The beautiful ceremony concluded with wedding guests walking down to the beach to cast flowers in the ocean and congratulate the bride and groom. Several members of the band had brought drums and hand percussion down to the beach, leading the guests in song and dance that mirrored the ebb and flow of the waves. I recognized one of the musicians; he performed with Saulo Duarte when he came to Barbes in Brooklyn several years earlier. I remembered that night, how much fun I had, how I regretted not talking to the musicians and asking them to hang out after the show.
The sun was starting to lose its afternoon intensity, the wedding guests would linger on the beach and eventually make their way back to the venue for appetizers and drinks. I was thinking about what I would play. It was my first time in Brazil and I was DJing a wedding where the majority of the guests were Brazilian. From my conversations up to that point I realized that Brazilians generally did not listen to other Latin American music. That in fact, in many ways, they were very disconnected from the rest of Latin America. Would I play the role of cultural ambassador, and show them all the music that I thought they should be listening to? Or would I take the role of the proud student, showing them how much I had learned about their music?
The start of a lifelong love affair
Brazilian music seeped into my soul little by little throughout my youth. My father listened to Gilberto Gil, Elis Regina, Djavan, and other MPB artists (among many other genres). I didn’t realize how much of a grip it had on me until I started college. Without regular access to my father’s collection, my brother and I were desperate to tape as much of it as we could. Chico’s “En español” album. Caetano’s “Bicho”. Quinteto Violado “Missa do Vaqueiro”. Every time we went home on vacation we plundered his collection for more gems.
When I stumbled upon a “Portuguese for Spanish Speakers” class in my school’s course catalogue, I didn’t think twice. I had a great professor, and I was familiar with the phonetics of the language from the music I listened to. I tried hard to learn the correct accent. After a year and a half, I had a good knowledge of the language. When I listened to songs I had memorized phonetically, I understood most of the words. It felt like someone put a babel fish in my ear.
Beyond studying the language, I started exploring Brazilian culture in New York. I took a few capoeira classes and met Brazilians. I had my first tastes of Brazilian food; I went to the Brazilian day parade regularly. From that point on I started dreaming about going to Brazil. But I didn’t want to go alone; I wanted to visit Brazilians who could show me around and talk to me about their country.
For over twenty years I continued to collect Brazilian music, practice my Portuguese, and dream about going to Brazil. That’s when Bel and Geoff came into my life. My wife met Bel and Geoff one night at a Venezuelan bar where I was DJing. They were warm, generous, open, passionate and deep. Our friendship grew quickly and we were honored when they invited us to their wedding celebrations in Brooklyn and in São Paulo. When I met Bel’s family in Brooklyn, they couldn’t have been more friendly and inviting. I started to realize that my dream to visit Brazil was finally going to come true.
Bel and Geoff had live music planned for their wedding, and they invited me to DJ. I was thrilled to participate in their ceremony but also full of questions: what kind of music did people listen to at Brazilian weddings? What kind of music did Brazilians listen to in general, for that matter? I had been collecting different genres of music from all over Brazil, both old and new. But I wasn’t sure how much of the old music people still listened to, how much of the new music was popular, whether Brazilians listened to music from other regions of Brazil. DJing a wedding in Brazil would be an exciting musical challenge.
The wedding would take place on our third night in Brazil, at a beach near São Paulo, in Juqueí. We spent the days before the wedding eating scrumptious Brazilian food and talking with Bel and Geoff’s welcoming family and friends. The Brazilians I spoke with complemented my Portuguese. They often asked, somewhat bewildered: so, how come you speak Portuguese? And when I told them I studied it because I liked the music, still puzzled, they wondered: and how come you know Brazilian music?
The proud student
My first selections for the wedding were mellow, mostly bossa nova and mpb. But as soon as I found a moment, I played a Saulo Duarte song, looking at Túlio, the musician I recognized on the beach. He immediately looked up, surprised, and gave me the thumbs up. The rest of the evening, my selections stayed mostly within the four corners of Brazil. I did play some North American music, a few well-received PALOP songs, and a couple of Caribbean songs. But I knew the Brazilians wanted Brazilian music. And it was hard for me to resist showing them how much I loved their music and how much variety I could play. Funk, Rock, Disco and boogie from the 60s through the 80s. MPB. Samba. Pagode. Forro and other Northern music. Modern electronic Brazilian music. Several people came up during my sets and complimented my selections. Many told me that I played Brazilian music that they didn’t know. And at the end of the night, Túlio congratulated me on a job well-done. “We play a lot of weddings,” he told me, “and we’ve heard a lot of different wedding DJs. They tend to play pretty much the same kind of music. The variety of Brazilian music that you played was impressive. The other members of the band kept commenting on how good your selections were.” I was on cloud nine. The Brazilians I spoke with were so complementary, my ego ballooned. Could it be that a Puerto Rican who had never been to Brazil before had become an authority on Brazilian music?
…That thought lasted until I stumbled upon my first record store in Rio, a few days later.
The day after I interviewed Jainardo Batista (see my previous blog post), I interviewed Aaron Halva, both of whom were members of Mo’ Guajiro and continued to collaborate under a number of (somewhat comical) variations of this name for many years. Aaron has since gone on to Broadway with Indecent (which is playing through tomorrow, August 6, 2017!) as not only a musician performing in the production, but as co-composer and co-music director. That summer day in 2015, Aaron and I spoke at length about how a white American from Iowa learned about Cuban music, decided to make a tres, taught himself to play, and played Cuban music for over twenty years. Here are some excerpts:
RL: I wanted to talk first about your background, how you got into music. You’re from Iowa, right?
AH: Yup, I was raised in a small farming community called Nevada, near Ames. There was music in my house, my mom had a piano and a guitar. My grandma Blanche played organ in the Methodist Church, and she had one of those organs in her house with bass notes in feet. She could read music well. And my grandpa Bud collected 8-tracks, records. I remember the first time I heard Scott Joplin, ragtime, on record, man. That blew my mind. I attribute a lot of the reason I like Latin music to ragtime. It’s syncopated music, it just has so much bounce to it.
There was amateur musicianship around me, kind of to a shameless degree. I remember when I was 10 and I had just started to play guitar my dad would wake me up around midnight, his buddies would be there, and they’d have come home from the bar and he would want me to play a few songs for them. So it was like this key, this knowledge that could get me into the adult party, as a very young kid. And it was scary at the same time, you know, getting woken up by a group of drunk farmers… And that might also be why I didn’t have too much expectation for it, it never occurred to me that you would try to play music to be famous.
RL: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
AH: I was listening to rock and roll and blues music primarily when I was in Iowa, when I moved to California I got introduced to funk music, early blues, and bossa nova, and samba. That was really the first Latin music that I heard was Brazilian music, which again blew my mind… From there it wasn’t too big a jump when I finally heard Cuban son music. Nick Woloschuk sent me a tape in college and that was the third mind blowing experience, hearing Cuban music.
RL: How did you start playing tres?
AH: I had a Puerto Rican neighbor, Junior Rivera, who owned a record store on 5th Ave. and he would play Latin music and sometimes I’d go in there and be like “what the hell is that?” and he’s like “that’s a tres. It’s this” and he had one behind the counter and he pulled it out and handed it to me. And I thought “holy shit, I need to make one of these” and he drew a little diagram on the back of a receipt showing how to string a tres if you’re going to convert a guitar.
RL: I didn’t know that that was possible.
AH: Well, you know, you’re supposed to have equipment for it, I basically ruined my guitar trying to do it, it was a terrible job. Honestly I did it with a loose drill bit and a pair of pliers, and I gouged holes in the saddle and the nut. And that was the tres that I played on for about seven years…
And that was a magical moment for me, the day that I got that guitar to tune up and have the tres strings on it, it was steel strings on a nylon string guitar, and I will never forget that day in that apartment. Because the strings kept breaking, I couldn’t get them up to tension because it was such a terrible job I had done, and I didn’t know exactly how to tune it and when I finally tuned that fucking guitar and those chords rang out, it was a spiritual thing for me, I just sat in that room for hours just hitting the strings and just kinda slowly figuring out what it did, but more than anything, just being mystified by the reverberations of that instrument… That’s kind of when I decided, “I think I can try to play this guitar, ‘cause it has three strings, it’s not too complex [laughter], I like the sound of it enough that I could give my life to it right now for as long as it takes.” And I had all those tapes of Septeto Nacional, Cuarteto Patria that Nick had given me, and I had begun to collect stuff from Junior, Isaac Oviedo, who is, still to this day, probably my largest influence, he and his family, his son Papi, were the strongest influences on my early tres playing and I owe so much to their flavor and their intention on the tres. I didn’t hear Pancho Amat and all those cats, the heavyweights, ‘til later, and I realize their virtuosity now, and kind of how much I missed, not that Isaac wasn’t virtuosic, but he was in a different way.
RL: So you’re listening to this stuff and basically teaching yourself?
AH: Yeah. Junior didn’t even give me a lesson, he showed me how to string it and I just went home and, with those tapes, tried to figure out how they were playing it. And if you listen hard enough you could also figure out what notes they were playing what strings on because the tres has the two double strings so I got to the point where I would try to hear how they’re phrasing their baqueteo they call it. The montuno of a tres player from the 30s and 40s is very different from how you play the tres now. It’s this picking pattern that you could equate to some kind of antiquated bluegrass picking style. And people weren’t really doing it, not even Junior did it, you play salsa totally differently. The way you play a 1920s or 1930s son was like how I learned to play the tres, it’s what I thought you were supposed to do, you know. I hadn’t even heard salsa yet, really, I probably heard it on the street but I hadn’t really tripped out on it. All I had were those Nacional tapes and Isaac Oviedo and Isaac had his own style, too.
RL: But you didn’t actually see how they were playing?
