A l'est de Harlem, c'est encore Harlem, mais à la sauce hispanique. Un quartier qui abrite la plus grande communauté de la diaspora caribéenne, essentiellement portoricaine. « Le barrio, c'est Salsa Nation ! clame la pétulante chanteuse Aurora Flores. On oublie souvent que c'est ici que se sont mélangés, dans les années 70, les ingrédients de cette musique de l'exil, germée dans la pauvreté et qui célèbre la vie. » Cette ancienne journaliste, qui a « grandi en écoutant Tito Puente, Janis Joplin et Santana », est l'une des rares femmes leaders d'un orchestre de salsa. Bomba, plena, boogaloo, salsa dura… Avec le survolté Zon del Barrio, groupe mixte et multigénérationnel, elle veut, à son tour, « transmettre cet héritage à la jeune génération ».
Sunday, May 27, 2012
My article in Latino Magazine on the Jose Limon Dance company
The legendary Afro-Cuban trumpeter Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros as guest artist to Zon del Barrio playing a concert at LaKasa in Guadeloupe, an island in the French Caribbean... Maryann Santiago & Oreste Abrantes look on. Go on the link & click on the black frame below for a short video on the concert.
As the second speaker at this Diversity Conference, I gave a brief overview on the streets of Spanish Harlem & its rich history that dates back to the 1890s in New York City stretching back throughout the Great Antilles & Spain (Iberia).
It was in Old San Juan’s “Bombonera” restaurant in 1977 when I spotted the traditional straw hat and signature daisheke on the man sitting at the counter. Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso was holding a note pad and tape recorder when I sat beside him. He was reserved, diffident and guarded, until we began talking about Ismael "Maelo" Rivera’s, “Esto Si Es Lo Mio” that I was reviewing for Billboard Magazine. That’s when a glint appeared in his eyes, a smile crossed his face, and we bonded for that moment around talk of ‘Maelo, plena, bomba, poverty, race, politics, religion y música!
Curet defined a revolutionary period in Latin music. His compositions brought out the best in the interpreter. Masterworks included Hector LaVoe’s “Periodico de Ayer” or “Juanito Alimaña,” Cheo Feliciano’s “Anacaona,” Pete El Conde’s “La Abolición,” Andy Montañez’ “El Echo de Un Tambor,” Celia Cruz’ “Isadora Duncan,” and La Lupe’s “La Tirana.”
Curet’s name was ubiquitous, gracing hundreds of album credits of many of the top Latin music artists of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. He penned more than 2,000 songs, spawning and jump-starting the artistic careers of many, from La Lupe, to Cheo Feliciano to Frankie Ruiz. The most in-demand composer of tropical music, Curet’s songs were guaranteed hits, and classics today.
“You had to take a number and wait on line,” Ruben Blades told the L.A. Times when Curet passed away. “His songs could revive any career, so there was always a fight to get new material from Tite,” recalled the Panamanian singer/songwriter whose interpretation of Curet’s “Plantación Adentro” also hit the top of the charts.
Curet helped father the nascent salsa movement that was marking time in clave through the streets of Puerto Rico and Latin New York. Through news events, music and lyrics, his words inspired hope, faith, solace and joy during a time of social upheaval. In more than 2,000 tunes, Curet was the musical narrator of current events and national pride, romance and religion. He wrote in a time when the social reality of the poor was in direct opposition to the political power line, leaving music as the life-support of optimism. Tite Curet reflected the face of a community in need of answers.
His talent for composing extended beyond the borders of the Caribbean dipping into Mexico, Venezuela, Paraguay, Spain and Brazil which he credited for receiving his best musical training referring to them as the “sorcerers of ‘el medio tono’,” (the half tone). His merengue for Los Hijos del Rey, “Yo Me Dominicaniso” made much noise while Tony Croatto’s version of Curet’s “Cucubano” became a hit, later recorded by Menudo. From Chucho Avellanet to Nelson Ned, Tite Curet Alonso was a pivotal figure in the musical repertoires of many Latino superstars.
