Juan Flores–scholar, mentor, author, pioneer of Puerto Rican studies, living encyclopedia, and friend–passed away suddenly after a short illness on Dec. 2, 2014. At the time of his death, Juan Flores was professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. He wrote and lectured widely on the subject of Puerto Rican and Latino culture, and wrote, published, and/or edited 10 books, including From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latin Identity (Columbia University Press, 2000). In this archival interview, Professor Flores spoke with Ned Sublette on Sept. 20, 2006 for the Afropop Worldwide Hip Deep program “Riqueza Del Barrio.”
Ned Sublette: Where are you from, and how did you become involved in the work you’re doing now?
Juan Flores: I grew up in New York City back in the '50s, and I grew up kind of as a street guy. But my parents were also academics. So eventually I started to be a good boy, and then I also got serious about my studies. I became a literature scholar, and I got my doctoral dissertation on German literature and philosophy from Yale University. So I had a big-time pedigree.
I got my first job at Stanford University in 1968. 1968 was a momentous year, and I spent my '68 at Stanford. I was already very politically involved even before I got there, and I threw myself totally into this stuff, and I became a person involved in the war against Vietnam, the defense of the Black Panther Party’s headquarters in Oakland, all of that. But then I came to get connected with the budding Chicano cultural movement. I was drawn into that, even though I’m not Chicano–they figured, well, your Spanish name is good enough, so you’re raza [Laughs]. So I got involved with them in the political movement, and some of my friends were going to San Francisco State, which was a seedbed of a lot of rebellion and outbursts for third world studies at the time, and they invited me to teach courses up there, moonlighting at San Francisco State. So I started teaching Chicano stuff.
Then a friend of mine, another professor at Stanford, also Puerto Rican, named Frank Bonilla, was about to found a new center for Puerto Rican studies at CUNY here in New York City, so I was involved in some of the planning meetings for that center. It was kind of a think tank or research center to accommodate some of the young faculty that were gonna be inhabiting the departments, so that they would have time to write their books and do stuff that people are supposed to do as junior faculty. So then after about a year of its existence, Frank called me and came out and visited me out in California and invited me to move back to New York and become part of the Centro. I said, “Frank, I have never studied that systemically,” and he said, “It doesn’t matter, you’ll learn.”
I came over and I started to wonder, "How the hell am I gonna get up to snuff on this subject that most people around me have lived all their lives?" So I decided to form a study group that would meet regularly and talk about cultural and artistic issues from a political perspective. Which I did. I organized a group, and for about a year we met every week. We had some poets, musicians, filmmakers, and so forth. It was a regular group, too. René López was part of that, by the way; he came every single time. We had a terrific group. And that really got me into it, and I started writing about it.
This is what year?
This is 1977 and ’78, almost 30 years ago now. Then I started writing. I wrote one piece early on which was a critique of this very canonical work on Puerto Rican culture from the '30s, and I found it very conservative and objectionable on many counts. I wrote a long critical essay about it, which then won the Casa de las Américas prize in Cuba. I was the first Puerto Rican and the first person from the United States to win the Casa prize, which at that time was primarily an essay prize; now a lot of genres are covered. And that sort of put me on the map and motivated me also, encouraged me to go on and do critical work on Puerto Rican stuff here in New York and on the island. I was reluctantly accepted on the island as a person that had to be taken into account somehow. [Laughs] They didn’t like the idea that it was a Puerto Rican from the States that was getting any kind of acknowledgment or recognition. But things have changed now.
As time went on, I realized that music was really central to the Puerto Rican cultural life, both on the island and here, and the migratory process was really interesting in the way that it shaped the musical history of Puerto Ricans, so that became part of what I–not having any musicological background–was studying and learning. I've been interviewing and meeting key people within the musical world and so for a good 20 years now. I’ve been connected to it in some way as a “scholar,” but I know that the real scholars and the real experts are people who don’t have the academic credentials by and large.
But if you were in a study group meeting with René López meeting every week in 1977 and 1978, you were pretty near the epicenter of a cultural explosion.
Oh, yeah, I felt really privileged to be a part of it, and that so many people responded positively. They weren’t getting paid, they just came because they thought there was going to be good discussion. And we did have really, really good discussion and shared a lot of really wonderful experiences and creativity together. And I felt like, okay, I can do this, I can be involved in this and even though I didn’t live it so intensively as a lot of the other people involved and I've never studied it formally. I’m gonna be able to get a handle on this and try to make a contribution, and that’s what I’ve tried to do for this period.
How would you summarize the thrust of your work?
I’ve always been a critical person, so even from my very beginnings I was critical of a kind of a pat definition or understanding of things, whether it be that Puerto Ricans are just part of the United States and we should be happy that we’re associated with such a big and rich country with such a democratic history and tradition and credo; or the other pat definition: we’re a colony and the only thing that really matters is breaking free and becoming an independent country of our own. I’m more sympathetic to that, but I find that it’s too cozy and most of the time, when that kind of a point of view is put forth uncritically it’s by people who have privilege and what they’d really like to do is fasten in their own position of privilege within the society–whether it’s here or there, but primarily on the island. I find that the most avid independentistas are a bunch of lawyers and people that are professionals who’d like to make themselves into the ruling class without the impediments of the United States being around to boss everyone around. I became very suspicious of that and, as a result, I have a populist and working-class point of view that I try to bring to bear on it.
And a black point of view. The African dimension of the culture is the one that gets subordinated, ignored or paternalized, folklorized and treated in a way that’s very subordinate, whereas we find when we look at the music, for example, that it’s really the African dimension that’s the foundation of the cultural expression of the island–even in forms that are supposed to be very Spanish. Like danza, for example. [Or] like música jíbara – the peasant music, the country music – which is supposed to be Spaniards--whether it’s the elite Spaniards, the salon Spaniards, of the danza, or the peasant Spaniards who went up to the hills and maintained the forms inherited from the Spanish romance and all that. Both of those were thoroughly infused by African forms of expression and became creolized in the sense that they became no longer in any way confusable with the Spanish models that they derive from.
Let’s give some basic facts about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in the United States.
Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean that has a long history of colonial presence, going back to the first arrivals of Columbus at the end of the 15th century and, and then going all the way up through the transfer of power from Spain to the United States in 1898. Just in a broad stroke, that’s kinda what the history has been. Some people say it’s the oldest colony in the world. It has a traditional colonial history and now it has a modern colonial history. The population has grown by now to a total of five million to six million people, half of whom are living in the United States, so you get this reality that here you have probably the largest out-migration anywhere as well, kind of unprecedented, where half of the country’s population lives outside of the national territory.
When we say the “United States,” is Puerto Rico part of the United States?
Well, it has this kind of limbo status. It’s a colonial status, but one that’s also described as “associated.” It’s an unincorporated territory. It has a very confusing political status. People who live in Puerto Rico are [United States] citizens from birth. However, they don’t enjoy full rights as citizens. For example, when there is conscription, they have to serve in the armed forces, but they have no right to vote for the commander in chief. That’s the first signal of a colonial people, when they have to sacrifice their lives on behalf of a country in which they can’t even decide who the leader is. They don’t vote in federal elections. On the other hand, they don’t pay federal taxes. So there are certain advantages and drawbacks.
What it has meant, however, is that there has been a free flow of people back and forth, because there’s no questions of immigration status and green cards and residency requirements and all those other things to be here. So ever since 1917, when Puerto Ricans were decreed citizens of the United States, they’ve been able to come and go as they please.
However, the coming and going has not always been as people please. It hasn’t always been a voluntary process in the sense of “Oh, let’s go north and live in New York for a while.” It’s been as a result of that colonial relation. It’s been as a result of a labor migration– [Or] like música jíbara–the peasant music, the country music–which is supposed to be Spaniards, whether it’s the elite Spaniards, the salon Spaniards, of the danza, or the peasant Spaniards who went up to the hills and maintained the forms inherited from the Spanish romance and all that. That is, working people who are basically moved out. As they industrialized and needed less human labor, they knew they were gonna have an excess of people, so they had to take measures–this is in the ‘40s now–to ship people out.