AH: No. It turned out to be difficult later because I had developed bad habits, you know, because I never saw anybody play it. I went through different phases of when I took lessons from Nelson Gonzalez and from Papi Oviedo, I had to really kind of start over, just because of the way they played, the way they picked it. It wasn’t so much, you know, the notes are the notes, you either know those or you don’t, but the approach to holding the pick, those things I had kind of just learned on my own, and it wasn’t really the way you hold a pick for the tres.
RL: And you switched because it was easier?
AH: It was not easier. It was so much harder.
RL: So why didn’t you just play your way?
AH: Because it sounds different, it really does. And when I heard them do it and saw them do it in front of me, I said “Holy shit. That’s why it has such a percussive sound,” because you don’t hold the pick like you gingerly pluck a guitar, like you’re trying to shred on a heavy metal guitar, you have the action so low that you just hold the pick and barely move it, with the tres you hold it as if you were holding an oud or like an uña, a long pick, and you would hold it lengthwise in your hand and pluck it with a very different motion, and when I first tried it I thought “fuck, this is terrible,” it was like starting over. And for several months I remember telling the band, Jainardo and Nick, Tony, I said “Yo, guys, I’m going to be suffering for a while, I just want you to know I’m working on this shit, and I gotta turn the pick around, I gotta do it now because if I don’t I may never ever do it.” And it was painful, there were so many gigs when the pick would fall out, I couldn’t hold it! It would squirrel around, I would put sticky shit on it, which I don’t have to do now. Now it seems natural to me…
I saw Papi play in his living room in 2001 and that fucking blew my mind. The sound that came out of that guitar, how he held it, and almost thrashed it with the pick, a little bit abusively at times [laughter], it was very pronounced and he meant every note, so hard.
RL: That was the first time you went to Cuba?
AH: Yeah. I stayed about two months, in Vedado, and went to the University of Havana for a five-week Spanish course. I learned a lot there… I found Papi after a couple of weeks and took lessons with him… It was a life changer. That was one of those moments when I thought “OK, you gotta check why you’re doing this, because a lot of people are really fucking good at this.” You know, I knew that, I knew the bands in Cuba were the best at that. But when you go over there and you see the level of young kids, people on the corner with a shitty guitar just shredding it, and making it work. You come back and it really makes you think “What am I bringing to this? What do I have to offer this tradition?” First of all, sincerity, and truth and all those things that we hope we all bring to our paths, but what can I offer? Even if it’s just to keep the music alive in a sincere fashion. Which it was for many years, that’s all it was for me. To keep that alive and try to play it as purely as you can.
RL: What was the songwriting process like for Pueblo Alegre?
AH: Nick and I would kind of hammer out the forms of stuff. Ian (Betancourt) wrote (the song) “Pueblo Alegre” by himself. “Saludos” Nick and I wrote together, I would come out with a piano riff, Nick would add melody, and we’d bring it in to the band, and they would recommend how to put it together and how to get the sections going in an interesting way that abided the clave. We had that flavor of getting all together in our little apartment, and all five or six of us just go at these songs, to the point where you’d hit a wall and keep going and try to figure out what you’re going to do, like hell or high water we’re going to finish this song. Which never happens to me anymore, I don’t know anybody that would write that way, you just get called for a project, nobody has time for that shit. Maybe rock bands do it, but I don’t know any Latin bands that do it. It was a very collaborative album in many ways.
RL: When you finished recording, did you play all those songs out at the weekly parties?
AH: No, not a lot of them. We played “Pueblo Alegre,” we played “Cumambo,” we rarely played “Saludos.” We played “Gato Negro” sometimes. But some of those tunes never got in our live repertoire because we were a son band, really, and we made this salsa album, which I always thought was counterintuitive, but it was a hell of a lot of fun. It was kind of how we wanted to sound, but we couldn’t do it live because we couldn’t afford it, we didn’t have the concept of a salsa band in us, it’s not what we wanted to play. I guess if I had been a better piano player we could have just done that, but I was terrible. And I really wanted to play son. But we didn’t really write a son album…
And a lot of bands keep writing songs every month, we weren’t that kind of band. It took great energy to get things written. Everyone could create, everyone was creative, but to bring a number to a band and have a new song is a difficult thing. And one thing that is left out of conversations is the desperate repetition of material that takes place to keep a band alive. You hear Jazz musicians talk about it who have played tunes more times than they may have liked to, or maybe they made a relationship with it and were able to figure out how to love it every time. That’s kind of what you needed to do. Son music was the only music to me that was that magical that it didn’t matter to me how many times I played it, I could still be there and not be bored.
RL: Now you have a much larger repertoire. How many songs did you have, back at the Louisiana days?
AH: Probably about 18, our goal was to have 3 sets.
RL: And now?
AH: Probably 50-60. Which isn’t a lot, I mean you think about sufi music, Indian classical, I don’t know, bluegrass, where people tell so many stories. I look at son like, you better know 100 sones. I feel like a failure because I don’t know that many.
RL: That’s a pretty high standard.
RL: Besides expanding your repertoire, your sound has just continued to get tighter as the years go by. Jainardo’s voice, your playing, it’s on a completely different level than when I started seeing you. The bassists that you’re playing with, Jorge (Bringas) and Pedro (Giraudo), such amazing bass solos (at Cienfuegos).
AH: Great guys. What a pleasure, what an education to play with Pedro and Jorge, what a blessing. That’s one of the reasons it’s lasted this long for me. If there weren’t cats like, like Jainardo, Jorge, Pedro, Chincillita, Edgar Pantoja, people that still give a fuck about music, I wouldn’t be doing it. I mean why do it, there’s no money, there’s no security, you rely on your brothers and sisters.
RL: That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, the amount of money that musicians make in the city, the dynamics of how they set a value on their work, what responsibility musicians have in the amount of money that they get paid.
AH: I mean, you’re looking at a trajectory that, I don’t even know, it’s one of those strange fields where, you’ve made it, you’re famous, whatever that means, you’re Marc Anthony. Or you’re an international jazz artist, in the middle. And then below that, there’s everybody else. Or you’re on Broadway, you’re on TV… In other words, there’s a small percentage of jobs where you can make a decent living. And then the rest of us just suck it in terms of how much you can make. And yea, musicians can undermine our own worth taking whatever gig. But at the same time there are four guys behind you who would do it cheaper than you.
RL: But is this productive way of thinking?
AH: It’s not an attitude, it’s a reality. It’s not just how you look at it. You turn down a gig, somebody else is going to take it. If I had looked at the reality, I would have quit 15 years ago. What you saw in music were a bunch of very stubborn individuals not paying attention to how their future looked-
RL: -But what if the four guys that you’re imagining behind you also did the same thing?
AH: You’re talking about building a union. That’s what they did on Broadway, that’s why there’s only so many jobs available. There’s no union of salsa musicians, there never will be. Don’t ask me why, that’s a whole nother question… That’s a good thing to remember as a DJ. You are building your life on a forgotten class of worker. I don’t mean to make my situation any harder than it is, I’m here alive, I got shoes on my feet. But the scene was built on people who were very stubborn, stubbornly driving into the future, with no light in terms of “this is going to get better.” Any asshole would have switched their job… To be a musician, you have to eat so much shit and forget about your future. That’s a point I really want to put down on the map here, because people don’t talk about it, it’s not fun, it’s not interesting, but you know what? You give up your life for it…. I like to think that I’ve brought the value of the group up a little bit, when I talk to people on the phone I’m not just going to give them whatever for however much they want any more, there’s certain standard for me, and it’s still a ridiculously low amount of money. It’s still stupid low… How you can keep a band alive is changing. I saw a salsa band in the Puerto Rican day parade at sunset park, I talked to some of them, I knew a couple of them, they were all dudes, 40s and 50s, 16-piece salsa band, and they sounded good. Two of them were supers in a building, everyone had a job. You’re not talking about day-by-day musicians that play salsa. If you have a salsa band in New York, 9 out of 10 of the guys are not 100% musicians, as in, that’s not all they do. That’s what will keep salsa alive, you live with your mom, or you’re a super… Musicians don’t get paid. Recorded music is worth nothing to a musician… Against those odds, and in the face of that, you still have people who love to make music. Isn’t that a miracle? Smart people, too, man. Musicians aren’t just drug addicts and idiots. Musicians are some of the smartest, most sensitive people I know. And they still wanna do it.
RL: How has the music-making process changed, from Mo’ Guajiro, to Nu Guajiro, to Nu D’Lux and Funky Guajiro?
AH: As I said at first it was really collaborative. With the last album we did with Nu Guajiro and the last album Jainardo and I did, Funky Guajiro, I would write melodies and song structures and Jainardo would write lyrics and help with choruses and stuff. So it was much more isolated. But I will say this: writing has always been for me, especially for a dance band like this, it’s feeling something. Stepping back from your computer and playing your instrument, or standing up, hunting it down in a physical way. Especially with Cuban music, and a little bit in theater too. You have to be sure that it’s going to move people, and the only way to know that sometimes is to stand up and to play, and move while you’re playing it, or record yourself playing it and play over that while you’re dancing or while you’re moving… So even though it’s more isolated, it still has to be physical for me… And as Jude Duverger will tell you, “if it doesn’t move you, it’s not going to move anybody.” It doesn’t always mean you’re going to write a good song, it just means it started from a place that was spiritual or mystical, because of how it makes you feel, you actually feel it in your arms, like some kind of tingle you get from a certain melody or a certain chorus. So for me if that isn’t there, if I don’t really buy the chorus, there has to be some nucleus of the song that I believe in. And then I can get together with Jainardo and Jorge and be like “yo, check this out, what do you think of this.” And they’ll be like “OK I don’t buy that part, but this part I really like.” And that’s when the rewrites start. Because for people to remember breaks, they have to be good and logical. We don’t have that much time, your song has to be so catchy that people fucking remember it if you’re going to play it again.
