made. In the 1920s, seminal groups like Sexteto Habanero - with vocalist Abelardo Barroso and trumpeter Felix Chappotin - recorded in the city, also Ignacio Piniero’s Septeto Nacional. The forerunners of the musicians featured here, these artists were popular all over the world, especially in West Africa.
It was inevitable that afro-Cuban music - always true to the clave - would proliferate in new genres reflecting its new home. Afro-Cuban jazz was born in New York City, through the amalgamating creativity of musicians like Chano Pozo, Machito, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, Count Basie, and Dizzy Gillespie. In the 1930s, Mario Bauza from Cuba was playing trumpet with the Chick Webb big band in the Savoy Ballroom (and feigning illness to get his friend Dizzy Gillespie a night's work). When his brother-in law Frank Grillo (aka Machito) came to New York, the pair founded the big band The Afro Cubans - and in conversation Machito has concurred with my description of this music as 'Count Basie with a clave'. Likewise Boogaloo in the mid sixties. It came out of Harlem, joining Guajira and son with soul, R&B and doo-wop.
The recordings on SON CUBANO NYC were made over the decade beginning 1972, for the new Salsoul and SAR labels and their sisters Mericana and Guajiro. For the trumpeter Chocolate, this late flowering in New York of Cuban classicism is captured by Mario Bauza's phrase about the general development of the music - 'same language, different accents': 'it has broader harmonies and touches of jazz phrasing, but never leaves the raices and cinquillo... Cuban music is natural - its essence is its raices [roots]'. Still, when I spoke with him he was keen to acknowledge the New York contribution - and likewise Henry Fiol: 'New York salsa is a hybrid. When Cuban music moved to New York it added another flavour.'
Latin music was still exploding in the City. You could hear deejays like Polito Vega playing on the radio at any time of day; you could go dancing any night of the week, throughout the boros, at clubs like Corsos, Casablanca, Bronx Casino, Ochentas, Club Cabrojena, Carlos Ortiz' Tropicana, Hunts Point Palace. And yet - held back because of the unmistakable Cuban personality of its music - 'the success of SAR was due mainly to word of mouth', as co-founder Sergio Bofill recalls. 'We didn't get airplay and found that we could do without it and still sell albums in the USA, Europe, and Africa'. This was still the period of the Cold War - when Eddie Palmieri was accused of 'communist salsa' for his song Mozambique (which isn't even salsa) - and the radio stations did their bit to suppress Cuban culture.
Within a few years - by the mid-80s - New York salsa was becoming stagnant: 'boring and monotonous' in the words of historian Max Salazar; for Charlie Palmieri 'Europeanized' in its disavowal of improvisation. The music-making on this album was dismissed as old-fashioned. Actually - in the glory of its long, flowing, rootsy forms, in the irresistible spell it casts on dancers everywhere - it is timeless.
About the artists featured on SON CUBANO NYC
Rey Roig was an arranger for the Conjunto Casino.
Charlie Rodrigues is a master of the Cuban ‘tres’ guitar, consisting of three double strings in an open D-minor tuning. The instrument is said to have surfaced in 1892 in Santiago, Oriente, Cuba, where a tresero named Nene Manfugas performed on the streets and at parties; and though he's from Puerto Rico, Rodrigues' style also invokes - via Arsenio Rodrigues - this region's fusion of influences from Spain, Africa, and Haiti (birthplace of the charanga), often called the ‘country blues’ of Cuba. This title means 'knife for the pineapple': it has a sexual double-meaning.
Armando Armenteros - 'Chocolate' - is from the town of Ranchuelo in the province of Matanzas. He is an original member of Arsenio Rodriguez' band, and the best known of all Cuban trumpet-players (perhaps alongside Chappotin). 'Caliente' - he's hot.
For Henry Fiol, 'son is to salsa as country blues is to rock'. He performs classic Oriente son, in the tradition of his favorite vocalists Miguel Matamoros, Abelardo Barroso, Compay Segundo, and Cheo Marquetti. His signature tune 'Oriente' is dedicated to the music, the beautiful women and the environment of eastern Cuba, where the son montuno comes from. Henry did the paintings for all three covers of his SAR albums.
Though Lita Branda is from Peru, her crisp and clear style is classically Cuban, with local African influences and a touch of Colombia. Like other women vocalists (Venezuela’s Canelita Medina comes to mind), she languished in the shadow of Celia Cruz. She was introduced to Roberto Torres by her brother, the singer Melcochita.
Fernando Lavoy originally settled in Union City, New Jersey, the Cuban colony of the north-east, before moving to Miami, where he was murdered in a case of mistaken identity. 'He was one of those guys who could record a whole album in an hour and a half', recalls Roberto Torres. 'Unbelievable.'
Roberto Torres left Guines, Cuba in the late 1950s, with his twin-brother Rudy and flautist Eddie Zervigon. From his uptown base, on Broadway in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, in 1962 Roberto helped found the Orquesta Broadway. Now living in Miami, his style of singing and arranging remain trenchantly ‘tipico’. If any one person is to be credited with keeping the true sounds of afro-Cuban dance music alive in the United States, it’s Roberto. 'Camina' is a worksong from Cuba, from the mountains. 'It has a lot of different interpretations', remarks the singer, 'to do with the war with Spain... Fidel... 'come to work, come to fight'... a lot of things.'
Angelo Vallaint is still based in New York, where he records and plays the outer boro clubs with a traditional dance-oriented band, featuring the tres of Junior Rivera and two high-pitched conjunto-style trumpets. 'The way he sings, that's what I was looking for at that moment, that's what the African people love', remembers Roberto Torres. 'He was typical Cuban, typical chappotin style.'
Los Jimaguas are the Cuban twins Freddy and Santi Nieto - one played conga, the other timbale - who made only two albums before disappearing from the music business. They featured the piano of Dr. Ken Leo Rosa, who left for a career as a chiropractor. The good doctor claims to be the world's 'second greatest pianist'. When pressed for the name of the greatest, he usually says 'Charlie Palmieri', and sometimes 'all other pianists'.
Sleevenotes by NYC-based DJ and Latin music commentator AL ANGELORO