One of the escape valves was out-migration, mainly to New York City. The other was sterilization of women–not forced at gunpoint, but made very attractive to a lot of women, so that something like a third of women of childbearing age, Puerto Rican women, have been sterilized so as to limit the population. Ever since the United States moved in, there’s been the idea that that little island is overpopulated. Of course, they don’t compare it with the island of Manhattan, which is one thousand times more overpopulated than Puerto Rico, so everything is relative. But the theory of overpopulation, and then the eugenics movement which latched onto that has meant that they’ve tried to control the number of people that live on the island, and so that’s part of the reason why there’s been such a huge outpouring of people out of the island, where it was made to look attractive for them to be in the United States, and at first in the later ‘40s and ‘50s it seemed like, OK, at least you can get a job there and you can settle in and you can have some chances. But as time went on and those models began to show themselves for what they were, which is basically bankrupt of any real long-term benefit to the working people, people were caught in the trap and became ghettoized. That’s why the community became what it is, one that’s very close to the African-American community.
In 1917, when the Jones Act [which made Puerto Ricans citizens] came into place, just in time for Puerto Ricans to serve in World War I, Puerto Rico was very poor.
Puerto Rico is still very poor. If Puerto Rico were admitted into the today it would be twice as poor as the poorest state, which is Mississippi. The people who are clamoring for statehood never mention that. And the prospects of it becoming suddenly wealthier than some of those poorer states wouldn’t be very good either. So, yeah, it’s very poor. The crisis, though, of really severe misery on the part of people was in the 1930s when the agricultural model of the economy became totally dysfunctional and bankrupt, and then there were huge strikes on the part of the people. That’s when the idea occurred to the leaders of the country and the corporate elite to industrialize the island during the course of the '40s and '50s, where it was made very attractive for industries to set up shop down there by having tax loopholes and so forth. So when it became industrialized, that’s when they created an excess of people, because you simply need more human labor in an agricultural kind of economy than in an industrial one. It created a redundancy of working people, which then explains the mechanism behind the out-migration.
Those are things which are usually not talked about. They just say, “Oh, these people flocked in from Puerto Rico and they came pouring in,” you know, “off of the ships and on the planes”–it was the first airborne migration, also another first for Puerto Rico–“and so people just come pouring in and filling up the neighborhoods of New York, and they live in tenements.” They don’t say why so many people came, what was behind that, what was the mechanism for the moving of people from the island of Puerto Rico to here. It’s certainly not because people loved the snowy weather and wanted to enjoy nice snappy winters here in New York. That was not the reason, you know?
There was no recording industry in Puerto Rico. The music was all recorded here, pretty much.
The music was recorded here, and it became a major magnet, not only for Puerto Rico but many other countries. People would come here. New York was the hub of the recording industry. So the first studio recordings of Puerto Rican music were all done in New York. The major musicians of the time–and we’re talking now about the '20s and '30s–came to New York. They came as part of the migratory movement. It was already happening. Large numbers of people were already coming in. Even before the mass migration of the '40s and '50s the communities were already starting to take shape as neighborhoods–El Barrio, Chelsea, some of the neighborhoods, and Brooklyn–those became very noticeably Puerto Rican communities, and some of those migrants were musicians. They worked day jobs. I mean, you couldn’t just live off of music back then. And then they recorded.
So in 1927, there was a guy named Canario, Manuel Jiménez, who was the first one to record the plenas in the studios. He put some bands together and brought them into the studios, and there you were, you had the first recordings of the plena. Some of the first recordings of música jíbara, country music, happened then, a lot of danzas.
A lot of the Puerto Rican musicians didn’t use necessarily indigenous Puerto Rican forms. They did a lot of bolero, son, the more generically Latin forms, and they became some of the masters of those forms. Rafael Hernández, the most prolific and best-known Puerto Rican composer, came to live in the States in the early '20s. He was recruited, quite famously recruited, in the military bands by James Reese Europe. That’s a story that’s been told now in writing, fortunately, and a very fascinating one, how they recruited Puerto Rican musicians into the black military bands, who then played in Europe and elsewhere. And then he came back and settled in New York. He’s a guy who composed 2,000 songs. And very few–not none, but very few, of those songs are actually Puerto Rican musical forms per se. They’re mostly bolero, guaracha, that are more of Cuban provenance than Puerto Rican.
I think this is a good moment to talk about the famous Cuba-Puerto Rico parallelism, going back to the same war in 1898, and to what’s always seemed to me this fascinating paradox, is that Puerto Rican cultural expression can happen to a very high degree playing Cuban forms.
It even goes back before 1898, and the danza, that was at that point considered the national music of Puerto Rico, kind of a dance art music, you know, dance salon music, primarily enjoyed by the elite of the society–that was a form that was already influenced strongly by the habanera. Clearly what differentiated it from the contradanza and the really Spanish-rooted, or French-origin, or ultimately English-origin forms, was the influence of Cuban rhythms. So many forms were influenced by the habanera back in those days–the tango rhythm. And a lot of people speculate–you yourself have written about it–but the danza has to be included as one of those forms of art music that became nationalized, in a sense, became Puerto Ricanized, creolized, via, in many ways, the influence of the ritmo habanero. And the merengue also–although not recognizable today as what we think of as a merengue, but what was called merengue back in those days–also arrived on Puerto Rican shores, and, much to the chagrin of some of the ruling figures of the island, was also a big influence in Puerto Rico earlier, in the 19th century.
It’s interesting to me that by the time recording came around, the danza was already pretty much archaic, and they were already playing danzones, which never took off in the same way in Puerto Rico.
Well, the danza would be the equivalent in Puerto Rican musical history to the danzón, although it wasn’t as bold and didn’t have as long a history of change that the danzón then took on, with the charangas and the mambos, which in some ways are also continuations from the danzón. The danza didn’t have such a fate, so it became somewhat archaic by the earlier part of the 20th century and became outpaced for being considered the national form. By the ‘30s already, the danza was already quite archaic. It didn’t get developed very much. There are still danzones. Eddie Palmieri has a really wonderful danzón, “Una Rosa Española,” and Charlie [Palmieri] also, and some of other people, and El Topo. Some of these other singers and performers and composers have used the danza in Puerto Rican music, to be very Puerto Rican. It’s a way of bringing out the national dimension so as to kind of counterbalance the very strong Cuban basis for so much of the music. So that danzón is clearly a very much higher profile far on into the 20th century and has had a history of styles that have then been adopted and then adapted into the danzón format, whereas the danza became pretty archaic, but the point was that before 1898, they shared that kind of fate, which was then called “two wings of the same bird.” Puerto Rico and Cuba are called two wings of the same bird. I always say it's a pretty weird bird, because it's lopsided, not only in geographical size, but in terms of the history, the historical prominence, of the two societies. And I think the musical history is much more complex in Cuba, much more varied, mainly because of the size.
You have to be careful when you say these things, because you don't want to look like you're demeaning anyone, but the prominence of Cuban cultural forms of all kinds and especially the music goes way, way back. Puerto Ricans adopt and adapt the Cuban forms and either Puertoricanize them or master them to such a degree that the Cubans have to tip their hats to the Puerto Ricans who do it.
I have never seen, though, the master Puerto Rican musicians pretend that they weren’t doing what they were doing. I’ve never seen any kind of fake front put up. Everyone’s always been very up front about the fact that this was Cuban, this came from Cuba, and this is how we play it.
That’s true. I never heard anybody say, "Oh, this is a Puerto Rican form." Although a lot of people in the general public believe that because salsa was so strongly created and practiced by Puerto Rican musicians – more so, at least in the New York variant of it – the overwhelming majority were New York Puerto Rican musicians or island Puerto Rican musicians coming over here. So the general public often thinks that salsa musically comes from Puerto Rico.
Well, and salsa has become such an expression of Puerto Rican identity.
