New Yorkers Use Classic Salsa to Fight Gentrification


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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

If you really want to experience this city for what it was at the time, you’d be a fool to miss the opportunity of taking part in one of the last true cultural mainstays here: the forthcoming Puerto Rican Day Parade, which is celebrating its 51st year. The crux of what makes the concrete jungles (especially as it gets warmer) of Spanish Harlem come alive jumps off and steadily crescendos during the weekends leading up to the main event, which happens this year on Sunday, at 11 a.m.; thousands of revelers party and bullshit on the crowded sidelines as folk and salsa dancers, Puerto Rican celebrities, politicians, and pretty cool floats make their way up Fifth Avenue from 44th to 86th streets. The block parties that happen before and after the parade sometimes feature impromptu sets of conga and batá drummers breaking out into a myriad of Yoruba incantations mixed in with rumba and guaguanco—yes, we call-and-respond here in the Latin ‘hood, too. And the folks here—whether local or just passing through—become inebriated with the laid-back vibe that encourages living life in the moment, and to the fullest.

So now that it’s getting hot outside, and Fania may very well serve as this summer’s soundtrack, maybe—just maybe—there still is hope for those of us who crave a familiar taste of old New York.