A compilation of the music of one of Puerto Rico’s most important composers of the late 20th Century now comes to light after a fourteen-year absence in Puerto Rico. Emusica has just released a 31-tune double CD set, featuring some of Curet’s most-loved works.
His songs were unavailable since 1995 due to a separate performance rights society contract Curet signed that built an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy between the radio stations, the publishing rights organizations and the composers. Basically, Tite Curet signed a contract with ACEMLA (Asociación de Compositores y Editores de Música Latinamericana), a performing rights organization that insisted on aggressively collecting additional fees from radio stations on top of the already established publishing rights organizations such as BMI, ASCAP or SEAC. Now imagine the chaos this would cause if every composer insisted that every radio station pay another organization, (not even the individual directly) for performing rights.
“It was a cultural crime,” notes Latin music writer Jaime Torres Torres of El Nuevo Dia. “An entire generation was deprived of the genius of this notable and creative songwriter.”
“When a younger generation cannot hear the songs of the masters that came before them, they create their own,” adds Richie Viera of the Viera Record Shop in Puerto Rico noting this lack of Curet’s commercial hits on radio as a contributing factor to the growing trend of “reggaetón” while salsa music still struggles on the island.
This compilation reflects several of the master composer’s themes. However, Curet was most proud of his writing skills, in particular his journalistic ability often pointing to his scant use of adjectives in crafting a hit number. Tite Curet wrote for newspapers, magazines, hosted radio shows and was later writing screenplays for stage and television as well as children’s songs and hymns.
He studied to be a pharmacist but through an uncle who had a print press he found journalism, writing columns and essays that he later pointed to as fodder for his musical muse. Curet worked almost all his life for the U.S. Postal Service, never fully relying on the music business even at the height of his popularity. He was proud that way. A proud Afro-Boricua negro, he wrote of his roots on paper and abandoned his heart to song.
His was a hard life. Born in the pueblo of Guayama, Puerto Rico on February 26, 1926, Curet’s father taught Spanish and played in the municipal band of Simon “Pin” Madera. Couples and singles paraded in plazas across from churches and government steeples where gazebos kept musicians out of direct sunlight.
However, his parents divorced taking the young Curet to Barrio Obrero. Those mean streets around the ‘hoods of Tokio, El Fangito, Tras Talleres and Puerta de Tierra were the last forts of proletariat resistance while breeding some of the Island’s biggest talents.
Tito Rodriguez, who later recorded Curet’s hit “Tiemblas,” lived down the block from the fledging songwriter, as did bandleader Rafael Cortijo featured on “Se Escapo Un Leon,” on the compilation. Singer Gilberto Monroig and the internationally renowned composer, Rafael Hernandez also lived in the neighborhood that spawned much of salsa’s most genuine artists.
A seasoned man in a time of resistance to societal norms, Curet later witnessed the worldwide rage against Vietnam and the tsunami of civil and social change heralded by the ‘60s and ‘70s. This intense, historical climate shaped Curet’s life and work.
Because his father did not want him to be a musician, Curet studied music as an adult. When asked for a song, he’d analyze the voice, tone and timbre of the singer, highlighting the phrasing, diction and enunciation. His verses were measured and restrained while bursting with assertive irony, wit and conflict. His study of music theory and solfegio helped him come up with melodies, lyrical meters and musical arrangements that augmented the work of arrangers. Artists who retained him were also subject to his scrutiny, part of the magic and power included in the creative process of the song.
Curet’s mother was a seamstress but early on she was a voice for the rights of women. Owing to his mother’s strength of character, Curet was able to write for women with a sensibility and feminine perspective that changed the tone of love tunes from wrist cutting torch songs to empowering odes of self-reliance turning the tables on macho pride way before Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” became so popular it was translated into Spanish.
