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Andre Fritz Dossous (Haiti, playwright 1997)
By Elijah Wald
Andre Fritz Dossous is one of Boston's most prolific and successful
playwrights, actors and directors. In the last 18 years, he has
produced 22 plays, all of them at least moderately profitable, and
has gone on tour to New York, Washington, Miami, and Canada. If
his name is still unfamiliar to most local theatergoers, that is
because his plays are written not in English but in Haitian Creole.
Dossous' troup, Teyat Lakay, or "Home Theater,'' is celebrating
its 18th anniversary this Sunday with a production at the Strand
Theatre, the group's base since the early 1980s. (282-8000) Typically,
Dossous does virtually everything on the productions, producing,
writing, starring and directing. This time, though, he is presenting
the work of one of his teachers, the writer and comedian Francketienne,
whose "Kalibofobo'' is a dialogue between a student, representing
the Haitian elite, and a teacher, representing the common people.
Dossous, known to his fans as "Papados,'' began acting and
writing plays in elementary school in his native Haiti. At first,
he wrote in French, the school language of the time, but some 20
years ago he switched over to Creole. "I realized, when you
write in French in Haiti, you go after only one sort of public,''
he says. "But when you write in Creole you get everybody.''
That has always been important to Dossous. For him, the beauty
of theater is that it can bring his ideas not only to an educated
elite but to the "ordinary people.'' "You don't have to
be at school at Harvard to go to theater,'' he says. "No. When
I came to Boston, I realized that we needed a theater group here
to educate the community, how things are going on in Haiti and how
they can behave themselves in the United States. For this, you have
to know how to reach people, to know what language to talk to get
them to understand your work.''
Though he has been in the United States since 1973, and has worked
for years as a math teacher in the Boston school system, Dossous
still speaks English with an accent that he cheerfully describes
as "catastrophic.'' In Creole, however, he produces an unstinting
flow of complex language, filled with word-play and biting satire.
His plays deal with everything from the problems of newly-arrived
immigrants to drugs, AIDS, and the twists and turns of Haitian politics.
His most popular play so far is "Nan Soulye Washington,''
"In Washington [sic] Shoes.'' He describes it as a one-and-a-half-person
play, with himself in the lead and another actor who is asleep.
Written in 1990, it satirized the way some Haitian candidates were
worshipping American leaders, but also warned that Washington's
power and influence could not be ignored. "A lot of people
disagreed in 1990,'' he says. "But now they see that I was
not the crazy guy, and anytime I do that play I have no place to
put all the people.''
Despite the seriousness of his subject matter, Dossous says that
all of his plays are richly humorous. Pulling out a copy of "In
Washington Shoes,'' he points out a picture of the candidate prostrating
himself before an altar adorned, in place of the ancient Loas, or
Gods, with caricatured busts of Clinton, Bush and Carter. Later,
the candidate is on the line to Washington, speaking in English:
"Please help me to stand to smell the coffee,'' he cries ecstatically.
"You want to send few friends to establish and maintain order?
No problem . . . . Cool man. O America is beautiful! I kiss America.
. . . Don't forget to send money by air cargo.''
Dossous feels that the humor is vital to his mission. "America
is good, but it is a very hard country,'' he explains. "After
the people spend one week in the factory, working hard, they cannot
come in a theater and you keep putting tragedy, tragedy on them.
They need things to relax them. Therefore, I always combine tragedy
No matter how bleak the subject, Dossous says that this is never
a problem. "What is comedy?'' he asks rhetorically. "When
the spectator is not on the stage, the play becomes comedy. But
when the spectator looks at himself on the stage, the play now is
a tragedy. Therefore, it depends how you put the subject. You have
to be very meticulously careful, you don't want to hurt people.
But in any subject, even when you're talking about the dead, you
can put comedy.''
Dossous waves away the suggestion that this may be a particularly
Haitian approach. Though he speaks proudly of a playwriting tradition
that reaches back to the early days of independence, he considers
Haitian theater to be firmly in a Western line that reaches back
to the ancient Greeks. "All theater comes from the antique
era,'' he says firmly. "And in school we studied all the 17th
century French writers, Moliere, Racine, Corneille, up through the
18th, 19th and 20th century.
"We follow the same path, but culturally we are different.
If you write for an ethnic group, you're supposed to speak their
language, to talk about them, in order to understand their thought.
For example, the American joker gives a joke, maybe you laugh, and
I can sit and I don't laugh. Because culturally we are different.
I don't understand the joke. But me, I can tell a joke to my audience
and people laugh.''
While his plays have rarely attracted non-Haitians, Dossous himself
is an avid reader and theatergoer, and tries to keep abreast of
contemporary American trends. "I go to watch American plays,
and I learn,'' he says. "Because I don't go like a spectator
who just sits and enjoys himself; when I sit in the audience, I
am a student. When I see good thing, I say 'Whoo, next time I'm
going to put something like that!' Even if I don't want to copy,
I want to be myself, I want to be original, but that can give me
an idea how I can do things better.''
As to his amazing output, which in the early years of Teyat Lakay
could stretch to three or four new plays a year, Dossous says that
writing comes very easily to him. "Once I know how to finish
the play, the play's already written. Because if you know where
you're going, you can use different ways to go, and you will still
end up at your destination. Most of my plays, I don't follow a straight
path, I'm going zig-zag -- over there, over there, over there --
like spiralistic, and reach my goal, and that's it.
"I think it's a routine too, because I've been doing things
like that since 9, 10 years old. When I get trouble in writing the
play, I know how to turn around to get there. Sometimes you put
a bridge when you write, but you know the bridge is not solid, and
you keep going and after three days, one month, you come back and
remove the bridge and you find the right thing to put there in order
Now, Dossous is working on a new play, "Soul Mother,'' which
will be presented at the Strand in May, the Haitian holiday season.
For the first time, it is written largely in English, and he likes
to think that it may reach more people outside the Haitian community,
but that is not why he wrote it. "The action is taking place
here in the United States,'' he explains. "Things are changing,
and you got to change too, so now I show how kids come home and
speak English, the melting pot and how all the people interact.''
For the future, he is hoping to find a promoter who will bring
his plays to Haiti, and simply to continue to keep Teyat Lakay as
a vital part of the Boston scene. "Theater, I think, is the
most beautiful thing, the most beautiful art,'' he says. "Because
theater is you, is your soul, is your identity, is your self. When
people go to see a play, they can learn more, more things. I'm just
trying to do my work as a citizen, to help people to understand
the meaning of life, and I think the theater is a good tool to do
this work. I want all my plays to be plays that, when you come,
you come to get fun; while you get fun, I teach you how to behave
yourself in the community, in the society. And I really love what
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THE NAZARENE SILVERTONES
By Elijah Wald
It is the end of the Nazarene Silvertones' first set at the Christian
Life Center in Cambridge's Central Square, and the audience is on
its feet. The band on stage is pumping out a loping, Caribbean groove,
and Janice Burton is striding the aisles, singing loud and strong.
"Sailing,'' she cries, bolstered by the choir's exuberant echo,
"sailing across the river . . . you gonna sail to victory.''