But this is the thing about writing too, who am I writing for? Why am I doing this? Why am I still writing for a band that ultimately is not going to allow me to pay rent? You know, you should never ask yourself that, that’s dumb, you’re just going to write music because you have to, right? David Byrne once said in an interview “some days you just get up and write because it’s your job and you have to and you don’t necessarily write interesting things.” I like that attitude, just keep writing shit.
RL: I feel like to some extent it’s a matter of faith. I mean, I’m writing this blog, I don’t know how many people are going to read this. But I’m going to write it and try to get more people to read it.
AH: Well here’s something for you to think about. Imagine if for the last 20 years of your life you had written a blog, and it was worth $100…. And on the 21st year, you went to write your blog and four people read it. And nobody wanted to pay for it. And as a matter of fact, people talked over it while you were reading it to them. That’s a little bit of what it feels like to be a musician in this world. And that’s a choice we make, this isn’t a complaint I’m making that people need to listen to me more, it’s just a reality. I’m trying to draw a line between the creative act and the crushing desolation of people not giving a shit about your music because you have sold it short… Because you have chosen to play somewhere where people don’t listen…
But faith is a huge part of it, that’s what’s kept me alive, is faith in music in general. Every couple of weeks it’ll hit somebody, and somebody will say something to me or I’ll just feel the energy coming back to you, and you realize, you are healing people, you are.
RL: Yea, but I agree, it should be something like Louisiana, it should be a roomful of people just vibing their balls off with the music and everybody just transported away from their shit for a moment, for a night… and having that primal connection to the music, that’s older than civilization, it’s just something in our DNA.
AH: That’s what I love about it. You’re part of this continuum that is so ancient, you don’t even know what’s moving you anymore sometimes. The strings and the vibration of drums. That’s the mysterious part that you can’t put down in an interview, and you can’t quantify.
After an extended hiatus, I’m back with an interview of Jainardo Batista, a Puerto Rican singer and percussionist who is a founding member of Mo’ Guajiro. Mo’ Guajiro, besides being the first band that I DJ’ed with, was very important to me and to many fans of tropical music living in New York in the late nineties. They introduced a lot of people to the classic Cuban sones before Buena Vista Social Club blew up. They played a lot of parties that for many of us continue to be the touchstone of Latin parties in New York: Bayamo, Louisiana Bar and Grill, Nell’s, No Moore, La Belle Epoque, Oliva, among many others. Jainardo and I sat down one summer afternoon in 2015 and chatted about how he got into music, what it was like for him in the beginning, how things have changed, and what he listens to when he’s not listening to early Cuban son. Below are some excerpts (in Spanish):
RL: ¿Tú escuchabas música tropical cuando eras joven?
JB: Claro, más bien en la radio. Yo pensaba que, como en Puerto Rico se le llamó siempre salsa, pues yo pensaba que era- tú sabes, nosotros lo hemos tomado como nuestra música, pero si investigamos, esto de la música salsa, yo lo describo como una evolución o una de esas ramas del son. Tú sabes, cuando yo era niño yo pensaba que Oscar de León era puertorriqueño, ¿tú me entiendes?
RL: ¡Yo creo que yo también!
JB: Yo empecé a escuchar y de repente empiezo, tú sabes, las canciones que yo oía en la radio en Puerto Rico, como Rompe Saragüey y eso, pues cuando yo escucho las versiones originales, ahí es que yo me di cuenta, “ah es que esto sale de ahí, esto es música cubana.”
RL: ¿Y tú tocabas salsa y eso en Puerto Rico?
JB: Salsa y eso, todo lo que tú me ves haciendo acá, que tiene que ver con el son y la bomba, la plena, to’ eso yo lo hice acá. Yo creo que yo nunca toqué bomba en Puerto Rico antes de venirme para acá. Después que vine pa’ cá, entonces sí. Inclusive en ese mismo año, en el 94 yo mismo empecé a hacer como un trabajo de investigación propio. Sólo por saber, porque a nosotros no nos enseñan esto en la escuela, ¿me entiendes? La cultura nuestra, y cuestiones que tienen que ver con lo afro-antillano, con la cultura africana en Puerto Rico, eso no, tú sabes, te enseñan cuestiones de historia y eso pero musicalmente yo no me acuerdo que a mí me enseñaran ná. Entonces pues yo mismo por cuenta propia, por curiosidad, yo dije, “bueno, ahora que estoy aquí, como puertorriqueño yo siento como una responsabilidad. Y también quiero saber.” Y esto fue inclusive antes de yo hacerme músico. Empecé, tú sabes, esto fue antes de youtube, cuando no había youtube todavía yo me tenía que tirar pa’ Hunter College, y meterme allí, me enseñaban videos y cosas y cogía información, le sacaba copias para llevármela, para leerla, pa’ conservarla y eso, y así, poco a poco fui aprendiendo un poco de eso. Cuando me puse más, en el año 96, hubo un evento que lo hacían creo que una vez al año que se llamaba “Dos Alas”.
RL: Ah sí.
JB: Un evento en el que tenían un grupo folclórico de Cuba y un grupo folclórico de Puerto Rico. Que lo hacían en Boys Harbor. Cuando yo me metí ahí, yo me fui de lleno con lo puertorriqueño porque lo cubano yo pienso que es un poquito más accesible. Ahora ha habido un, desde yo te diría como desde los 90, yo pienso, que ha habido en la juventud puertorriqueña un despertar y cierta conciencia en lo que son los ritmos nuestros, ¿no? Entonces pues yo me fui de lleno por ahí, con los Cepeda. Porque para mí en ese tiempo específico también era más fácil conseguir lo cubano que lo nuestro mismo.
RL: El volumen de música Cubana es más grande también.
JB: Exacto. Y como te dije anteriormente ya nosotros la cuestión del son y la salsa y eso ya lo hemos hecho nuestro, lo mismo con la rumba, y tú sabes la cantidad de puertorriqueños que se han metido en la santería. Yo siempre pienso que el puertorriqueño siempre ha sido muy amante de la música cubana también, en general. Fíjate que de cada género que ha salido de Cuba, por lo menos ha habido un exponente de Puerto Rico que ha hecho ese género. Hasta en la nueva trova, que está Roy Brown. En cuestiones del songo, Cachete Maldonado y Batacumbele. En cuestiones de Rumba…
RL: ¡Él también!
JB: Él mismo, está…
RL: Yuba Iré…
JB: Yuba Iré, exacto… y gente así. Y en el son y la salsa ni se diga. Y ahora hay grupos que también tienen su onda timbera, los primeros que yo vi fueron la PVC, que eran puertorriqueños todos. Ahí fue donde yo vi a Pirulo por primera vez, que tocaba con ellos.
RL: ¿Y cuándo tú empiezas a tocar en grupos acá, cuál es tú primer grupo aquí?
JB: Bueno todo empezó en octubre del 95, yo empiezo a trabajar en una tienda de productos naturales en Brooklyn Heights. Ahí yo conocí a Nicolás Woloschuk. Que en ese tiempo era roommate de Aaron Halva…. Decidimos juntarnos un día en el apartamento en el que ellos vivían en Park Slope para ver qué salía de ahí. Entonces en el 96, después que entran varios integrantes, que íbamos tratando de crear un grupo… Ahí es cuando los 5 primeros fundadores éramos Nicolás, Aaron, yo, Tony Devivo e Ian Betancourt. Cuando Nick sale con ese nombre de Mo’ Guajiro nosotros dijimos, pues sí, chévere.
RL: Y ya ustedes habían tomado una decisión de que iba a ser música cubana.
JB: Sí, porque era lo que nos gustaba. Nosotros no estábamos en la onda de estar a la moda, o algo así, porque da la casualidad que en el 97 sale el cd de Buena Vista Social Club y nosotros, sin saber, ya nosotros estamos cantando El Cuarto de Tula un año antes. Claro, eso no es una canción nueva, obviamente, pero ya después de ese disco cuando sale, ya las canciones de ese disco se convierten en los nuevos estándares en este género. Ya no es sólo la Negra Tomasa, Son de la Loma, Guantanamera, ahora pues ya esos pasan a ser los nuevos estándares también.
RL: ¿Y al principio era todo covers?
JB: Sí, era todo covers. Nick tenía una sola canción.
RL: ¿Que él escribió?
JB: Que él escribió. Pero no se grabó nunca. Entonces ya después de eso seguimos así y se empezó a hacer material original, como el que tú escuchaste en el primer disco que hicimos, ahí hay un tema mío, el de Respeta la Percusión.
RL: Ah sí.
JB: Y los otros son así, más bien colectivos y eso.
RL: Y para ti en esa época, ¿cómo era la escena de la música cubana y tropical en Nueva York?
JB: Este, había más sitios para ir a bailar. Y sitios con espacio. Ahora como la ciudad ha cambiado tanto, pues… También, volviendo a lo de Buena Vista Social Club, eso fue como un nuevo boom de música cubana que en verdad nos ayudó a nosotros, ayudó a medio mundo que había salido por ahí, Son de Madre, Pan con Timba, cuanta gente había por ahí.
RL: ¿Había muchos grupos de música cubana en esa época?
JB: No era devastadoramente inmensa la cantidad pero sí habían sus grupos. Nelson González tenía su grupo, que era un muy buen quinteto o sexteto, con el hijo de él, tremendo swing que tenía ese grupo. Estaba Son de Madre que yo fui también uno de los que empezó en ese grupo cuando volvimos nosotros de PR que yo volví de Alemania también que tuve que irme para allá y eso….
RL: ¿Eso fue como en el 2000?
