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Before the gangsta, there was the guapo -- the tough guy who cruised the mean streets of Spanish Harlem and El Bronx with a wide-brimmed hat cocked over one eye and a razorblade hidden in his pocket. In the Seventies the urban Latin sound was salsa, and there was nothing romantic about it. Nobody knew this better than Ruben Blades, whose barrio version of "Mack the Knife" ("Pedro Navaja") is the most important salsa song ever released: the tale of a tough who knifes a prostitute on the corner only to end up gunned down by his prey, then picked over like so much garbage by a passing drunk. "Life," the chorus goes, "gives you surprises." Just ask the millions of working-class Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Colombian, and -- like Blades -- Panamanian immigrants who have found themselves second-class citizens of the American dream. "Pedro Navaja" is such a huge song -- and not just for immigrants in Nueva York but for barrio dwellers in San Juan, Panama City, Santo Domingo, and Cali -- that not even Blades's prolific and often brilliant subsequent output of albums, films, and political agitation has eclipsed that single historical event.
"That song can never be left out," he assured an eager audience member who yelled out a request at Blades's concert at the Jackie Gleason last Saturday night. Leading a seventeen-piece orchestra that included Brazilian vocal group Boca Livre and bagpiper Erick River, Blades at times pleaded with his salsa fans to be patient as he ran through the new material from his groundbreaking fusion album Mundo (World).
When the salsa fans couldn't wait, he got his guapo up.
"If you don't like the record," he taunted one woman, spreading his arms wide and shaking his head street-corner style, "¡Qué no lo oigas!"
Don't listen to it!
As Mundo proves, Blades has moved on from strictly urban Latin music to travel a global soundscape.
At the same time, salsa is no longer the beat of the mean streets -- at least not to the ears of the organizers of last Sunday's Urban Latin Festival, whose lineup did not include a single salsa act. Slated, ironically enough, for Columbus Day Weekend, the festival is a kind of Latin counterpoint to the largely African-American draw of Memorial Day Weekend (although Puerto Rican rapper Fat Joe, who was ubiquitous over Memorial Day, was not among his fellow Boricuas to commemorate the continent's so-called discoverer). Hip-hop and meren-hop dominated the bill hosted by NYC-radio-personality hosts Angie Martinez and Tony Touch and headlined by New Jersey's own merengueros Oro Solido and Havana-by-way-of-Paris rappers Orishas.
Other than the raw energy of life in the barrio, wherever the barrio might be, there doesn't seem to be all that much that pulls together Martinez's Bronxese boasts, Oro Solido's manic pelvic thrusts, and the Orishas' chilled-out take on the traditional Cuban son.
Is it the young urban Latinos who dig all these grooves that make the term "Urban Latin" make sense?
Shake doesn't know! Shake couldn't get out of the gridlock surrounding the Trinidadian Carnival at the Opa-locka airport in time to catch the Urban Latin Festival at Bayfront Park!
Caribbean rhythms, 808 bass, and trance treble notwithstanding, the two most important elements of Miami's music scene remain: the festival and the traffic jam.
Let's not even worry about South Beach, where $15 to valet for the Timo Maas show last Saturday night at crobar was a small, small price to pay to avoid the endless circling in ever-widening gyres that is parking in clubland. A person could walk. A person could take a cab.
But out on the mainland, is there really no way to hear music that does not involve convening entire census tracts -- 12,000 people (Argentine Festival), 40,000 people (Colombian Independence Day Festival), 100,000 people (Trini Carnival), 1.5 million people (Calle Ocho)? Is there really no other way to promote tourism than to create massive clusterfucks of unregistered, uninsured Seventies Oldsmobiles and late-model monster SUVs?
If Miami's soundtrack is any indication, the Urban Latin sound is not "Pedro Navaja" (he, after all, got to walk down the mean streets) or Angie Martinez's "Take You Home" (I can't; I'm stuck in traffic!). It's a cacophony of pirate radio stations blaring out of Escalade windows cut through by police sirens and horns. Sometimes life doesn't bring any surprises at all.