Backstage, Burton speaks in a gentle, lilting voice that seems
like it could hardly come from the same person who just brought
the hall to its feet. "Actually, I'm the shy person of the
group,'' she says. "I just kind of stay back and let everybody
go and do their thing. But I felt the spirit in the place tonight
and I just had to go out there and be with the audience. It's just
this spirit of God, and you want to spread his word. We want everybody
to know that we don't just sing and jump and move for the sake of
doing it; we are filled with the holy spirit.''
That is a credo that could be repeated by most gospel singers,
but the Silvertones are something different. The 16-member group
was formed in 1981 at the Cave Hill Church of the Nazarene in Barbados
by Harold Britton, who is still its manager. Designed to involve
young people in church affairs, it has shifted personnel as singers
grew up and moved on, but has remained a leading force in a new
era of Caribbean gospel, blending island pop rhythms with an evangelical
"We are very heavily into Caribbean music, reggae and soca-calypso,
that kind of thing,'' says Alex Blackman, the group's music director
and one of its half-dozen lead singers. "And we also do some
music like you would hear in North America: r&b, southern gospel,
some black gospel, and a bit of rock 'n' roll as well. We've found
that when you get people coming to a concert, all of them are not
necessarily into one style of music. So we try to keep our repertoire
as varied as we can, to make sure that everybody has a good time.''
The Silvertones' set proves Blackman's point. There are contemporary-style
gospel numbers with slick key modulations, gentle ballads, and full-throated
shouts. The crowd, mostly Bajan (Barbadian) immigrants, loves it
all, but really comes alive when the group swings into an island
rhythm: pulsing reggae, punchy soca, or a jaunty Bajan beat called
Considering the audience reaction it is hard to believe, but Blackman
says many people in Barbados look askance at this infectious musical
blend. "When people first attempted to play that [spouge] in
gospel, it was like 'uh-oh,' because that was definitely pop music,''
he says. "It's like, you know, reggae is obviously associated
with Rastafarianism and calypso is associated with like carnivals
and that kind of stuff, so to that extent a lot of church people
have shied away from it. But we're Caribbean people, and it's very
much our music, and we believe that music was created by God.''
It is the rhetorical question gospel songwriters have been asking
for years: "Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?''
And, in this case, it makes even more sense than usual.
Both reggae and calypso, even in their secular forms, are heavily
devoted to "message songs'' and social commentary. What could
be more logical than for a church group to adapt them to a gospel
Blackman adds that, just as reggae musicians reshaped American
soul hits, many of the songs in the group's repertoire were originally
done in other styles, and reworked with an island flavor. He says
that, historically, Barbadan gospel groups have gotten their strongest
influence from American country stylists. "The gospel radio
stations played a lot of that, so people came up hearing that type
of music, they love it and they feel that that is gospel. People
coming up 20 or 25 years ago would be brought up on white gospel,
and on country and western, people like Skeeter Davis and Jim Reeves.
And there are still plenty of people in Barbados who seem to prefer
the North American stuff.''
Times are changing, though. The Silvertones, all in their 20s or
early 30s, represent a new generation, and are perfect messengers
for the modern style. Their singing is expert and tightly coordinated,
and by the end of their sets they are jumping and dancing with joy.
Blackman acts like a cheerleader, leading the audience in a shouted
call-and-response to spell out the name of Jesus and, hokey as it
may be, the sheer energy and enthusiasm of the young singers makes
"Obviously, whenever anybody attempts to change something
there's resistance,'' Blackman says. "You are accustomed to
something, it's become a part of you, so you don't want to change
so easily. But people are beginning to accept this, and it's just
a matter of more groups like us doing more of it. People are going
to come around, in Barbados and I think also internationally. It's
just a matter of time.''
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Giancarlo Buscaglia (Puerto Rico 1997)
By Elijah Wald
CAMBRIDGE -- The room is too crowded for dancing, but the music
is irresistable, so couples are managing a sort of understated salsa
between the bar and the tables. The band is not a salsa band, though.
It is just one guy with an acoustic guitar, and two friends filling
in the rhythm on bongo and conga drums.
The guitarist is Giancarlo Buscaglia, and for more than two years
he has been playing every Thursday night at the Cellar on Mass.
Ave. This summer, he added a second weekly gig, Saturdays at the
Green Street Grill in Central Square. There, the sound is supplemented
by Roberto Cassan's accordion, and the bigger room means that the
crowding is not as oppressive, at least for the time being.
The physical reaction to Buscaglia's music is a bit surprising,
considering how different it is from what most would consider a
contemporary Latin dance sound. "They think of the horns, the
big rhythm section,'' Buscaglia says, nodding. "That sound
is great, the larger groups, but there is so much other music too
that's not out there. I like to play more of an older sound, like
Cuba, Puerto Rico in
the '20s or '30s, which is basically the roots of salsa, without
the horns. I love that. I think if I had a horn section you wouldn't
hear the accordion coming out, or the cuatro.''
Buscaglia is Puerto Rican, and came to the Boston area with his
parents in the early 1980s, at age 13, settling in the western suburbs.
"I used to hate this music when I was in Puerto Rico,'' he
says, his voice still showing a gentle accent. "My grandparents
listened to it. But as I got older I realized that there's a lot
of beautiful stuff there and and I really got into it, as opposed
to listening to [disco-pop like] Menudo."
At first, Buscaglia turned to nueva cancion, the Latin American
equivalent of the folksinger/songwriter style. "Sylvio Rodriguez,
Pablo Milanes [the leaders of Cuban nueva cancion], they have a
lot of influence from the older music,'' he says. "I tended
to like that more than the stuff with electric guitars and synthesizers.
So I headed more towards that folk direction, which I ended up doing
when I came to Cambridge and started playing in the streets. But
I also started doing Mexican polkas and pasodobles and waltzes with
two violin players and an accordion player that I was lucky enough
to meet in the street.''
The street was his school and his workplace. "It was great
for me,'' he says. "I was 18 or 19, and I was making more or
less a living with what I loved to do.'' The street provided an
opportunity to experiment, to sit in with different musicians and
learn a wide variety of music. Buscaglia was especially drawn to
the continuum of acoustic pop styles that flourished throughout
Latin America in the first half of the century. He studied recordings
by the classic Mexican trios, with their unearthly falsetto singing,
and the harder-edged, Caribbean rhythms of the Cuban Trio Matamoros.
By the end of his Harvard Square days, Buscaglia had put together
a regular band, Balaton, and was exploring virtually the whole range
of 20th century Latin American acoustic music. In his sets, a Cuban
guaracha will be followed by a Mexican trio number, followed by
an Argentine tango. There is also plenty of Puerto Rican music,
based on the jibaro style of the countryside, which he plays on
the cuatro, a ten-stringed member of the guitar family which he
describes as the Puerto Rican national instrument.
Buscaglia is the first to insist that he is not virtuoso, either
on cuatro or guitar, but he plays both in an easy, swinging style.
