Monday, November 29, 2010

Is He Really the Father of Salsa Music?

Salsa music is based on the son (pronouncd 'sewn') music of Cuba!

---Guillermo Céspedes, pianist with the
Afro-Cuban music group Conjunto Céspedes.

Arsenio Rodriguez, Matanzas, Cuba
August 31, 1911-December 31, 1970

One evening I was watching a TV presentation of “Roots of Rhythm,” which talked about the history of one of my favorite genres of music... salsa. The narrator Harry Belafonte, referred to Arsenio Rodriguez as the father of salsa. Many expert musicologists tend to agree. In a recently reissued song, Pio Leyva (from Buena Vista Social Club) sings, si te hablan de la salsa, mentira, se llama son (if they talk to you about Salsa, lies, it’s called Son).

Renown salsa music pianist Eddie Palmieri's and the late-great conga player Ray Barretto based their top hits on the music of Arsenio Rodriguez.

In the late 1930's, Arsenio Rodríguez (one of Cuba's greatest musician and composers) began reconnecting son music of Cuba with its African roots, which many of the earlier groups had either omitted or simplified. He synthesized and maintained the integrity of African and Spanish elements. His style became known as "son montuno" and formed the basis of the mambo craze in the 40's, influencing Latin popular music in New York for years to follow.

World famous Tito Puente on Timbales

Other music critics claim that despite these musical roots, what we now recognize as salsa, originated in New York City nightclubs in the years following World War II, an evolution of the era's big band tradition. The first great salsa musician was Tito Puente, who, after a stint with the U.S. Navy, studied percussion at New York's Juilliard School of Music. He went on to organize his own band, Puente's Latin Jazz Ensemble, which has been heard by audiences around the world.

Originally, Salsa was not a rhythm in its own right, but a name given in the 1970s by Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants to the New York City area, and its later stylistic descendants including 1980s salsa romantica and other sub-genres. The style is now practiced throughout Latin America, and abroad.

Arsenio Rodriguez with Conjunto Modelo, Guaguancó en la Habana

The history of Cuban music pivots around one man: Arsenio Rodriguez, the blind tres player. Arsenio pushed up the percussion, added a piano, and tripled the trumpets of the traditional septet line-up, and pretty much singlehandedly invented salsa as we know it today. He was a prolific composer and surrounded himself with the cream of Havana's musicians in the late forties.

Beny Moré was a gifted Cuban singer who also gets credit for what salsa music is today. He is often thought of as the greatest Cuban popular singer of all time.

The US has been a major consumer of Latin music not only through tourism as was seen in cabaret Rumba, but also in the "rhumba craze" of the thirties (see above) followed by the popularity of the Mambo and Chachachá, which the USA helped to distribute.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Peruvians in The Hood

The District of El Carmen, the Hub of Afro-Peruvian Culture


The Main Square where people come to relax and simply hang out.

At the end of my first trip to this quiet little town in October 2005, Mamá Adelina of the home where I was staying said to me when I return, I will have a family. I was fortunate enough to have several families. I even adopted a goddaughter since my first trip.

The Ballumbrosio family in whose home I stayed.
I'm in the back, second from the right.

It's a good feeling to be awakened in the morning by roosters, being greeted with buenas dias by strangers, hearing salsa and Cuban music walking the streets, and meeting all kinds of interesting people.

Afro-Peruvian dance

Afro-Peruvian dance

Afro-Peruvian woman dancing to the beat of the cajón.

On my fourth trip to El Carmen, a local doctor was good enough to show me all around the province of Chincha where lies El Carmen. This is a town where poverty prevails, but where everyone is at peace with them one another. I've never heard of any crime taking place. And if there is any drug abuse, it is kept on the down-low.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Afro-Latino National Heroes

Black Latinos & their Historic Victories for Freedom

Antonio Maceo,
1845-1896, Cuba

General Antonio Maceo was known as the Bronze Titan. So named because of his skin color, physical prowess, and social status as he led his troops to consistently outmaneuver the Spanish army in the 10-year war.

Alonso de Illescas

Illescas, a native of Senegal, West Africa was brought to Ecuador on a slave ship around the age of 25 and grew up to be a strategist skilled in guerrilla warfare. Behind a fortress built by by an alliance of escaped African slaves and Indigenous people, Illescas and his men fought and turned back many expeditions of Spanish forces.

Vicente Guerrero

Born of an African slave mother and a Mestizo father, Vicente Guerrero joined the Mexican Revolution in 1810, and achieved the ranks of Captain, Colonel, and finally general before becoming Mexico's second president in 1829.

Benkos Bioho
Late 15th Century-1621

Benkos Bioho, a successful slave revolter in Colombia who left a legacy of a free black town that stands to this day----San Basilio de Palenque, 40 km south of Cartagena. This town still holds on to African dialects like the Gullah people off the South Sea islands of the United States and the Garífuna people of Central America.

Gaspar Yanga in Mexico was said to be a member of a royal family in an area of West Africa now called Gabon. For three decades, Yanga and his African warriors survived and thrivedin the remote hills of Vera Cruz, Mexico by swooping down on caravans bringing goods to Veracruz, and raiding local Spanish settlements and slave plantations.

