We take up this story after the close of the Great War. The 'Hellfighters' have returned to a heroes welcome with a triumphal parade up Fifth Avenue, a remarkable achievement for a coloured (sic) band after distinguishing themselves as goodwill exemplars in France. The band itself no longer exists; it rapidly dissolved following the fatal stabbing of Jim Europe in May 1919. Black music and theatre was on the rise in Harlem and on Broadway, which meant employment for at least some dark-skinned Latin American musicians. And Cuban music, which had been steadily seeping in and building up in the United States via New Orleans, New York and its other ports, was primed and ready to burst into the public consciousness. All it needed was a spark, and indeed it came - in the form of the Prohibition.
followed the influx; their livelihoods tied to their compatriot audiences
who would be the consumers of their work. What is more, music was mostly
a secondary occupation - there just wasn't enough of a practical living
to be had from doing it full-time. Even the greats were erstwhile mechanics,
sailors and plumbers. Upon their arrival, performers found a network
of social contacts established within the Hispanic community which furnished
them with the opportunity to deploy their immediately-useful skills.
Musicians would come to play a central role in neighbourhood life, disseminating
music that was not limited simply to that of their homeland.
Even though racial tensions did develop as Latinos sought to establish their own identity as separate from those of the blacks, their juxtaposition in physical and social spaces sparked interchange between their cultures, especially through musical collaborations. And in this realm, African Americans and Puerto Ricans were worlds apart. The former were less common on the bandstands as, having been denied training and performing opportunities by a then white-dominated American Federation of Musicians (AFM), not may of them had all of the required skill-sets.
With the Volstead Act, the wealthy were driven to drink in Havana. When they returned from their sojourn, they did so with a thirst for Cuban dance which fuelled its explosion in NYC, fixing it forever in popular consciousness. Bandleaders strove to recruit members as ensembles were assembled to satisfy demand and Puerto Ricans, due to their training and musicianship, were highly prized. They became the unseen, unattributed backbone of groups fronted by better-known Blacks and Cubans.
But Puerto Ricans were not completely obscured by their playing of Cuban music, nor were they fully eclipsed by the great Cuban names of Socarrás and Bauzá for example. Some of their countrymen did make it to the fore, like Augusto Coen, Tito Puente, and Manuel "Canario" Jiménez Otero, the latter most famous for popularising the Puerto Rican plena outside the island.
The remarkable events that transpired between the United States and Cuba, of which the Missile Crisis was one, caused a deterioration of public goodwill. However audiences stateside still demanded Cuban music, no matter what the name. With Cuban music cut off at the source, a vacuum started to form into which flowed music as played by Puerto Ricans - what was eventually to be called salsa. The impact of these tensions was to strip away the 'Cuban' marketing veneer surrounding Latin music in NYC, exposing a superstructure of Puerto Rican musicians who had been playing it all along.
But then, was this music truly Cuban?
Cuban music is itself a product of creolisation, its multilayered and polyrhythmic structure easily accommodates the embedding of cultural motifs. Gerard (1998) describes Puerto Ricans as outsiders to Afro-Cuban folklore, but that did not prevent them from incorporating artefacts in the music they played which would resonate with their countrymen.
Take for example 'Lamento Borincano' penned by Rafael Hernández as a bolero (an internationally recognised genre) in NYC. The lyrics poignantly describe the plight shared by country dwellers all across Latin America, but employ terms that are specifically Boricua. The song has been adopted into Puerto Rican cultural folklore becoming an unofficial national anthem of sorts, despite being structurally a bolero. In a way, it's not as strange as it sounds when one remembers that Cuban genres have pervaded Puerto Rico since colonial times.
As we delve deeper beneath the surface, we come to recognise that Puerto Ricans did not eschew their indigenous for Cuban forms. They were the archetypal complete musicians who could play anything. They took whichever forms they had to and made it their own by adding the cuatro here, a vocal motif there, singing songs that everyone would dance to but using themes that were uniquely relevant to their compatriots.
If you listen closely, you can hear it in salsa.
©1999 Salsa & Merengue Society