JB: Eso fue en el 2000. Exacto. En el 2000. Y este, Ray Santiago, que siempre estuvo por ahí, que ese es uno que venía tocando esta música desde, válgame… Con Abraham Rodríguez, también estaba el difunto Julián Llano, que ese era la voz increíble esa que hasta cantó con Arsenio Rodríguez.
RL: Ah wow. ¿Él era boricua, no?
JB: De Santurce, sí, cangrejero. No necesitaba ni micrófono ese hombre.
Entonces pues sí, había bastantes grupos. Había un grupo que se llamaba Coco Merensón, un grupo de dominicanos que tocaban son y tocaban sus merenguitos también, también con tremendo swing…
Entonces, volviendo a eso, este… había más actividad, tú me entiendes. Yo lo que digo es que nosotros lo que agarramos fue lo que quedaba, ni las sobras, las migajas de lo que quedaba de los años 70 y 80 del ambiente musical en Nueva York. Porque esos sí que fueron tiempos, según me cuentan, que aunque la ciudad estaba, era bien peligrosa en esos tiempos, pero había mucho ambiente musical. Ya para la década de los 90 ya habían limpiado todo, la ciudad había cambiado muchísimo y parece que no había tanto ambiente musical tampoco, como se daba en los 70 y en los 80…
RL: ¿Cómo se da el viaje de Mo’ Guajiro a Puerto Rico?
JB: Hasta donde yo recuerdo eso tuvo que ver con un experimento que estaba haciendo Juanra Fernandez, el dueño del Nuyorican y Da House, allá en el Viejo San Juan. Ellos estaban aquí y se mudaron para Puerto Rico, y entonces nos sugirieron “mira para que toquen por acá” y no sé qué. Ahí fue cuando nos ponían en el show de las 12 y Juanra estuvo insistiendo con Tommy Muñiz hijo para que pudiéramos abrirle el show a Los Van Van, cuando fueron por segunda vez a PR…. Eso fue en el Heineken Jazz Fest, en el Luis Muñoz Marín….
RL: ¿Y el público en PR, cómo era?
JB: Cuando tocábamos en sitios así como Rumba y eso, yo me acuerdo la primera vez que tocamos, la gente estaba como que pará’, mirándonos… y mirándonos… y ya como para la tercera canción yo salgo y le digo a to’ esa gente “miren señores yo lo siento pero esto es música pa’ bailar, no nos estén estudiando como ratas de laboratorio, bendito. Ya me está dando complejo, ya estoy pensando que soy empanadilla de pizza en la vitrina que ustedes están viendo cuál se quieren comer. Pónganse a bailar ahí, bendito.” Entonces ahí ya la gente reaccionó.
RL: En esa trayectoria desde el 96, aparte del cambio de músicos, ¿ha habido otros cambios en términos de tu enfoque, el gusto que tienen?
JB: Sí definitivamente. Al principio nosotros éramos fieles al son tradicional. En esos tiempos yo no entendía ni aguantaba la música cubana moderna. Como dicen en inglés I couldn’t relate to it. Yo decía “qué es eso, después de tanta buena música que los cubanos han hecho porque ahora han decidido hacer esta música tan mala.” Pero fue cuestión de irme acostumbrando. Tú sabes que contigo fue que yo empecé más o menos a escuchar la música cubana moderna, ahora que lo mencionas, porque una vez cuando yo entré a Louisiana, tú pusiste “Marcando la Distancia” y yo dije “wow eso suena buenísimo,” entonces yo me acerqué a donde ti, no nos conocíamos bien todavía y te dije “oye ¿quién es ese?” Y me dijiste “Manolito y su Trabuco,” y yo dije “mano eso suena bueno.” Yo estaba ya tratando de abrir un poco mi conocimiento en cuanto a la música cubana porque yo lo que decía era “bueno Jainardo, si estás tocando música cubana, son tradicional, o música cubana vieja, como quien dice… que es la fórmula que siempre funciona, déjate de comemierderías, vamos a ver qué está pasando con la música cubana moderna también, para que sepas qué es lo que hay.” Entonces empecé, más o menos, a escuchar una que otra cosa.
RL: Y entonces empiezas a incorporar música más moderna…
JB: Ahí es cuando ya nosotros empezamos, exacto, empezamos a inclinarnos por ahí un poco.
RL: ¿Y eso fue algo que a todos les llamó la atención?
JB: Yo te diría que Tony estaba más abierto a eso. Él nos lo había sugerido pero nosotros todavía no estábamos listos. Entre Aaron, Nick y yo estábamos todavía muy clavaos en el son. Después fue que nos flexibilizamos un poco y ya pa’l 99, ya la cosa estaba como que “OK, ya podemos empezar a experimentar con esto.”
RL: Los discos de ustedes tienen, aparte del son tradicional y eventualmente música más moderna cubana, también, pues obviamente música afrocubana y aparte de eso, Soul…
JB: Afroamericana, sí. Eso es una de las razones por las que Nick salió con el concepto de Mo’ Guajiro. El “Mo’” es el lado americano negro, y el guajiro pues ya tú sabes. Siempre hubo esa idea de hacer algo así entre… Porque Nick también siempre ha cantado mucho R&B, pero obviamente no el R&B moderno de hoy día, sino más bien Bobby Womack, Stevie Wonder, to’ eso. Y experimentábamos con eso también. En el primer disco estaba el bugalú ese que tú escuchaste, en el segundo está, hay un tema que escribió Aaron bien chévere, que se llama “That’s Why,” que es el último tema del segundo CD que hicimos, que tiene una onda así… funkerotimbera también, que empezamos cantando en inglés y después se vira a español… tiene mucha dinámica ese tema, es un tema bien bueno. En el tercer disco, no me acuerdo si teníamos algo así, pero Aaron hizo un Kompa haitiano. Empieza como son y después se convierte como en un Kompa, “Asómese”.
Entonces ya en el cuarto disco le metemos el bolero/balada ese en inglés, que siempre nos hemos inclinado un poquito por ese lado también. Uno que otro tema también se le mete un rapeíto charro de esos míos (risas). Pero eso fue sugerencia de Aaron, y yo bueno, ‘ta bien, yo no soy un rapero, pero vamos a ver…
RL: Hemos tocado el tema un poco de lo que era Nueva York cuando ustedes empezaron, ¿cómo tú ves la escena ahora de la música cubana, tropical en la ciudad?
JB: Definitivamente todavía se da. Pero yo te diría que no es como cuando empezamos. Ahora yo te diría que hay que buscar un poco más los lugares para tocar. Puede ser que influya la manera que manejamos el grupo, pero yo personalmente no creo que es como era antes. Pero yo vengo mucho por el lado de los sitios que tienen espacio para bailar, con ese propósito. Porque hay mucho lugar, pero son pequeños, o uno tiene que estar tocando en restaurantes más bien como música de background, no son sitios específicamente para tocar para un público bailable, más bien es para que la gente se siente y tengan tres gatos ahí como música de fondo. Eso nos ha pasado a nosotros bastante.
RL:¿Tú crees que el público no está saliendo tanto, o crees que es un cambio de demográfica de la ciudad, o crees que la gente ya no baila tanto, hay menos latinos, o la gente no sale tanto…?
JB: Yo creo que es una combinación, porque estamos nosotros que venimos de esa época de mediados de los 90 hasta acá, definitivamente se ha dado un nuevo público y algunas veces cuando la gente de ese tiempo nos encontramos, es como que, “wow nosotros venimos de ese tiempo y ahora mira a esta gente nueva, que está aquí… que es algo completamente natural, tú sabes, que pasa en-
RL: -todas las generaciones.
JB: -en todas las generaciones, en todos los géneros, en todos lados. Yo estoy seguro que eso pasa en la comunidad del tango aquí, eso pasa en la comunidad de la misma salsa boricua dura de los “on 2 ballrooms”, tú me entiendes. Se da en to’s lados. Pero también yo pienso que lo de las torres gemelas influyó mucho, lo de la recesión también, después de lo de las torres, que la cosa como que subió un poco y después volvió a bajar con lo de la recesión como para finales de la primera década de los 2000 que hubo ese bajón también cuando estaba George W. Bush, con la nueva guerra de Irak y eso, tú sabes, todas esas cosas influyen. Porque ya eso viene siendo un bajón global, entonces eso afecta a todos por igual.
Después de ahí, es que empiezan a cerrar los sitios grandes, empieza a llegar gente que empieza a quejarse del ruido de la música que estábamos tocando, creo que en Nell’s se dio un caso así, en Oliva definitivamente, yo no sé si te acuerdas con la vecina de arriba, en otros lugares que tocábamos como trío también había otra señora arriba que creo que era la dueña del edificio y, tú sabes, en cada sitio que nos metíamos teníamos que estar tocando bajito. Bueno, inclusive, uno de esos cambios yo no sé si tú te acuerdas que Danny Rojo estuvo tocando en Oliva también. El tipo tuvo que irse porque ya no aguantaba más el hecho de estar tocando así a nivel de secreto. Nosotros por chiste ya decíamos “Welcome to our library sessions at Oliva restaurant” porque teníamos que tocar así. Eso fue un cambio en la ciudad.
RL: ¿Cómo tú ves el futuro de la música tropical aquí y tu futuro en la música?
JB: En general, con la música, yo opino que como decía un tema por ahí, el son no se va a morir. Porque ya es una fórmula… Como dice la canción esa “tengo una fórmula que sé que no cambiará” algo así, ¿no? Es una fórmula que funciona, que ha funcionado siempre, que la gente puede digerir y se puede identificar más. Porque inclusive en este mismo círculo, hay mucha gente que no necesariamente le gusta la timba pero le gusta el baile y eso y van porque hay bandas en vivo, que no necesariamente tocan timba, sino, ellos van porque les gusta el son, la timba se pone, pues, en los descansos entre tandas. Se pone son, se pone timba y eso y música cubana moderna porque… tú sabes, ese círculo no es tan grande como lo es en San Francisco, por ejemplo.