Just listen to Blanca Rosa Gil belt out her love song of strength in “Fue Por Mi Bien,” on this compilation. Her voice projects Curet’s words with such passion you almost feel sorry for the guy she’s breaking up with. The lush and languid arrangement behind Blanca’s level headed cry for friendship to replace lost love, puts the composer in the female psyche of platonic reconciliation while Sophy’s upbeat take of “Amor y Tentación” is flirty, coy and free-spirited, underlined by a driving a go-go Brazilian bell. Its message for women was far ahead of its time
Which brings us to “La Gran Tirana.” This is no shrinking violet song about I’ll love you no matter how bad you treat me. This is a woman putting on her “pants” and saying, “When you left me, I hit the lottery!” Originally written for a male singer, it was Lupe Victoria Yoli who turned it around into an empowering act of aggression. That 1968 hit sparked Curet’s commercial career and recharged Lupe’s artistic profession. “Puro Teatro” followed. But it was with vocalist Joe Quijano’s interpretation of “Efectivamente” where Curet got his first break in 1965.
Tite Curet’s sympathetic admiration for singer Cheo Feliciano led to his pivotal role as producer for Cheo’s return to the music scene --–this time as solo artist instead of singer for Joe Cuba. The subsequent 1971 Fania recording produced five hits including the now standard, “Anacaona.”
Through Cheo, Curet told the folk tale of the valiant Anacaona, a Taino Indian “Cacica” (chief) from the Dominican Republic who speaks of a long awaited struggle for her elusive freedom and break from slavery. Knowing this would be a passionate metaphor for Cheo’s own dependence, Curet writes “Anacaona” in Cheo’s style making the number his. Pianist Larry Harlow performs one of the finest solos of his career accompanied by Oreste Vilato on timbales. The great Louie Ramirez takes a fluid vibes solo accompanied by Bobby Valentin on bass followed by Johnny Pacheco’s rhythmic conga drive spearheaded by Johnny Rodriguez’ forcefull bell for a laid-back yet aggressively swinging, history making session!
Richie Viera who grew up in his father’s record store recalls the many hours Tite Curet spent in a backroom where he would write his newspaper column and songs. “Everyday he would come in with a big bag of plaintain, alcapurrias or bacalaitos. He’d bring enough for everyone before sitting in the back office at an old typewriter. I’d watch him write as a line of one song would inspire the beginning of another. He would throw his head back and begin to sway…”
From the archives of Roberto Padia
Africanized nationalistic dignity is a recurring theme for Curet who wrote provocatively on the struggles of a mulatto culture trying to progress and thrive within an American infrastructure. Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez said it best in “La Abolición:” the abolition of slavery does not mean freedom.
Being an occupied nation, Puerto Rico is the subject of many songs of patriotism and pride. Curet contributed his fair share with the above numbers including “Mi Musica” and “Profesion Esperanza.” His words, like knives, cut across the hypocrisy of the times leaving scars that bear witness today on the injustices that humans commit upon each other.
Curet expressed his nationalism and politics with pride through the voice and virtuosity of Puerto Rico’s master-singer, Ismael Rivera. In the 1975 hit “Caras Lindas,” Curet parades the multi-colored faces of the various tribes bought over to the Island. He notes their pain…”Las caras Linda de mi raza prieta. Tienen de llanto, de pena y dolor.” in verse that cuts across class, gender and race. Like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Ismael Rivera tells us what he sees going on in the different colors of his “beautiful tribal faces.”
Rivera makes “Caras Lindas” an anthem, phrasing verses in his rhythmic vocal style accompanied by an arrangement sampling “blues riffs” on the trombones. Tugging back on notes that eventually join Mario Hernandez’ tres, voice and strings together solo in unison as if crossing over into La Perla on Christmas morning where Lotus Flowers also grow in the muddy waters of destitution.
From “Caras Lindas” to Cortijo’s classic plena “Se Escapo un Leon,” the pride shines through in these Boricua spotlights of musical stories. “El Eco de Un Tambor,” “Pan de Negro,” and “Mesie Bombe,” all talk to Africanized themes in salsa with a rhythm, tone and cadence-suggesting poet Luis Pales Matos.
Curet combats the social issues of his time with lyrical laments within a dance format. An actual story, friends Rafael Viera and Franklin Hernandez introduce singer and musician Billy Concepción to Curet in a restaurant. Concepción was blacklisted by the music industry and couldn’t find work. A father of six, he recounts the overwhelming feeling of having the world on his shoulders. Curet immediately took his pen and wrote “Lamento de Concepción” on a napkin. “Concepción eleva la vista al cielo. Va gritando hay niños que mantener.” expressing the universal feeling of impotence at not being able to support the family.