Exactly. So people therefore think, "Well, that music is Puerto Rican in its origins," and that it’s an indigenous form from the island. The musicians don’t. You’re absolutely right, I don’t find any of them trying to appropriate it and saying, well, look, this is Puerto Rican music and playing a guaguancó. That would be crazy. However, cultural forms do get appropriated, do get taken over by other people, and then, as time goes on, get changed, get altered, and shifts get made on them, and there is an infusion of reminiscences of Puerto Rican traditional forms. You see it, say, in Willie Colón’s Asalto Navideño – his Christmas album, one of the most popular albums in salsa history, is overwhelmingly música jíbara. A lot of times it then kind of moves over, it segues into un tumbao, you know, a really Cuban-style form, but I think that’s a fascinating relation, where you can go within one tune from what is really clear and recognizably a Puerto Rican style of music – even the instrumentation and everything, with the cuatro instead of the tres and so forth – can move over within the same tune into what’s really very clearly un guaguancó, son montuno, what have you.
But even playing a straight-ahead son montuno, if you know the music, you would rarely confuse a Puerto Rican band with a Cuban band playing the same tune, because they have developed different ways of playing. It’s fascinating to me how different they can sound and still be playing the same time.
Exactly. Yeah, that’s true. And the son arrived among Puerto Rican musicians – not here in New York. I had always thought it was in New York until fairly recently, and dear old René [López], the maestro, one day was sitting right here at this table, and telling me, oh yeah, you gotta know about Capacete, and you gotta know about this, and I said, what was that? He said, those were son orchestras and bands from Puerto Rico. All the musicians are Puerto Rican on the island, they never went to Cuba, and yet already Cuban music was like, the heavy stuff. It was really hip to play Cuban music. And as you say, it doesn’t take long before the influences of being Puerto Rican and being from the island and being exposed to all these other kinds of forms that aren’t Cuban begin to show their presence.
How did Puerto Ricans learn to play guaguancó? How did they learn to play hardcore rumba so quickly and so well?
I don’t have a finalized answer, and René would probably have a much better explanation than I would, but I would think a lot of that took place here in New York. I think that the heavy shit – I mean the guaguancó stuff and the post-Arsenio kind of son – was more here than on the island, and then made its way back to the island. The only ones I know who were really practitioners of Cuban-based music on the island before the outbust of the Puerto Ricanized Cuban music here in New York was the [Rafael] Cortijo band. They were playing bombas and plenas, but they were bombas and plenas that were so Cubanized that a lot of times you couldn’t really tell. They had traces of guaguancó – not so much guaguancó, but more montuno, I would say – they were very Cubanized bomba y plena, which a lot of the more strident Puerto Rican nationalist types won’t acknowledge, but they’ll be the first ones to tell you those guys cut their teeth in son bands in Puerto Rico. The musicians are honest! They know where their stuff comes from for the most part, but it’s the general public that often doesn’t know the history and wants to jump to conclusions that this stuff was all there from the beginning, that the guaguancó was born in Ponce just at the same time that it was born in Matanzas, or whatever. No, things came from somewhere. These innovations within the Puerto Rican musical history often were the result of catalyzing influences from outside – not only Cuba, but other places also were a big influence. On the bomba, it’s more Haiti than it is Cuba, in terms of the drum and the percussive qualities of the music was more traceable to the Haitian drums.
Saint-Domingue, exactly. But the tendency is to kind of blur or erase those influences out of fear that it will be seen as imitative or as derivative of something else, and certainly they’re not derivative of imperialism, but it becomes this kind of cultural or musical xenophobia, which really leads to a lot of misunderstanding that because people are so xenophobic about, “plena is real Puerto Rican,” and blind to the idea that some people from the English-speaking islands came in and brought some of their musical practices with them, and Puerto Ricans found them cool, and started doing them themselves [Laughs] – you know, that’s probably the way that all musical innovation happens, by the influence of something from outside. Not just in Puerto Rico, but when you have a very strong anticolonial sensibility manifested as a national sentiment you have to protect the purity and the authenticity of your own, often at the expense of history, and that’s, I think, what happens, when you talk about this stuff, you know, you don’t want to offend that sensibility, especially if you basically understand it and kind of agree with it…
…and respect it…
…and respect it. But at the same time, you have an allegiance to try to be as historical as you can and say, this is how these things happen, you know.
Let’s talk for a minute about a history that I don’t think has been very well told, which is the influence of Puerto Ricans in New York on Latin music in New York and on “American” music…
It becomes sometimes a little hard to separate Puerto Ricans from the general Latino, particularly the Puerto Rican/Latino community, especially when you go back into the '40s, where they become almost overlapping. And of course John Storm Roberts early on wrote The Latin Tinge, which is about the so-called “contribution” of Latin music to “American” music and he traces that book. It’s an old book, but I think it still holds up fairly well in the way that he tells the story there, and so it has been discussed to some degree, although a lot more attention has to go to it.
But from early on, I can see there were a couple of different tendencies within the presence of the Puerto Ricans musically in New York. One was more faithfulness to the bolero/son/guaracha repertoire, singing often very patriotic kinds of songs and love songs. Rafael Hernández, Pedro Flores, Plácido Acevedo, the major composers of Puerto Rican music in the 20th century were here in New York, and they were composing tunes many of which referred to New York City, and being here in El Barrio, and so forth. It’s a wonderful assortment of tunes that are about that, and they’ve never been compiled together in one album. They should be made into songs of the migration, or something like that, and they’re just great songs.
The most famous [early Puerto Rican recording] is “Lamento Borincano.” That’s the Rafael Hernández song which first came out right at the onset of the Depression.
Could you explain the story of “Lamento Borincano”?
Well, “Lamento Borincano” means Puerto Rican lament, so it’s a very sad song. When you play it for people, people get very sad. It tells the story of a peasant from up in the hills who goes into town. He’s really happy, he goes off to sell his wares at the market, and he has some root plants and some fruit and vegetables from his truck garden or whatever, and he’s bringing them into the market in town. And he gets into the town and the market is dead, there’s nothing happening there, there’s no economic transactions at all and he can’t sell his wares. Then it accompanies him back to his house, very, very, very sad, and he hasn’t been able to sell anything, and he was gonna buy a dress for his wife. And then it ends! It’s a really simple story. But it’s a story that carried such incredible significance for so many people who lived this idea of the capitalist system not being able to provide for them any more, as it just kind of went poof! And so it became a kind of anthem for the Latin American immigrant. Even though it doesn’t take place in New York; it was written in New York, and it was first performed in New York, and it was recorded in New York, but it doesn’t actually say “ New York.” But you can understand that it’s about the movement of the peasantry into the urban setting and finding no home there, finding no place for them to go, no accommodation, and entering into a really sad frame of mind.
I think it’s one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard.
Very, very sad. And it’s very slow. It almost makes you cry. And it’s supposed to. I mean, it’s a lament; it’s not supposed to make you happy. It’s supposed to make you sad. And it was just playing from all the windows of the tenements and the record stores back in the late '20s and early '30s, during the Depression years, and was symbolic for so many people.
I guess [that’s] probably the most famous song, but there were just so many that were written around that time. A lot of them are patriotic, nostalgic for the island, the beautiful island of Puerto Rico, and here we are in the snow, and we are in these poor neighborhoods and underserviced neighborhoods and all that, and they’re about dreaming of Puerto Rico and how beautiful it is. And I think that they’re pretty transferable to a lot of other working-class immigrant communities that can identify with them. And they’re written in many different song forms. That one, for example, is just for example, una canción. It’s not even a formal genre of music, just the most general possible form, so as to appeal to all Puerto Ricans and all Caribbean and all Latin American immigrants.
As you said, it was written in New York, first performed in New York, but tremendously popular in Puerto Rico. And this speaks to the open circuit between – especially New York City – and Puerto Rico, which no other Latin American country had, especially during the war years when immigration was closed.
Oh, yeah, it was a constant back and forth. The musicians came here. Even if they lived here, they were continually going back to the island, and having continual visitors from the island, and new arrivals from the family and friends would come, and so there’s a constant infusion of the culture into the diaspora situation. And a constant returning by people from here back there and bringing back things. So it’s a back and forth. It’s a two-way street. People bring the traditional forms and their experience from the island. It becomes alive again here, stays alive here, and then, as people go back, they bring those forms as they’ve been influenced by life here, and as the themes of life here come into play, they become popular down there. You know? Even songs in English [by Latin musicians] from the '60s. Even those songs became popular down on the island. People might not even understand what they were saying, but the fact that they were by popular Puerto Rican or Latino musicians here in New York made them popular on the island.