RL: ¿Qué música tú escuchas cuando estás en tu casa?
JB: Cuando yo estoy en casa yo estoy escuchando mucho gnawa, que es la música esta de la cultura que existe mayormente en Marruecos. Se da en Argelia y creo que en Túnez también, pero yo creo que es más concentrada en Marruecos. Es esta cultura que es bien parecida a la santería en Cuba, o al Candomblé en Brasil. ¿Tú sabes por qué yo me identifico tanto con eso también? Porque para mí eso es algo, como es de los moros, es como una parte de la historia nuestra como caribeños hispanohablantes en específico, más que nada, que no se nos enseñó nunca. Porque como tú sabes, y tengo que decirlo, le pese a quién le pese, pero se da todavía hoy día que hay muchos españoles que tienen esa riña con los moros porque ellos fueron colonia de los moros por 800 años. Ha llovido con co’. Y escuchando esta música cuando yo voy investigando y me voy dando cuenta de lo parecido que es a la santería vuelvo y me da mi sentido común me dice “ven acá, pues nosotros tenemos de esto también, porque, tú sabes bien que en Puerto Rico se dice (en voz de locutor de programa histórico:) “nosotros venimos de tres raíces: la indígena, la española y la africana”. Yo diría que somos más que eso, somos mucho más que eso, no solamente esas tres. Ya yo me rehúso a creer eso. La raza negra no es necesariamente la tercera raíz en nuestra cultura en el sentido de que, coño, esos españoles que ya vinieron, ya venían mezclaos, 800 años, ¿tú me vas a venir a decir que esa gente eran puros blancos de sangre azul en España? Embuste, esa gente ya venían mezclaos con africanos, con árabes, árabes ya mezclaos con africanos, con judíos… En nuestra genética definitivamente tenemos de árabes. En algún la’o tenemos de judíos. Por eso que hubo en España. Mira los panderos de plena, esos son instrumentos de descendencia islámica. Mira el cuatro puertorriqueño, ese concepto de las cuerdas dobles metálicas, eso viene del oud de toda esa área de allá, que si de Mesopotamia, Irán, Irak, Arabia Saudita, to’ eso. El pandeiro brasilero también, que es como el pandero nuestro pero con los platillitos alrededor, eso es otro instrumento islámico, tú me perdonas. Y cosas como la carne al pincho, eso es shish kebab.
RL: Y en el idioma se ven las influencias también.
JB: Y en el idioma también. Y tú vas a Marruecos y es como estar en el Caribe. Yo te diría que es casi como estar en Cuba y en Puerto Rico en el sentido de que tú encuentras desde el más negro hasta el más blanco… Yo me inclino mucho por esa música, por esa cultura, volviendo a lo que te dije antes, porque es algo que no se me enseñó nunca… Entonces al yo meterme en esto, esa música cuando yo la oigo, depende de quien la toque, me recuerda mucho a ritmos que tenemos nosotros en las Américas. Hay temas que suenan mucho al blues. Hay temas que me recuerdan música afroperuana. Hay temas que me recuerdan, no necesariamente el ritmo pero que me dan el pulso y el feeling de la plena. La música afrocubana, ni se diga, porque lo mismo que se dio en Cuba y en Brasil de ese sincretismo de lo africano con lo católico se da en Marruecos antes, con esta cultura de lo africano ya con lo islámico. Por eso es que es tan parecido también. Es algo que yo me he inclinado mucho, además de que el ritmo me fascina.
Y claro y siempre me da con escuchar mi rapcito, porque tengo hip hop por montones. Yo te puedo decir que en mi colección musical, sin exagerar, yo tengo más hip hop que cualquier otro género.
RL: Wow. ¿Moderno también?
JB: De todo, desde hip hop viejo al moderno y eso, sí. Pero no el que tú oyes por la radio por ahí. Yo soy más de lo que le llaman underground, que es el sonido que siempre me ha gustado.
RL: ¿Qué artistas me podrías decir que más te gustan?
JB: Yo soy fanático de un hombre que se llama KRS-One, que es el vocalista del grupo que se llamaba Boogie Down Productions. Siempre me gustó mucho Public Enemy, y yo escucho de todo. Yo escucho hasta gangsta’ rap, porque me gusta mucho el género en sentido del beat ese hipnótico, lo que le llaman el “hook”, que es como el coro entre versiones, y tú sabes lo que siempre me llamó la atención, lo primero que me llamó la atención de esa música cuando yo me meto en la cultura hip hop que me gustó, fue escuchar a alguien que tú no sabías si estaba hablando o si estaba cantando o al mismo tiempo, era como algo cantado y hablado al mismo tiempo. Hablando rítmicamente y con rimas.
RL: Y a veces con un poco de melodía también.
JB: También, sí. Y eso me llamó la atención, entonces hasta hoy día yo sigo escuchando la cadencia que esa gente saca en ese género musical que mucha gente no lo entiende y pues, es como todo, hay ciertas cosas que no son para todo el mundo.
RL: ¿Y en español te gusta el rap también?
JB: Sí, yo oigo rap de donde sea después que sea bueno. Yo tengo hip hop boricua, cubano, dominicano, alemán, francés, africano… después que sea buen hip hop, yo lo oigo. Hubo un exponente, que en mi opinión fue lo mejor que yo escuché, no solo en hip hop hispano si no en general. Es un chamaco que se llamaba Tyrone Gonzalez, pero su nombre artístico era Canserbero. El tipo recientemente murió en enero de este año (2015). Y me dio una pena increíble porque era un muchacho joven y era buenísimo.
RL: ¿De dónde?
JB: De Maracay, Venezuela. Y el tipo era un exponente increíble, un chamaco joven como de 30 y pico. Lo mejor que yo escuché, en cuanto a estilo, delivery, rima, la manera como se expresaba como rapero. Bien único. Todo. Inclusive las pistas que le hacían que se nota y se oye la base del hip hop pero tiene su propio color, su propio sello.
By the way, if you want to see Jainardo perform, his group Kumbakín will perform on July 8, 2017 at Guadalupe Inn in Brooklyn from 8:00 pm-11:00 pm and later that night at Drom in Manhattan for the Brasil loves Cuba party.
At the end of the last century, the tropical music scene in Manhattan was like the Yunque rainforest- hot and lush. There were regular concerts where you could catch anyone from the OGs of mambo and salsa dura, to the chart toppers, and increasingly to Cuban musicians, both of traditional Cuban music and of more modern songo and timba. There were tropical parties sprouting up constantly all over the city, and you didn’t even have to go above 14th street if you lived in Brooklyn like me. Venues like SOB’s, Bayamo, Nells, el Vacilón at the Ave. C social club, Veracruz in Williamsburg, the Parkside Lounge, Gonzalez & Gonzalez, Kaña, and La Belle Epoque all had either live or DJed tropical music parties. There was a lot of variety in music, venues, and people that went to the parties. If you wanted mambo, you could find a mambo party. If you wanted salsa on 2, you could find that party too. Cuban music in particular had a resurgence in the city, and it became increasingly easier to listen to, see live performances of, and even get dance lessons for rumba, son, songo and timba.
Going to one of those parties not only meant that you’d have a great time, you’d also learn about music, another party, a band or DJ that you had to go check out. More importantly, you would meet cool people that you would bump into regularly at other parties. When I wasn’t living in New York, I’d come back to visit and go to a tropical party out of the blue, and I was sure to see a friendly face that I had met or danced with at one of the parties.
One of the people who helped me connect a lot of dots during this period was Karim Noack. At the end of the nineties I was an OK salsa dancer, I was great at keeping the beat and improvising steps, but I wanted to be a better dancer. In particular, I wanted to learn some of the fancy turns that I saw everywhere around me. A friend recommended Karim, who was giving salsa classes. Karim was a perfect tropical dance teacher. She could lead better than most guys, so she could teach me to lead and at the same time give me a woman’s perspective on my dancing. She taught moves but she also encouraged us to develop our own personal style. She was patient, positive, and had the right perspective about dancing: there was form and structure, but ultimately dancing was about going out and having fun on the dancefloor. I only took a dozen or so classes with her, but besides salsa she gave me a couple of rumba classes and even a couple of rueda classes, in a period where she was one of the only dance instructors who was teaching rueda in New York. It was a real privilege to have learned from her and hung out with her at these parties.
When Karim’s students went to a tropical music party, they were people who might have studied salsa, rumba, or rueda with her- they didn’t just want to hear one style of music. It was my first experience with a dance teacher and I assumed that this was normal. Since then I have been disappointed to realize how common it is for salsa dance students to only learn one style, and often to be intolerant of anything different. A tropical dance student often doesn’t know any better. A lot of times they start taking classes with a vague notion as to the music, and they learn about the music during class. If the teacher doesn’t expose them to different styles of tropical music (worse yet, if the teacher tells them that other tropical music is bad), they only learn how to dance to one thing. They are stuck going to parties where only that particular style is played, usually within a certain range of bpm. The minute the DJ plays a different style, they don’t know what to do. And it’s not that I know the “right” way to dance the different styles of music that I like. Although I took a couple of rueda classes with Karim, I didn’t take enough to learn and it didn’t stick. When I listen to timba, I dance the way I dance to most other music I listen to: a variation on my salsa step. It may not be the right step, but I’m keeping the beat and I’m having fun- not sulking in the corner waiting for the DJ to switch to salsa.
The World Rediscovers Cuban Music
By the nineteen nineties New York had been associated with salsa for many years. It was one of the birthplaces of salsa, many of the most famous salsa musicians were from here, lived here or had lived here at some point, and the city had some of the world’s best dancers. But there comes a point in any serious salsa fan’s life that he starts to realize how many of his favorite salsa songs were originally Cuban songs. I had been listening to Cuban music since I was young but by the late nineties I appreciated it more than ever before. It was around this period that I started seeing the band Mo’ Guajiro.
