Monday, October 8, 2012

Salsa in the Hood

It was at Cosmos Night Club, a hole-in-the-wall salsa club in East Oakland's Fruitvale District where an African-American man was routinely and intensely checking on his wife who worked there as a cocktail waitress. He wanted to know why I was there every Friday and Saturday night. This is little Tijuana, he uttered in contempt. He then looked me in the eye and asked, you are not one of those Black Puerto Ricans, are you? I explained to him that I grew up in what used to be the salsa music capital, New York City (Now, it's Cali, Colombia). He simply could not believe a brotha could be this deep into Latin music, and thus, did not buy into my story. He accused me of fooling around with his wife or scheming to do so.

This poor, insecure man did not understand that I'm from an entirely different world. My first exposure to Latin music was during my childhood through a New York City radio station, WWRL, which directed it's programming toward young Blacks. The song El Watusi by the late, great Ray Barretto was a #1 hit on this R&B station for weeks, and thus, gave me my first taste of Latin music.

Other Latino artists who also got airplay on WWRL or simply 'RL, as we called it back in the day, was Joe Cuba, Hector Rivera, and Willie Colón who is still active in the salsa music scene today. With the exception of the big hit, El Watusi, all the Latin songs played on 'RL were in English. Then, of course, there were Puerto Ricans like Hector Rivera and Ralphi Pagán who sang straight-up R&B love songs.

In high school, I noticed a lot of African-Americans listening and dancing to Latin music, and others walking around singing the chorus, I'll Never Go Back to Georgia, from one of Joe Cuba's greatest hits. Rumor has it that Joe felt inspired to write this song when he passed through the State of Georgia before integration and thought he'd be cut some slack because he is Puerto Rican. Those dixiecrats allegedly gave him the same treatment as African-Americans.

There was another radio station, WBLS, which directed its programing towards a mature African-American audience. This Inner City Broadcasting station was owned by former Tuskeegee Airmen and Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, who by the way, spoke at my graduation at James Fenimore Cooper Junior High School in East Harlem. WBLS focused on jazz, and included Latin jazz artists such as Willie Bobo, Eddie Palmieri, and Ray Barretto.

One afternoon, a cool brotha from the hood, turned me onto this album, and to this day, I'm a fan!

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