SALSA MANHATTAN by Linda Cohen
September. 1989. I could never hear enough of the riveting soulful Latin dance cassettes my friend Diane played for me. On my fortieth birthday, eight years ago, I finally convinced her to accompany me to the old Copacabana, then located just off Fifth Avenue on 60th Street. On an otherwise ordinary Friday night at around 10pm, we stepped from the dry cool breeze of a staid New York autumn evening, quite unexpectedly, into a ruby velvet
fleur-de-lis Latin space-warp somewhere off the legendary white-sand coast of Batista’s Havana. 1955.
I lit up like a silver sparkler with wonder and delight at having stumbled upon a real nightclub- elegant- electrically packed with well-dressed up-tempo mambo aficionados and featuring mesmerizing Latin bands. Timbales! Congas! Bongos! Wailing brass horns that both cried and crooned like the mysterious soul of enchanted Havana herself. Couples, in ESP-like communion, instantaneously responding to each other’s body language on the dancefloor, interwoven livewires sizzling with uninhibited gyrations to the exotic swing of Afro-Cuban rhythms. That pivotal evening, in my heretofore routine social life, I discovered that just beneath the slate-gray surface of conservative, white-collar, mid-town Manhattan, exists a colorful carnival of percussive Latin sounds and a whirlwind of enthusiastic dancing spirits. Primal, instinctual, animally magnetic- this pulsing Latino landscape — a torrid south of the boarder panorama of sexual innuendo, of pleasing invitations from flashing white smiles formed inside dark proud caramel faces, a steamy foreign terrain of musky masculine colognes mingling deliciously with sweet floral perfumes. Hypnotizing. A high-energy, carefree, dazzling universe fueled one hundred percent by irresistible dance music. Drinking, socializing, networking, even cruising, were entirely peripheral to serious dancing. With no effort, I willingly lost myself inside a flowing river of mellifluous Spanish voices (the chorus) responding, in turn, to the sensuous call of the salsero (lead singer). Earthy, dark, luscious melodies of love as endless as a midnight sky, and haunting ballads of lost love, as far away as distant flickering Venus, filtering between the scorching orange fires of mambo tunes. Silky tones and forgotten images of romance (from my childhood days growing up in Miami with beautiful forbidden Cuban boys and their sleek black motorbikes we white girls were warned were off-limits by our concerned parents) streamed into my emotionally thirsty spirit like moonlight fills an empty night sky. On stage, in a cream cotton dress-shirt and pale blue linen two-button suit, which highlighted his exquisitely handsome coffee-brown frame, Jose Alberto, El Canario (the canary), intoxicated both hombres (men) and mujeres (women) with the tender sweetness of his song, my first night at The Copacabana.
So, on a late September evening when most of Manhattan was kissing summer goodbye, I discovered the infectious magic of salsa, and the beginning of endless tantalizing hot summer nights. No matter the season. Salsa, whose roots are deeps in Afro-Cuban culture, transports the dancer, almost spiritually, from an ordinary reality to a heightened state of trancelike self-expression. The origins of these rhythms are in sacred ceremonies which invoke Afro-Cuban deities and nature-spirits (Orishas, Santeria) for the healing of wounded and misguided souls and for the upliftment of the tribal community. Inside the Latin sound, you and your partner connect in preverbal dialog, viscerally feeling your next move, sparked by the other’s energy. It’s addictive, like the exuberant high which distance-runners generate, or the ecstatic elation scuba divers feel, gliding through liquid blue. No matter your age, profession, financial status, race, nationality, or politics, there is no immunity! There is only the sanguine return to the rush of your fast-pulsing blood. Racing. With desire. Following.. the… clave. Beat.
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Vernon W. Boggs comprehensive scholarly work: SALSIOLOGY — Afro-Cuban Music and the Evolution of Salsa in New York City, (Greenwood Press, 1992) traces the roots of Latin jazz from West Africa (with its earthy, religious, life-sustaining ritual music) to the Caribbean, and particularly to the island of Cuba. By 1946, after the war, with the influence of jazz from American servicemen strong on the island, the Cuban sound made its way to Manhattan. And with a steady migration of Cuban musicians rerouting to large American cities were jazz flourished. Including Chicago and LA, alchemy was destined between the two musical genres. In the late ’40s and ’50s Latin jazz grew increasingly popular as the end of tensions from World War II rekindled the dancing spirit in the US, after the passing of the big band era. By 1947, with Cuban pioneers like Machito and Mario Bauza in New York, traditional Latin rhythms were being employed by legendary jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie (who played in a band with Bauza) to enrich the sound of jazz. Musicians such as Pupi Camop, Jose Curbelo and Noro Morales fell into vogue in Manhattan. At the same time, in Cuba, the cha-cha-cha emerged shortly after Israel Cachao and his brother Orestes give birth to mambo.