And meanwhile, you had this generation of Puerto Ricans being born in New York already in the '20s. Tito Puente, the first Latin music star to be a native speaker of English, I believe.
Some say he was the first Nuyorican musician.
When did the term “Nuyorican” come into currency, and is it useful?
It came into currency in the early '70s. There had been other prior terms like that. Neorican – people from the island often used that; Neo-Rican, like you had a new kind of Puerto Rican. Nuyorican has the place designation as well – New York Rican – and it’s spelled usually with a y, so you have an almost phonetically Spanish way of saying Nuyorican, and by using the u and not the New, for example – Nuyorican. It’s a very interesting term. And then it gained particular currency around 1973, ’74, when there was an anthology called Nuyorican Poetry, and the Nuyorican Poets’ Café opened up. There was another place called the New Rican Village, which wasn’t the Nuyorican Poets’ Café, which was also a point of attraction for a lot of cultural workers and musicians. I know Andy González and those guys used to go to that place. I used to go down there too, because it was more avant-garde, less known about, than the Nuyorican Poets’ Café, which became the place that then entrenched the concept of Nuyorican, as a new identity which was Puerto Rican but from here.
And it was very defiant toward both becoming American – that is, we’re New Yorkers, we’re not just New Yorkers, we’re New Yorkers that are Puerto Rican. And Puerto Ricans who are not just Puerto Ricans, we are Puerto Ricans from New York. So it was this kind of dual identity that was being affirmed very strongly back in those days – that ethnic affirmation of the late '60s, early '70s, when you had also the Young Lords party in the political vein, and salsa coming into its own, and other forms of music that could not be separated from the influence of living in the United States.
Can we talk for a minute about the racialization of Puerto Ricans in the United States? Because you often hear in New York people use “white” to distinguish people from being “Puerto Rican.” You know, like the white vote versus the Puerto Rican vote, and this includes people who in Puerto Rico might be considered “white.” At the same time, you had this whole generation of people living physically together in neighborhoods with African Americans and permeated by African-American style for generation after generation, starting with the very early days of jazz up through hip-hop.
Exactly. It’s a very long lineage of interaction between the two communities. For me, studying immigration history and ethnic history in the United States, to me the Puerto Rican community is the group that, of all the groups that have come from other shores in this nation of immigrants, has come closest to and formed the closest bond with the African American population. Even the West Indian, which came very close – especially up in Harlem, the Harlem Renaissance and the influence of Jamaican intellectuals and so forth – was more on an individual basis and on the basis of a more privileged set of the society. But in terms of communities actually coming together, living in the same neighborhoods, interacting, intermarrying, partying together, developing musical and literary and artistic styles and tastes that coalesce and influence each other and become indistinguishable or become something totally new, this is the one that I would say of all the different peoples that have come over here, have actually integrated themselves with the African-American.
Not that they come without racism. They come with their own native-born racism from the island, where blacks are still ridiculed, subordinated, discriminated against, sometimes in their jocular way, so it’s dismissed that it’s not actually racist, but it is very racist – sometimes outrageously so – because of all the things that have become taboo in this country. Blackface until very recently was still very much allowed and alive on the island. So it’s not as though they come here and they find out about racism and they find out about black people or anything like that, which is the way it’s often portrayed, especially by people who are very nationalist Puerto Ricans, think, “Well, we don’t have any racism. How could we? We have in the same family black, white, and brown, so how could we possibly be racist?” But we all know that you can have a black brother or sister and still be racist. So it’s a complex kind of thing. Generally the Latinos are racialized toward kind of a non-whiteness, or what I call off-whiteness, because even the white ones are not exactly “white” in the same way that Anglo-Americans would be considered “white.” But there’s a lot of people that clamor for whiteness and a position of privilege. A recent poll revealed that 80 percent of Puerto Ricans consider themselves, call themselves, white, self-identify as white. If you would see them walking down the street, you would think otherwise. But that’s just evidence that whiteness is still an option of privilege which they feel that they can take even if they’re quite obviously of African descent. They say “non-Hispanic white” to talk about white folk, which would imply quite obviously by converse that there’s Hispanic white. But the fact that you have to call it “Hispanic white” means that it’s marked in some way.
The acceptance of blackness and the affirmation of blackness among Puerto Ricans and now Dominicans happens here in the diaspora, and then gets sent back. It becomes something that lands back there – first rejected, and nowadays, especially in the age of hip-hop, becomes embraced by a lot of the young folk, even people that aren’t that black, on the island as something they can affirm. Whether it’s politically oppositional or not is another story. But that’s something which has opened up a lot over the last generation, from total negation and denial and putting it down, to at least part of the society embracing it. Of course, this happened in music long before it happens in the public discourse.
Well, exactly. And famously – we were talking earlier about Rafael Hernández and the other Puerto Ricans who were in James Reese Europe's Hellfighters – that was the early days of jazz. And ever since then, Puerto Ricans have been involved in jazz in the city where it was most strongly cultivated. And I’ve always felt like they constitute kind of a secret history of jazz. Puerto Ricans have evolved a way of playing jazz, to my ear, which is not what the Cubans do. You know, it’s not just “Latin jazz” necessarily, although Latin jazz – which, I feel like, rides in the back of the jazz bus – is very much a pan-Latin kind of language in which anybody can play. But I went to hear Papo Vázquez’s Pirates and Troubadours last year, and that was Puerto Rican in so many ways, and not just because he had barriles, bomba drummers, but just the whole approach to it, it was a Puerto Rican way of playing jazz.
I think that’s increasing too. Because these more folkloric and traditional forms that are clearly Puerto Rican in their prominence are coming into their own now. And so a musician like him, who’s been exposed to bomba and plena, he plays bomba and plena, he plays with the Pleneros [de la 21] at times, his jazz will not be only Cuban-inflected. He’s gonna bring some of that stuff in, and some of his best tunes are actually plenas, or jazz plenas, which you didn’t have before. Clearly [the Palladium-era bandleaders] were not playing jazz plenas, they were combining with mambo and other forms in the son tradition, so yeah, I think that this is new. Now earlier guys like Juan Tizol, who played with Duke Ellington, I can hear things there too. The thing is that you need to have an ear for Puerto Rican music in order to identify it. Otherwise you assume that it’s just Latin or that it’s Cuban. But not everything that could be identified as Latin is necessarily Cuban. It could actually be of Puerto Rican origin, or evidence of the training that the people have in Puerto Rico, in the different forms that developed on the island, some of which are adaptations of Cuban or other Latin forms that become Puertoricanized.
And Puerto Ricans also have a distinct style of singing.
Yeah, I think so. And I think you see in Héctor Lavoe, for example, from the salsa tradition – he’s really a good sonero, you can hear clearly that he was reared on el soneo, guaguancó, all that. But he also loved música jíbara and knows how to sing like a jíbaro. But you wouldn’t detect that if you didn’t realize it, you would just think, aw, he has a certain way of doing a soneo. But it’s not that, it’s that also he was steeped in, and reared in, and loved, música jíbara. So a lot of that stuff – it’s not only Asalto Navideño, getting back to that album that we mentioned before – but a lot of the times you hear Héctor Lavoe singing, and you know a Cuban would not sing that way. Even though it might even be a very Cuban form. But it’s not sung in the same way. So I think you’re right about that.
But it’s the same with hip-hop. People, when I bring up and others bring up, the idea that Puerto Ricans were influential in hip-hop since its inception and particularly in the founding of the different dance forms, especially in the dance and in the graffiti, but even in the rap, and they say, “But rap is just totally African-American, it’s just strictly within the African-American tradition.” And I say, well, but how can you tell if you couldn’t identify the Latin music if you heard it? You see what I mean? If you don’t know it, you can’t identify it, so you just assume it’s part of the fabric of the music, but when you do have some familiarity with the music, and some ear for it, you can listen to it, and you can tell all kinds of loops that are in there that wouldn’t have been done by somebody who hadn’t been exposed to it.
Héctor Lavoe is somebody who became larger than life. There’s a biopic coming out. He had a tremendous meaning at street level to people. How would you explain or describe that?