What sets him apart, though, is neither his musicianship nor his
pleasantly evocative vocals. Buscaglia's great talent is his ability
to communicate his love of the music, both to the audience and to
his fellow players. Over the years, he has evolved a shifting array
of groups to meet the various performing opportunities that come
his way. He performs solo, in a wonderful duo with the singer and
guitarist Saul Martinez, and in trios, quartets, or whatever is
needed for a particular event. He also plays cuatro and sings with
Manuel Santos's band, which next week will begin a regular Sunday
night residency at Johnny D's.
Most acoustic musicians are ambivalent at best about playing bar
gigs, especially in a room like the Cellar, where people are talking,
jostling and enjoying themselves rather than sitting and listening.
For Buscaglia, though, the room has a special feeling. "I love
to do concerts,'' he says. "And I will work at receptions and
parties and stuff like that. But I really like to be able to do
what comes most naturally for this music, what it has been for the
most part through the years. It is music to dance, to share, to
joke around, to have a good time.''
The customers clearly agree. Buscaglia says he is as surprised
as anyone by the reaction his music is getting, and especially by
the fact that young Latinos are coming to dance to his old-fashioned
sound. "I don't know if it's nostalgia about being here [in
the U.S.] or that they've been listening since they were little,''
he says. "But they really are into it. You hear the people
screaming like they do in the mariachis, and dancing to polkas.
It's hard to see in any club, whether it's American or Mexican,
young people of 25 getting up dancing a polka.
"I am so glad to see people will dance to this. I love that,
and for me it's natural. You don't have to be a huge deal, have
a big band, for people to dance. You just need a couple of guitars,
or whatever. Because people love music. That is why I play alone,
in the duo, in the band. I have learned in the last few years that
I need to explore as much as I can in the music, and find as many
venues as possible. That way, I can go on, and keep playing what
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It is hard to imagine anyone who would not be interested in Cubanismo's
show at the Roxy this Sunday. Jazz fans can appreciate the complexity
and technical brilliance of the music. Latin and world fans can
admire the impeccable rhythmic interplay. As for those who just
want to get down and party, bandleader Jesus Alemany is the first
to point out that, at heart, that is what this music is all about.
"People are coming to dance, to enjoy the show,'' Alemany
says, speaking by phone the day after the band's live debut at the
New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. "And I think that's
the most important thing for us, because the audience is a very
important part of our show. We really enjoy when we see people dancing
and singing the tunes with us. And there were a lot of people screaming
That is all the more gratifying because, until the success of Cubanismo's
first album, the music Alemany plays had been largely written off
as a historical relic. At 34, the Cuban trumpeter has made it his
mission to revive the classic Cuban son[MAKE ITAL], the big band
music of the 1930s and 1940s. Like Stateside jazz, which it paralleled
and exchanged ideas with throughout its heyday, son was originally
dance music, but evolved into a largely undanceable concert style,
Latin jazz. Alemany has set out to take the music back to its roots.
Unlike most of the Stateside groups that have tried to revive big
band swing, however, Alemany has succeeded in capturing not only
the letter but the spirit of the music. Whatever Cubanismo's cultural
mission, it does not sound like a museum piece. In a large part,
this is due to Alemany's decision to root his band in the descarga[MAKE
ITAL], or jam session, keeping written arrangements to a minimum
and letting the players kick back and blow.
"The success of the first album, 'Cubanismo,' has been spontaneity,''
Alemany says. "Everybody playing at the same time. We recorded
it completely live and the ambiance was very good. Everybody happy.
Happy to get together, and to make this kind of traditional music
which had almost disappeared. We went back to Cuba and we did it,
and we are really surprised at the success of the album here in
America and all over the world.''
For Alemany, who has been based in England for several years, the
session that spawned Cubanismo was a sort of homecoming. He and
producer Joe Boyd traveled to Havana in 1995, planning to make a
one-shot son revival album with the cream of Cuban players, both
those still based on the island and expatriates like the legendary
pianist Alfredo Rodri[NOTE]guez. The project
succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, both artistically and in
terms of the excitement it generated internationally. They followed
up with a second album, "Malembe,'' and now the band's first
The 14-member touring band brings together an electrifying mix
of old masters and young Turks. Rodriguez has been working internationally
since the 1960s, playing with artists like Tito Puente, Mario Bauza
and Dizzy Gillespie. Conga player Tata Guines is the grand master
of Cuban jazz percussionists. Several other bandmembers were in
the landmark group Irakere. Then there are the young players, Alemany's
contemporaries, who are trying to learn from the older men while
bringing their modern sensibility to bear on the classic form.
The band also has an unusual mix of expatriates and Havana-based
players, a fact that has received considerable attention from the
press. Alemany, however, says that politics had a neglegible effect
on the project. "The communication between us is fantastic,''
he says. "100 percent positive. Because this music is like
a common language; it's like the breath that we have in Cuba. On
this tour I am using a couple of musicians that live in Miami, but
they are like family, you know? We all grew up together in the same
neighborhoods and went to the same music college, listening to the
same music on the radio and in our environment.''
He is also quick to point out that, despite the crippling effect
of the U.S. blockade on the Cuban economy, musicians have managed
to keep up a regular interchange of ideas, buying tapes and records
in third countries, and that recently the Cuban government has greatly
improved the situation by allowing musicians wide leeway to tour
abroad. "Our culture is very strong,'' he says. "Especially
the music. You can see the influences of Cuban music in jazz, funky
soul music, even in the rock 'n' roll. It's a cultural phenomenon,
and nobody can deny it. You can't blockade the music.''
to the Archive Contents page
By Elijah Wald
The next month brings several great Cuban concerts to the Boston
area, but for hardcore fans of the Afro-Cuban tradition none is
more exciting than a show next Thursday at Johnny D's in Somerville.
It is the local debut of Pancho Quinto, one of the grand old men
of Cuban batá, or African religious drumming, who appears
in a double bill with the pianist and singer Bellita.
At 65, Quinto is a master of rumba -- not the ballroom dance music
that swept the United States earlier in this century, but the hard-edged
street rhythm most familiar to local listeners from the work of
the Munequitos de Matanzas. He is quick to say, though, that his
music is different from that of other rumberos. "I play a polyrhythmic
rumba,'' he says, speaking in Spanish from a West Coast tour stop.
"I never go outside the Cuban rumba, and I play that perfectly,
but I add to it, as if I had a whole drum set in my hands. And I
play many instruments, like cajón [a wooden box], batá,
A new album, "En el Solar la Cueva del Humo'' (Round World),
shows the breadth of Quinto's work. To record, he seated himself
on a large cajón , with a smaller one between his legs, three
batá drums behind him, a conga drum on one side, a set of
bells on the floor and another bunch attached to his wrist. "He
goes from low to high, to wood, to metal, to skin,'' says Greg Landau,
his friend and producer. "So he gets all these different timbres,
all at once.''
The music is equally varied, with a breadth that more typical
folkloric drum groups often miss. "In Cuba, as in a lot of
places, folk music has become kind of mummified,'' Landau says.
"As folklorists and state-sponsored groups learn the traditions,
the songs and the styles become frozen at a certain point, and they
say 'This is what rumba is.' But actually, rumba on the docks, on
a popular level, is still evolving, as it always has. It takes in
new influences, and it changes, picks up on popular sayings in the
street and on popular music and dance forms, and incorporates them.
