Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 14, 2009

PBS Latin music documentary

Filed under: Latin America,music — louisproyect @ 4:13 pm

Departing from its usual stodgy, white bread fare, PBS has scheduled a two-part series on Latin Music. The first part aired last Monday night and can be viewed on their website as well, a benefit for those who are outside of the USA.

Part one focused on Afro-Cuban music and particularly the Fania Records phenomenon. When I was collecting vinyl records, I bought at least 50 Fania Records starting from the mid 70s until the label began to peter out after its sale in 1979. Fania was the place to go if you wanted to hear artists like Willie Colon, Ruben Blades, and Larry Harlow—all of whom are interviewed for this superb documentary. Now in their 50s and 60s, they reflect back on the golden age of Salsa, a term that was practically synonymous with the Fania label. The best way to think of Salsa is Afro-Cuban musician adapted to the streets of New York City. It is still played but without the passion and creativity of the 1970s. Like the jazz of that period, it was an art form that reached maturity and now exists only as a pale shadow of its golden age. And just as the Blue Note label epitomized classic modern jazz, so did the Fania label epitomize Salsa.

Part one puts Salsa into historical context, showing the importance of a Cuban musician like Israel “Cachao” Lopez who along with his brother Orestes López practically invented the Mambo in the 1940s. Cachao died in 2008 at the age of 90 but I had the great fortune to see him in concert. This is from my review:

While I’m sure just about everybody is aware of the phenomenon of Afro-Cuban music, or the derivative “salsa”, some words are in order about the origins of this music. Afro-Cuban music is distinguished by a rhythm known as “clave”, the Spanish word for key. This is a one-two-THREE, one-two beat that underlies all the various forms, from Mambo to Rumba to Charanga (what evolved into the 1950s dance craze, the cha-cha.) The music is characterized by improvisations on a repeated theme that grow in intensity. Imagine Ravel’s Bolero with a driving bongo beat and passionate lead singer and you get the idea.

The music is a marriage of African percussion and Spanish dance music that originated on the island of Cuba in the 1920s. A typical Afro-Cuban conjuto (band) consisted of African percussion instruments–bongo, timbale, conga–and some combination of brass, piano and strings. A key component was a coro (chorus) or lead singer who sang in a nasal, high-pitched style that evoked the folk singers of the countryside. Some musicologists speculate that this singing style was derived from the slaves’ attempt to vocally imitate the sounds of the guitar that they heard being played inside the plantation.

Two of the great pioneers of the style were the blind guitar player Arsenio Rodriguez and bandleader Benny More. Rodriguez adopted the polite danzon style of the predominantly white middle-class Cuban society and adapted it for performance in working-class African dance-halls in the 1930s. His driving guitar and the tight percussion ensembles that accompanied him captured the imagination of Cuban society. More’s band adapted the swing style of contemporaries like Count Basie and he performed before huge audiences in Havana throughout the 1940s and 50s. His music in turn influenced American Jazz, especially Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro-Cuban Jazz orchestras of the 1940s and 50s. Gillespie hired the Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo and the arranger Machito to help him incorporate the distinctive style.

Cachao…was born in 1918. He plays bass and was a member of the Havana Symphony orchestra for 30 years. He invented the Mambo in the 1940s. He arrived in the United States in 1963 and has never performed in Cuba since the revolution. Along with the singer Celia Cruz, Cachao is a symbol of the generation of Afro-Cuban musicians who felt more comfortable as expatriates. Cruz is an outspoken enemy of the Cuban revolution, while Cachao keeps his beliefs to himself for the most part.

Watching this show put me in a nostalgic mood, reminding me of my encounters with Latin music for over 50 years. Back in the mid 1950s, my Boy Scout troupe took Latin dancing lessons. We learned the mambo and the cha-cha-cha, which the documentary describes as a simplified Mambo. This was around the time of the Honeymooner’s episode when Jackie Gleason as the bus driver Ralph Kramden takes lessons as well. One of the most popular musicians of the time was Perez Prado, whose “Patricia”, a typical cha-cha-cha, was a huge hit.

In Kramden’s Brooklyn and the Catskill Mountains, where I grew up, Latin music was extremely popular with Jews. Larry Harlow muses that for some reason Jews took to Chinese food and Latin music. In the Borscht Belt hotels of my youth, you could always hear Tito Puente and other stars performing before adoring fans. Harlow was born as Lawrence Ira Kahn in Brooklyn in 1939. On his way to his classical piano lessons in East Harlem as a young boy, he was mesmerized by the sounds of Afro-Cuban music and resolved to become a Latin musician himself. Other Latin musicians referred to him as el Judio Maravilloso. Here’s the young Larry Harlow performing a classic Cuban tune “La Cartera”:

In 1966 I lived on the second floor of a tenement in Hoboken, New Jersey while going to graduate school. My apartment was above Felix’s restaurant, a lunch counter that catered to Latino longshoremen. This was long before Hoboken was transformed into a yuppie, hedge-fund manager playground. Sometimes I felt like I lived in Felix’s restaurant since the smell of bacon frying in the morning pervaded my apartment, as did the sounds of the juke box which blasted Latin music all day long. Although it is difficult to remember what they were playing, my guess is that it was what they call jibaro music, the sounds of the Puerto Rican countryside. As a Nuyorican, Willie Colon went back to the island frequently in order to learn how to play the music of his gente. The fruits of this labor was “There Goes the Neighborhood” (Se Chavó El Vecindario), an album featuring Hector Lavoe as lead singer and traditional Puerto Rican trombonist Mon Rivera.