His own character. He was really a character, and a rebel from the beginning. Not a political rebel so much as a personal rebel without a cause, almost. But when he linked up with Willie Colón in his bad-boy days, that sort of set the image of both of them as these street dudes. You know, on the first album, El Malo, and all those first albums, created this kind of mystique of the street tough, and defiant guys from the street, arms drugs, and the whole deal. The gangster or thug image, “wanted by the FBI,” and stuff like that, so it was a self-cultivated thing. But he had a charisma about him.
And he was from the island. Willie always mentions this in interviews. Willie was a New Yorker, Héctor was from Ponce.
But in Ponce he was already a real urban, inner-city guy. He loved inner-city stuff. So he was very amenable to the influence that the big bad mean streets would be. The drugs played a big role in a lot of all of this, too, so that it wasn’t like he had to go through a huge transformation to adapt to the street life in New York. He loved it, and he fit right in, and people loved him, so I think that it was a good fit. And the combination of the Bronx guy, Willie, and this guy from Ponce, working-class background in Ponce, was a terrific combination, and as a result they could do these things which – you know, you talked about the back and forth, the open circuit between there and here, I think, to me, they’re the best example when you get these two guys teaming up. One is very much a product of the island, grew up on the island, the whole deal. The other guy grew up in the Bronx and yet they’re making tunes that are really unforgettable and really unique, I would say, in their own way. Virtuosity is a different story. But they did stuff that to me was very special in bringing out that duality of cultural location, here and on the island, you can move back and forth, you can use one to critique the other. I think in that Christmas album they do that. They use the salsa – you know, the very strongly Cuban-influenced salsa to kind of mildly suggest the limitation of the música jíbara that remains very much a kind of provincial expression, and then on the other hand it uses the image of the jíbaro, the peasant, the country bumpkin from the island to kind of like take potshots at the wise-ass guys from the big city and from the north and all that other stuff, so it’s a wonderful dialogue.
Talking about the open circuit, there’s also a kind of an antagonism between isleños and people from New York. Can you explore that?
Sometimes it’s just the natural thing that people on the island say, “Oh, they left, and they left us behind,” and all that, which you find in all homelands where you have a lot of people splitting, and resenting the people who abandoned the homeland. And then on the other side of it, you have people who leave and have to justify their having departed, and therefore glamorize or glorify where they have arrived – “Things are great here!” and “You don’t know what it’s like!” and “This is the big city” and “I’m making a lot of money!” And even sometimes it’s total B.S., but that’s what they’re saying, that their lives are just grand now that they’ve left, just in order to rationalize their having made the move in the first place. So there’s that, which is like endemic to the diasporal-homeland relationship, you know, back-and-forth kind of resentment.
But in this case it’s compounded by class considerations that people from here – perhaps less nowadays than back in the '60s and '70s when the community here was really forming and really consolidating itself, and with these new identities being affirmed – were basically racialized by the largely white elite on the island as being black and ghetto and untrustworthy and criminalized and so forth. So “Nuyorican” became a pejorative term on the island. You know, like, oh, those are the Nuyoricans, and oh, you’re acting like a Nuyorican, and especially as more and more started going back and landing there, then people wondered how to deal with these weird kinds of creatures that were these kind of mutations and hybridized beasts, you know, that were coming down here, they’re sort of Puerto Rican, but they’re not really Puerto Rican, you know, they don’t know how to speak Spanish, they hardly know how to speak English, you know, they don’t know how to walk and talk right, and all this stuff. So there was a lot of that, a deep resentment toward people in both directions. Then of course the people here lashed back.
The term Nuyorican in fact is an adoption of a term that was a pejorative term used by islanders. So then, some of the poets and the people from here, said, “Oh, you call us Nuyoricans? Okay, then, we’re Nuyoricans!” And so that’s how it became a term of pride, because of that dueling between the homeland and the diaspora. So it’s not just location, there’s a class dimension to it that everybody talks about. And a racial dimension. People get racialized toward black, Nuyoricans are black whereas we on the island are not really black, that kind of thing.
Do you think that Puerto Ricans in the have risen in the class hierarchy over the last fifty years?
Well, selectively. There’s always been a sliver of middle-class and even upper-middle-class Puerto Rican presence going way, way back, even from the earliest days of a notable community in Brooklyn. People often mentioned that it was in the Upper West Side where you had some of the Puerto Ricans that were doctors and teachers and stuff like that were more there, and [in Brooklyn] it was more working-class. Some people even have counterposed Manhattan versus Brooklyn – “Brooklyn , that’s where the working class Puerto Ricans were” – but I think that’s fallacious. And then as time has gone on, there has been a small sector of the population that has moved up and out of the barrio and into the more middle-class neighborhoods, into the suburbs and now into Florida. A lot of them are migrating down into Orlando and other places in Florida. They’ve made enough as civil service workers or what-have-you to get a home down there and set up a more suburban life and get away from the inner city. And in fact, nowadays Florida is the fastest-growing Puerto Rican enclave of them all. Because people are coming both from there and from the island. They are headquartered in Orlando, but it’s pretty much spread around. The Orlando area is the one that’s the most notable. So people are going from both places for somewhat different reasons, although both so that there are jobs there, and on the island I know a lot of people leaving and going to Florida. Florida is becoming the desirable destination, because the weather is more similar to Puerto Rico and plus, they say, there are jobs there and they can live more comfortably. So it’s become a point of attraction and I would say that people who are successful here and make it into that next bracket above their working-class background are the ones who go to Florida or go back to the island.
Where else in the have Puerto Ricans concentrated?
All through the northeastern urban areas you have neighborhoods. You have towns in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Hartford, Connecticut has the highest percentage of Puerto Rican population of any city in the United States. Something like 27 percent of the population of Hartford is Puerto Rican, which is far more than New York City. I mean, there’s a lot more Puerto Ricans in New York City, but as a percentage of the city’s population, it’s the highest. And you have a lot of other small cities up in that area that have a lot of Puerto Ricans, through New Jersey and Philadelphia – which has a long-term Puerto Rican community with a very lively political and cultural life of its own.
And then, along the eastern seaboard – we mentioned Florida, but there are other spots along the eastern seaboard as well. Chicago has had since the '60s or so a very lively Puerto Rican community as well, living side by side with a Mexican community – not always as the friendliest of neighbors, because there’s always that jockeying for the biggest and baddest Latino or Hispanic community, and then with their complex relationship to the African American community. But by now some of the poets boast that we have Puerto Ricans in every state of the United States.
One point that does have to get mentioned is Hawaii, because there was a very early labor migration into Hawaii, and many of those people stayed and there was an enclave of Puerto Ricans in Hawaii – musically interesting, because they maintained some early versions of those forms that had been changed on the island and here in New York, but it was sort of like time stood still, so you’d get people playing plenas the way they played plenas back in the '20s, in the teens. It's very interesting for musicologists.
So that’s where people are, but still today, when you look at the data and the facts, people try to downplay the spread of the diaspora. “Oh, New York Puerto Ricans are chauvinist, and think New York is the only place there’s Puerto Ricans, what about us, the diaspora is all over the place” – it’s all true, and it’s all valid in terms of an objection, because the life in those relatively smaller pockets is different. They have their own dynamic, and they need to be respected, but the fact is that still the overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans outside of Puerto Rico are still in New York. Especially the Greater New York area, we could say.
There is an emulation of the New York cultural identity in these other places, and so Nuyoricans have a certain cachet, especially among the young folk. And so there’s a similarity, say, in the poetry – that the cadences in the poetry are very much modeled after the Nuyorican kind of poetry.
The Nuyorican poetry movement was really significant in New York.
Oh, it was very significant in New York.
That’s musical too.
Yes, it is musical too. And in fact, a lot of the poems themselves have music in them, and a lot of the poets worked with musicians or know musicians. I mentioned the New Rican Theater that they had back in the days of the Nuyorican Poets’ Café had a lot of music going on there. And the New Rican Village also had some of the best Latin jazz – or Puerto Rican Latin jazz musicians – that used to hang out there among poets, so that the cultural life was not so segregated by genre of expression as one might think. And I always try to bring out these connections, because the Nuyorican poetry and bugalú and then what came to be called salsa were in the same exact period, and they were an expression of exactly the same thing. And the Young Lords party in the political life. So all those things happened at the same time and tend to get broken away from each other, but they were really contemporary.