So Pancho's music reflects the way that rumba is played now.''
Quinto's background certainly is not that of an academic folkorist.
He started playing at 14, and learned his art while pursuing his
day job as a Havana dock worker. "Boxes were used by the dock
workers instead of drums,'' Landau explains. "They were drummers,
but they spent a lot of time just hanging around beating on boxes.
So the cajón became an instrument, and Pancho is the one
who innovated various designs of the boxes and that became his speciality.''
He also studied with Jesus Perez and Pablo Roche, among the most
respected masters of batá drumming, the ritual style of the
Yoruba-derived Afro-Cuban religion popularly called Santeria, becoming
a respected ceremonial dummer. "We used to play batá
drums in people's houses,'' he remembers. "And the santeros
[believers] would put something in the little gourd for us.''
By the 1950s, he was branching out into popular venues. "I
don't remember how long ago that was -- I've been playing for many
years,'' he says, with a chuckle. "I played with Sonora Matancera,
with Celia Cruz at the beginning of her career, and from there I
went on gaining fame as a good percussionist. I played in the Tropicana,
one of the best clubs in Cuba. I played with the big shows, 'Ritmo
y Son,' 'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,' even 'Swan Lake,' but with
batá drums -- there was a red rooster and a white rooster,
and they fight until one kills the other.''
Quinto says that the music he plays in clubs is quite different
from his religious music, but that all the styles influence one
another, and he continues to pay tribute to his ceremonial background
in the name of his group. "It is called Añagi,'' he
says. "This is the name of my saint in the Yoruba religion.
He is a boy, a mischievous boy, but he's good, and I love him a
lot and respect him.''
Quinto seems pleased by the reception he has been getting on his
American tour, and speaks happily of the collaboration with Bellita,
a young pop-jazz pianist who trades songs with him and sometimes
sings along on his numbers. While he is making his international
debut at an age when other performers are contemplating retirement,
he seems neither surprised nor impressed with his success.
"I have played all my life,'' he points out. "I worked
on the docks, but I always lived with music and never left it. I
taught other groups that traveled and became famous, but I kept
on working, as a modest person, more as a teacher than a performer.
"I never wanted to be famous, but now that I am old, now
my destiny wants to make me famous. But I don't care about that.
I don't want to be Nat King Cole or anybody. I am just a humble
man, playing for my people, for Cuba, and for all the people of
Latin America and all over the world.''
to the Archive Contents page
Los Muñequitos de Matanzas
By Elijah Wald
The music of the United States has swept the world; everywhere,
there are rock bands, jazz groups, even country-western singers.
In terms of deep influence, though, there is another area that has
been equally important: the Caribbean. From the bamboula to the
mambo to the merengue, Caribbean dance rhythms have spiced popular
music since the 19th century. Even the most popular modern African
style, Congolese soukous, was inspired by Cuban records.
Both the U.S. and the Caribbean gained their musical riches from
the new-world mix of African and European styles. The Caribbean,
though, remained far closer to African roots. Indeed, if one asks
Diosdado Ramos, the director of the Cuban rumba group Los Muñequitos
de Matanzas, why it is that modern Africans have been so massively
influenced by Cuban records, he says it is because the Cubans are
more traditionally African than even the Africans.
"We've maintained this music exactly as we remembered it,
as our ancestors played it in the slavery times. It didn't change,
because it was our connection to Africa, whereas in Africa, things
continued to evolve and older styles were lost. So what we played
in Cuba was what the Africans used to play, and when they heard
it, it reconnected them with their roots.''
The Muñequitos, who appear next Sunday in a dance concert
at the Roxy sponsored by World Music (617-876-4275), are the kings
of Cuban rumba, a street style that consists of intricate, polyrhythmic
percussion and call-and-response vocals, both hallmarks of the African
tradition. Rumba is a creolized style, with an admixture of Spanish,
and possibly French, influence, but it is the African element which
is strongest. Though it has rarely hit in its pure form, rumba is
the heartbeat of the fusion music that Americans like to call salsa,
but which Cubans claim as their own and call "son.''
Matanzas, on Cuba's North Coast, about 50 miles east of Havana,
has been one of the country's most musically productive cities,
celebrated in the name of the hugely popular son band, La Sonora
Matancera, and its musicians imbibe rumba with their mother's milk.
"Rumba is the roots of all of the popular music,'' Ramos says.
"To be a sonero [son player], you have to be a rumbero first,
because the rhythm of the clave comes from rumba, and without clave
there isn't any of this music.''
Clave is what rock 'n' roll fans would call the "Bo Diddley
beat,'' three hesitating beats followed by two more slapping in
quick succession. It can be found in much modern African music and
throughout the Caribbean, including New Orleans. Clave, which literally
means "key,'' also refers to the claves, two sticks which are
tapped together to give the basic beat in older Cuban styles, and
the Muñequitos typically begin their concerts by walking
on stage playing the claves, giving the rhythmic "key'' of
the music which is to come.
The Muñequitos have been in Boston before, but always playing
in concert settings. This time, they will be hosting a rumba dance
party, as they have done in Cuban clubs for over 40 years. Their
visit provides a rare opportunity to hear the purest African-American
music in a live setting, and comes on the heels of a small avalanche
of record releases documenting island root styles, including their
own new "Live in New York'' (Qbadisc).
For North Americans, this music is particularly interesting, as
it is a sort of "what might have been'' for our own music.
What if mainland slave owners had not outlawed the drums? What if
the slaves had not been forcibly separated from others of their
own regions and language groups? What if African religious customs
had been tolerated as long as they blended with Christian observances,
rather than ruthlessly wiped out?
Folklorists in the U.S. labor to find hints of African styles
in blues or jazz, but in the Caribbean the African survivals are
obvious on the surface. In Cuba, five different African religions
are still observed; they have changed with the years, but retain
enough of their origins that, when devouts of the Yoruba Lacumi
religion have met with their Nigerian counterparts, the Africans
can understand the lyrics and chants of the Cuban liturgy.
This is not unique to Cuba, though it remains particularly strong
there and in parts of Brazil. An astonishing new record from Rounder,
"Peter Was a Fisherman,'' documents a trip to Trinidad in 1939
by the pioneering folklorists Melville and Frances Herskovits. Along
with some charming, sing-songy reels and quadrilles, Baptist hymns,
and a "Carnival Indian'' song that is an interesting parallel
to the similar New Orleans style, the record has a dozen songs in
Yoruba. One of the singers had learned her music directly from her
African parents, and though none of them spoke the language fluently,
their singing is still clear enough that the record compilers have
As in Cuba, Trinidadian music has become creolized, mixing with
English, French and Spanish elements. The most famous result is
calypso, like rumba originally an improvised form that talked about
whatever caught the singer's mind. Another Rounder release, "Neville
Marcano: The Growling Tiger of Calypso,'' gives a glance at the
glory days of this music. Though recorded in the early 1960s by
the folklorist Alan Lomax, it harks back to the 1920s and 1930s,
when calypso was still largely played by string bands. Marcano,
better known as the Tiger, was among the greatest calypso stars,
and his music has a biting topical humor and fierce rhythmic attack
that barely resembles the insipid style popularized stateside by
Along with their rumbas, the Muñequitos are masters of
several African ceremonial styles; Ramos is a babalao, or priest,
of the Yoruba religion, and an initiate in both the Congo and Abacua
religious societies, which hark back to roots in what are now Congo
and Cameroon. The Yoruba religion is often known as "santeria,''
because over the years the hall of orisha, or Yoruba gods has overlapped
with the Catholic cults of saints, matching each Yoruba god to a
saint. This evolution has happened in Brazil as well, and, most
famously, in Haiti, where it is known as Vodun, Vodou, or, in a
thousand Hollywood misrepresentations, Voodoo.