Mo’ Guajiro was another one of the axes around which my tropical social scene spun. I started seeing them at the El Vacilón parties at the social club on Avenue C. Mo’ Guajiro was not your typical Cuban band. One of the singers and the tres player were not Latin American. The other singer/conga player was from Puerto Rico. The bass player was Colombian, the bongo player was Venezuelan, and the horns were from all over the world. But they were playing Cuban music that was tight, authentic and super danceable.
There were many reasons why the world was finally (re)discovering Cuban music. Several record labels were putting out amazing Cuban albums and compilations, including Discos Corasón. This included the awesome two-disc compilation “Septetos Cubanos, sones de Cuba,” which came out in 1993, and featured bands like Septeto Típico Oriental, Septeto Nacional, Cuarteto Patria, among many others. I got to know several of the classic sones thanks to Corasón. But only tropical and Cuban music fans were hip to this kind of stuff, until Ry Cooder put out the Buena Vista Social Club CD. It brought together some heavy-hitters of traditional Cuban music in a package that was accessible to the whole world, and vastly expanded worldwide awareness of Cuban music.
A lot of people hated on Ry Cooder when BVSC came out. Before the album, I liked the little I had heard of Cooder’s music, and loved the Ali Farke Toure album he collaborated on. I also knew and loved many of the artists that collaborated on the BVSC album. From what I could tell, a lot of the Cuban music fans who were bitter were really just criticizing people’s reaction to the album. They didn’t like the notion people had that Ry Cooder was the big shot who gave these guys their big break. Many of the Cuban musicians on the album had long, illustrious careers before Cooder came along, but if you weren’t already a fan of Cuban music you probably didn’t know that. Also, the purists could be whipped up into a mouth-frothing frenzy if you called the BVSC album “Cuban son” or even “Cuban music.” They thought Cooder’s musical influence tarnished the purity of the form.
I for one wasn’t offended by Cooder’s participation, although I thought it was weird that he took his son to Cuba to play percussion. The last thing you need to bring into Cuba is a percussionist. But I still thought it was a pleasant album to listen to. It wasn’t very danceable (probably due to the lack of Cuban percussion) but it was nice background music. However, after the 10th time I heard the album I got tired of it. It was such a huge hit that for a while everywhere you went people were playing the album. On repeat. Listening to anything on repeat is torture for me.
However, it was undeniable that BVSC helped bring a renewed interest in Cuban traditional music to New York. This meant that there was a growing audience for bands like Mo’ Guajiro, who played danceable Cuban son, and this was a very good thing.
I had started DJing during this period at a friend’s radio station during the day on Sundays, and after the show I’d go see Mo’ Guajiro at a place called Louisiana Bar and Grill. It was a creole food restaurant that featured live bands several nights a week, including jazz and zydeco during the week, and Cuban music on Sundays.
The Sunday party at Louisiana was great. They had good creole food, it was conveniently located, and had room for dancing. The only thing it didn’t have when I started going to the parties was a DJ. When the band took a break, the sound technician would play the same two Latin jazz CDs, which weren’t very good to begin with, but more offensively, were the only two CDs he played. This meant that whenever the band wasn’t playing, the dance floor was empty.
One Sunday I told the sound guy that I had a CD wallet full of tropical music, and that I could lend it to him for the evening if he wanted. He refused my offer, but told me that I could bring my CDs the following week and play them myself. That was the start of my favorite party that I’ve DJed.
From the beginning the party had a lot of things going for it. Mo’ Guajiro had a good following at this point; among others, many of Karim’s students were fans. Louisiana also had a decent crowd of people that went there just to check out some quality live music. It was strategically located on the corner of Broadway and Houston, across the street from Gonzalez y Gonzalez, and a few blocks down from Bayamo, two venues that were also popular with salsa dancers.
It took a couple of weeks for people to start to realize that there was a DJ now, and that if you wanted a night of non-stop dancing, you could get that at Louisiana. Also, I took the opportunity to play the variety that I had been looking for in the tropical music parties in New York. In addition to the Fania classics that I had grown up listening to, I played salsa from other parts of Latin America, like Joe Arroyo, Fruko y sus Tesos, and Grupo Niche from Colombia, Oscar D’León from Venezuela, Jose Alberto “El Canario” and Raulín Rosendo from the Dominican Republic, and African salsa like Africando and Ricardo Lemvo. I not only played Cuban son, I also played songo and timba at a time when barely any DJs were playing modern Cuban music, stuff like Los Van Van, NG La Banda, Paulito FG, Dan Den, and Isaac Delgado. I would also play an occasional merengue, and even modern salsa like DLG, Victor Manuelle, Gilberto Santa Rosa, and Marc Anthony.
It went against the formula for tropical parties at New York bars or clubs. In a way, it was my version of the house parties that I went to in Philadelphia, where people danced to many different styles of music. Like those parties, the party at Louisiana was a melting-pot (or a gumbo. Or a sancocho). There were young people, older people, casual, dressy, Latin American, international, nuyorican, American, black, white, Asian, people from dance classes, people who learned to dance in Latin America, people who didn’t know how to dance. And they pretty much danced whatever I threw at them. Once the party blew up, the dance floor was always packed. For me, it was bliss.
After Louisiana closed, my brother and I really recreated the Philadelphia house parties by hosting our own house parties in Clinton Hill. We cooked food, had a variety of cocktails, I would DJ tropical and international music in my room, the other roommates DJed different genres in their rooms, we’d get live drummers, and you could practically hear us all the way over at the Clinton-Washington G station, even at four or five in the morning. No one ever called the cops.
A lot of time has passed since then. I’ve moved around, for many years my DJing was limited to my iPod at different house parties. But in the past five years I’ve gone back to DJing in New York. A lot has changed in the city. It’s more expensive, less diverse, and people call the cops at 10pm on a Saturday to complain about parties that are less noisy than ours were. But certain things remain constant. There are still many great tropical parties, with many amazingly talented bands, DJs and dancers. As far as Mo’ Guajiro goes, I am happy to have been able to keep track of many of the musicians in their subsequent projects. Jainardo Batista, one of the singers, and Aaron Halva, the tres player, continue to play together regularly as Nu D’Lux (or The Funky Guajiros), in addition to other projects. Nick Woloschuk, the other singer, sings soul, R&B, and salsa regularly in the city. They all sound better than ever. As for me, I’m still trying to keep everyone dancing to as much variety as I can get away with.
For many years New York has been a great city for dancers. In the eighties, I loved to watch people break, and I learned some basic popping and locking steps. When I returned in the nineties, there were many dance clubs with a vibrant scene. I started dancing electronic music in many of the big clubs that got shut down because of the drug culture. Soon afterwards I made the shift to tropical music, and since then I’ve been wondering when I’d get tired of it. Through all the changes in the different dance scenes in New York, it still hasn’t happened. But it’s hard not to compare the current dance scene with the way it was before, and reminisce about the early days.
My first steps
When I got to high school in Philadelphia, I wasn’t much of a dancer. I had been to a couple of friends’ parties in middle school, where I perfected the side-to-side foot shuffle with hand-clap, and its slower variation for ballads, where the hand-clap was substituted for hands-on-partner’s-waist. I liked dancing, though, and I wanted to learn.
In high school we had yearly or biannual dances. While in Puerto Rico we mostly danced to rock and pop, the DJs at the high school dances played popular hip hop too. The hand-clap foot-shuffle started feeling woefully inadequate. Whenever I saw someone who knew how to dance, I tried to imitate him. Little by little, I started adding more movement to my steps.
But other than these dances, there were very few opportunities to dance with my classmates. When I started going to high school parties, I discovered that people in my high school didn’t really listen to music at parties, much less dance. High school parties eventually became opportunities to talk and get intoxicated, but never to dance or listen to music.
In high school I started listening to more salsa. Among other things, it reminded me of Puerto Rico. It also made me feel connected to that part of my identity, which I found myself yearning to do. Especially because, when I returned to Puerto Rico for the first time after moving, I noticed that I was finding it a little more difficult to speak Spanish, and people remarked that I spoke like an American. I was horrified, and made it my goal to never have that happen again.
One of the albums I started listening to was Willie Colón and Hector Lavoe’s “Lo mato si no compra este LP” (I’ll kill you if you don’t buy this LP). Like a lot of the great salsa albums my dad had, it had great cover art, with Willie Colón holding a gun to someone’s head on the front cover, and on the back cover, the victim has overtaken Willie and is holding the gun to Willie’s head. The Colon/Lavoe songs on that album are still probably my favorite that they did together, including such classics as “Calle luna calle sol,” “El día de mi suerte,” and “Todo tiene su final.”
I also loved Ray Barretto’s “Indestructible”. It had a picture of Barretto opening his jacket and shirt to reveal a superman outfit. This was another album that eventually became part of my canon of favorite salsa albums, full of hits including one of my favorite songs of all time (which I quoted on my high-school yearbook page), “El Diablo.”
Dad danced to this salsa stuff like a Puerto Rican Fred Astaire. One day I asked if he could teach me some moves, and he told me to show him how I danced salsa. When he saw my poor impression of a salsa step, it might have been the first time that he had second thoughts about taking us out of Puerto Rico.
Learning to dance salsa was a very slow process. It involved making an ass out of myself at family parties or Latin parties that my parents took me to. I obviously never asked anyone to dance. But my mother would ask people for me. “Hey Ricardo, you remember Petra. Why don’t you ask her to dance?” With Petra right there, I often felt too embarrassed to say no, and then I would put Petra or whomever through the torture of spending an entire song “dancing” with me. But often my dance partners at these parties were adults who knew how to dance, and I was grateful to have them teach me to lead them, and little by little started to feel more comfortable with the rhythms and with partner dancing.