Billy Concepción did leave P.R, for New York rescued by Cortijo who took him on tour. Roberto Roena’s take on this tune has a deceiving funk and danceable swing, with a biting back beat on congas by Papo Pepin, sandwiched between pastoral samba passages that betray its tragic tale.
“Galera Tes” is a story of injustice behind the justice system. Built in the ‘30s in rejection of Spain’s penal system, Puerto Rico’s infamous penitentiary, Oso Blanco (White Bear) was a hotbed of controversy by the ‘70s spinning off groups like the ñetas in retaliation to inmate abuse. A young Ismael Miranda gets his street ‘cred in this protest song against prison violence. “Galera Tres” first appears on a Marvin Santiago recording without Curet’s name. The composer deliberately credited Santiago’s wife enabling her to receive royalties while Marvin was incarcerated.
Curet wrote many songs celebrating life, drums and music. “Evelio y la Rumba” becomes part of this collection joining other tunes such as “El Primer Montuno,” here interpreted by the Andy Harlow band. “La Esencia del Guaguanco,” as expressed by the Willie Rosario orchestra rejoices in the essence of this Cuban rhythm.
Curet’s religious compositions embrace “Tengo El Idde,” (I have protection), with Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco warning haters about their spiritual shield, Curet’s words reflect the sacred rituals of poor communities. Ray Barretto’s rendition of “El Hijo de Obatala” on the other hand was so compelling many believed Barretto was a practitioner of the faith. What’s even rarer on this production is a young Tito Allen masterfully vocalizing with Hector LaVoe doing second and Meñique doing first voice on the ‘coros.’
In romance, Curet is at once jilted, as in “Periodico de Ayer” sung by Hector LaVoe, as he is vengeful in “Aquella Mujer” interpreted by Bobby Valentin. Even "Piraña" rages against yet another wonton woman reviled yet desired. Just as quickly as he condemns the female sex, Curet writes the lusty “Las Mujeres son de la Azucar” recorded by Sonora Ponceña.
In this second CD the romantic theme is distributed between these giants: Cheo Feliciano, Vitin Aviles, Ismael Miranda and Santos Colon among the many. Cheo brings us the ballad, “Enfriamiento Pasional” complete with a string ensemble and muted brass to mourn the loss of a passionate affair. Vitin Aviles brings us a dark love song of emotional blackmail in “Temes,” interpreted in the orchestrated style of Tito Rodriguez. Ismael Miranda’s bolero “Ayer Me Entere” displays a tight Orq. Harlow accompanying the young vocalist who is dismissing an ex as nothing more than an adventure. Bandleader Tommy Olivencia’s “Como Novela de Amor” is another crafty bolero where a woman’s love is categorized as merely a soap opera. This bolero is interesting because it starts with the masculine tenor crooning of José “Pepe” Sanchez and then bumps up the pace and turns the singer around bringing in the crisp soneos of Chamaco Ramirez to finish the piece…¡Que Cheveron!
Roberto Yanes’ balada rendition of Curet’s “Ante la Ley” was a bold move for the Fania International label back then. At the top of their game in what they had popularized as “salsa,” Masucci began to record pop artists. He enlisted C. Curet Alonso to compose this tune.
Santos Colon rounds out the bolero series with his version of “Fiel,” complete with a lush orchestration featuring horns and oboes around the theme of loyalty.
In his later years, Tite Curet Alonso left Puerto Rico to be with family in Baltimore, Maryland. On August 5, 2003 he died of a heart attack. He was 77. The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture gave him a hero’s wake. He was buried in Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery in San Juan. Ruben Blades suspended his “Farewell Tour” to attend the funeral. Cheo Feliciano, one of his closest friends served as one of many pallbearers.
It was said that like the Island’s native tree frog, el coqui, Tite Curet Alonso died when he could no longer feel the warmth of his beloved little island.