A year later a friend who lived in the same tenement, who was always on the lookout for the latest thing happening in music, suggested we take in a concert featuring Eddie Palmieri who I knew nothing about. Palmieri did not record for Fania, but his albums were among the best-selling of that period. He is still going strong at the age of 73. Palmieri is an incredible song writer and pianist strongly influenced by Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner. And like Willie Colon and Ruben Blades, his music has always been socially aware without being didactic. Here he is in a 2008 performance of “Palo pa’ Rumba”. This is among the greatest music of the past half-century:


  1. I saw the documentary and a couple of things stood out.

    They do mention 1917 as one of the moments when huge emigration waves from Puerto Rico to New York started (composer Rafael Hernández was one of those). Unfortunately they don’t mention the fact that 1917 is an important year on account of it being the moment when, chronologically, US granted american citizenship to PR residents and later entered WWI. I don’t think its a coincidence…

    The word salsa was used mostly to describe a rhythm. That Izzy Sanabria uses it that way doesn’t mean its right. There was absolutely no problematization of the concept of salsa (Johnny Pacheco’s words to the effect that its just cuban music are just one dimension of the issue).

    Also, of course its impossible to mention every important figure in the development of the latin music movement in NY, but the absolute lack of attention to Eddie Palmieri’s contributions outside the Fania monopoly simply struck me. The emphasis on Fania’s stable was understandable to some degree, but still Palmieri’s absence was unforgivable (thanks Louis for mentioning him in your review).

    Finally, the comments of Jerry Massucci’s brother reminded me of your section on the “capitalist pig of the month”. His emphasis on the usual capitalist rhetoric of risk and entrepreneurship to sustain the exploitation of the musicians was of course symptomatic. At least now I know that Massucci’s bro was the one trying to stop Pacheco and the orchestra during the orgasmic conga duel between Ray Barreto and Mongo Santamaría in Congo Bongo at Yankee Stadium(see min 5:41 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZwe0uSyTCk)

    Comment by Ian J. Seda-Irizarry — October 14, 2009 @ 7:42 pm

  2. You might be interested in my discussion (with accompanying downloadable music) of the role of Afro-Cuban religion in latin music and jazz.


    Comment by ish — October 15, 2009 @ 3:09 am

  3. Nice page, Ish. Check out Steven Cherena’s spot on My Space also.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — October 15, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

  4. Here is the link to the 2nd part of the documentary:

    Comment by Ian J. Seda-Irizarry — October 17, 2009 @ 7:06 pm

  5. Nice stuff by Palmieri. I once saw him in concert, he and his crew left the stage for break, leaving a conguero to hold down the percussive end of the tune they were playing. Homeboy improvised with every sort of flight imaginable, until the band started filing back on to the stage ten minutes later, and as they sat and took position, picked up the “one” and went into a rendition of “Makuta”, a traditional Palo chant that flew. Amazing chops.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — October 17, 2009 @ 10:05 pm

  6. _Latin Music USA_ is avilable from Netflix on 2 discs. I just added them to my queue. The program looks great. Thanks for the tip, LP.

    Comment by Doug S — October 17, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

  7. I was watching latin music usa for the whole hour, I couldn’t wait for them to mention Eddie Palmieri. I’m still waiting 😦 To me he is the King of that era. From a musicians point of view I was never as impressed with Ruben Blades or Willie Colon as much as Palmieri and his brother Charlie. Those guys were amazing, and their music was the best. Also i would say just as inspirational as willie colon in the culture not to mention way more musically.

    Thumbs down, They should have called the second part history of Fania.
    Also i’ve read that Palmieri was actualy one of the first to incorporate flutes and violins. not johnny pacheco.

    Comment by Rick — October 25, 2009 @ 1:27 am

  8. anybody know of any other documentaries on latin jazz or salsa where they talk about Eddie Palmieri?

    Comment by Rick — October 25, 2009 @ 1:29 am

  9. Comment by Rick — October 25, 2009 @ 1:30 am

  10. Comment by Rick — October 25, 2009 @ 1:31 am

  11. Great stuff!. It would be interesting to follow the ‘routes’ of influences across the Caribbean and Atlantic. I am referring to the impact of ‘Cuban Son’ in western Africa in the 1950s, and years after some of the evolved ‘African Son’ forms coming back with sailors into the ports of LatinAmerica.

    Comment by musico — November 6, 2009 @ 11:58 am

  12. It was great watching the videos, you see as you did I also grew up in the 1950’s and I enjoyed all the hoopla. My parents were Millie Donay and Cuban Pete, so as a kid I spent my summers up in the Catskills, even a few summers as an adult at dance weeekends up in the Catskills. I agree that Eddie Palmieri was a great contributor. I use to sit next to him at the piano during rehearsals, it was so much fun. Thank you again….

    Comment by Denise Donay Gerard — October 9, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

  13. I was suprised that your documentary did not mention or vidio Arsinio Rodrequez .you gave credits to all of his students , but did not mention the he wad the máster . Is a student greater than his máster or teacher? Finaly, he was blind , your audiance really need this truthful and accurate information and that he was one of Jehovah’s wittness allleft out of your show.
    Lester Beasley
    Cool Guitar Music Corporation

    Comment by Lester Beasley — November 1, 2010 @ 10:45 am

  14. Since the roots are Afro-Cuban, I’m shocked at the dearth of actual Black/African artists represented. Celia Cruz and Cheo Feliciano are the only ones really represented. These guys are Puerto Ricans in NYC. What about Ismael Rivera the great Puerto Rican singer and composer?!?! He composed and sang some of the greatest Puerto Rican salsas ever, including his great anthem “Las Caras Lindas de Mi Gente Negra”. He was also active in NYC in the early 1970’s. Without Ismael, you don’t have Hector Lavoe. I agree with Willie Colon, Ruben Blades’ arrival is the death of salsa. He turned it into watered-down pop-music!

    Comment by Samba Addict — May 7, 2017 @ 2:11 pm

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