The Roots of Latin Music
by - Mario Bryant - Researcher
* Research supplied by the Museum of the City of New York
I have heard
it said that the Razz M Tazz system “Successfully combines the best
of Palladium era Mambo and modern day Salsa with American jazz while keeping
the flavor of Afro Cuban Rhythms”. Well, recently I was fortunate
enough to visit the Museum of the City of New York and found this statement
be the perfect fit as introduction to a welcomed, yet long overdue history
lesson. A lesson that should do no less than inspire us to understand
and revel in the pride, evolution and beauty of our music…and of
The Roots of Latin Music
The history of the Latin popular music known worldwide as salsa began
centuries ago in the islands of the Spanish Caribbean, in a context of
slavery and colonialism. Yet, it is inextricably tied to twentieth-century
New York City and the growth of a thriving Latino community here. Its
distinctive polyrhythms and vocal and instrumental call-and-response identify
the Afro-Caribbean roots of Latin music—traditional and contemporary,
sacred and secular.
of Latin popular music reveals the triumph of the human spirit over the
crushing forces of slavery and colonialism. For centuries, men, women,
and children from West and Central Africa–the lands of the great
nations of the Yoruba, Efik, and Bantu peoples, among others–were
brought in chains to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola (now the Dominican
Republic and Haiti). Thrown into encounters with diverse and heretofore
unknown African, European, and indigenous peoples and cultures, they carved
out ways to ensure their own survival and that of their cultural expressions.
Though plantation life was harsh under Spanish rule, it allowed for the
establishment of sacred and secular cultural institutions, such as religious
houses and brotherhoods, in which tradition could be maintained and adapted
and new traditions created. Cimarron (escaped slave) communities also
provided a context for the preservation of traditional musical forms.
By the late
nineteenth century, slavery had come to an end throughout the Caribbean
region. The euphoria of freedom soon gave way to the reality of making
a new life in the midst of economic and political upheaval. The Spanish-American
War of 1898 resulted in the end of Spanish colonial rule and the emergence
of the United States as the dominant imperial power in the region. With
the transformation of plantation economies into agribusinesses, displaced
agricultural workers migrated from countryside into town, and from island
to island. Blacks, whites, and criollos arrived in Havana, bringing the
rhythms of rumba and changüí. To San Juan they brought bomba
and seis; and to Santo Domingo, merengue and carabiné. Transplanted
and transformed in the urban settings, these and other sounds and styles
were selectively brought to New York City in successive migrations.
Rican settlement in New York began before 1898, migration increased once
the island came under U.S. control. The first Puerto Rican colonia (neighborhood)
developed in the area around the Brooklyn Navy Yard. By 1917, when the
Jones Act made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens, East Harlem’s El Barrio
had become the colonia of choice for new arrivals. An unforeseen result
of citizenship was the earliest collaboration between African-American
and Puerto Rican musicians and the earliest documented presence of Puerto
Rican musicians in New York City, brought about by James Reese Europe
(1881-1919), founder of the first booking agency for African-American
musicians and director of the first African-American band to play Carnegie
With the outbreak of World War I, Europe enlisted in a black regiment
of the New York National Guard. When asked to organize “the best
damn brass band in the United States Army,” Europe traveled to Puerto
Rico to audition Island black musicians trained in municipal bands. The
eighteen men he recruited included Rafael Hernández (1891-1965),
who was to become one of Puerto Rico’s most famous and beloved composers.
Europe’s band (later known as the 369th Infantry “Harlem Hellfighters”
band) is credited with introducing European audiences to jazz. Back in
New York City, its Puerto Rican members were the first Latinos to record
and perform with African-American jazz bands in the City’s clubs
and theater orchestras.
Other Island musicians and workers quickly followed, as the interwar decades
saw continued economic hardship in the Caribbean and the rise of employment
opportunities in New York City. Latino communities in New York supported
dozens of Spanish-language theaters, dance halls, nightclubs, social clubs,
and music stores, all of which fostered the development of a dynamic New
York Latin music scene.
From 1900 into the 1950s, popular stage, recording, film, and broadcast
media as well as Tin Pan Alley—the New York shorthand for publishers
of popular sheet music—responded to the vibrant energy of Latin
music. The introduction of the tango in stage and silent film productions
in 1913 gave rise to the popular image of the "Latin Lover."
New York publishers issued songs that became standards, such as Ernesto
Lecuona’s “Siboney” (1929).
Latin music and dance grew steadily in popularity during the interwar
period. American tourists who flocked to the hotels and casinos of Havana
in the 1920s heard a new music called son. In 1930, Don Azpiazu’s
Havana Casino Orchestra played son and other Cuban dance music at New
York’s Palace Theater, and introduced the classic “El manicero”
(“The Peanut Vendor”), which became a national hit. Under
the generic name rumba, son became a national social dance craze. Spanish-born,
Havana-raised Xavier Cugat (1900-1990) and his orchestra opened the new
Waldorf-Astoria and became the hotel’s resident group, playing a
mix of Latin and other popular tunes there from 1932 to 1947, mellowed
for a broader American audience. The stage was set for the transition
from son to salsa.
By the mid-1930s, American nightclubs were featuring the conga, a Cuban
carnival tradition, and many Broadway musicals included Latin numbers.
In 1939, two key Latino entertainers appeared on the New York stage, Brazilian
singer-dancer Carmen Miranda (1909-1955) singing “South American
Way” in the Abbott and Costello revue On the Streets of Paris, and
Cuban-born Desi Arnaz (1917-1986) as a conga-playing football player in
the Rodgers and Hart musical Too Many Girls.
and Arnaz were among the many Latino entertainers featured in Hollywood
musicals with “south of the border” themes during the 1940s.
Teamed with his wife Lucille Ball, Arnaz created the long-running television
comedy I Love Lucy. Featuring Arnaz’s character, New York-based
Latin bandleader Ricky Ricardo, the show brought Latino music into homes
nationwide beginning in 1951 and helped make mambo and cha-cha-cha the
dance crazes of the 1950s.
As El Rey Tito Puente (1923-2000) said, Latin jazz is a marriage between
Latin rhythms and jazz harmonies. The connection that began with African-American
and Puerto Rican members of James Reese Europe’s military band went
on to forge a true New York sound. Seminal figures included Afro-Cubans
Alberto Socarrás, one of the first Cubans to play in a jazz band,
and Mario Bauzá, who played with both Latin and jazz groups. Bauzá’s
friendship with jazz great Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993), which began when
both played trumpet in Cab Calloway’s band, profoundly influenced
both jazz and Latin music. In 1940, Bauzá and his brother-in-law
Frank “Machito” Grillo (ca. 1909-1984) formed Machito and
His Afro-Cubans, the first group to incorporate African-American jazz
musicians, harmonies, and concepts into Latin music. In 1947-1948, Gillespie
collaborated with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo (1915-1948), marking
the first genuine synthesis of Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz.
By 1952, New York’s Palladium Ballroom at Broadway and 53rd Street
had become the American center for the mambo dance craze, followed in
1954 by the cha-cha-cha. Created as an instrumental form in Cuba by Orestes
and Israel (“Cachao”) López and Arsenio Rodríguez,
mambo was popularized in the United States by Pérez Prado. Cha-cha-cha
was the invention of Enrique Jorrin as a form of both dance and music.
These dance forms brought “The Big Three”—Machito, Tito
Puente, and Tito Rodríguez (1923-1973)—international renown.
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