In Manhattan during the late ’40s and ’50s. The Palladium, on West 52nd Street, was dominated by three unmatched Latin orchestras, Machito’s, and the two Puerto Rican Titos, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. Nightly, The Palladium packed with serious Latin music aficionados from mixed ethnic backgrounds (notably well-to-do Jews and Italians perfecting their moves amongst a jubilant Hispanic crowd). Celia Cruz, first lady of Latin song, also migrated from Cuba to the U.S. during this boom period.
The early traditional Cuban sound, so much a derivative of the fertile island soil and lazy way of life, was changing. The “tipica” sound was being replaced by a more urban, swinging, heavily Puerto Rican influenced, barrio-bred style. Salsa as we know it today, with its undeniable roots in traditional popular Cuban music, comes mainly from the NuYorican musicians of the ’60s and ’70s. The great Puerto Rican and non-Latino stars Johnny Colon, Willie Colon, The Palmieri Brothers, Ray Barretto, Willie Bobo, Joe Cuba, Larry Harlow, Jonny Pacheco and many others created the institutionalization of the sound we call salsa. The Fania recording label, with big bucks backing the promotion of bands in which it had huge economic stakes, made Latin music big business.
In the ’60s, charanga, which featured flutes and violins, came into vogue with its inspired hybrid dance form, the Pachanga. Among Pachanga superstars were Jonny Pacheco, Eddie and Charlie Palmieri and Ray Barretto. At the same time, Joe Cuba was making musical history with the Latin boogaloo. Joe brought influences from black soul artists like the Temptations and James Brown, whom he loved, into his own unique sublimely danceable Latin style.
Joe Cuba was the first Latin recording star to use English lyrics, along with Spanish, in his unique sound to create soul classics like “El Pito” (“I’ll Never Go Back to Georgia”) and “Bang Bang”. This cross-over dance music that is still popular today, having lost none of its audience appeal, nor infectious dancability. At 66, Joe Cuba, whose business card read “Certified Paralegal”, still plays here and there around town to crowds who can’t sit still. I met with him at his place on 116th and Lexington, in the same neighborhood where he grew up, with Machito playing on his off-nights at a nearby uptown dancehall. Joe says he owes a lot to R&B. “I hung out and went to school mainly with blacks, and of course this fed its way to my music. I used to go to The Apollo. The Latin boogaloo, in the mid-60s, was a free-form that everyone could dance to. We had the great whistle gimmick. I have to admit I’ve been very lucky as a musician. I was booked almost right after forming the band, to play up in the Catskills. We had a big Jewish following. Even though we were just a sextet, we had a big-band sound. They loved us in Europe and South American, too. There have been lots of crazes. Boogaloo, Pachango, Guaguanco. Romantica with Luis Ramirez and Ray de la Paz.” Joe feels that Latin music is at another crossroads today. “For the past few years, the singer’s out front. La India. Tony Vega. Marc Anthony. Tito Nieves’ version of ‘I Like It Like That’”. When I ask Joe to define salsa, “Salsa is upbeat! It’s dance music. I say the music has ‘spring’ to it.”
The term “salsa” first appeared as the title of a record in the ’60s, and later gained wide-spread popularity with the release of a movie and record, in 1975. But precisely what is salsa? According to Boggs, “Salsa is neither a musical style nor a particular rhythm but a hybrid genre performed mostly by Puerto Ricans in New York and on the island. It is also very popular in The Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Panama, Cuba, Columbia and Peru… It is an amalgamation of Afro-Caribbean musical traditions centered around the “son”. Its main characteristics are a call-and-response song structure; polyrhythmic organization with abundant use of syncopation, instrumental variety with excessive use of brass and percussion, and strident orchestral arrangements; jazz influence; and a reliance on the sounds and themes of lower-class life in the Latin American barrios of the U.S. and Caribbean cities…. Salsa is above all a symbol of resistance to the loss of national identity.”
