Salsa's Past as Prologue

In one scene a middle-aged man sits atop a wooden vegetable crate on the stoop of his apartment building on what appears to be a fine spring day. He wears a sweater, slacks, and socks with leather houseslippers and is beating the sides of the crate with his hands. The rhumba rhythm he creates echoes down the street and into the hips of a scraggly bystander, who begins to dance with slightly tipsy abandon. A woman comes walking down the street, cigarette hanging from her lips, and she falls easily into step when the dancer grabs her, twirling her around and catching her in his arms. It is a sublime spontaneous moment that captures the true spirit of salsa.

What can pass for salsa these days is so highly stylized, synthesized, and repetitive that it's easy to forget the time when that music form was cool. Over the past decade dozens of eternally postadolescent males sporting blow-dried 'dos and beefy pecs bursting from T-shirts have sashayed into the Latin hit parade, where music takes a back seat to sex appeal. Enduring heartthrobs such as Jerry Rivera, Rey Ruiz, and Luis Enrique have the vocal talent to back up the ardent lyrics, usually sung over homogenized percussive arrangements. But there have been many more overproduced casualties, the tight pants hanging in the closet the only souvenir of their brief mainstream careers.

In the Seventies, though, the Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, and Americans who came together to create what would become known as salsa were musicians, not products, weaned on the sounds of the Cuban charanga bands that played the New York club circuit in the Fifties and Sixties, on the Afro-Cuban jazz of brothers-in-law Machito and Mario Bauza, and on calypso and boogaloo, as well as the folkloric rhythms of their respective homelands. When this group of players fused these sounds with the funk, soul, disco, and jazz of the era, they created something new -- a sizzling "sauce" of sound.

Like the man pounding on a box on his stoop, early salsa was a musical expression of the heat of the streets. Our Latin Thing captures a concert at New York's famed Cheetah Club, a mess of cats crammed onto a small stage grooving for a dancing crowd. Salsa, like the Buena Vista-style Cuban son that lies at its core, was about improvisation: singers riffing on the lyrics of sheet music they held in their hands as they performed; musicians rappelling into long, spiraling solos.

Dominican-born Johnny Pacheco, a veteran of New York charanga bands, founded the seminal salsa label Fania Records with Jerry Masucci, a New York lawyer. Like Pacheco, Masucci was a Cuban-music fan. They signed up a crop of young turks from the Bronx and Spanish Harlem; in the beginning, Pacheco sold albums out of his car. The label's roster of artists, including Willie Colon, Ismael Miranda, Larry Harlow, and Ray Barreto, periodically played together at places such as the Cheetah under the name the Fania All-Stars (they still do). Masucci, who succeeded in turning the New York Latin sound into big business, died this past December. But the spirit of Fania lives on.

A new generation has discovered the Fania All-Stars, who are now touring Latin America playing stadium concerts for tens of thousands of fans, many in their twenties and thirties. Recently they performed a tribute concert in Masucci's honor in Puerto Rico. Suddenly in the Nineties salsa has become cool again. Witness Friday nights at Starfish or La Covacha in this city, with yucas and yuppies dancing to salsa gorda ("fat" salsa), as the polyrhythmic "traditional" salsa is known. DJ Rey at Starfish spins songs by old-time Fania artists and charanga bands -- "The old kind of salsa, that's what people are really looking for," he notes -- mixed with the hits of the new hard-edged salsa sensations such as DLG (Dark Latin Groove), the English-speaking American black and Puerto Rican trio produced by New Yorker Sergio George, who has brought a hip-hop sensibility to salsa. Or songs by Marc Anthony, star of Paul Simon's ill-fated The Capeman on Broadway, whose muscular vocals, Armani-model looks, and laidback fashion style have brought a new sophistication to Latin love songs, appealing to American Latins of all ages.

"People want real things now," explains Estefan. "It's all about fusion, old-time music, Latin music with pop music, dance music -- like in the Seventies."

And then of course there are the Cubans. It would be a bit of a stretch to say that the members of the craggy Buena Vista Social Club crew are the new salseros. What is certain is that Cuban music of all stripes is having a renewed influence on Latin music produced in this nation.

The Fania All-Stars' most recent album, Bravo, released last year on Masucci's Jerry Masucci Music label (a Sony Imprint), is a salute to Cuban music. It features the All- Stars' versions of several well-known songs by the explosive Cuban dance band Los Van Van. Singers include Celia Cruz and Andy Montanez. The All-Stars' sizzling original arrangements exemplify the best of the symbiotic relationship between artists on the island and other Latin performers.

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