A new album from Ellipsis Arts, "Angels in the Mirror,''
is a sort of textbook of Vodou music and observance. A bound, 64-page
booklet with a CD enclosed, it explores the Haitian religion in
essays, interviews, poetry, photographs, and a wide range of music.
Each track is fully explained, the lyrics translated, and its significance
explored, bringing the culture to life in a way that no previous
book or album has managed.
Two other Caribbean countries have had a profound impact on world
pop music in recent decades: the Dominican Republic, with its hip-shaking
merengue, and, of course, Jamaica, with reggae. Both are explored
on "Caribbean Island Music," a reissue in the Nonesuch
Explorer Series. Recorded in 1971 by John Storm Roberts, author
of the priceless study of African-American interchange, "Black
Music of Two Worlds,'' the disc is far from exhaustive, but includes
deeply African music as well as early forms of merengue and Jamaican
mento, and creolized versions of Spanish and English folk styles.
Many of these styles have been dying out as the music evolves
under the pressures of records, radio, and television, but in a
few fortunate pockets African roots musics remain impressively strong.
Ramos says that in Matanzas the classic rumba is still a basic part
of day-to-day life. The Muñequitos' youngest member is ten
years old and, good as he is, Ramos says that on a hometown street
his abilities would be considered quite common.
"In Cuba, and especially in Matanzas, the kids, the old people,
and the youth all play and dance and sing rumba on any street. Any
place where there is music -- it can be a wedding or a fifteenth
party [the Latin world's equivalent of a 'coming out'], or a religious
ceremony -- it can start with whatever kind of music, but it's going
to end with rumba. You're all going to have a bottle of rum out
and be in a festive mood, and there's going to be a lot of improvising
between people, and everybody will join in.''
to the Archive Contents page
JUAN DE MARCOS GONZALEZ/ AFRO-CUBAN ALL STARS
By Elijah Wald
Cuban music has been gradually filtering out into the wider world
for about a decade, but the floodgates opened last year with the
release of a trio of albums on the World Circuit/Nonesuch label.
The most famous was “Buena Vista Social Club,” produced
by Ry Cooder and featuring some of the legendary musicians in the
classic son style, and it was accompanied by a solo album of the
pianist Ruben Gonzalez and one of a big band, the Afro-Cuban All
Stars. The three sold over a million copies, and now the All Stars
are on tour, coming to the Roxy this Sunday.
The All Stars are lead by Juan de Marcos González, who also
brought together the musicians for all three albums and did most
of the musical arrangements. He says that, while Cooder’s
involvement was of course important, the project was in the works
long before Cooder came on board. It grew out of Marcos’s
wish to bring together musicians of the older generation with young
“In the first place, I wanted to help the musicians of the
previous generation,” he says, speaking in Spanish, from a
Minneapolis tour stop. “Ibrahim Ferrer, who now is the best-known
member of our group in the United States, was almost completely
unknown even in Cuba. The musicians of the other generation were
living in very bad conditions, and I wanted to put them forward
as artists and show the world that they still had the strength to
keep working. And, in the second place, I wanted to make a record
that covered the majority of genres of Cuban music, played with
a modern vision. To do that, I had to bring together musicians from
various generations, because the young people would bring a contemporary
vision, and the old people would bring experience.”
Marcos’s credentials for this task were formidable. In his
college days, he formed Sierra Maestra, the band that led the revival
of interest in Cuban son, the music that forms the roots of what
we now call salsa.
“Son started around the end of the last century, in the mountains
of the Sierra Maestra,” Marcos explains. “Then it came
down from these mountains to the big cities of the eastern zone
of Cuba, fundamentally Santiago de Cuba. At the beginning of this
century, there were many soldiers stationed in Santiago, and the
soldiers learned to play son like the eastern rural musicians. When
they were transferred to Havana, they brought the eastern son music
to Havana. But, as Havana is more cosmopolitan, they added to the
son and formed bands with other European instruments, like the bass
and the trumpet.”
The Cuban sound soon swept the world, forming the basis of popular
dance music throughout much of Latin America and Africa, and spawning
Latin crazes in Europe and the U.S. It was only with the revolution,
and subsequent U.S. blockade, that the Cubans ceased to dominate
the field. “What you call salsa -- which one could say that
we play -- is nothing but a version of Cuban music played by foreigners,
mainly Puerto Ricans,” Marcos says. “One could say that
Fidel Castro invented salsa.”
Marcos himself started out playing “foreign” music.
“I started out as a guitarist, playing hard rock, like heavy
metal, distortion, ‘overdrive,’” he says. “I
played in rock groups in Havana in the ‘70s, playing in the
style of the great American and English bands like Yes, Jethro Tull,
King Crimson, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival. That music was
very popular; the young people, almost all of us wanted to play
“Then, at the end of the ‘70s, I realized that I had
to play music that fitted with my nationality and my identity. I
began to study Cuban music more deeply, I began to study tres (a
small Cuban guitar, a bit like the Puerto Rican cuatro), and in
‘77 we started Sierra Maestra.”
The All Stars carry on that legacy. Marcos says that they are less
a band than an ongoing project, with shifting personel. The group
coming to Boston will include Ferrer, Orlando “Cachaíto”
López on bass, and the vocalists Manuel “Puntillita”
Licea and Félix Valoy off the record, but also newcomers
like the pianist Guillermo “Rubalcaba” González,
father of the Latin jazz star Gonzalo Rubalcaba.
The group’s fundamental aim is similar to that of Cubanismo,
formed by Jesús Alemany, another Sierra Maestra alumnus.
“The difference is that Cubanismois much more instrumental,
while Afro Cuban All Stars is more singing,” Marcos says.
“But the artistic point of view is similar, because it is
to revive Cuban music, giving it a contemporary sound. I tried to
capture the sound of the great Cuban orchestras of the ‘50s,
but the arrangements are modern, the chords, the harmonies are contemporary.”
Marcos says he is surprised that the revival of son has gone quite
as far as it has, but he says he always expected it to be successful.
“This is something that was necessary, for Cuba and for myself
and my contemporaries,” he says. “We are glad that people
are finally recognizing the value of Cuban music. Now, in Cuba,
there are many young people dedicating themselves to Cuban music.
Of course, just like anywhere else, there are other styles that
hit for a moment, but right now this music is again the mode, not
only abroad but in Cuba. We can say that the century is ending as
it began, with son.”
to the Archive Contents page
By Elijah Wald
The first notes on Barbarito Torres’ new “Havana Cafe”
(Atlantic) are startling. The tinkling tones of his lute, over simple
percussion, have a jagged, atonal edge that belies the country roots
of the son montuño that follows. Though he came to international
attention through the traditionalist super-group known as the “Buena
Vista Social Club,” Torres, who appears at Johnny D’s
in Somerville this Thursday, is clearly no simple traditionalist.
