Larry Harlow, a salsa revolutionary

In many ways, Larry Harlow – one of the central figures of salsa and his defining label, Fania Records – was a master in the art of mix...


In many ways, Larry Harlow – one of the central figures of salsa and his defining label, Fania Records – was a master in the art of mixing the various musical connections between New York and the Caribbean. Over a career spanning six decades, he has assembled overlapping genres such as rock, jazz and R&B and various Cuban genres such as rumba, sound and guaracha through an intimate and moving knowledge of the two musical traditions.

Harlow grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and studied classical piano. His father, Buddy Kahn, was a Jewish mambo musician who led the club house group in New York’s Latin Quarter. The musician and scholar Benjamin Lapidus writes in his new book that Jews sponsored Latin dances with live bands as early as the 1930s in New York City. Harlow comes from a tradition of mamboniks, Jews who danced the mambo at places like Midtown’s Palladium, various locations in Brooklyn, and the Catskills hotel circuit. Jewish musicians like Marty Sheller often wrote arrangements, and radio DJs like “Symphony” Sid Torin and Dick “Ricardo” Sugar promoted the music. Immortal Latin band leaders like Tito Puente performed regularly at the Catskills, a space where young musicians like Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, who became Harlow’s collaborator, cut their teeth.

Yet Harlow, died Friday at 82, wanted to go beyond the Europeanized mambo performance styles heard in the Catskills and be true to the music’s African roots. He traveled to pre-Castro Cuba in the 1950s and returned determined to combine what he learned with what was happening in New York City, creating a modern synthesis of the traditional and the avant-garde. Seeking to be accepted by the main post-mambo musicians, he even went so far as to learn about the Afro-Caribbean religion of Santería to claim its authenticity and gain the respect of the musical community.

“Here’s a Jewish guy hanging out with all those Cubans and Afro-Caribbean people,” he told me in a 2004 interview. “I told myself that in Rome, do like the Romans. “

Harlow never tried to pretend he wasn’t who he was. Even after gaining insider status in the Santería community, he was often pictured wearing a Star of David around his neck. He was affectionately known to the Spanish-speaking public as El Judío Maravilloso (The Wonderful Jew), a nickname given to him due to his devotion to the music of the blind Afro-Cuban conductor and ancestor of the mambo. Arsenio Rodríguez, known as El Ciego Maravilloso (the Marvelous Blind). When he chose to release an album called “Yo Soy Latino” (“I’m Latino”) in the early 1980s, the lead singer who delivered the lyrics was beloved Puerto Rican singer Tito Allen.

Beyond immersing himself in Afro-Caribbean spirituality, Harlow has been directly involved in the evolution of salsa music, collaborating with Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci, the founders of Fania. According to Alex Masucci, Jerry’s surviving brother, Harlow was the first artist hired to record for Fania. His first albums, “Bajándote: Gettin ‘Off”, “El Exigente” and “Me and My Monkey”, which includes a version of the Beatles song “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”, traded on the, a bugalú sound with R&B influences, which brought together black and Latino listeners.

Harlow’s shift from búgalu to a jazz-influenced update to Rodríguez’s more Africanized conjunto sound – which added more trumpets and percussion like the conga and cowbell – was crucial to the gestation of the salsa. His blend of jazz, mambo and conjunto would become one of the main influences on the emerging idea of ​​salsa. While the innovative use of the trombone by Eddie Palmieri and Willie Colón gave the brass sections a more aggressive and urban sound, the influence of Harlow and Pacheco was also decisive. Harlow’s early 1970s releases, “A Tribute to Arsenio Rodríguez”, “Abran Paso” and “Salsa”, crystallized his new aesthetic. He pioneered recording with trumpets and trombone. He gave new life to the Cuban charanga sound, composed of flutes and violins. And he integrated the batá drum, used in religious ceremonies, into his resolutely secular project.

Harlow was exulting in the spirit of the late 1960s – Rubén Blades told me he was the “Frank Zappa of salsa” – and was a voracious collaborator. His bilingual Beatles cover and the “Electric Harlow” album art were psychedelic in style. He played the piano for Steven Stills and Janis Ian, and had a rock-jazz project with Blood, Sweat & Tears keyboardist Jerry Weiss. In 1972, after Miranda temporarily left his band, he painstakingly adapted Who’s “Tommy” as the salsa opera “Hommy”, transferring the original British characters to the Latino barrios of New York.

Although salsa’s explosion in popularity in the mid to late 1970s was organic, feeding off hip young Latino audiences in the Bronx and Uptown, Harlow helped it explode playing a major producer role. in Leon Gast’s concert film “Our Latin Thing.” “The movie was a breakout night for the Fania All-Stars, a supergroup with Ray Barretto, Colón, Cheo Feliciano, Pacheco and many others, with Harlow at the piano. Last week, Masucci told me that Harlow was the link to both Gast’s involvement and the appearance of genuine Santería devotees who appear at the end of the film.In 1976 he recorded a festive musical story, “La Raza Latina Suite”, with Blades singing in English.

Although Harlow was not born into the traditions that gave birth to salsa, throughout his career he was widely accepted as a mainstay of music. He was part of a long line of Jewish musicians who played key roles in Afro-Caribbean music, dating back to Augusto Coén, an Afro-Puerto Rican Jew who led a Latin big band in 1934 who was a predecessor of the mambo kings Puente, Machito and Tito Rodríguez. (The exchange went both ways: even salsa queen Celia Cruz recorded the Jewish folk song “Hava Nagila” with her band La Sonora Matancera.)

For Harlow, mixing cultures and genres was just second nature. In 2005, he contributed a major keyboard solo to “L’Via L’Vasquez”, on the album “Frances the Mute” by Texan psychedelic punk band Mars Volta – a choice that should not be considered out of date. the ordinary. Several musicologists and writers have recognized the influence of Cuban bass patterns, called tumbaos, as well as cha cha cha patterns, on early rock hits like “Twist and Shout” and “Louie Louie”. For Harlow, the connection between rock and Latin, funk and salsa was natural, a product of the time he came of age.

“It was the hour of the revolution,” he told me one day. “People were writing songs about the protest, and me, Eddie and Barretto were changing the harmonic concept of Latin music. I’m the one who got them a little psychedelic.

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