1959, the Cuban Revolution. Suddenly Cuba disappears. Suddenly we don’t have the mambo and the cha-cha-chá and the pachanga coming in from Cuba. Every few years we’d had a new trend from Cuba. And suddenly in New York Latin music the Puerto Ricans are front and center stage.
Exactly. I think Eddie [Palmieri] is the one who refers to the umbilical cord being cut when the Cuban Revolution happened and the musicians could no longer move freely back and forth and bring their instruments and compositions and tunes and rhythms with them, so that then things had to come from home base, from New York itself. Like, what’s here? And that’s the same time you had a new generation of people that were born and raised. They weren’t born on the island any more so much, they were born here.
And it wasn’t very long before we got the first home-grown New York Latin music, bugalú.
That’s how I refer to it, as the first Nuyorican music, because it’s got the son montuno and all that, and the mambo and the cha-cha-chá, but at the same time it’s got the soul music and the r&b and the doo-wop and all that stuff that was out there in the air in the American musicscape, become part of it, and you have this patchwork music that’s like a fusion or crossover, whatever you want to call it, that starts to make it on to the charts, and that the young people loved, and you know, people complained and the masters complained that it was not really music, it’s garbage, it’s bubble gum music, whatever they want to call it, but it’s was a big hit, and it was the best-selling Latin music until that time. The sales were impressive, in the history of Latin music. So that was a different stage, I would say, and it was partly a product of what you described as the breaking down of that direct connection between Cuba and New York, at least temporarily. By now there’s been a restoration of a lot of it, but it’s never the same as it was when Machito and Mario Bauzá.
Well, there was a restoration but then it got cut again, in 2003.
Well, yeah, it goes back and forth, but it’ll never be the same as it was, where New York and Cuba become almost one musical scene, people going back and forth in that way. The New York-based musicians were sort of cast onto their own resources, like, "What can we cook up being here?" And especially in terms of that interaction with the African American.
[Puerto Ricans who grew up in the ‘50s] were reared on r&b. The young musicians liked the Drifters and they liked all the doo-wop, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. That’s what they loved, that’s what they had when they were hanging out in the street. When they went home, they had the música de trío, música jíbara, they’d hear mambo, they’d hear all this Latin stuff. And they didn’t reject either. Even though música de trío was considered a little hokey, grandparents’ music, whatever, but they never really rejected it out of hand. It was always still something that was revered and loved and cherished. And at the same time, what they experienced and began to express themselves in, in terms of the street music, the vernacular African American music also became very dear to them. So inevitably something would cook up that was no longer the very sophisticated Latin jazz fusion but was like street fusion, of street musics coming together into one, and that was in a sense a first.
And meanwhile, you had this generation of singers and instrumentalists coming to the fore – an unprecedented generation of talent. I mean, certainly this is something that had been growing for decades, but it’s always seemed significant to me that in ’61 both Eddie Palmieri and Ray Barretto both started their own bands – the alpha and the omega in a sense – but after that you got this whole wave of talent that would be subsumed under the heading of Fania All Stars at one point, but, my God, just start to name off all the people from that generation! You don’t stop naming quickly.
It’s a really remarkable outburst.
And it’s mindblowing to me that people know minor r&b records, which they should, but don’t know who, say, Cheo Feliciano is.
It’s true. They were eclipsed in part by the Fania phenomenon. I mean, that made it possible, and Ray Barretto was forever grateful that there was a Fania, because he felt that now he finally had a space in which he could do his own stuff, which is what he wanted to do. But there were others who resented it, and it became formulaic, and it dampened some creativity, so there were some people who tried to create a music that was still called salsa, I guess you could say, but was not in the formula. And you talk to Andy González, Nelson González, who was in the Típica ’73, and the Grupo Folklórico, which was René [López]’s group.
Could you talk about the significance of the Grupo Folklórico y Experimental?
Really, really, important, and its importance is becoming increasingly recognized with time. At the time it happened, it was just these crazy guys getting together. All really incredible musicians. René was the hub of wheel. They were all friends of his, so he brought them all together, and made this kind of all-star group that wasn’t a Fania All Star type of thing, but was really very irreverent about the traditional forms. They were steeped in the traditional forms, but they didn’t treat them with such incredible sanctity as was true of say, Pacheco, or somebody like that, where it all had to be.
It wasn’t as conservative.
It wasn’t as conservative. And it was breaking with the forms, while respecting the forms. You listen to the guaguancós that go on, they’re there, and it’s clear that the people who are doing it can master that, and know that, and respect that, but at the same time they were doing all kinds of stuff to it. So you listen to those tracks and they’re really quite startling in the way that they show people that can do that music, and at the same time know that they want to play with it, they want to do something different, they want to put it into some kind of a totally new musical fabric. Each tune, each cut, on those two historic LPs, each tune is doing something different. You know, like there’s one, “Cinco en Uno Callejero.” Five in One, in the Street. I asked the guy who composed it, Henny Alvarez, who just passed away last year, “Henny, what did you mean by that?” He said, “Well, we got five rhythms going on at the same time. We have the guaguancó, we have the bomba, we have Brazilian rhythms, we have Haitian rhythm, they’re all going on.” I said,"How do you know that?" He said, "From playing on the drum in Central Park." He was one of the founders of the Central Park drumming set, which goes on to this day and which was big back in the '70s. That was the place where a lot of people cut their teeth. They were playing Cuban rhythms, overwhelmingly; they weren’t playing bomba at that time. Bomba was still really not known on the street level by a lot of people here. It’s only more recently that that happened.
So it’s the Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquino. So it’s not “Nuyorican,” but it’s definitely affirming a New York base for where this is all happening. At it’s “Grupo Folklórico” – folkloric – “y Experimental” – and experimental. So they want both. We’re gonna do folkloric music, but we’re gonna do experimental music at the same time. And it’s New York based music. But the title is in Spanish. You see, even in the title of the thing you’ve got all of this mix of things – traditional, experimental, New York, Spanish. And the musicians themselves: some of them were born and raised in New York and some of them were born and raised and were very steeped musicians – like, say, the trumpet player Chocolate Armenteros who played with Arsenio and played with Chappottín, all these incredible orchestras from Cuba, was there as part of the Grupo Folklórico. So it was quite a phenomenon. I understand they’re trying to reunite the group and do a new recording of tunes. Some of the musicians have passed on by now, because that was back in the early '70s, when those things were recorded; they never recorded anything since.
And ever since then, they have gained a fanfare around the world. People who don’t know shit about some of the really well-known salsa [artists] know about the Grupo Folklórico. That shocks the hell out of me, that people who know even very little about the Palmieris, not to mention some of the lesser-known groups, will know about the Grupo Folklórico. So they’re kind of the filet mignon of the salsa era [laughs]. But they represent in a sense a countercurrent to the commercialization, even by an indie like Fania, the commercialization and the formulaic quality that a lot of the Fania All Stars stuff takes on -- it’s powerful music, but you can tell it’s done with a certain formula in mind, certain things have to happen. Some of the people got resentful of that process -- as they well should, as creative people. Plus, the process of Fania, even though they put out things by Joe Bataan and some stuff that was in English and some stuff that would definitely be considered bugalú, the pendulum swung back toward a more traditionalist mentality toward the music by people like Harlow and Pacheco. They’ll infuse some jazz stuff in there, but breaking with those much more rooted and steeped kinds of things from the Abacuá, and the rooted santería stuff, they didn’t want to go there, they didn’t want to tamper with that stuff, they didn’t want to fuck with it. And then the clave became something totally sacred, and if you’re not on clave you’re not doing music, period, it’s just not music, and there’s some people really sustained that, and others said, “Well, you know, I’m making music, I’m not making clave, I’m doing it the way I feel like I have to do it.”
Can you talk about the process by which bomba and plena – not to speak of them as though they were one thing – started to get a little better known in New York, and a little bit about Los Pleneros de la 21?