The discovery of electronic music
But I didn’t just want to dance at the occasional Latin party with my parents and Petra. I wanted to find another venue to explore dancing. My brother started going to under 21 parties in Philly at places like the Troc(adero) and Rainbow Playground, where they played Techno, House, Industrial and other electronic music. By this point he had a more favorable attitude towards hanging out with his little brother, so he would often take me along.
Dancing to electronic music was different than dancing to salsa. For one thing, it wasn’t partner dancing. Consequently, there was a lot more freedom. Salsa was comparatively rigid, with specific rules and the need to coordinate your moves with your partner’s moves. With electronic music, you did your own thing, it was a way to express your creativity through dance. Salsa made me feel connected to my Puerto Rican culture and heritage, but electronic music connected me to something more current, younger, and more underground.
After graduating high school, my brother went to college in New York City. I applied to several schools in different cities, but after visiting my brother, I knew that the time had come to return to the city that I remembered so fondly. When I graduated high school, I followed my brother to New York City, to what would be the start of a joint exploration of countless clubs and music venues that has been going on for over twenty years.
I started at NYU the same year that Giuliani became mayor. During orientation, I remember being a little surprised walking through Washington Square Park in the middle of the day and having eight or nine different people offer to sell me a wide range of drugs. It was a different city back then. The city still had an edge. It also had much more diversity of every sort, both cultural and socio-economic.
The amount of music was overwhelming. My brother took me to see live jazz, and we’d go dancing at the Giant Step parties at the Supper Club. I still loved dancing to electronic music during my first year of college, and although I wasn’t a club kid or a raver, I had friends who were. Occasionally I’d go with them to the now-defunct megaclubs like the Tunnel, Club U.S.A., and Limelight, which made the Philly clubs look like Barney’s playhouse. There was so much stuff going on in these places, and I knew at the time that I wasn’t even aware of a fraction of it. By three in the morning I’d already be tired and ready to go to bed, but I’d stick around with my friends ‘til five, at which point we’d leave and my friends would head to the afterhours clubs, and I would head to my dorm room, lamenting the fact that the sun would come up before I was in bed.
Discovering Dad’s Old Haunts and Favorite Bands
It didn’t take long for me to get tired of the club scene in New York. I felt like the only person who wasn’t there for the drugs, or the social scene, or the fashion. I remember looking around in one of the clubs at the end of my freshman year and just thinking, “what am I doing in here?”
Meanwhile my brother and I were becoming full-blown cocolos (salsa fans). Every time we went back to Philadelphia we’d tape another tropical album from my dad’s collection to take it back to New York. Ismael Rivera “Traigo de Todo;” Larry Harlow “Salsa” and “Hommy;” Roberto Roena y su Apollo Sound 6; Típica 73; Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquino; Eddie Palmieri “the Sun of Latin Music; dad had so much stuff and we devoured it like sharks.
When we went back home we’d go out with my parents to parties thrown by a growing group of their post-graduate student friends. These friends were from different parts of the world, mainly from Latin America. Many were artists and intellectuals, and what they all had in common is that they liked to party. There was always a lot of music and dancing at these parties, mostly tropical music, but also soca and even some Brazilian music. There was also plenty of delicious food from all of the different cultures that were represented at the parties. And of course, alcohol; they were especially fond of making pitchers of margaritas or other special drinks. Often there would be people from several different generations at these parties. In short, they were nothing like the American parties that I had been to.
After several of these parties, my salsa dancing was finally passable. I could keep time, I had learned a couple of turns, and I could do some solo steps as well. It was good enough that I could ask someone to dance and know it wouldn’t be painstaking for her. Salsa was poised to fill the void left behind by electronic music.
The moment couldn’t have been better. Many of our favorite salsa musicians, bands that had been around for decades, were still playing in New York City. We saw a lot of them at a club that my father used to go to in the eighties, S.O.B’s. At their weekly “La Trópica” nights we saw Joe Cuba, Eddie Palmieri, Dave Valentin, Ray Barretto, Ruben Blades, Yomo Toro, Johnny Pacheco, among many others; performers who I never imagined I’d be seeing and who still sounded great. My brother and I would be at these clubs imagining my dad dancing to the same band at that club ten or fifteen years earlier, or seeing those musicians live in Puerto Rico even earlier than that. It was a trip.
The Birth of the Salsa Dictator
By the end of college I would always carry a small bag with tapes or CDs. I would take it with me to parties at people’s dorms or apartments, often parties with very few Latinos, and I’d put on some salsa music. There was no reason for me to think that anyone at these parties would be interested in listening to salsa. I was just so tired of going to parties where there was no music playing, or the music was bad, that I didn’t care if anyone else wanted to hear it. I figured it could be a learning experience. Occasionally people would enjoy it. More often they’d listen for a couple of songs, then change the music back to something boring.
Salsa was by no means the only thing I listened to. At this point, besides a lot of American music, I was listening to traditional and modern music from all over the world. However, when I was out partying, I wanted to hear salsa at some point of the night, even just a couple of songs. And I was tired of expecting people to know how to throw a decent party. I was ready to show them what a good party should sound like.
Tropics in the City
When I graduated college in 1998 I realized that there were a lot of great Latin music parties all over the city, and many of them in downtown New York, where I liked to hang out. They had smoking live bands and skilled dancers. I started discovering that there were different tropical music scenes. There were places for Fania and other old salsa, places that played modern salsa, places for merengue, Colombian salsa or Cuban son. I didn’t know any places at the time that were playing modern Cuban dance music. I listened to all of that tropical music, so I tried to go to all of those different places.
What I couldn’t find was a spot that played a combination of all of the different styles of tropical music that I liked. To me, the bar had been set high by the house parties I had been to in Philadelphia with my folks: people from all over Latin America and other parts of the world, dancing to different types of music. People dancing salsa didn’t sit down when the soca, merengue or vallenato songs came on, they kept dancing, even though they didn’t know the right steps. No one looked down on you for dancing a different style of tropical music; no one cared if you danced “Puerto Rican” or “Colombian” style, much less if you danced on the 1 or the 2, people just wanted to dance and have a good time. This was what I was looking for when I entered the Tropical dance party scene in New York at the end of the nineties. That party had to exist among the seemingly unlimited parties going on at the time. If not, maybe my brother and I would have to create it.
When I ask people what kind of music they like, often they respond “a little of everything.” Usually, the more questions I ask, the more limited people’s notion of “everything” seems.
When I was in high school and someone asked me what kind of music I liked, I would respond “everything but country music.” I wasn’t the only one, it was a pretty common answer in my east coast school. I don’t know what association I had with country music at that time, but I certainly hadn’t heard much of it. Despite the little I had heard, I knew that there was no way that I would ever like it.
During my junior year of high school I spent a month at a Navajo reservation in Arizona. I stayed with a host family who had a son that was my age. He was a big fan of country music, as were many of the other students I met and hung out with. Mostly it was modern, poppy country music. Billy Ray Cyrus and Brooks and Dunne are three singers that I remember. My first impression when I heard this music confirmed all of my prejudices. Country music sounded ridiculous and sappy. It portrayed a reality that was foreign to me, and that I did not have any interest in exploring.
But I was in Rock Point Arizona to learn about a culture that was very different from my own, a culture that I knew nothing about. It was my first time further west than Washington D.C. I was in a completely foreign setting- the desert landscape was different from anything I had ever experienced. The people I met there had a culture and history that was so vast, I barely scratched the surface of it. But I could certainly perceive that we had things in common. As a Puerto Rican, I was somewhat familiar with having an uneasy history and relationship with the United States, and the ambivalence that can come along with that.
I met and connected with fascinating and generous people at the reservation. By the end of my stay, I had heard “Achy Breaky Heart” and “Could’ve Been Me” so many times that I had memorized the lyrics. Not only that, I actually enjoyed listening to them.
When I returned to the east coast I changed my answer to the question about music. Now that I had liked several country songs, I could safely say that I liked everything. I didn’t go out and buy any Billy Ray Cyrus CDs, but I had gotten over the initial knee-jerk reaction. I had gotten past my aversion to the style, the accent, and the instruments used. A few years later I was ready to explore the genre more and I made my first country music purchase, Hank Williams’ greatest hits.
But the lesson I learned from this went beyond an appreciation for country music. I learned that, from having made up my mind to hate country music, after spending a month listening to it, with people who loved it, I had changed my mind. Often when people talk about tastes, they talk about them as if they were hard-wired into their DNA. Almost like each person is born with a capacity to like only certain types of things. Learning to like country music taught me that I could learn to like a genre of music that initially didn’t appeal to me. I put that lesson into practice the following year.
All that Jazz
During high school I listened to a lot of different types of music. But one genre that never really caught my ear was jazz.
My father listened to jazz, and I even liked some of the things he listened to. He had “Puente Caliente” by Tito Puente on cassette, and we listened to it many times during long drives. Another of his favorites that I enjoyed was Claude Bolling and Jean-Pierre Rampal’s “Suite for Flute & Jazz Piano,” which was jazzy classical music with awesome cover art. There were also a few seventies jazz albums that I eventually grew fond of, stuff like Gato Barbieri “Caliente” and Stanley Turrentine “Pieces of Dreams.”
But my brother, who studied saxophone in high school, played and listened to stuff like Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis, and I just couldn’t enjoy it. I wanted to like it, I had no doubt that these musicians were talented. People whose opinion I respected liked jazz. So when my brother went away to college, I asked him to make me a jazz mix. He made me a 100-minute mix, and wrote the following on Side A and Side B, respectively: “Keep your worldly troubles outside…” “…and come in here and Swing…” It was a quote from Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers at the Jazz corner of the world, and it perfectly described the exuberance that I discovered in the songs that he taped for me. Cannonball Adderley, Clifford Brown and Max Roach, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Wes Montgomery… That mix was my gateway into the wonderful world of bebop.
