New Yorkers Use Classic Salsa to Fight Gentrification

New York's salsa scene, still going strong in Spanish Harlem, valiantly beats back the McCondo purge

I almost broke my neck the other day, walking across the intersection of Third Avenue and 109th Street in Spanish Harlem—better known as El Barrio—to pick my daughter up from school. I whirled around at the sight of a man I thought didn't exist anymore in New York City. He was a local titere (a street tough), sauntering down the very same "Calle Luna, Calle Sol" that salsa legend Héctor Lavoe sang about on a song from friend and fellow icon Willie Colón's classic 1973 album, Lo Mato. The cautionary tale, sung in Spanish, warns the citizens of John Lindsay's New York to stay clear of the matóns (hoodlums) locking down the streets unless they're prepared to go fisticuffs, or worse. But here, in 2008, the older, weathered man—well into his fifties—strutted right past me rocking a beaded Puerto Rican flag necklace and matching T-shirt, carrying a shoddy boombox on his shoulder that blared yet another of Lavoe's many emblematic collaborations with Colón, "Che Che Colé," from its rustic speakers. I couldn't help but flash back to a rare interview—obviously one of his last, now canonized on YouTube—wherein a melancholic, barely recognizable Lavoe slurred that "Che Che Colé" was, to him, the most indelible song among all his nonpareil repertoire, because it transported him back to happier days when he had money, and his wife Nilda and son Héctor Jr. were in his life. Sung in the authentically jibaro, rural timbre that makes every listen a visceral experience, the opening track off Colón's (recently remastered) 1969 long-player Cosa Nuestra feels like an astral excursion into the countryside of Lavoe's native Puerto Rico. But to hear it now? In Manhattan?

So this dude, this fiftysomething titere, was tripping, I thought. Maybe he's doing a run-through on the bustling avenida with the cumbersome yet super-fresh stereo relic because the Puerto Rican Day Parade—perhaps the single biggest local-pride event on the El Barrio calendar—is around the corner (it's this weekend, in fact), and, as a Nuyorican, his game had to be tight. Either way, although I've heard the track at least a zillion times over the years, I will never hear it again without thinking of homeboy. Coño hombre, I can't pinpoint exactly why, but I profoundly dug it.

And while we're on the subject of throwbacks to a pre-gentrified New York, Ellegua—the funky trickster god carried to the New World by enslaved Yorubas, and to the States by Caribbean Latinos like those in El Barrio—left me hanging at a spiritual crossroad. I'm sinking, perhaps like you are, into a pit of nostalgic quicksand faster than Donald Trump can rename our beloved neighborhoods Sobro (South Bronx), Soha (South of Harlem), Noha (North of Harlem) and—gulp—Spaha (Spanish Harlem). These blasphemous epithets—invented by the ruling class in order to invade our ethnic 'hoods and, let's face it, replace the locals with newer, richer settlers (sound familiar?)—are bleaching the demographics of our urban centers faster than the tyrant Rafael Trujillo could his own mulatto skin. I don't feel like I'm the only one fixing for a resurgence, a desire to journey back into decades past when the city was teeming with movement and creative energy.

Willie Colón, ripe for rediscovery
Emusica Records, from the Fania Archives
Willie Colón, ripe for rediscovery
Héctor Lavoe
Emusica Records, from the Fania Archives
Héctor Lavoe

As a die-hard, Harlem-born local and Dominican nationalist (riding for Haiti), I've been feeling melancholic about just how much my beloved city has changed during the span of just a couple years. I think love blinded me at first, because while the neon signs were blinking all around me, I chose not to see them. And now, like so many other folks here, I'm contemplating whether to throw in the towel and go with the gentrified flow of the city, or defiantly immerse myself in the romantic notions of a bygone era. I'm ambivalent, because there are still many reasons to love New York—safer streets and subways, ethnic diversity, yummy restaurants throughout Queens—even though it's a lot harder to taste the sabor, the spice of life, here.

Perhaps you may have already come to terms with the sad truth that New York City is losing its grit and character. So, thank todos los santos that at least Spanish Harlem, while falling prey to the McCondo fever that's been sandblasting the city over the last several years, is still one of our last cultural enclaves. You can still spot throwbacks to the late '60s and '70s, when Fania Records' stellar roster, led by the late Jerry Masucci and Dominican flautist and bandleader Johnny Pacheco, developed its house brand of salsa picante: a perfect, clave-driven collision of rhythm and blues, charanga, boogaloo, changüi, son, Palo Monte, bomba y plena, big band, and Latin jazz, while the aberikola batá drums—descended from the Lucumí (ethnic Yorubas enslaved in Cuba)—caused a collective heartburn throughout the city and abroad. The socially conscious messages (underlining pan-Africanism, self-determination, corruption, and peace) carried within its polyrhythms added to the critical discourse of what everyday life was like for Nuyoricans and Latinos here.

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