This is a phenomenon that cropped up in the '70s, sort of as a result of this kind of Nuyorican uprising of the later '60s and earlier '70s, where there came a kind of a national pride. Even though you’re affirming your New Yorkness, you still have to authenticate yourself. You have to authenticate the Rican part. You don’t have to worry that much about the New York part, except when you’re on the island. You’re from New York, you’re here in New York. But the Rican part, you sorta have to do something with that. And so there began to be awakening interest in these forms, the plena and the bomba.
People knew Cortijo y su Combo from the '50s. They were already part of the salsa repertoire. They were totally accepted. In the Palladium they attracted the audiences just as much as Machito or Tito Rodríguez or anybody else – apparently, I wasn’t there – but from René and others, people that were there and know the scene very well, that when Cortijo y su Combo came to the Palladium and played there, they just brought the house down. Even compared to some of these giants of Afro-Cuban music. And they bore with them both plena and bomba. That’s what their basis was in San Juan, so that’s where you get the first recordings. The first recordings, I believe, of bomba, were not until the '50s, from what I can tell. Even though plena was recorded in the '20s, but the real African, the most strongly African-based music, just was never in the studio.
Neither was guaguancó in Cuba. The first guaguancó recordings were made in New York in the '40s by Chano Pozo.
So there’s this very, very belated attention to these forms. They begin to gain attention. First plena broke the ice, and more recently bomba has become established in its own right. Although the Pleneros were playing bomba from the beginning. Marcial Reyes was one of the founders, he was probably the key link. He was a guy who – a very, very funny guy – a panderetero who would juggle his panderetas all over the place, a real showman and a real street guy. And he was the first one from the island, from the working-class neighborhoods on the island, came and lived here in the Bronx, and was always trying to set up groups. And finally he hooked up the Pleneros de la 21, back in the '70s. Then he went back to the island, and he left it in the hands of Juango [Juan Gutiérrez] and the Tancos and these other people who are maintaining it.
Beautifully maintaining it! Because there you have a very strong adherence to tradition, and at the same time there are things that are new there, that you wouldn’t hear on the island. Just in the way that the diaspora is composed of people from different regions of the island. The plena and the bomba both have regional variants. There’s a west coast one in Mayagüez, there’s a southern one in Ponce, there’s one in Loiza, there’s one in Santurce, so different regions have a different variant of these folkloric forms. They’re not all the same. Here, because musicians come from all over the damn place, and they’re steeped in their own regional traditions, they have to find a lingua franca within the plena or the bomba format, and so they develop forms that are kind of merging those regional into some kind of new thing, which wouldn’t have happened in and of itself on the island as readily as it happens here.
Which is in a sense the same process that happened to Africans when they arrived in the various colonies.
Exactly the same thing. Exactly the same kind of process. And these are very traditionally minded [people]. Juango doesn’t want to do anything that’s outside of the tradition. They’re very, very strongly grounded in it. And yet, society sort of pushes you to do things that are gonna be more in tune with what you’re living, and that are more of a language that the audience and the public can relate to, so you do new things. Now they even have plena raps and bomba raps. Some people don’t like that much, but the Pleneros are doing it. And then they spawned new groups. Yerba Buena and Viento de Agua and all kinds of groups. And now all over the country – you go to Oakland, California, they have their own bomba group, with bomba classes and plena classes. There’s a guy who puts out a newsletter where he lists all the places –
Juan Cartagena! Chicago, Hartford, wherever there’s a group, he’s got ‘em. Their address, their e-mail. He puts it all together and puts out this nice little newsletter [Güiro y Maraca] that talks about this kind of stuff. So it’s become a kind of a – I would say, revival is probably too weak a word, because it’s not only revival somehow, it’s a renovation.
I spent an evening at Calle San Sebastian in 1999 with Tito Matos, and it was hip to have a pandereta. People were all around with their panderetas.
Yeah. It often accompanied protests historically – strikes, and protests against U.S. imperialism or whatever the outrage was of the time. Because it’s a manual, very portable instrument that everybody can carry around with them. I mean, it’s not easy to master, but it’s easy enough to learn so that you can play along, you know, you can be there. So it’s a very participatory, very democratic instrument. It’s a central instrument in the plena.
Looking back at the last 10 years of so, a lot of things have changed. Salsa is largely over as a commercial movement, it’s not on the radio. There’s still bands that are as good as bands ever were – Spanish Harlem Orchestra has, I think, entered the list of the great Latin bands of all time – but it’s now, at the very least, a mature form. What’s been happening?
Well, the merengue came in at various points in the history of this Latin music in New York. In the '50s, it was really, really popular with working-class Puerto Ricans, kind of a country merengue, much more rustic than what became the very commercialized and, in terms of lyrics, pretty gross merengue of more recent vintage. But as a form expressive of life here, aside from the Dominican influence, hip hop came into play, you know, and it began to become what the young people could relate to. And it had all this rich variety of genres of dance forms and visual and dress and fashion and a kind of lingo and vocabulary of its own, and then rap, a combination of beats and the turntable as an instrument, and then the dexterity of the spoken voice used as an instrumental thing, became the thing that captured the young people, and as salsa, as you say, began to wane in its popularity and in what it stood for and it became globalized – I mean, it became something that was all over the world, which it is now. People still, in many parts of the world, listen to salsa and still think that’s the latest stuff.
And here there was something else that was not hip-hop but was very big as I recall from the '80s on, was called freestyle.
Well, that’s sometimes inserted into the history of hip-hop as kind of almost a Latin reaction to do our own shit, you know, let’s just not do this African American or this black stuff, let’s do our own stuff. So there was a kind of a response. John Storm Roberts has this theory that there’s a kind of a pendulum process that goes on in a lot of popular music history, and that is that it swings from a very traditionalist kind of rooted stuff, and mastering that, and outdoing the tradition itself, becoming more heavy than the tradition itself. It happened, say, with Arsenio, when people discovered Arsenio Rodríguez, [they’d] be more Arsenio than Arsenio, play his tunes the way he would have played them. Almost a retro kind of mentality.
And Arsenio was anything but traditional.
Absolutely! He was the total experimenter.
But he became a tradition.
He became a tradition! And he became something you emulate to a T. There’s that in the pendulum swing, and there’s the other end, which is like, break it open, and say, okay, yeah, we know about that stuff, we’re gonna still use that stuff, but let’s do something completely different and new. So there’s a swing back and forth, you know, and I think there’s a certain sense in that. That’s how [Roberts], when I read his stuff in relation to bugalú becoming salsa and the típico coming in sort of in the later '60s, and people really wanting to get back to the roots, and that this bubblegum Americanized bugalú stuff, this has gotta go. So yeah, so freestyle came in, and [in the '70s] Latin disco came in, and the Latin hustle.
But that was Latinos adapting to the disco movement, which itself, drew from Latin music in no small way, since this was the town where disco exploded, and it grew very much out of the strongest dancing tradition, which was Latin.
Joe Bataan talks a lot about that, the importance of disco, even though there was a really commercialized version or a version that was disengaged from these communities of color. I think those were the forms that were transition between – not so much in terms of dance but in terms of musical movements, between salsa and what was to come. Something had to come up as salsa began to get plastic. [Salsa] started to move in on the balada and the bolero because they were making a lot of money with Julio Iglesias and the many balladeers, international Latin pop, and that was kind of an influence on what became of salsa – “Let’s go that way, since the salsa dura’s not selling, let’s make this pop salsa,” and that became this kind of salsa romántica, as it’s called. But I think hip hop then began to emerge as the sound and the feel of choice of young Latinos in New York.
But there never was a major Latin hip-hop star for a long time. It was remarkably resistant to that. When Latinos did hip-hop per se, it tended to sound derivative, even though hip-hop incorporates Latin music, and it wasn’t until reggaetón, which, it seems to me, follows this trajectory that we’ve seen for hundreds of years already in the New World, something bounces around from Jamaica to Panamá to Puerto Rico, and fundamentally what you were talking about with the danza. It’s the habanera. [Demonstrates] It’s the same damn rhythm!
Well, you know, you did have Latin rap stars. Kid Frost, Mellow Ace Man.
Those were pretty minor figures, though.