In a stairwell backstage at the Roxy, where he has just finished
a sparkling opening set for the Cuban pop stars Los Van Van, Torres
agrees. “In Cuba, they say that the laúd [the lute’s
Spanish name] is the lead instrument of musica campesina, Cuban
country music,” he says, speaking a gruff, Cuban Spanish.
“But I have taken on other kinds of music. I have taken things
from the country music, the traditional music, and also more contemporary
styles, like Latin jazz. It is music with a contemporary stamp,
played by young people, with another spirit, other ideas, other
Torres thinks that his status as a laúd innovator was somewhat
accidental. “I should have played another instrument, I should
have been a guitarist or a bass player,” he says, laughing.
“But life gave me the opportunity to come from a family of
country people and there was a laúd in my house, and it was
born in me to be a laúdist, at age 10. But from birth I was
a musician, with more amplitude, with other ideas in my head, not
just country music.”
The laúd Torres plays is unique to Cuba, a survival of the
renaissance explosion of stringed intruments. Both name and instrument
derive from the Arabic al oud, a parent of the guitar family. “The
lute underwent two metamorphoses,” Torres says. “One
in Spain and one in Cuba. This is the Cuban lute, with a short neck
and twelve strings, tuned in fourths, and it is used in guajira
music, where two poets have a controversy in 6/8 time. And in son
Torres’ father was a poet, his mother a singer, and all of
his siblings sang or played, though none of them professionally.
His sister, Conchita, is a member of his touring group, a hot acoustic
dance band that also includes his fellow “Buena Vista”
alumnus, the 82-year-old composer and singer Pio Leyva.
The story of Torres’ arrival at the “Buena Vista”
sessions sounds like something out of Hollywood: “In the ’80s,
someone had given Ry Cooder a cassette of assorted Cuban music,
and on that cassette I appeared, on a television program, but it
did not have my name,” Torres recalls. “He got very
interested in this instrument, asking what it was. So, he wanted
laúd on the record, and when it was time to record they got
me. When I got there, Ry said, ‘Oh, you play laúd,
pleased to meet you.’ Then he put on the cassette, and said
to the translator, ‘Tell him to play like the guy is playing
here.’ I listened, and I said, ‘Tell him it won’t
be difficult, because that’s me.’ So he threw his arms
around me, and we became great friends.”
Like the other “Buena Vista” stars, Torres says that
the experience changed his life. At 43, he is of a younger generation
than most of the featured participants, and, while he had worked
with Compay Segundo in his teens, others he knew only from their
recordings. “It was such a great honor to be among those men,”
he says. “With all the experience they have, with the vitality
they have, at their age. Rubén González, he is 82,
and how he plays the piano! Like an angel. I had admired him since
childhood. For the improvisation I do on the laúd, I drank
deeply from the fountain of Rubén González.”
Along with introducing him to his idols, the sessions provided
a springboard for his solo career. While he had made over 40 albums
as a sideman, “Havana Cafe” is Torres’ first venture
as a leader, and he is building on it with almost constant touring.
“On the CD and in my concerts I try to play a bit of everything,”
he says. “I make a tour of Cuba starting in the east, at Guantanamo,
and going all the way to Pinar del Rio, and with the city and the
Happy as he is for his own current success, he sounds at least
equally enthusiastic about the boost it has given his instrument.
“The laúd was not so well known,” he says. “It
was a bit taboo, discriminated against. The only one who brought
it out of country music was me. But now there is a renaissance going
on, and not only in Cuba. People all over are asking me where they
can find a laúd.”
to the Archive Contents page
By Elijah Wald
Lets get to the heart of the matter: What is Toots Hibbert
doing in a small club? Monday night, Toots and the Maytals are at
the House of Blues in Cambridge. Tuesday, Bunny Wailer is at the
Roxy (617-497-2229). Now, Wailer is a fine reggae singer fronting
a crack 16-piece band, but there is something wrong here. Because,
along with being one of the most dynamic live performers around,
Hibbert is the king of classic Jamaican music, the gospel-drenched
master who helped define ska, then invented reggae.
Admittedly, Hibbert did not invent the music by himself, but he
was the biggest star of the day and he named the style with his
hit "Do the Reggay (sic)." Speaking from his Jamaican
home, his voice infused with a rich island accent, he tells the
origin of the word: "It come from the suffering in the Trenchtown,
where I used to live. People have this little joke about "streggae,"
and we just use that and say reggae. Its like raggedy people:
If you just raggedy, you walk without shoes, youre looking
not so tacky, not so good, people call you reggae. So it just come
out of my mouth, Lets do the reggae. I figure
I should get some recompense for that, like some royalties, or even
a trophy or a medal. I got no medal for it -- all they do, they
put me in jail."
That was in 1966. At the time, Toots and the Maytals were the hottest
act in Jamaica. Recording since 1962, they dominated a pop scene
that was among the most fertile in the world, with Bob Marleys
Wailers, Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker and dozens more. The first
Jamaican Song Festival had just been held, which the Maytals won
with "Bam Bam." An English tour was in the works, and
Hibbert was ready to bring island music to the world. Then he was
busted for possession of marijuana.
"They framed me," Hibbert says. "Cause I didnt
use ganja in all those days -- I was pretty young. I was framed
cause I was a trouble to them and I was going to be the first
one to go under a contract in London. Before Bob Marley, before
Hibberts prison stay has been variously reported as 18 months
or two years. Either way, he hit again as soon as he got out, singing
of his prison experience in one of his masterpieces, "54-46
(Thats my Number)." "I sing about it, you know,
because I was innocent," he says. "But I figure I should
get a better reward, to invent the word reggae. If it was any other
artist, they would really build them up for that. But thank God
its me, and Im not of the world, Im just in the
Hibbert went on to make some of the most swinging, rocking records
in Jamaican history: "Pressure Drop," "Sweet and
Dandy" (both featured in the film "The Harder They Come")
and, in the 1970s, the internationally popular "Funky Kingston"
and "Reggae Got Soul." Somehow, though, he never became
a name on the level of Marley or Cliff. Hibbert puts this down to
bad management and a record company that lavished far more attention
on others. There was also his resistance to trends, his unwillingness
to chain his music to a hypnotic, repetitive beat, or grow his hair
in dreadlocks. Though his songs could be as deep and serious as
anyones, he was more an exuberant soul shouter than a moody
prophet, and did not fit the later reggae ethos.
This is ironic, as Hibbert is the preeminent integrator of the
styles that fed into classic reggae. He says that he got into music
in his teens, after abandoning childhood dreams of becoming a jockey
or a boxer. "I started singing in church," he remembers.
"When I start singing I heard about ska, and I was listening
to Ray Charles and some gospel singers." Indeed, his work has
often been linked to that of the Southern soul giants, and 1992s
"Toots in Memphis" album was recorded to capitalize on
that connection. Hibbert does not entirely agree. "It is just
raw talent," he says. "People told me is some like that
[soul singer], is some like this, but I dont immitate."
