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The WILT Archive
Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.
Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.
Last month I wrote about the fake electro-latin music of Uwe Schmidt aka Señor Coconut. I think this must have had some kind of subliminal effect on me, because I feel a nostalgia attack coming on, and I want the real thing. Maybe it’s something in the air, though, because while writing this I became aware that Fania, the great New York latin music label, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Fania hasn’t really been a functioning label for quite a while, but there will be a flurry of activity over the next few months.
Of course, a catalogue like Fania’s trades heavily on nostalgia – something I have mixed feelings about. I sometimes think of nostalgia as a kind of dodgy recreational drug; something that can feel good for a while, but which, if you’re not careful, can get you hooked and turn you into a Sad Bastard.
Music is both my passion and my profession, so I’m interested in all kinds of music from all kinds of times and places. But I can see that for many people, music fulfils a more limited but nonetheless powerful function, as an evocation of a specific time and place in their lives. However musically educated and eclectic I might be, I’m not completely immune to this.
In London sometime in the late 1970s, I picked up, in a second-hand record shop, an LP called Salsa Live! by the Fania All-Stars. I didn’t know yet that ‘Salsa’ was a label which had been stuck onto a very Nuyorican – NewYork/Puerto Rican - interpretation of Afro-Cuban music, and that it was a label that most of the musicians themselves disliked. Anyway, I bought the album out of sheer curiosity, and a fascination with faraway New York City. The cover depicted a group of vaguely gangsterish latin musicians waiting, with their hats, shades, moustaches and instrument cases, on a Subway platform as a train covered in graffiti was pulling in. Cool. And the music turned out to be equally exotic. I didn’t know what to make of these complex rhythms – sometimes I wasn’t even sure where the first beat of the bar was falling. I decided that I had to figure this stuff out.
Over the next few years I found myself touring the US and spending nights off in New York, where, to the puzzlement of my band and road crew, I would often forgo the pleasures of CBGBs or the Mudd Club and set off on pilgrimages to the Corso Latin Ballroom or the Ipanema Discotheque, where I would be the only ‘Anglo’ in the place, a misfit at the bar gradually getting my head around this music which was based on the 2-3 or 3-2 rhythm of clave rather than the backbeat of rock’n’roll (which, like everyone of my generation, I loved, but which often struck me as rhythmically dull). I loved the fact that these latin grooves came not from one guy thumping away at a drum kit but from an interplay between several musicians: piano, bass, congas, bongos, timbales, each with a specific role. It was viscerally exciting but also sophisticated; the standard of musicianship was way above anything you’d hear in the city’s rock clubs. And yet the audiences, rather than sitting respectfully, were dancing their asses off. Surrounded by gorgeous Latinas with swirling skirts and men in white suits who actually knew how to dance, I felt very white and English and shy and awkward, and I loved it.
Throughout the 1980s I saw pretty much everyone who was anyone in the New York latin scene: Tito Puente, Larry Harlow, Willie Colon, Eddie Palmieri, Hector Lavoe, Manny Oquendo, Ismail Miranda, Johnny Pacheco, Celia Cruz - and Rubén Blades, who, backstage after his show, placed two chairs facing each other and more or less demanded that I sit and be tested on the depth and sincerity of my interest in his music. Rubén transcends the Salsa genre and, really, deserves a whole article to himself. Over the next few years I played piano on one of his albums, and his band opened a few of my shows. His albums Siembra and Buscando America were favourites of mine, but if I had to pick one album from the heyday of NY Salsa, it would be:
RAY BARRETTO: Rican/Struction
Listening to this for the first time in many years was such an intense hit on the nostalgia drug that it made my head spin. Acid and Indestructible are probably better-known Barretto albums, but this is the one I listened to over and over again. It was like a musical Swiss watch that I mentally took apart and put back together.
Sometime in the early 80s I discovered that there were in New York several ‘Cuban-Chinese’ restaurants, funky holes-in-the-wall in which Asian immigrants from Cuba or Puerto Rico served ‘Comidas Chinas y Criollas’. These joints were said to be popular with latin musicians, and one in particular was a favourite of conga maestro and bandleader Ray Barretto. So I went, thinking that, of course, Ray Barretto wasn’t going to be there, but as I feasted on some kind of weird avocado and onion salad with fried rice, I looked over at a corner table and there was Ray Fuckin’ Barretto. There was no mistaking him – tall, gangling, with a terrible haircut, big geeky glasses and an endearing smile. I should have said something, but what?! I was white, English, shy, awkward . . .
Barretto played with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to the Rolling Stones; he crops up on a lot of records in my jazz collection (for instance, on one of the most iconic Blue Note albums, Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue). Rican/Struction is in fact very jazz-influenced, as were the smoking-hot bands with which I saw Barretto perform live on three or four occasions. What surprised me, though, was the sheer power of his playing (his nickname was Manos Duros, ‘Hard Hands’) and his charisma and rapport with the audience. One time he made a half-angry, half-humorous speech about Anglo-Americans mispronouncing Spanish names: ‘And what is this Porda Rico I keep hearin’ about, man? Porda Rico? Is that some place I don’t know? Wait a minute, don’t tell me you’re talkin’ about . . . Puuu-airrrr-to Rrrri-co?!’ The audience went nuts. On another occasion he launched into a rant about how he and his band ‘ain’t so pretty, we ain’t no rock stars, we don’t have no 28-inch waist, but we got soul, man! We got soul!’ The audience went nuts again.
I was fascinated by the arrangements on Rican/Struction. They would generally include a chorus section in which the lead singer was given a chance to improvise and show off, and sometimes the volume would come down a few notches for a piano solo – that is, the voices and the horns would take a break, but the percussion would keep going full steam ahead while the piano (in this case the great and ubiquitous Oscar Hernandez) danced around it like a moth around a flame. But I particularly liked the instrumental sections, where, several minutes into a song, the key would unexpectedly change, a new riff or chord sequence would be introduced, and then some dazzlingly intricate horn lines would be layered on top. On some songs, there would be two or even three of these sections, lifting the energy higher and higher each time. I tried to work my own version of this trick into a song called Target, which soon found its way onto an album called Night And Day.
Target was inspired (if that’s the right word) by the murder of John Lennon, which - it seems incredible to realise now - had happened just a couple of years earlier. 80s NYC was good, but it wasn’t all good. And those latin clubs are all gone now. Nostalgia, the wonder drug. Handle with care.