Tite Curet Alonso, the legendary 72-year-old Puerto Rican composer, musicologist, and journalist, spent four months helping Paul Simon research roots music for his ill-starred Broadway musical The Capeman. But Alonso says Simon was only interested in adding a slight Latin tint to his own sound, rather than engaging in the kind of cowriting venture that would infuse his score with authentic Afro-Latin color.
In La Vida Misma, a book of essays currently seeking bilingual publication on the mainland, Alonso celebrates the roots of the bombas, plenas, boleros, and rumbas Simon ignored. He gets anecdotal about Rubén Blades, La Lupe, Cheo Feliciano, Hector LaVoe, and even Fania Records mogul Jerry Massucci — all people who scored hits with some of Alonso’s most provocative material. It was, in fact, the public’s enthusiasm for Blades’s recording of Alonso’s “Plantacion Adentro” (about captive Indian populations being worked to death) that convinced Blades the U.S. salsa audience was ready for even more incendiary social commentary. Tite was also way ahead of Rubén in giving musical expression to militant feminism. In 1968, his surprising bolero “La Tiraña” (The Tyrant) offered Cuban songstress La Lupe a rare opportunity to aggressively deride male chauvinism and cupidity.
Today Alonso is happily embarked upon yet another attempt to shake up the Latin music scene. “Believe it or not, I’ve memorized the lyrics to almost 500 vintage sambas,” Tite told me while performing in a bar in Old San Juan over Christmas, backed by a band of Brazilian expatriates. The ultimate goal of this extended flirtation with Brazilian music and language is the invention of a hybrid so progressive in rhythm, thematics, and sensibility that it will do for the Latinos of the 21st century what 20th-century salsa did for Tite Curet Alonso.