Tito Puente 1923-2000

La Ultima Cumbancha

"Tito Puente made money, but he spent it because he was a cumbanchero," bandleader and East Harlem Music School head Johnny Colon told me several years ago. "Hell, all musicians are cumbancheros. That's why they don't have any money. That's why I don't."

Cumbanchero. It was a word from a classic Latin tune, "El Cumbanchero." A party animal. But Tito didn't blow it all in cumbancha. After more than a half-century of success, even a cumbanchero like Tito was doing well enough to open his own restaurant in City Island. He just kept working to the end, so he could keep the cumbancha going.

Now it's over.

I walked in toward the finale, la ultima cumbancha, as they say on the street. Oh, but what I would give to have been there during the mambo era, the era of the Palladium and the duel of the two Titos, Puente and Rodriguez, both Puerto Ricans who had taken the Cuban mambo and made it their music and now were rivals in the New York Latin dance scene. For Afro-Latin music is all about gladiatorial competition, fan loyalty as fierce as that of hometown sports teams.

The '50s were the Puerto Rican years in New York. Massive immigration from the island transformed the city and gave it a beat of an intensity not heard since the days when the music of Harlem took over. But African American rhythms were cool and subdued compared to this Latin invasion. In the Spanish Caribbean the drum rules. Hand drums, like the sharp bongos and the big-voiced congas. But also the double drums beat with sticks—drums that Cubans call pailas (basins) most of the time, but that are also known as timbales.

Cubans—I'm one—have dirty minds, and there are so many double meanings; you walk through the Spanish language as if through a minefield. You'd never ask a percussionist to play the timbales for you, because that would be asking him (or her—I'd sure ask Sheila E.) to touch your balls. Since Cuban music is the root of so many Latin grooves, Cuban terminology prevails. Yes, Tito Puente has always been known as a timbalero. No slouch when it came to funky humor, he once said that the initials by which he was known, T.P., stood for "tremendo punto"—which when applied to a woman would mean a big slut, but in Tito's case meant a stud.

In fact, he was known by a diminutive: Tito, from Ernestito—Little Earnest. In 1923, Ernestito was born in East Harlem, El Barrio, where the music we call salsa would also be born from the evolution of the mambo and other Afro-Cuban genres. A working-class child of Puerto Rican immigrants, Tito was definitive New York, in his speech patterns—usually more English than Spanish—and in his mix of old-fashioned courtesy with street gruffness. I look at his old albums and see this young Spanish-looking kid with slicked-back hair, and try to match it to the older, slightly portly man with white curls I knew—in the radical '70s, he'd sported a full-blown Afro, as did most salsa musicians.

He goofed with the audience, he closed his eyes and opened his mouth in a grimace of orgasmic ecstasy, and he did those trademark swings of his arms above his head: Santeria moves for a 'despojo,' a good riddance to bad spirits.

But what amazes me more is the sophistication of the music in those old recordings: intricately arranged orchestrations of hot Latin dance grooves—mambos, cha-chas, and jazz-influenced versions of Afro-Cuban ritual music. The music recalls Ellington and Basie and Kenton, except with the heat turned up. Way up.

It was one of those almost absurdly intricate orchestrations that first got me. Sometime around the mid '70s, when I was a college teacher, some of my Puerto Rican students decided I had sorry-ass musical tastes for a Latino, so they shanghaied me into a dorm room. They plugged up my mouth with some smoke and my ears with big headphones, while they spun me Latin sides.

In one number, Tito's band was doing a version of that Hispanic chestnut "Granada." Corny tenor music. Except Tito's version broke the song up and gave each handful of measures a totally different Latin dance beat, from Santeria rhythms to danzon, from rumba to son montuno, from mambo to cha-cha-cha.

A decade and a half would pass before I would come in direct contact with the New York Latin music scene. By then, I had heard the stories of the Palladium and the Cheetah, the Caborrojeno and the Corso. This last club was still open, and I caught its last couple of years. But Tito was already in another league. Concerts in major city venues. Jazz gigs. And, of course, the big salsa extravaganzas at Madison Square Garden.

He played with various-sized groups, from a small jazz combo to a big band. In many ways, I'm partial to the latter. And, though I enjoyed his jazz, I loved it when he was just being a salsa journeyman, giving the dancers a good time with traditional beats and letting a sonero carry the tune.

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