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

Holed up in his Harlem apartment, Bobbito was selecting records for a set at the Fania Tribute Party at S.O.B.'s that night, in celebration of his friend and Bay Area DJ Sake 1's new mix, Fania Live 03 (From the Fresh Coast). "No corporate takeover of what we do can totally suppress our energy," Bobbito says. "So yeah, while there might be a Washington Mutual on every corner, or a Rite-Aid, I make the conscious decision to go to Black Star Video on 129th and Lenox instead of Blockbuster." For him, preserving the best of New York is as important as putting that era's tumultuous past—Watergate, Vietnam, the Cuban missile crisis—to rest. In peace. Anyway, this generation has its own share of demons to exorcise.

Later in the evening, at S.O.B.'s, it's apparent that the music is resonating with the motley group of twenty- and thirtysomething Latino- and African-Americans, Asians, and Arabs—everybody—who are dressed to the nines. Tonight isn't about quantity (the club is about two-thirds full), but rather quality (the die-hard aficionados in the house will be calling in sick tomorrow morning). The dance floor is packed with dancers, some good, others not, but whatever. Who cares? Everyone is having a good time, venting and gyrating their hips in a frenzy, and forgetting—if only for a moment—everything but what's in the here and now.

"I think the resurgence in Fania reflects the need for some Latinos and New Yorkers to preserve the 'old school,' " says DJ Sake 1, 35, who's already hosted Fania tributes with Bobbito in San Francisco and Los Angeles. He fears that today, we're lacking "not just the grit and flavor, but the affordable housing, the functioning public schools, the social services for poor people." The tracks he chose to remix on Fania Live 03 embody the culture of national liberation (Eddie Palmieri's "Justicia"), nation-building (Orquestra Flamboyan's "Paz" or Colón and Lavoe's "La Murga"), and Afro-Latino identity (Colón and Lavoe's "Ghana' E" and "Aguanile") that resonated throughout Fania's trajectory.

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

This very deliberate incorporation of all things Lucumi also attracted Sake 1, who has assumed salsa producer and composer Larry Harlow's spiritual mantle by becoming another "Marvelous Jew" initiated as a priest in the Afro-Cuban faith variously known as la Santería, la Ocha, la Religión Lucumí, or simply the Yoruba religion. Regardless of race, there's a transcendent quality in the religion—especially as it relates to the music—that takes hold of anyone open enough to submit to its will: The Fania collective did, and this is reflected within the overwhelming Afro-Cuban grooves of their music and lyrics. We are all, for very different reasons, looking to reconnect to a Higher Being in a time when e-mails, texting, and other impersonal forms of communication have weakened the basic social infrastructure of our communities by expediting physical barriers in previously close-knit barrios.

Lavoe is arguably the most lionized figure to come out of Fania, due to the mystique surrounding his achingly short and tragic life: He died on June 29, 1993, at age 46, depressed and drug-addicted, from complications caused by AIDS. "Héctor Lavoe was a spirit, a communicator—and he was a really smart and funny guy," Colón remembers. "Héctor had enough of what we call labia [mother wit] that he would be able to size the people up [onstage] and start talking to them—whether it was Mexico or Peru or Venezuela—and he'd get them laughing. He didn't even have to sing."

To focus on the tragedy but ignore his legacy is a mistake: Lavoe pushed the artistic envelope to heights that would leave any other mortal light-headed. Let's rewind to his song "Aguanile." He fused incantations for the orisha Ogún—the patron of war in the Yoruba pantheon of gods—into the chorus, which took possession of everyone who came within earshot because it wasn't only a catchy tune, but a terribly engrossing one as well.

And then there were the double-headed hourglass drums, the batá, which made their way from Nigeria to Cuba during the transatlantic slave trade, eventually finding their way into Fania's repertoire. (Mongo Santamaría's "O Mi Shango" is a blaring example.) "When they started introducing aberikola [a type of batá drum] into the popular music, all the traditionalists were like, 'What the hell are you guys doing?' because it was one of the most sacred things about Santería and our culture," recalls Carlos Sanchez, a New York–born babalawo (Ifa priest) of Cuban descent who's played the shekere (a percussive instrument made of a dried gourd covered with a beaded net) and batá drums with his godfather, Eugenio "Totico" Arango, for decades, as well as the masterful Orlando "Puntilla" Rios. "The traditionalists were having a fit. And then people were put in awe when hearing these rhythms put in our popular music."

And, of course, there was a dance element that only added to the buzz of diving in. "People on the dance floor sacando los pañuelos [taking out their handkerchiefs], tirando sus pasillo de Santo [throwing in a sacred dance step here and there]—it just added that extra element and made it all the more exciting," Sanchez continues. Although not in an ongoing, formal manner, there are still pockets around the city where a semblance of this flavor exists; you just have to be willing to search a little harder for it.

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