From the 1930s Cubans and Puerta Ricans emigrated to New York in large numbers. The influence they had on the city and its music spurred new variations of jazz and eventually the salsa and nu-yorican movements. As the precursor to disco and hip-hop, and with the quintessential barrio party as the blueprint for the 1970s block parties, it is a heritage that should be held at the heart of dance music’s history.
Murdered to the sound of his own track. So goes the tale of Chano Pozo, the dapper giant in a white top hat who stands tall in the history of 20th century percussionists. Pozo had arrived in New York from Cuba in 1947, been introduced to Dizzy Gillespie, reformed his band and composed with Dizzy the pioneering Manteca (butter in Spanish, slang for hash). Manteca, along with Cubana Be, Cubana Bop, are two of the first – and most successful – pieces of Afro-Cuban jazz built on dance music, in this case rhumba. These two tracks drove jazz into more repetitive and hypnotic places it had dared to go before. These were tracks that set the Cuban émigrés on a platform in New York’s music circles that justified the Cuban’s musical heritage as progenitors of rhythm and melody. They were tracks as dramatic as Chano Pozo’s untimely death. Pozo, left to his own devices one morning in 1948 after returning to tour of the south, had got into an argument with his dope dealer. That afternoon the dealer showed up in Pozo’s local bar, and while Manteca beat from the jukebox, shot him dead.
Pozo’s journey to New York, and the musical wheels that he and others such as Arsenio Rodriguez, Machito, Mario Bauzá, Desi Arnaz and Miguelito Valdés, set in motion would cast a spell over the clubs and airwaves in the city for the next twenty years. The story of house music and dub in its various forms is too frequently traced back to disco and dancehall, and sadly it usually stops there. The Cubans, Puerto Ricans and African Americans in 50’s New York formed the sound and the attitude that gave rise to the myriad styles that contemporary music so deftly encompasses.
New York City at that time was a city of great ambition and great poverty. This was the city giving birth to the Guggenheim and Madison Avenue, the city of Marilyn and Arthur Miller, the place Jackson Pollack had to escape and Mark Rothko lost himself in. The centre of the city for most of the musicians pushing in these new directions was Spanish Harlem around and above 114th street.
Through the 1940s New York steadily replaced New Orleans as the centre for revolutionary sound in America – and the proof of this lay in the relationship the two cities had with the émigrés of Havana. No longer did Cuban musicians look to the city of Bessie Smith to take their skills, they looked to the city of bebop (and hugely powerful global record labels). The heroin and alcoholism that gripped Miles Davis and Charlie Parker through the early 50s was the sad spectre that loomed over the street corners of Harlem. The pressures of open racism, performance, poverty and a nocturnal existence played hard on many of the lives of the musicians who worked in the city.
Mongo Santamaría, who arrived in 1950, took up Chano Pozo’s mantel. Mongo replaced Pozo in Gillespie’s band, and would play the conga on the most famous recordings of Manteca. Eight years after arriving in the city and playing percussion with the self-styled “mambo king” Perez Prado, he composed ‘Afro Blue’, a track that through John Coltrane’s adoption became a jazz standard. Propulsive in his style Santamaría’s writing was built around lolloping rhumba patterns and simple, moody melodies. He held his fire back for maximum impact and his control inspired many of the later greats such as Pancho Sanza.
Santamaría’s great friend and associate was Tito Puente. Puente, on timbales, was an awesome foil to Santamaría and together they would form the bedrock of the Fania All-Stars. Their rhythms drew on every strand of Cuban music – son, guaracha, rhumba and changuí – and fused these with r&b and jazz to create a sound that kept people enthralled by the way they folded these styles together for decades. Puente was a virtuoso who came to represent the scene was from more than anyone else. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2003.
Both artists found their performing home at the Palladium club – the first larger mid-town venue to accept black crowds. This was not a decision the venue took on grounds of open-mindedness, rather financial necessity (also typified by Wednesdays pie-eating and skirt-raising nights.) Saturdays and Sundays were given over to Cuban and Puerto Rican nights and Puente, along with Tito Rodriguez and Machito quickly rose to rule the roost. Machito had already built a formidable reputation alongside Mario Bauzá, who had discovered Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie in the late 1930s when running Chick Webb’s band. The artists who played would literally overlap their performances creating a continuous mix for the dancers; in this it was arguably the first major venue to create an endless flow of rhythm. As for every party around this nascent scene, outfits were a major issue: it was impossible to be over-dressed at the Palladium.
As the Palladium closed, a new Latin institution rose up, the record label that defined nu-yorica and salsa: Fania. Built up and run from Spanish Harlem by Jerry Masucci, Fania represented almost every major player that had evolved into this scene. Masucci, an ex-cop who had spent some time working in Havana, had a keen sense of how to bridge white and black audiences, and under his auspices he put together the Fania All-Stars. The All-Stars, the musical equivalent of the Harlem Globe Trotters, performed two concerts at the Yankee Stadium (’73 and ’75), the second of which Masucci turned into a film that combined the concert with a history of salsa. The 1975 concert ended with some of the 63,000 crowd storming the stage. It was an overwhelming summation of the last 30 years of Afro-Cuban music that featured amongst others Celia Cruz, Ray Baretto, Willie Colon, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaría, Bobby Valentín and Larry Harlow.
By this point the Cubano influential was giving birth to whole new styles that took from all over the city. The drum breaks were being cut into loops for hip-hop breaks. Downtown kids blew rock and new electronics into nu-yorican workouts to create the maelstrom that became the post-punk scene. Konk, ESG, Talking Heads, Bush Tetras and Liquid Liquid all took liberally from the Cubans and together created a scene to rival the 50s uptown mayhem. Ned Sublette, the bass player for Peter Gordon and his Love of Life Orchestra, became the great chronicler of the history of Cuban music. Disco stripped the rhythms back to their most basic form, adding greater layers of commerciality and made the music even more accessible for new (whiter) audiences. Cuban rhythms underpin dubstep (the accent on the three,) the more innovative productions of Ricardo Villalobos and of course the general growth of music made specifically for club audiences. The tendency has been in recent years to judge musical scenes by their wider social impact – we consider punk and rave to be great leaps forward – but this view forgets that much of the best music, and the music which lays the ground for such shifts comes through open miscegenation, the desire to experiment, and above all to have a good time. Struggling with newfound lives in an unforgiving metropolis forced this upon the Cubans who brought with them some of the great talents of twentieth century music. Today their legacy is as rich and as influential as ever, it just doesn’t always get the praise it merits.