Hot. Warm. Scorching. Blistering. Broiling. Sweltering. Like a steam bath. Hotter than an oven…
Oh by the way, it is summer time too, so I suppose the above words could also describe the temperature, and not the music for this post! I don’t know about anyone else, but my listening habits often become defined by the temperature outside. Sure, I listen to lots of different types of music throughout the year, but certain styles seem more appropriate to the weather somehow. So it is that at this time of year here in New York when the first effects of summer start creeping in that I dig deeper into my collection for some Latin music. There is just something about the longer and hotter days, the wafting smells of barbecues on the weekends together with all the people hanging out on their front stoops, balconies, and fire escapes that really makes it feel like summer in the big city. Though New York City is culturally diverse, to me the sound of summer is made complete by the sexy Latin rhythms that dominate the sounds pouring out from those apartments or passing cars or heard on the boomboxes at those barbecues. It is a sound that in many ways IS New York because the development and popularity of it is largely based on the melting pot of the city.
What I love about being here is that in those vast rows of streets throughout the city, lots of interesting things happen. So often we think of cities about being the ‘showy’ attractions. The museums, the restaurants, the cultural sites. All those things are great of course, but New York is really about the people, and we all live in those vast sprawling neighborhoods spread out to the horizon like in the photo above. Neighborhoods defined by the different shapes, colors and heights of buildings, dotted with occasional trees and water towers, chimneys and air ducts. When seen from above, like this shot from my nearest subway stop, you can even see the patterns of the streets, sharp and precise lines that criss-cross the scene. Life happens here. Music, art, film, writing all happens here.
In those vast neighborhoods over the years, lots of music found a home and developed here and in most cases, is continuing strong. Jazz music still thrives here from its heyday nationally in the mid-20th century. Cabaret and Broadway are bigger than ever before. Long past its heyday in the late 50’s and 60’s, there still is a vibrant folk music community in New York. Experimental rock, soul, and hip-hop continues to be shaped by the New York landscape. On any given night, throughout the city can be found these and virtually every other type of music in clubs and concert halls. But to me, the defining sound of the city as a whole is Latin music, and that beat runs through virtually every corner of these streets.
The thing I love about the umbrella term Latin Music is that it encompasses so many diverse cultures and styles-salsa, merengue, bachata, son, plena, cumbia, ranchera, boleros, mambo, tango and even rock, pop, and hip-hop music with a Latin flair. The artists come from places like Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico and across Central and South America and the Caribbean. But here in New York, though every country and culture is represented by sheer factor of population, it is especially the music from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic that seems to dominate. Though I wish I could write about them all, it is specifically the development of salsa I have chosen for this post. The roots of the music lie in Cuban son, popularized in the past 20 years by the phenomenal film and subsequent album releases of the Buena Vista Social Club. Here in New York, that sound combined with music from Puerto Rico and after the stage was set with boogaloo, salsa exploded on the scene in the early 1970’s.
The deep roots of the music, and the story behind the rise of salsa would take many posts to explain, suffice it to say according to the most popular legend, a Venezuelan radio DJ coined the term to describe the mixture of styles happening in the clubs in New York. For it was here that a powerhouse group of musicians defined the music. Only including a short list of the key figures would include names like Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, Willie Colon, Ray Barretto, the Fania All Stars, and the great Tito Puente and Celia Cruz. From years of developing as a sound within these city streets, salsa became a world wide phenomenon, and could now be heard in clubs from London to Los Angeles. Though some players like Barretto and Puente moved on to a more Latin jazz sound eventually, others like Celia Cruz became the perpetual face of the music. She was, and will always remain the Queen Of Salsa.
My own familiarity with her music is limited to a few compilations I have, but when you are out on the streets, walking past those stoops and barbecues, it is inevitable that even now years after her passing that you are bound to hear some Celia Cruz at some point. Take away her Cuban heritage, and the salsa tag, and you are still left with one amazingly gifted singer. She could melt your heart with a tender bolero, or wrap her vocals around songs like the tongue twisting Tumbaloflesicodelicofamoso. With Tito Puente she easily rivaled any of the great jazz vocalists with sharp, precise arrangements, but as many of her collaborators mentioned, she could improvise with the best of them. But in the height of the salsa movement worldwide she became the music, punctuated by her catch phrase ‘Azucar’!
Obviously there was so much to choose from in a career that started in Cuba, then to Mexico City, then New York, then worldwide. But it is that sound that came to fruition here that I wanted to include. You couldn’t say salsa in New York in the 70’s without also saying Fania Records in the same breath who were the leading force behind the music. Together with the musicians of the Fania All Stars, and its leader Johnny Pacheco, Celia produced several albums, and it is from this collaboration that I have chosen the song Cucala. To someone not of the culture, looking in from the outside as it were, it clearly feels like the essence of salsa-the jaunty piano, the percussion and brass, and Celia’s own vocals weaving their way around the arrangement. When the weather is heating up and I want to hear some salsa, THIS is the type of song I want to hear!
That’s the great thing about being here of course. In those rows of streets and buildings there is a magic that happens sometimes. It might start with a simple thought, an idea of doing something slightly different. Of incorporating a sound you heard at a club the night before into something where it doesn’t necessarily belong on the surface. But that is how the best art is created- by trying new things and making them your own. As the weather outside becomes hotter, I’m thankful that I can hear the fruits of that creativity still, pulsing its way through the streets of this city as far as the eyes can see and the ears can hear.
Cucula-Written By Wilfredo Figueroa
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