Compared to Run-DMC. But Kid Frost was a major figure on the West Coast, and Cypress Hill, which was mostly Latinos also, although not identified with any given nationality. And Spanish was like lingo, it wasn’t really part of the fabric of the music and so forth.
Then there was Fat Joe and, to me, Big Pun was the first guy who really synthesized it.
Well, he was the first one that went platinum too. He really was a big seller. But because there were no stars doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a part of the musical repertoire that the Puerto Ricans turned to as something that they considered their own, and which they influenced.
But they could not mint their own stars in that language.
Because they had no support. They had very little support from their own community, because people didn’t want to acknowledge that this was something that Puerto Ricans could do and consider their own. And then not a whole lot of support from the African-American community. So there was not a lot of props given to the Puerto Ricanness, or the Latino-ness of some of these people who were in the grain of the thing, they were right there. Charlie Chase, these guys, were right there. They were deejaying, they were emceeing, they were doing all the different parts of it. And breakdance! I mean, the history of what’s now called breakdance – that was on this show that was just on TV the other night, Grandmaster Kaz was saying, our community basically dropped it, it wasn’t a couple dance, what were the girls gonna do while we do this shit?
Columbia , baby!
And he said, the only ones who kept it going and brought it to a totally different level were the Puerto Ricans, who themselves were trained in rumba and mambo dancing and stuff like that in terms of their own background. So Fable and these guys are now showing the continuity between the incredible dance things that were going on in the '40s and '50s in the Palladium and that other stuff and what came to be called breakdancing, and it’s largely the Puerto Ricans who maintained it. Crazy Legs, and the Rock Steady Crew, overwhelmingly. I did interviews with them in ’83, and the crew that I met with was overwhelmingly Puerto Rican.
Well, the early years of hip-hop were quite eclectic, and they were very local. And at some point, it seems to me, to serve a very real need for African American cultural expression it got refocused as a post-funk music, whereas in New York in its early days it had been in a sense a post-Caribbean music. And it was when the people in Puerto Rico refocused rapping over the habanera beat [as reggaetón], basically, coming in from Jamaica via Panamá, but started to do their own thing, and retake its Caribbeanness, that they could come up with something that they could make their own form.
Absolutely. It’s no question that you can better identify reggaetón as a Puerto Rican/Dominican/Latino kind of music in name and in lyric than hip-hop. But we have to remember that there was a lot of resistance to hip-hop, much more than to reggaetón. Reggaetón came in some ways as a commercial alternative to underground hip hop. Somebody like Tego Calderón, who in my view is the most talented of them all – supremely talented in his lyrics and his delivery, if you listen to a collection of reggaetón stuff, which I’ve done quite a bit, the ones that stand out musically, artistically, are Tego’s stuff. And Tego was not reggaetón. Tego was underground. And realized, hey, reggaetón is the shit that’s selling, that’s getting out there. This is a way of getting my stuff out. And he had a political message to convey to his public, and was very conscious of that. But he couldn’t make it as hip hop because of the resistance and the prejudice against hip hop in Puerto Rican society on the island. That was black American, that’s not our music.
In fact, even here, when they had the Puerto Rican Day Parade, at the end of the Parade, they had that stuff going on in the park, where some women were [assaulted].
After the parade in 2000.
As a result of that, when the Puerto Rican Day Parade committee met, which was made up of these kind of august Chamber of Commerce types and politicians and church folk, and said, what are we gonna do to save the image of Puerto Ricans and the parade? One of the first proposals was to get rid of the hip hop float, because that’s not Hispanic culture. And here you have the young people overwhelmingly embracing hip hop as their own. There was obviously some kind of culture clash going on. And it was immediately rejected, because even some of the people on the committee itself were raised on hip-hop.
A form racism often takes, from the vantage point of the conservative Puerto Rican mentality, is like, anything connected or close to African American. I mean, it’s really anti-African American in many ways, via the Puerto Rican. Just like the prejudice against Puerto Ricans via other Latinos from other parts of the world, including some of the Mexicans that come in and voice a lot of racist stuff against Puerto Ricans, it’s directed at African Americans via the Puerto Ricans, the Afro-Latino, the Afro-Boricua. It becomes the way in which you get at the African American, and the disaffiliation from the African American, which many immigrants, most immigrants, get into. Especially black immigrants. So you have the Jamaicans’ creole becoming very accentuated, the Haitians’ kind of Kreyol accents becoming very accentuated when there’s a danger they’ll be mistaken for African-American. The African immigrants from Africa, the same. There’s a kind of disconnection, deliberate – understandable, because of the place of the African-American in U.S. society, that you don’t want to be identified with them – “We’re a different kind of black” – and the same with the Latinos – “We’re a different kind of Latino than the Puerto Rican, and we’re not them, we’re not on welfare, we haven’t been ghettoized, we’re hard-working, we have a work ethic, we’re decent,” that whole thing is very much going on in the street as we speak, and ultimately the butt of it is the African American. And any Latino that would get close to the African American. And as I said very early on in our conversation, of all the groups that have come from foreign shores into the mainland United States as a group, that have come close to the African American as a community, it’s the Puerto Rican, I believe, more than any other group.
What about the concept in Puerto Rico of the cocolo?
Cocolo is about the racism on the island. The rejection of any music that blacks do. It was roqueros and cocolos. Roqueros listened to rock, and not necessarily rock in Spanish. British rock and American rock, and those were overwhelmingly middle-class and lighter-complected Puerto Ricans, and then you had the cocolos, who were people who listened to either salsa, because that was considered black, or soul music, or African American music. That was the big divide. That began to get negotiated and broken down with reggae, I think, when reggae came in, and there was a black music that the blanquitos liked as well.
I remember I was in the Llorens Torres projects [in San Juan] in ’92, and what I was hearing was reggae. I was very surprised.
I was too, when I first heard it, because you really didn’t hear in Puerto Rico, you didn’t tend to hear music from the other Caribbean islands, aside from Cuba and the Dominican Republic, obviously, but from the English-speaking islands, you’d never hear calypso.
Well, this was in ’92, and El General [the first big reggae en español artist] was in ’91.
Yeah, it was breaking, and it was breaking with that whole polarization of cocolo and roquero. A movie was made about that, by the way, called Roqueros y Cocolos, and it’s about that whole musical division. But the problem with the way that the movie presents it, and this is a general problem is that, talking about the relationship of the diaspora and the island, salsa is treated as though it comes from Puerto Rico, and there’s a tendency to Cubanize and Puertoricanize the origins of salsa, and a non-recognition of New York as the fountainhead, the place where it cropped up. And which essentially has to be from there, because of the musical texture, aside from the history, sociology, whatever, the musical texture of salsa could only be from New York.
They initially rejected salsa as being black music, or music of the masses. There was a real elitist and racist attitude toward salsa in the '70s – but as it became internationally known and accepted, and became mainstreamed and became commercially successful, then it turned around completely the other way; “Salsa is our music.” The pavilion in ’92, in fact, in Seville for the quincentenary of Columbus’s arrival, the Puerto Rican pavilion was Puerto Rico Es Salsa. Just 15 years after it was considered garbage music, shit music, nigger music, whatever they wanted to call it, Nuyorican music, it was not Puerto Rican. Then it became eminently Puerto Rican, and became a symbol, an emblem, of Puertoricanness. This is how this kind of symbolism changes over time, depending on all these very powerful influences of commercial and international acceptance.
I think I’ve got quite a bit to transcribe here. Is there anything else? There’s a world of things we haven’t touched, but is there anything else you would like to make sure gets on the table here?
Well, I like to get on the table the idea that the music shouldn’t be treated in isolation. Not that we’ve done it in this interview, but a lot of times people talk about the music as though there were no other things going on in terms of cultural expression first of all, but in terms of what’s going on in society, and all these musical phenomena and the emergence of new styles are accompanied by a lot of other forms of expression simultaneously. The way people dress. The way people walk and talk. The literature that they read. The radio shows, and all that. So I like to contextualize the musical history, and I think that it’s important that people do that when they talk about these things in a much more consistent way than often happens. I find that people when really get into the music, they begin to lose track of the historical circumstance, and I want to accentuate it.