By Kat Bein
By Laurie Charles
By Shea Serrano
By Jeff Weinberger
By Kat Bein
By Shea Serrano
By S. Pajot
By Terrence McCoy
In the late Fifties, the young Harlow embarked for Cuba to study the island's rhythms more closely. He quickly immersed himself in the life of Havana, rubbing elbows with the nation's finest musicians and rubbing thighs with the capital city's most experienced prostitutes. "When it comes to Spanish, I learned all the dirty words first -- in bed," he confesses of his sentimental education in the tropics. "There was a coffee shop in front of the University of Havana. Jerry Masucci [a cofounder of the Fania All-Stars] was studying business administration at the university, and he was working for the government's tourism board under Batista. The café was called Fania's, and Masucci and a lot of us would have lunch there, and I think, now, that's where the name [for the band] came from." When Castro conquered Cuba in 1959, Harlow left for New York. "There was no turning back," he declares. "I was salsafied."
Within six years he had formed Orquesta Harlow, a proto-salsa group. He reconfigured the standard Latin brass section, breeding the ballsy sound that would be salsa. This gritty urban throb set the course for a salsa steeped in the politics of the revolutionary Sixties and Seventies. "Nobody had done trumpets and trombones before that," Harlow remembers. The pianist also introduced electronic instruments into his arrangements, charging the music at last with a neon-hued city feel true to the ambiance of Latin New York. The sound of salsa dura, or as Harlow puts it, "salsa gorda" (robust salsa), was as mean as the New York City streets Fania's fans called home.
"That was the real deal; the music stayed close to the Cuban son and there were many different messages," comments Harlow on what would come to be known as the Fania sound. "You have to remember that was the time of Woodstock, the Black Panthers, John Lennon. There were many different messages: love, war, politics, humanity." Considering the current scene, he complains, "Now it's all one message: “I love you; you love me.'" The collapse of Fania Records in the early Eighties ushered in the age of salsa romántica, the mind-numbing pap that continues to saturate commercial radio waves today. In this new incarnation, soneros often lack the ability to improvise lyrics, musicians rarely take solos, the subject almost always is romantic love, the singers are the only stars, and the arrangements are about as original as Muzak.
Not one to pull punches, the seasoned musician speaks candidly about the end of salsa dura and the advent of the fluff he calls "salsa monga" ("weak salsa"). He blames former Fania investor Ralph Mercado for the change. "In 1980 none of us [from Fania] had contracts," he explains. "When Ralph started the RMM label, he didn't sign any of us because he didn't want to pay us more than $500 for an album. He signed Puente and Celia for $500 per album, then he got a lot of young singers. All we had in terms of music out there was what they kept playing on the radio, but all the new stuff being recorded was with RMM. People forgot us for ten years because we weren't recording."
Although times have changed, the jagged competitor's edge has stayed with Harlow. And now, like one of the testy fighting cocks in Our Latin Thing, he is prone to slash his talons not only at the contemporary stars who supplanted Fania but at former bandmate Willie Colon. The two sent angry missives to each other after Harlow told a music dot-com about an incident in which Colon, either stubbornly or out of a lack of creativity, failed to improvise an extra few bars of lyrics at a live gig. "He's an asshole, and you can print that," snaps Harlow. "If someone gets me mad, then I'll go and do some stuff and make their balls shrivel," he jokes. The cocks are still fighting.