communities in the heart of New York City, the uptempo, percussive and horn-driven music combined Latin and Afro-Caribbean rhythms to create the first pan-Latin musical genre that reflected the people who performed, enjoyed and danced to its beats.

Take a look at the artifacts and photographs displayed, including some of the Palladium Ballroom photos from LOOK Magazine photojournalist Frank Bauman.

For any salsa dancers reading, there’s an entire website dedicated to serious practitioners (and not just those in New York City), with lists of dance tunes and advice for DJs. As a salsera myself (though due to the COVID-19 pandemic I’ve hung up my dancing shoes … for now), Roberto Roena, may he rest in rhythm, is one of my all-time favorite musician-dancers. 

Roena died in September; Neil Genzlinger wrote his New York Times obituary.

Roberto Roena, a dancer who became a bongo player who then became a bandleader, along the way establishing himself as a leading figure in salsa and some of its best-known bands, died on Sept. 23 in Puerto Rico. He was 81. […]

Mr. Roena was best known as the founder of Roberto Roena y Su Apollo Sound, which released a string of well-regarded albums in the 1970s, salsa’s heyday. He was also a member of the Fania All-Stars, a group formed about the same time to showcase stars of the Fania record label, which was often described as the Motown of salsa.

Onstage Mr. Roena was a whirlwind, dancing out front while banging a cowbell when he wasn’t playing bongos. Apollo Sound was still getting crowds dancing decades later. “The music always darted forward, driven by the sound of metal being struck by wood,” Peter Watrous wrote in The New York Times in 1998, reviewing an Apollo Sound show at the Copacabana in Manhattan. “Mr. Roena’s placement of notes, the way they fit into patterns, brought the audience and the musicians together in a form of personal rhythmic transcendence. Mr. Roena has that kind of power.”

The Music of Puerto Rico website offers more about Roena.

Roena was born on 16 January 1940, in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. A noted salsa bandleader, Roena actually began his musical career as a dancer and was known as “El Gran Bailarín” (The Great Dancer). While performing as a dancer and chorus singer with Cortijo y Su Combo, the band’s leader Rafael Cortijo gave Roena his first percussion lessons. He stuck with the bongos and became a member of Cortijo’s band between 1957 and 1962 as a percussionist.

He later moved to the orchestra of Mario Ortiz. After some months with Ortiz, Roena was asked to become part of El Gran Combo and he seized the opportunity. But he was not alone. Seven others, led by pianist Rafael Ithier, defected from Cortijo’s Combo in May 1962. The new group would go on to international fame.

Watch Roena and his uncle, Anibal Vasquez, throw down some suave salsa moves—together and solo.

Pete Nater wrote about Vazquez on his blog, Salsa Legends and Masters Academy:

Anibal Vazquez [is] considered one of the last of the great mambo dancers from the New York City Palladium era. Anibal Vazquez was a member of the legendary dance team ” The Mambo Aces.” His peers included the great dancers and bandleaders of Latin music. Anibal collapsed while dancing at New York City’s Copacabana on June 29, 1999. He was rushed to Roosevelt Hospital where he died the following day at the age of 73.

As many of my readers may know, I have been following events and conditions in Puerto Rico daily, ever since Hurricane Maria devastated the island more than four years ago. Only a few short weeks after Maria, social justice philanthropist activist Leticia Peguero used salsa music history as a metaphor for conditions on the island. 

I am yet again drawn to the musical wisdom of Afro-Boriqua singer Ismael Rivera and composer Cortijo as I reflect on a national crisis. While its melody is upbeat and beautiful, “El Negro Bembón” does not convey the seriousness of the song’s message. “El Negro Bembón” tells us the story of a black man who is murdered. When questioned by a black policeman, the killer unapologetically admits he killed the man because he has big lips—“un bembón” in Spanish. The lyrics also allude to lynchings and the coping mechanisms communities of color have had to create and endure when faced with acts of violence. It is a song of consciousness rising and political satire that feels extremely relevant, even though it is quite old.

These days, when I listen to “El Negro Bembón” it feels as if the song was written for this very moment. It is the story of the targeting and hypervisibility of a community, or parts of a community, when a certain narrative is at play. This hypervisibility, which lives concurrently with the invisibility of communities of color, is the conundrum of racism: We are either completely visible and, therefore, vulnerable in ways that do not reflect our humanity or invisible, even when in plain sight. This is the story of so many of our brothers who have been overpoliced because of who they are. It is also the story that we are watching unfold in response to the brown and black citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Here is Ismael Rivera performing “El Negro Bembon,” with Cortijo y su Combo, in a scene from the 1959 film Maruja.

Last week, Ismael Rivera Day was celebrated in Puerto Rico.

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He is a national hero, though one with flaws—which his biographer, Rosa Elena Carrasquillo, addresses in her book, The People’s Poet: Life and Myth of Ismael Rivera, an Afro Caribbean Icon, .Pedro Reina-Perez reviewed the book for Revista: The Harvard Review of Latin America.

