Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A time, a scene, an identity

Sometimes, things converge on me in a small frame of time that make light bulbs switch on, illuminating the continuity of culture through time. In this case, it was a combination of becoming aware of an emerging scene in Cali, Colombia and my finally getting around to downloading a collection of songs from 1960s New York. Let me explain.

I had something in my 'save for later' bin for years. It's a collection called Nu Yorica Roots: The Rise of Latin Music in New York City in the 1960s. It just sort of sat there tempting me, but never quite enough, as I already had a handful of the songs elsewhere in my library.  Money's always tight, right? I finally broke down about a month ago, and boy am I glad I did.

Taken together, the songs form an amazing document of a critical time in the history of Latin music. It was a scene caught between the fading popularity of the mambo and the coalescence of a thing that would come to be called salsa. Young New York born musicians who would later become salsa and Latin jazz legends, like Eddie Palmieri and Ray Baretto, were overlapping with those who arrived from the islands: Arsenio Rodriguez, Machito, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Rodriguez and others. The hip sound of the time was Latin Boogaloo, so the younger generation, kids who had grown up in the barrio absorbing the music of white rockers and black R&B bands along with the stuff their elders played, were finding their way through all of it.

The collection almost sounds schizophrenic at first. There are very rock-like distorted electric guitars on Eddie Palmieri's My Spiritual Indian and soulful English vocals and funky vamping on Ray Baretto's Together, where his plea for racial harmony is embodied in his very identity: "I know a beautiful truth.. I'm black and I'm white and I'm red.. the blood of mankind flows in me." There are oddities like future Fania All-Stars leader and arranger Larry Harlow's Horsin' Up, which is practically a note for note Latinized version of Archie Bell & the Drells Tighten Up, apparently meant to cash in a dance craze called The Horse. The hits are there too: Joe Cuba's El Pito and Tito Puente's Oye Como Va, plus some invigorating Latin jazz from Sabu Martinez and a Beatles cover by Harvey Averne, another future Fania arranger/producer.

By 1972 it was being codified and labeled into salsa, initially just a marketing umbrella but soon a cultural touchstone and phenomenon. In the 60s, though, it was people with Caribbean roots trying to find their voice in a new, urbanized environment and in the process creating a scene.

A few days after I downloaded Nu Yorica, I read an item on Remezcla.com about a another scene in Cali, Colombia called Salsa Choke. Odd, I thought, until I realized I was reading it in English, and that it's pronounced cho-kay. It's grown out of a style of line dancing known as choque, and if you watched the World Cup last summer, you saw it being danced by the Colombian national team after they scored a goal. Forty-plus years after they started calling Afro-Latin popular music salsa, the term is being revived by the youth of Cali to describe their new style of dance music (right now it mostly seems to be a DJ and singer kind of thing) that pulls from various Afro-Pacific traditions plus a fair amount of dancehall, reggaeton, cumbia and salsa, all of it filtered through a internationalist hip-hop lens. Accompanying the article was a download link for a free compilation, Latino Resiste Presents Salsa Choke. As I write this the link is still live, so you might want to jump on it.

I cannot get this compilation out of my iPod heavy rotation. It's that addictive. As far as I can tell, the percussion is live, but most of the instruments sound sampled from other sources. But, oh, what sources they are! One of my favorite tracks, Wiki Wiki, samples heavily from Missy Elliot's Get Ur Freak On, which if I'm not mistaken benefited itself from Timbaland's inventive sampling of Middle Eastern sounds. Imagine the guitar line from Dr. Dre's Next Episode, but with the straightforward snap of the snare drum replaced with the sinuous push-pull of g├╝iro, cowbell and conga and accompanied by rapid-fire Jamaican-style toasting, and you start to get the idea. Such is the way the musical world turns in the 21st Century.

Every track is suffused with the humidity of a packed Cali dance floor, and in the process of this all night party, the youth of Cali are staking out their own scene and identity that has ties to the past and the rest of the world but one that is, for now, theirs alone. These kids are very respectful of their musical heritage, but aren't afraid to mix it up and make it their own.

Latino New York City of the 1960s and the Cali of today couldn't be more different, yet the music emerging from both is inexorably tied together. Both draw from the African Diaspora, not only Caribbean sources but African-American as well.

The two compilations sound great back to back. Next I'm going to try them on shuffle.

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