This provocation from the man we had all come to see, pianist Larry Harlow, "El Judio Maravilloso," was the final tease. This March evening, on the 40th anniversary of the Fania record label, a reunion of some 20 of salsa's original superstars was about to perform in Atlanta's Tabernacle. The impatient crowd had already shooed the emcee offstage, as he handed down the rules of live DVD filming, with catcalls of "Cállate, cállate! We want salsa!"
A fan with a Puerto Rican flag-bandana tied around her forehead carried a pair of maracas, lacquered with the red, blue and white bandera design, and covered with salsa stars' signatures in Sharpie ink. I could make out the name "Herman Olivera," for one, Eddie Palmieri's singer. I wondered if she'd reach tonight's constellation--Larry Harlow, Yomo Toro, Adalberto Santiago, Nicky Marrero, Junior Gonzalez, Bobby Sanabria, Chembo Corniel, Pete Rodriguez Jr., Alfredo De La Fe, Lewis Kahn, et al.--to collect more signatures. I was hoping to get close enough for a few interviews, myself.
A converted church, The Tabernacle works like a labyrinthine wooden ark loaded down with folk art, its curved double balconies ascending into the stratosphere. The standing room gallery pays for proximity through muddy sound. Within an outstretched fingertips' reach of the stage, it might appear that Junior and Adalberto are singing in a kung-fu movie. Preaching (and the best sound, apparently) go straight up to the premium balcony seats, but the choir was down here, singing amen.
Eye Music Network, Fernando Fernandez' Atlanta-based cable company, produced the show. The on-demand music video service broadcasts all genres, but the Puerto Rican family-run business wanted to launch their in-house concert series with the Latin Legends of the Fania. Latin Beat magazine was there, presenting plaques and photographing.
The all-stars rolled off Fania's hits, including "La Cartera," a song about losing a wallet that, ironically, has kept Harlow green since 1973. In tribute to Ray Barretto, video of the conguero merged into reality as the band picked up the thread. Pete Rodriguez Jr., playing maracas and singing background vocals on "Quitate Tu" (the climactic sonero battle filmed in the 1974 documentary Our Latin Thing), summoned the presence of another great salsero who died in 2000: singer Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez.
"I have to think of something else," says Pete Jr. about performing his father's music. "I still cry when I hear it. I haven't healed yet.
"He was a great father. All this maraca stuff and the guiro stuff was him, he taught me all that," says Pete, who also plays trumpet.
"He taught me how to chase the music and not the dollar. He just loved his music." Pete's own jazz album, Mind Trip, is out now. His sister, Cita, sings salsa in clubs around New York such as the Copacabana.
Alfredo De La Fe's joie de violin feeds off the crowd's energy like an empathic life form in a sci-fi fantasy. He can't resist getting down on the ground, trailing his extension cord through the crowd, wailing on his electric Strad, whose skeletal blue frame looks like Dali melted it. Pushed-up shirt sleeves reveal bright violin tattoos. The punk salsero credited the hairstylist who dyed his dreadlocks blue for the CD cover of Latitudes.
"I just came out with a new one that I did in Colombia, with Fruko. It's very nice. It's called La Llave de Oro," says De La Fe.
Cuban born, De La Fe raised a family in Colombia, relocated to Europe and came back to the United States in 2002 after settling legal troubles stemming from a decades-old drug charge.
"I've been clean now for 18 years, so that helps, you know," says De La Fe, who details
his personal recovery on his Web site, www.alfredodelafe.com.
Fellow violinist Lewis Kahn, a veteran of Orchestra Harlow, doubles on trombone.
"Traditionally a lot of people [such as Chombo Silva] played saxophone and violin, because that was required," says Kahn. "I'm talking about going way back to the 1920s.... Trombone and violin was not too scarce at that point. Today it's very uncommon."
The Julliard-educated Kahn became an integral element in Harlow's blend of charanga violins and horn-based salsa. "I kind of appreciated what he did," says Kahn, explaining how the Harlow orchestration came about.
"Harlow introduced me to the charanga style. I let it slip that I played violin, so he got all excited and he says, well, you have to listen to this record and that record," Kahn remembers. "At that time, he hired this person named Harry Max who played trumpet, and he also played violin too. Larry did some writing ... for the violins and the horns, and we'd do overdubs and things like that."
Carmen's Cuban Cafe has undergone remodelling, and the nightclub (now "Touch") is under new management. Ricardo Morales, the originator of Parizade's Latin Night, brought in gilt-frame mirrors and plush seating areas for a more upscale, people-friendly environment. Morales has made live music a priority on Friday nights, and Carmen's still makes the best mojitos in town. Stay in Touch at www.touch-ultralounge.com.
Live Music Calendar
June 2, 7-9 p.m.: Carnavalito, Brightleaf Square. Free.
June 2, 11 p.m.: West End Mambo, Touch (Carmen's Cuban Cafe). $10.
June 9, 10 p.m.: Bio Ritmo with Pencilgrass, The Pour House. $8 in advance, $10 at the door.
June 16, 7:30-9:30 p.m.: Carnavalito, Town of Cary's Starlight Concert Series, outdoors at the Page-Walker Arts and History Center. Free.
June 17, 4 p.m.: Samecumba, Durham's Latino Festival at Northgate Park. Free.
June 17, 6-8 p.m.: Color Latino, PineCone's Family Series at Lake Benson Park, Garner. Free.