In 1630, Yanga established the first free black town in all of the western world. The town was originally called San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo. In the early 1950s, descendants of Yanga's African warriors positioned the Mexican government to change the name of the town to Yanga.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Museum of the African Diaspora

Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD)
685 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94105

As a paid member and volunteer, I was attracted to MOAD because of my thirst for knowledge, not only of the African continent, but those of African heritage living in Mexico, Israel, Perú, France, and other parts of the world.

The museum is a three-story building containing, among many things, exhibits, a family room, a gift shop, films, and a research center. Most of my focus at the museum, however, has been in the Maya Angelou Lecture Room to hear experts lecturing on the African influence on Latin America.

Long standing Bay Area musician and Afro-musicologist John Santos (left) presents on African Spiritual Practices and its impact on Latin music today.

Musicologist and author Ned Sublette (left), author of the book Cuba & Its Music: From the First Drum to the Mambo gave a presentation on African music and it's impact on all of Latin America.

We had a lecturer from New York presenting on Afro-Puerto Rican history and culture focusing on the predominately black Loiza, Puerto Rico

The African Diaspora

Museum of the African Diaspora

San Francisco, CA

Friday, November 5, 2010

I'm Trippin' (in Spanish)!

When I say trippin', I mean it in both contexts, psychologically, and an actual trip----a five-nation trip to Latin America. I'm leaving on Thanksgiving morning and will be returning to Oakland on Christmas day. I'm so excited that I've already started packing my bags, solidifying my Facebook and e-mail contacts, but most importantly, trying to keep my focus here at work and not trip so hard while I'm on the job. This, I admit, is very difficult.

Buy fresh-squeezed orange juice in the 
Pino SuarezDistrict of Mexico City

I'll be visiting Mexico, Panamá, Perú, Colombia, and Ecuador

My first stop is Mexico City, an 11-hour layover where I will go out on the town. Next stop is Perú where I will spend most of my time due to close contacts I've developed over the last five years. Then I will fly to Cartagena, Colombia and stay for five days to explore Afro-Colombian culture and visit the famous town of escaped slaves who were successful in doing what Nat Turner tried to do before being sold out by uncle toms. This town is called Palenque de San Basilio.

All of this to practice my Spanish and have fun doing it in nations where only Spanish is spoken.

From Cartagena, I will have a six-hour layover in Panamá City on my way to Quito, Ecuador. In Panamá City, I will visit the Afro-Antillian museum. Once in Quito for the second time in my life, I will spend two days hanging out with Gloria, an Afro-Ecuadorian I met through a Facebook friend. I will then have another 8-hour layover in Guayquil, Ecuador and hang out with more Facebook friends before rounding out my vacation in New York City, and head towards San Francisco/Oakland on Christmas day.

The best way to get good at any new language is to either sink or swim!

All of this to practice my Spanish and have fun doing it. The best way to get good at any new language is to either sink or swim! What better way to do this than to visit the country where only that language is spoken. This Spring 2011, I plan to take formal classes in Spanish at a local community college to further grounded in the Spanish languange. Geez, this should have been my major in college because I'm trippin'.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Dominican Harlem

Visiting the Washington Heights Section of New York City, known among its residents as Quisqueya Heights.

In my continuing efforts to improve my Spanish and explore various Latino cultures, I took advantage of my long, overdue vacation home to New York City by visiting an area directly north of Harlem that I call “Dominican Harlem. The real name is Washington Heights, known to Dominicans as Quisqueya Heights. Quisqueya is the original name of the Dominican Republic before the Spanish invasion. After I left New York years ago, Washington Heights attracted a growing number of immigrants from the Dominican Republic

Dominican Harlem, like Spanish Harlem, is not the best place to practice your Spanish; there are too many bilinguals. The moment they get the slightest hint that you are not a native Spanish-speaker, they will respond in English. Fortunately, I had such great experiences with great service, in Spanish only, in two Dominican restaurants; El Malecón and Albert's Mofongo House, that I left a larger than normal tip. I always tip better when Spanish-speaking servers speak to me in Spanish----I need the practice because I had little formal training in the language.

After I left New York years ago, the Washington Heights area attracted a growing number of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.

Sadly, like other ethnic groups in the history of Washington Heights, and like other ethnic communities of color around the country, gentrification is slowly breaking up Dominican Harlem. Due to rising rents and other costs, families and friends who lived in this area for years are being scattered fueling an uptown real estate boom, and widening the gap between rich and poor. Dominican political power in the city is also being realigned.

This explains the closing down of the well-known bookstore for Spanish speakers, Librería Caliope. As I was walking down the street looking for the bookstore to shop, I passed a man at a large table on the curb selling books.

Sadly, gentrification is slowly breaking up Dominican Harlem.

Further down the street, I was told by residents that the owner now sells his books at the very table that I just passed. I asked the bookstore owner what happened. He told me that he had to close his store because of high rents. Gladly, I found and purchased an all-Spanish dictionary and a book of wisdom written in Spanish, and headed towards Albert's House of Mofongo for a Dominican seafood dinner.