May. 1997. When I told her I was moving back to Manhattan and that I couldn’t wait to hit the Copa, my one-quarter Puerto Rican best friend nurse, Diane, jumped on me, “are you gonna learn to dance on two?” After four years of living in South Beach, Miami, and enduring the inevitable flat disappointing late nights of pseudo-salsa, along side the droning monotony of an omnipresent Macarena, I yearned for Manhattan and the precision, adroitness, sexy-partnering and passionate fire of mambo! The mechanical isolation of bottom-heavy, no body contact, repetitious, pounding disco, in place of the firm tender arms of salsa, left me bored and unaroused. I couldn’t understand why Miami, with its excess of sixty percent Hispanic population, wasn’t cresting with the new wave of salsa? Sure, there were remotely located cavernous clubs that catered to a Latin crowd, but mainly on weekends, mostly disc-jockeyed, and not one South Florida arena that offers the glamour and dynamic musical fare with fill New York Hispanic clubs seven nights a week.
Today when I walk into a Latin club where Henry Knowles is spinning, everyone’s on the floor. There’s redemption in every tune Henry plays. Nothing is wasted. No filters. For Henry, top Manhattan DJ, who has been spinning his Latin artistry at the main venues for more than twenty-one years, salsa is most of all FEELNG! “Being half Puerto Rican brought me to the church dances on the Lower East Side and to long summers in Puerto Rico. I always loved the sound. The great feeling Latin music gave me. Happy. Upbeat.” Henry started collecting Latin 78RPM records from the time he was a kid growing up on the Lower East Side and in The Bronx. “I was mixing records way back then, in the ’60s, spinning at pool parties, socials.
Before my time, in the early Palladium days, the late ’40s and ’50s, mambo was a big, fat, heavy sound. Back then the bands were the stars. Everybody was dancing. In the mid-‘60s, when the Palladium closed, The Cheetah and Corso were very popular. Corso has been around for years, too. In the late-‘70s it was Hector LaVoe, Pete (El Conde) Rodriguez, Willie Colon and Pacheco. The Fania All Stars! The sound was a slower, even more danceable. And there were other clubs like Ipanema, Casa Blanca, Cork and Bottle and Bomba Macow. Singers were very popular. In the ’70s, Tito Nieves with Conjunto Classico. Jose Alberto. Tipica ’73. And in the early ’80s Charanga was big. Orchestra Broadway. Charanga ’76. In the mid-‘80s the style changed again. Salsa Romantica is a very commercial sound. While there were great singers like Eddie Santiago, Enrique, and Ray de la Paz, the music ended up losing a lot of its feeling.”
Knowles believes we’re at a crossroads today. “The music’s never been more popular. The Columbians are making their mark with bands like Grupo Gale and Grupo Niche. Also Grupo Mania from Puerto Rico is helping revive the bomba sound. These groups are bringing the old sound back. The intense feeling, the swing that Salsa Romantica doesn’t have. Latin radio today is mainly commercial, not that great for dancing. La Mega, FM 97.9, does play classic mixes, and is very important to Latin musicians who want to make it. It reaches a wide tri-state audience, twenty-four hours a day.”
Latin dance is a primary recreation for a generation who is sick and fed up with drugged, boozed-out haze of the past few party decades. Henry continues, “We’ve all been there, pretty much. I have. But not anymore. I’m high on the music. The energy. I love to dance! There’s a, I call it, swwwwwwwing to great salsa that you don’t find in the overly commercial music. It’s a feeling that comes from a great sonero (crooner) and the musicians behind him. Today the Latin commercial sound is all about the singer. In the ’40s, ‘50s’ ’60s and ’70s it used to be about the band. THE MUSIC has to be behind the singer, for it to be a dance sound.” You can find Henry smiling, joking with patrons, dancing, and spinning his dance magic Sundays at El Flamingo and Thursday nights at The Latin Quarter. You can also reach him for special engagements through RMM Records at 568 Broadway.
Latin dance is partner dancing. There’s a deep unspoken language which connects couples-dancers. It’s a soul language of the intense pleasure that results from two separate beings joining in synchronized motion to create one intricate, passionate, romantic moving art form. You know, it takes two to salsa!
