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

It's impossible for locals to, say, congregate over dinner and not talk about how much New York City is changing. The warmth, the rebelliousness, the spiritual invocation of West African gods that protected many a passage, home, and neighborhood here—all of these aspects of life in the Bronx and El Barrio are captured in the zeitgeist of the Fania cultural movement. If you think about it, maybe it's not really surprising that both salsa and, subsequently, hip-hop were born in these boroughs. Lamentably, people today may be too consumed with saving their barrios—urban-guerilla style—from the ice-cold developers to nurture the same kinds of creative impulses. Sigh.

It's sort of the same maudlin longing that sparked a renewed interest in all things Fania last summer, dampened somewhat by the highly anticipated dud that was the Héctor Lavoe biopic El Cantante, but quickly resuscitated with the stirring Broadway musical Celia: The Life and Music of Celia Cruz, which just wrapped over Memorial Day weekend and honored the undisputed late queen of salsa and First Lady of the Fania All-Stars, who've captivated generations of salsa lovers the world over. But salsa aficionados need not panic: From the 300 or so classic albums, remixed joints, and compilations—culled from Fania's unrivaled catalog and reissued by the Miami-based Emusica label—to the tribute parties sporadically cropping up around town, there may be some salvation. And that's a good thing, because the music and culture of salsa is being passed down to younger folks whose parents and abuelos obsessively played and replayed whatever available music they had at home from Fania's massive catalog.

Even better, people are now able to replace shoddy copies, as well as purchase previously out-of-stock records for which there still exists a strong emotional attachment. And this relationship isn't exclusive to Latinos: Most every soul that ebbed and flowed in New York City during the '60s and '70s will hear something in the music that strikes an emotive chord within them. And today, for instance, the sixth-graders at my daughter's school have iPods brimming with Fania essentials in addition to the Rihanna, Daddy Yankee, and Chris Brown joints that inhabit almost every pre-teen's playlist.

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

But while many of these reissues are available online (and therefore easier to cop than a mail-order bride), it's really not enough. Or you can Netflix Our Latin Thing or Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars in Africa, or spend hours on YouTube searching for rare video clips, but that isn't enough either. To fully experience the frenetic legacy of this branch of Latin music and culture, you must be willing to go out and seek it. And once you make contact, you must be willing to let go and surrender to it.

"The world is changing," says Willie Colón, a protean figure in the salsa scene and the trombonist and composer behind of some of Fania's most prodigious artists, including Lavoe, Celia Cruz, and Panamanian Renaissance man Ruben Blades. These days, Colón serves Mayor Bloomberg as a liaison and adviser for the Latin Entertainment and Media Commission. (He still records, performs, and even tours frequently, too.) "I sigh when I'm driving through the Bronx and I see the old Hunts Point Palace, and it's just offices," he continues. "It was another time—and, you know, we long for that." True enough, but maybe we can change that, invoke the spirit, even if only for a few hours. Or maybe it's best to let bygones be and find satisfaction with all the music that's being made available to feed our famished appetite. And so the pendulum continues to oscillate from one extreme to the other.

"The violent, daily, embrace-yourself-to-get-vicked mentality—I don't miss that," says DJ and sneaker enthusiast Bobbito Garcia, caressing a copy of master drummer and Cuban jazz percussionist Ramón "Mongo" Santamaría's Mighty Mongo, an album that defines his childhood growing up on the Upper West Side and time spent at his aunt's hair salon in Spanish Harlem. His mother was a hairdresser—notably for Boricua salsero Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez, who was a founding member of the super-duper Fania All-Stars collective—and he was babysat by a whole community of women in dryers and rollers, numbers men, and vendors hawking underwear and guinepas on the corner. Bobbito's father, who was given a set of vibes as a gift by Tito Puente, used to open up for the Latin-jazz titan at the Palladium nightclub (now an NYU dorm).

As with many Latino-Americans, Bobbito's affair with his parents' music was a complex one. Initially, he associated it with his father's alcoholism: "As a child, I rejected it—growing up, Latin music represented to me, like, homeless dudes in my house that my father would pick up out of generosity to be his drinking buddies for a week." But years later, "I started getting into this music on a cerebral level for myself—a spiritual level. Ask me how my blood feels when I hear certain shit; you can't tell me that I don't have the indigenous spirit."

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