In 1954, Maelo and Cortijo soon joined forces in Conjunto Monterrey where Cortijo played bongos and Rivera, congas. Maelo gained a reputation as a clever lead singer with much creativity in improvisation. After a short stint in the U.S. Army, he returned home to become the lead singer for Orquesta Panamericana and shortly after rejoined Cortijo in his new Combo and went on to reach stardom traveling with the band to New York, Europe and South America.

At the same time this was happening, Puerto Rico underwent a dramatic transformation led by industrialization and by the development of tourism as a magnet for economic growth. Beachfront hotels with casinos were built, and the island was promoted as a tourist destination in the U.S. market with great success. Yet, for all the talk of modernization, people of color were not allowed in ballrooms and most hotels. Musicians had to enter through the service door. Cortijo y su Combo, however, challenged convention as they clearly defined themselves as mulatos and were in very high demand. They began playing in hotels, and with the advent of television became regulars in variety shows conquering the public with their unique sound. Crowds adored their original and defiant approach to plena and son. No other group had achieved so much fame in an island with such pervasive racism. They tested established prejudice and found extraordinary support in the general public. But when Ismael was arrested and charged for drug possession as the band was returning from playing in Panama, he and the band quickly fell from grace, experiencing a devastating blow to their popularity. Maelo served a four-year sentence.

[…]

Carrasquillo’s book approached Maelo’s biography not simply as that of an artist fallen from grace by his fame and fortune but that of a creator whose work brought down barriers in terms of social class and race. In her words, “Ismael illustrated a type of hero of postcolonial times in which heroism abandons patriotic martyrdom for daily survival. Particularly on an island where the U.S. Congress ultimately controls politics, Puerto Ricans give great significance to the realm of daily routines and culture as it is the only allowed possibility for imagining a nation.”

As noted above, Rivera challenged racism against Afro-Latinos.

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Rivera sings of the beautiful faces of his Black race; he describes them as “a parade of molasses in flower,” adding that “we are the molasses that laughs, the molasses that cries, we are the molasses that loves.”

Marcos Hassan wrote about Rivera for BandCamp in January.

Ismael “Maelo” Rivera’s impact on salsa can’t be overstated. The legendary singer was one of the first soneros, a type of vocalist within the genre who delivers fast, energetic, and often improvised verses to get the crowd going, making up stories, punchlines and even nonsensical words that fit with the rhythm. Rivera also helped put Puerto Rican salsa on the map. His work with Rafael Cortijo’s combo uplifted Puerto Rican music at a time when Cuba’s son, guaracha, and mambo were still the most popular forms of Caribbean music. This came at a time crucial to Puerto Rico’s history; in 1952, the island officially became a United States commonwealth, and there were a number of uprisings against colonialism throughout the early 1950s. Rivera brought in heavily percussive Afro-Latinx rhythms like bombas and plenas to the fore of salsa, accentuating the black influence on Latin rhythms early on. As an Afro-Latinx person himself, Rivera didn’t shy away from lyrics about social injustice, racism, Black spirituality, and Black pride.

Rivera was born October 5, 1931 in Santurce, Puerto Rico. He started his career singing in San Juan dive bars, often with his friend Cortijo, as a young teenager—when he was not working as a shoeshine boy, carpenter, or on construction sites. After being drafted and then discharged from the U.S. Army for not knowing the English language, Rivera dedicated himself to music, fronting Orquesta Panamericana until he was kicked out. Soon enough, he and Cortijo moved to New York, gaining notoriety by playing venues like the Palladium and the Manhattan Club alongside stars of the era like Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez. Unlike their Cuban contemporaries, they dispensed with sheet music, tight arrangements, and melancholic feelings, replacing them with wilder, off-the-cuff, fast and loose rhythms. They rode their fame to the top until Rivera was jailed for drug possession in 1962.

Rivera was released after spending almost four years in jail; during this period, he found himself trying to recapture the magic of his musical career. Suffering a backlash from club owners for his criminal record, Rivera reunited with Rafael Cortijo y Su Combo, trying to fit in with the boogaloo wave to a lukewarm reaction. His influence, however, had only gotten bigger. Artists from the Fania label—Puerto Ricans who played vibrant salsa with an edge—looked up to Rivera and adopted him as their own. Hector Lavoe asked Rivera for advice on being a good salsa singer, pianist Charlie Palmieri handled the arrangements on his records in the late ‘60s, and he became a regular on the label’s All Star live performances.

One of my favorites by Rivera is “La Perla.” Until Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” made La Perla a tourist attraction in 2017, few outsiders and many islanders would ever go into La Perla, which has the same type of “scary” reputation in Puerto Rico that many Black urban areas face in the United States—as I discussed in 2017. 

Clearly, Ismael Rivera is at home in La Perla, with his people.

For those of you who might be interested in learning more about the roots and evolution of salsa, check out The History of Salsa from Africa to New York, a documentary from Colombian researcher and salsa promoter Dj MonntunnO..

I could sit at the computer all day, posting salsa songs from a long long list of my favorites, but alas, I have to give my beloved editor a break (Ed. Note: Thank you!). Got your dancing shoes ready? Come baila conmigo in the comments!





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