In my search to get closer to the heart of the music I love best, and to the current craze of salsa madness which spellbinds dance students as well as clubbers, I spoke with countless, both white and blue collar workers, who carry a change of clothes and a set of dancing shoes with them most days and are out on the floor three to six nights a week! “It’s unbelievable,” I sat talking with twenty-seven-year-old Angie during a break at one of Eddie Torres’ beginning to intermediate Monday night classes. “Me and Ray have been together for ten years and we always danced on one (the first beat). Now we come to Eddie’s class Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, too, at The Latin Quarter, and dancing on two (the second beat) just feels better, smoother. Ray’s a cop. I’m finishing school to be a paramedic. Since we’ve been dancing with Eddie, Ray always tries to get the early shift. We come in from the Bronx and drop the kids off with my mom. My girl’s eight and my little boy is four. Me and Ray have a blast! All the tensions, and the frustrations, they melt into the music. We go home and practice too, and we try to get to the Copa or Side Street in the Bronx at least once or twice a week. It’s like we found something that we can do together. Work on. Improve. Get in shape. But most of all we have FUN! We’re into it. Even my little girl, I want her to study dance with Maria Torres.” Angie’s zeal is remarkably characteristic of the unbridled enthusiasm I receive from lawyers I’ve met at DanceSport, who pay $75 for private lessons two the three times a week… to “regulars” I recognize, season through season, who follow the top dance bands from club to club around the city. Latin dance has never been more popular in Manhattan. The heavy drugs, the cigarettes, and even the boozing, which are primary activities and props in so many club environments, play little part in the world of the Latin dancer. We need our energy. Our timing. Our grace.
The first question I ask Eddie Torres is “what’s the difference between mambo and salsa?” “With mambo, you break on two, or the second beat of the music. With salsa, you break on one. Here, in my classes, we teach on two. That’s closer to being in sync with the natural Latin rhythms. Lots of Latinos have been dancing their whole lives. Then they decide they really want to learn this dance, so they come here, and I teach them to dance on two. Dancing on one is easier in a way, but it’s imitation Latin, commercial. With dancing on two there’s more of a natural flow, you’re more connected to the music, the dancing compliments the accent of the congas.” Eddie Torres, the number on Latin dance instructor in New York City for the past ten years, packs in devoted students at $20 per class most nights at 939 8th Avenue and Thursdays at the Latin Quarter. Salsa has evolved into a classis Latin dance form which he has been instrumental in defining as well as furthering. And now that I’ve studied with Eddie for three months, I can attest that his students (which are a good balance of men and women, Latinos and non-Latinos, youths in their teens and early twenties and free-spirits in their ’60s and ’70s) really learn to dance salsa in a way that emphasizes partner-work and communication. Eddie’s classes are also a platform where a student can develop a love and understanding of the music, as well as the dance technique. He teaches Latin music theory, Sundays, once each month. Eddie had remarkable charisma! His light-hearted, joyful instruction helps make some student’s otherwise bleak life circumstances sparkle with self-expression and the self-esteem which accompany learning a craft well.
Torres explains that the first generation of Latin dancers in Manhattan was a very mixed crowd. People vacationed in Havana and brought back the dance. But the second generation of Latin dancers, from the mid-‘60s through the mid-‘80s, brought out the real dancers. “Nothing kept them away! Total high energy! There was Corso, Casa Blanca. Every night was packed. During those days the people were more carefree than today. They supported each other. There wasn’t the negative competition on the floor that you see today. It was more innocent. Then the dance kind of slipped into the background until around 1988 (exactly when I, Linda, actually began dancing at The Copa). Since then, mambo’s been making a big comeback.”
Like DJ Henry Knowles, Eddie Torres also welcomes the presence of the Columbian bands who today are helping to bring back the more jumpy, rhythmic, feel of great dance music. “Before the sweet songs and pretty singers of salsa romantica, the music was more Afro-Cuban, percussive. More danceable. Tito Puente! He’s the man. He still plays great.”
And the magic of salsa, Eddie? “The Latin music. The drums. The rhythm section. Percussive trances. There is a multi-nationalism that brings all nationalities together. And it’s so great that it’s finally becoming mainstream.”