Do Not Go Softly

Larry Harlow sounds off on the sad state of salsa

If you take good care of your bird, it can fight a very long time," says a swarthy expert on cockfighting in the 1973 documentary Our Latin Thing(Nuestra Cosa). Introducing the world to the now legendary Fania All-Stars, the film intercuts concert footage of that monster salsa band with pulsing portraits of everyday life among the Latin people of New York City. The camera never flinches as the gallos tear one another apart in the middle of a ring of shouting men; only after the blood spurts and one bird lies dead does the picture dissolve into a performance at the Cheetah nightclub of Johnny Pacheco's song, "Ponte Duro" ("Get Hard").

Jamming his thick fingers at the keys, Fania pianist and producer Larry Harlow gets hard even as he remains loose. He arches his back slightly, head held high, while his legs kick up and down and out beneath him. Then bad boy Willie Colon takes a trombone solo. He too is hard, decked out in a ruffled pink shirt and white vest. Out of the bell of his horn come high staccato notes, shotgun blasts of fertility and love. After he plays he wears a sly subtle smile beneath his mustache, as if he knows he has pulled off the perfect caper. This is music mythologized as the grand freedom-making heist.

Nearly 30 years later, what is left of the Fania All-Stars is still hard and the hustle is still on. And Larry Harlow, one of the originators of salsa dura (hard salsa), is still running on all pistons. He is band leader, arranger, and composer, as well as a teacher and the producer of seven up-and-coming soneros. He recently recorded a live CD at Birdland to be released in February and leads Sofrito, a Latin outfit that features a storyteller. To keep fit the 61-year-old makes it to the gym three days a week and has a santera godmother on Calle Ocho watching over his spiritual interests. "If you want to be a musician," explains Harlow from his apartment in New York, "you have to do a lot more than just play to survive in this business." His speech is Brooklynese street-grit leavened with the intimacy of a salesman closing a deal.

His prime moneymaking effort is the Latin Legends Band he brings to South Florida this week. "It's really the mini-Fania," he says. Founded in 1994 by Harlow with conga extraordinaire and Fania alum Ray Barretto, the group continues to tour worldwide. When Barretto dropped out to concentrate on jazz, Harlow stepped in as leader and manager. The twelve-piece group includes monster percussionists Bobby Sanabria and Chembo Corniel, as well as Yomo Toro, master of the Puerto Rican mandolinlike instrument, the cuatro. At 67 years old, perhaps no one knows more about what it means to stay hard than the gentle Toro, who continues to play with the same verve he had as a young man, plucking the ten-string guitar while dangling upside down off the edge of the stage. "I haven't lost a thing," declares Toro from his home in Brooklyn.

Harlow also has introduced young blood into the group of veterans, including baby-faced vocalist Luis Rosado. "You need a kid like this," says Harlow. "He knows the poetry of salsa, and the girls love him." For the band leader these additions make sound business sense, a quality Harlow attributes to his origins. Of his contacts on the road, he points out: "They like dealing with a gringo, an American head. I've got a Jewish head; I can talk business with them." It is in fact Harlow's head for business that distinguishes him from the other surviving Fania All-Stars. While Colon's motivating persona was that of the consummate thief, in Harlow's heart of hearts there lives not only a devoted musician but a hands-on dealmaker. When you dial the number listed on Larry Harlow's Website, you don't get a manager or a service; you get Larry Harlow. "That's what it is about him," offers Toro. "When I get a call to play for the legends, it's not some manager; it's Larry."

Known in Latin music circles since the Sixties as El Judeo Maravilloso (The Marvelous Jew), Harlow grew up a nice Jewish boy in Brooklyn. His father was a bassist and a successful band leader. His mother was an opera singer. Their son studied classical music at the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. During his daily jaunts to school in the big city, Harlow became interested in the sounds he heard coming out of the bodegas in the Latin neighborhoods through which he passed. As a teenager in the early Fifties, Harlow aspired to be a jazz pianist, but his clean-cut appearance thwarted him at every turn. "In those days unless you were black or a junkie, nobody took you seriously as a jazz musician," he says half in jest. Harlow was determined to work on his improvisational skills, so he turned to playing Latin music, peddling his ability to read music to a local mambo band, Hugo Dickens and his Orchestra. "As far as jazz goes, I got in through the back door," laughs Harlow today. By the time he was sixteen, the eager music student had landed a job in the Catskills, playing mambos and cha-chas for a five-piece band. He was making $50 a week.

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