His records back up this assertion, but it is natural to compare
him to an Otis Redding, or the Maytals to the Temptations, rather
than putting him in a bag with later-era reggae acts. 37 years after
he first hit the Jamaican dance halls, Hibbert continues to play
small, sweaty clubs and, rather than coasting on a mellow wave of
rasta spirituality, he tears them up with a passion that belies
his years. He wails, cries, drops in show-stopping splits, and preaches
like a soul master.
Hibbert released a strong album last year, "Ska Father"
on his own Alla Son label, and is pushing to release another, "Borderline,"
in the next few months, "because I need it come out before
the new millenium." Nonetheless, his stage act is still largely
made up of his classic hits of the 1960s and 70s. "When
I want to sing some new songs, people dont want," he
explains. "They dont ready for the new songs yet, they
just want these songs."
Still, Hibbert sounds anything but depressed. He can see where
things could have gone better, but is as enthusiastic as ever about
his music and excited about future projects. He is constantly recording
and touring and shows no sign of slowing down. "That energy
comes from the lord," he says. "And that power goes out
to the audience and comes back. Thats the only way it can
work: the energy and the goodwill and the love for the people."
to the Archive Contents page
By Elijah Wald
For pure heat, Bamboleo’s visit to Scullers Jazz Club in
January has to rank near the top of the year’s Latin offerings.
While there has been a flood of Cuban bands in the last two years,
Bamboleo is the first real taste of young Havana. Though deeply
schooled in son and timba, the group adds a solid dose of funk and
youthful energy, and its show easily sets it apart from the veterans
familiar to U.S. audiences.
"Buena Vista Social Club was a fine piece of work, and those
are our roots," says pianist and bandleader Lázaro Valdés,
who brings his group back to Scullers on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"But it’s not what is being played in Cuba. The music
that left Cuba in the 1930s, 1940s was this type of music, and for
all the people who want to see that image of Cuba, it was a huge
success. But that Cuba doesn’t exist anymore.
"If you put the Buena Vista Social Club in El Tropical or
somewhere like that [in Havana], the spectators may go to see it,
but if you put them there again, there will be nobody. Because the
style of dancing has changed, the way of listening to music, it
has all changed."
Indeed, one of the surprises in Bamboleo’s show is that their
music is not really suited to salsa dancing. Rather than the solid
son rhythm favored by U.S. Latin dancers, it is full of quirky polyrhythms
and "breaks," and the dancing is more free-form. "For
that style, you have to know the turns, know how to count,"
Valdés says, speaking in strongly Cuban-flavored Spanish.
"With our music, you dance any way you want, however you move.
It’s something organic."
Not that a lot of Americans will feel up to dancing after seeing
the gyrations of Bamboleo’s female singers, Yordamis Megret
and lead vocalist Vannia Borges. With their distinctive burr haircuts,
they have set a new club fashion in Havana, and they do things with
their hips that simply are not human. Combined with male singers
Alejandro Borrero and Jorge David, they form a superbly dynamic
frontline, and the nine-piece backing band supports them with a
blaze of of brass and three powerhouse percussionists.
The shear musical chops of the bandmembers are astonishing, beyond
anything a comparable Stateside Latin pop group would be likely
to demonstrate. Valdés gives the credit for this expertise
to the Cuban educational system, which provides intensive conservatory
training for those children who show musical promise.
"It is six, eight years of study," he says. "And
you spend the whole time eating music. In Cuba, a musician does
nothing but music, all the time. I think that has helped very much
for Cuban music to have the level it has now, and it’s something
for which we have to thank our government. Here in the United States,
or other places like Europe, if he is not playing with Michael Jackson
or Sting or someone like that, a musician has to have some other
work -- a gas station, or whatever. But we can really do what we
like, not have to think about how to make four pesos more, or how
to survive in the economic world."
Bamboleo is not typical, and there are plenty of Cuban musicians
who have not realized plum performing careers, but there is no arguing
with the versatility and skill of the younger generations of Cuban
players. Valdés himself had the added advantage of coming
from an intensely musical home. "I am from a family of musicians,"
he says. "My father is a pianist, he played for a long time
with Beny More. So there was always a piano in the house, and I
began to play when I was six. In school, I studied violin, percussion,
and piano, following the European conservatory system, but always
mixed with Cuban music."
Bamboleo’s sound has the wild, acoustic sound of older Cuban
music, mixed with a fiercely contemporary energy, and the group’s
"Ya No Hace Falta" album (Ahí-Namá) shows
them in top form. Their most recent release, "Ñño,"
is something of a space-filler, consisting of four live tunes and
six different club mixes. Asked if this represents a new direction
for the group, Valdés quickly demurs.
"That was an experiment by the record company," he says.
"I find it very comical. Maybe people will listen to it in
all the discoteques, but it’s not the sort of music that interests
me. But you always have to experiment. And even in Havana, they’re
playing it in some discoteques, and people go, ‘Oh, how great!’"
For himself, Valdés is planning to continue composing and
developing in his current direction. He would obviously love to
see his group have the huge success of a Marc Anthony or Ricky Martin,
but he is realistic. "For that, you need powerful record company,
and a man with a pretty face," he says. "It doesn’t
matter how he sings." Of course, it is pointed out, Bamboleo
has no shortage of pretty faces. Valdes laughs: "Sure, now
we just need the powerful company."
In any case, he says the group intends to remain based in Havana.
"That is where the kitchen is," he says. "I think
that the musicians who have stayed in Cuba have kept cooking the
music. Once you stay somewhere else, you stop evolving, you stay
wherever you were when you left. Maybe your lifestyle evolves, but
the music stays there. Now, I don’t mean to say that tomorrow
I might not decide to live somewhere else. But in any case it wouldn’t
be in the United States -- mucho tax!"
to the Archive Contents page
By Elijah Wald
Latin music is hotter than ever, with salsa classes packed and
new dance venues popping up monthly, so it is surprising that more
ink is not going to the people who put the music on the map. Say,
for example, Larry Harlow.
In the mid-1960s, when Puerto Rican bandleader Johnny Pacheco and
lawyer Jerry Masucci formed Fania Records, "The Latin Motown,"
the first artist they signed was a New York pianist and arranger
who would become internationally famous as "El Judio Maravilloso"
-- "The Marvelous Jew."
Harlow had trained in classical and jazz, but fell in love with
Latin music in his teens, went to Cuba, and became one of the major
bandleaders of the 1960s and 1970s. It was a key moment in U.S.
Latin music; the Cuban Revolution had cut the scene off from its
source, and a new generation of Puerto Rican and "Nuyorican"
musicians were moving in to fill the gap.
"The Cubans were coming few and far between, and it was like
Pacheco and me and Eddie [Palmieri] and [Ray] Barretto, we kind
of held the fort," Harlow says, on the phone from his Brooklyn
home. "We were all very Cuban-oriented, but we had our own
sound. Like I had two trumpets and two trombones. Nobody had ever
put trumpets and trombones before; now every band has trumpets and
"I was just looking for a new way, getting out where I could
do my thing. I had two guys that could double on violins, so I could
play charanga music along with conjunto music, I was able to utilize
both genres of Cuban music, and it just caught on. I guess being
the right time and the right place helped a lot too."
