Do Not Go Softly

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.

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.