It also confirmed my suspicion that, if I wanted to like a type of music, I could learn to. The desire to like the genre was not vital, but it certainly helped. You had to listen to the music repeatedly for your ear to get used to it and start to notice the patterns and the differences. It helped to see fans of the genre listen to that music. It was instrumental in the Navajo reservation to listen to country music with my friends who liked country music, to hear them sing along to the songs and experience their enthusiasm and their enjoyment. With jazz, listening to people talk about what they liked, or point out a specific solo, bass line, or drum pattern helped me understand it in portions that were easier to process.
Eat the world
Music is an acquired taste, just like so many things in life. Learning to like a different genre of music is like learning to like a new food. Many of the same people who wouldn’t conceive of learning to like okra, or mushrooms, or cilantro, taught themselves to like alcohol and coffee. They didn’t like these things the first time they tried them, they put in time and intention into learning how to like them.
The question that boggles my mind is why not try to learn to like new food, or a new genre of music? Learning to like something new means opening ourselves to another source of pleasure in the world. If I can learn to like bananas, or okra, or sea urchin, why shouldn’t I? If I can develop an appreciation for country music, or jazz, or salsa, why limit myself to only listening to rap, or classical music? The more things that I enjoy, the more enjoyable life becomes.
Music is not just for the kiddies
Recently, I read an article about how people stop listening to new music at age 33. Although that is certainly not true for me, I believe it may be true for most people I know who are not in the music industry. What’s more, it seems like a lot of people listen to music much less frequently around that age too. A lot of people tell me they listened to a certain genre a lot in college, but these days they don’t listen to music much, they listen to podcasts or NPR. But often when those same people are in a setting where they hear music they like, they remember how much they used to enjoy listening to music. Sometimes they even vow to listen to more music.
What makes all those people stop doing something that they enjoy? It’s too easy to say that people become busy- those same people have time to watch TV or play games on their devices. Plus, you can listen to music while you’re doing a lot of different activities, so it doesn’t really take time away from you.
You may be wondering why I care. It’s because I think everyone would be happier if they listened to more music. And if we were all happier the world would be a better place.
And if we all started dancing more, the world would be an even BETTER place.
Related question, maybe for a future post: why don’t people spend money on music any more?
Moving to New York four times means leaving at least three times. The first time I left I was nine years old. It wouldn’t take me long to realize that the city had left an indelible mark in me. Besides the fondness that I was developing for the city, living there would affect my feeling of cultural identity and belonging, and even how other people viewed and interacted with me.
After those three blissful years, my parents decided to return to Puerto Rico, and I am extremely grateful. I returned to my patria, strengthened my Spanish, got reacquainted with my cultural roots, and made many friends. I also expanded my musical horizons.
Each day I explored my dad’s record collection more and more. He set up his stereo in the room that I wanted for my own because it felt hidden in the middle of the house. But dad set up his office in that cozy room, and his stereo fit neatly in the closet. He had so many records, my brother and I would spend hours looking at the covers and playing random albums to see what they sounded like. Around that time I remember often listening to “In Square Circle” by Stevie Wonder, the “Best of Bread,” Rod Stewart’s “Foot Loose and Fancy Free,” and “Abbey Simon plays Chopin.” My brother and I also got our first records, Men at Work “Cargo” and the Ghostbusters soundtrack, both of which I listened to a million times, and they reminded me of New York.
By this point I also loved cassette tapes for their portability, the fact that you could record on them, and even just the mechanics and aesthetics of the tape. Dad always had blanks around, to record albums or make mixes, and he let me have one whenever I needed it. I got my first walkman, and I was able to record songs I liked off the radio. I still have some tapes from that period, with portions of different lengths of the songs I was listening to on the radio (stuff like the Whispers, “Rock Steady, a remix of Debbie Gibson’s “Only in my Dreams,” and Bon Jovi “Wanted Dead or Alive”).
Media was developing quickly, and dad was always eager to explore new technology. He had already embraced reel-to-reel, records, cassettes, (not to mention Betamax and VHS), so when CDs were getting popular he bought a player. He got me my first CD for my 12th birthday, it was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, which I also listened to many times.
An outsider in my home country
The transition to living in Puerto Rico was not smooth. I lasted two days at my first school, on the first of which I was slapped randomly by an older kid, and the second of which one teacher unfairly accused me, “the kid from New York,” of a prank committed by one of my classmates behind her back.
I felt a lot of nostalgia towards New York. I loved and missed Manhattan and Brooklyn, subways, museums, libraries, Pino’s Pizza, my school, Washington Square Park, among many other things. Spanish was my first language, but English was the language of New York, the language of the books that I had learned to love there, of the movies and television shows that I watched, and of the music that I preferred. I spoke to my brother in English, and to most of my closest friends in school (this caused animosity in a lot of my classmates, who often reminded me that I was in Puerto Rico now, and that I should be speaking in Spanish).
The books I read in Spanish at school were nowhere near as interesting as the books in English that I ordered from Scholastic catalogues or asked my parents to get me at bookstores. T.V. in Spanish meant the news, soap operas, or slapstick comedy shows, none of which I was particularly interested in. And I thought most of the music in Spanish on the radio was corny. There were a lot of translations of pop songs from English to Spanish, which to me were too emotional, and just an imitation of a superior original.
The gradual discovery of good music in Spanish
Meanwhile, my dad was listening to music from all over the world, and certainly listened to a lot of music in Spanish. Although I rejected some of it, almost without realizing it I started to like certain things, little by little. From this period I remember two Cuban albums that he listened to a lot: One was an album by Las Estrellas de Areito, the Cuban equivalent of the Fania All-Stars. It featured what I didn’t know at the time was a star-studded lineup, that included Ruben Gonzalez, Niño Rivera, Felix Chapottin, Tata Güines, among many others. For some reason, something about the first song on the album caught me, from the moment the singers harmonized that first phrase “Pican, no pican…los tamalitos que vende Olga, Olga…,” followed by a beautiful flute.
Another album was the self-titled “Son 14,” with a picture of the whole big band on the front cover, and a guajiro on the back cover who could have been a jíbaro, singing into the mic with shades on. The first side was full of gems: “Agua que cae del cielo,” was energizing, with great percussion, horns, and singing. “Tati una canción para ti” was unique, in that it started as a bolero, but then picked up steam and became danceable, only to end as a bolero again. Dad would dance to this music, with my mom or alone, and sometimes my brother and I would play shakers made from cans that were filled with rice and said “S.O.B.’s.” We thought the name was funny, and dad told us they were from a place in New York that he had been to when we lived there. Little did I imagine that I would experience S.O.B.’s in person many years later.
Dad had even more Puerto Rican music that I started appreciating. Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera, “Juntos otra vez,” which was released in 1974, was still very popular in this period. “Quitate de la vía perico” and “Maquinolandera” were songs that I would hear on the radio or at a Christmas party and were super catchy, maybe the first salsa songs that I liked. One of the first things I noticed was that squeaky kid’s voice singing coro (Ismael Rivera, Jr., if I’m not mistaken). Something about the fact that a child was singing on an adult album was unexpected and cool.
I probably started liking a lot of music in Spanish through humor. Dad listened to Luis “Perico” Ortiz during this period, and he had several humorous salsa and merengue songs. The self-titled Haciendo Punto en Otro Son was a nueva trova album that I became fond of, probably because of the funny tango where the singer asks a former lover to return a pair of underwear that have sentimental meaning. But “Buscando America” by Ruben Blades and Seis del Solar made an even bigger impression.
It started with a second-person spoken word (“GDBD”) performed by Blades over a repetitive a capella bass line that sounds almost like a rumba. Although the lyrics have to do with the morning routine of a police officer who is going to arrest someone, it was easier for me to notice the humorous elements of the song, including the man repeatedly stepping on a puddle of dog piss and drying his foot with a Disneyland towel.
The hit from that album, “Decisiones,” also deals with serious topics but in a humorous way, including a verse sung in the voice of a drunk. These songs got me to pay attention to the rest of the album, and I started enjoying the other songs. “Desapariciones,” Blades’s reggae about forced disappearance was a beautiful song, and not what I would expect on a salsa album. So when a social studies teacher brought the album into class one day to talk about the theme of the title song, “Buscando America,” I was proud that I knew the album well. I was also surprised that a teacher in my evangelical school listened to salsa. Keep in mind that this was a school that held a yearly assembly to discuss how most of the music we were listening to had subliminal satanic messages, and that really the only safe music to listen to was Christian music.
None of my friends listened to salsa, and none of the other kids in my class seemed to know “Buscando America.” My friends in middle school listened to music from the U.S. and watched MTV. Some people liked the corny ballads in Spanish, and a lot of us liked Juan Luis Guerra, who was just blowing up in Puerto Rico, but for the most part it wasn’t just “the New Yorker” who had a preference for music in English.
Then, I started attending my first marquesina parties.* Just when my hormones were starting to boil, I started going to parties where we would dress up, some girls started using make-up and got fancy hairstyles, and we were all excited about hanging out at night outside of school. Most importantly, we were dancing. A lot of what we danced to was rock or pop, but we also started dancing ballads and even some of those Juan Luis Guerra songs. I’d get to dance up close with girls who were looking more and more like women, and I thought it was sublime.
Right around this period, my parents started talking about moving, either back to New York or to Philadelphia. I had spent five years in Puerto Rico and I had a lot of close friends. My Spanish and my English were just about on the same level, with my Spanish maybe having a slight advantage. Mostly, I wanted to stay. But part of me longed to return to New York, a place that in my memory was filled with magic.