Harlow made over 50 albums, and produced another 160 or so for
other artists. He pioneered the use of electronic keyboards, wrote
the first Latin opera, "Hommy," which brought Celia Cruz
to the New York scene, was producer and pianist of the Fania All-Stars,
then brought together the Latin Legends band that comes to Scullers
Harlow, Fania, and New York salsa reached their apex in the early
1970s. "The Puerto Ricans were looking for something to identify
with, so all of a sudden the lyrics started changing. Instead of
it being Para bailar, para gozar -- Lets dance, lets
have a ball, all of a sudden you were getting songs that had
protest meaning. This is the time of the Vietnam War, so we were
singing some really heavy lyrics.
"We started mixing jazz harmonies together with the old Cuban
sound, which gave us a little more room to experiment around. The
arrangements got a little hipper, and all the way around it just
started sounding better. Then the kids started picking up on it.
It was something that was totally theirs and they gave it the name
New York had some 200 Latin clubs, and Harlows band was working
seven nights a week. He is laughingly nostalgic as he recalls those
days: "We built up a big following, because we always had like
10 or 12 really handsome single young guys in the band, so we always
had like 40 or 50 girls that followed us everywhere we went, and
they had like 200 guys following them, so we had a built-in audience."
Today, the salsa pioneers have somewhat faded from view, swamped
by the flood of attention for Cuban bands. The Cubans give interviews
saying that New York salsa was just a substitute for the "real"
music, and press write-ups often echo this line. Harlows response
to this is terse and unprintable. Then he laughs, and expands on
"If there wasnt salsa the Cubans wouldnt have
any music left to play; nobody would even know what Cuban music
is. Now theyre all over the place, working for 3 or 400 dollars
a gig and were trying to get 4 or 5,000, and theyre
killing us. They aint got toilet paper, and theyre still
playing music from 1950. You know, [to hell with] them. And you
can print that, too."
He adds that the Latino kids in the dance clubs are all but oblivious
to the Cuban musical invasion: "The Cubans are great musicians,
theyve got the feel and the [stuff], but they aint saying
nothing to me cause they dont play dance music. Nobody
over here even knows what timba or songo [the style of more recent
Cuban bands like Los Van Van] is, so the kids cant dance to
Harlows band you can dance to. He is still playing "hard
core, 70s salsa," and boasts instrumentalists like the
legendary cuatro player Yomo Toro, along with a hot, 20-something
singer. ("He sings very tipico; Im sure he would much
prefer doing Marc Anthony-type romantic salsa, but hey, youre
in my band so you sing what I tell you to sing.") Scullers
will have a dance floor cleared, and Harlow adds that there is also
plenty to attract a listening audience: "Were a very
visual band. Yomo gets down on the floor and plays upside down.
We do some really wild stuff."
And he would not want anyone to get the idea, after his tirade
on the Cubans and his comments on salsa romantica, that he is bitter
or unhappy with his own situation. He has a childrens record
up for a Grammy, he is working on a new opera, he has a teenaged
protegee starring in a Broadway show, and he is playing as much
as he cares to. "Its still happening," he says.
"Im still working, Im still making a living and
having a good time."
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By Elijah Wald
The invasion of classic Cuban music started by "The Buena
Vista Social Club" seems to just keep growing. Thursday night,
Eliades Ochoa, the high-energy country singer and guitarist who
drove that album’s "Chan Chan" and "El Cuarto
de Tula," and whose "Sublime Ilusión" is the
standout solo album from the Buena Vista crowd, comes to the Roxy.
With him come a pair of Eastern Cuban legends, Las Hermanas Ferrin,
the Ferrin Sisters.
Mercedes Ferrin has been singing with her sister Esperanza for
as long as she can remember. "We began our art very young,"
she says, speaking in Spanish from a California tour stop. "We
started out learning songs from the radio, and we were always singing
in the house. We were not perfect, by any means, because we didn’t
know anything about singing, we were very young. But we loved to
sing, and later we began to appear at festivals of aficionados."
The Ferrins went professional in 1963, but their lilting, string-driven
music harks back to a still earlier era. "That was thanks to
the great Eugenio Portuondo, who was our accompanist" Ferrin
says. "He is already under the earth these many years, but
we still are very grateful to him for taking the interest to teach
us all about the traditional music, all the distinct musical genres.
He was already old, already 80-something, and he talked about these
as numbers from his youth -- just imagine! And these numbers, almost
nobody plays them. On the disc we are promoting now ["Mi Linda
Guajira," due out in the U.S. this summer], there is a contracanto
from that time, ‘Madre Mia,’ and also a criolla."
Ferrin says that it was not common for women to sing the older
Cuban styles. "Here in Cuba, there were very few duos like
us in traditional music, because I understand that in those times
the women were so withdrawn, staying in the house, that very few
went into music. And then, successively, we got to know the duo
of the Hermanas Martí in Havana, and others, but still very
few. But our father helped us very much. He liked to listen to us
sing, and he always encouraged us."
The Ferrin’s were very popular in the Casas de la Trova,
the government-sponsored venues where traditional musicians gathered
to play. Like Ochoa, they are standard-bearers of the guitar-based
sound centered in the eastern city of Santiago, a more Spanish and
countrified style than that played around Havana. For 30 years,
they were among the area’s most popular singers. Then, in
the early 1990s, they retired, though the choice was not entirely
of their own volition:
"I must say, as a clarification, that traditional Cuban music
is complicated," Ferrin explains. "Most of the young musicians
did not know the roots of the trova, what a canción is, the
contracanto, the barcarola, which are styles of that earlier time,
very complicated styles. Eugenio Portuondo, of course, knew all
of this, and when he died we got another older accompanist, and
he became ill as well and died. After they were gone, we were very
uncomfortable, because when they put us with a young person as an
accompanist it was not the same. We didn’t feel the musical
support that we were used to. And that was a real problem for us.
It made us very unhappy, we couldn’t do what we had been doing,
it was as if we had to start all over. So that was when we made
the decision to retire."
Nonetheless, they kept singing for their own pleasure, and they
were overjoyed when Ochoa came to them and proposed that they make
a tour of Spain with him. The tour led to the album and further
touring. Ferrin says that Ochoa knows how to accompany the styles
they love, though his musicians are younger and on this tour they
will be singing only guaracha, son and bolero, rather than exploring
the more obscure rhythms. She and her sister have been astonished
at the reception they have found in Spain and the United States,
she says that getting back into music this way is like a dream come
"We always had music in our hearts, we never lost the hope
of beginning again, that someone would come along," she says.
"And then a prince came, where the two Cinderellas were, and
brought us out into the world again. That was Eliades Ochoa, and
it was a truly a fairy tale."
Now, the sisters are ready to start a second career, and to ride
the wave of international appreciation as far as it takes them.
"We were very happy to go back to work, back onstage,"
Ferrin says. "We don’t even know how to express it. Every
day we are enjoying it more. We want to communicate our music to
the whole world, if possible."
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