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The Marvelous Jew

Larry Harlow talks salsa consciousness

By Thomas Fawcett, 1:21PM, Tue. Oct. 7, 2008

Ebony and ivory: Harlow at the keys
Ebony and ivory: Harlow at the keys

A New York Jew with a thick Brooklyn accent, Larry Harlow is an unlikely hero of Latin music. Born in 1939 into a family of musicians, Harlow grew up in New York barrios where Afro-Caribbean rhythms drifted from record shops and bodegas. A Tito Puente protégé and devotee of Cuban bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez, he was one of the first musicians signed to New York’s mighty Fania Records. “El Judio Maravilloso,” or “The Marvelous Jew,” as he’s affectionately known in Latin music circles, produced more than 250 albums for the Latin Motown in addition to leading his Orchestra Harlow in some 50 LPs.

His searing keys bless two standout tracks on Grupo Fantasma’s latest release, Sonidos Gold, and Harlow will join the local Latin big band Saturday at Antone’s, as well as present the 1998 documentary Through the Eyes of Larry Harlow 4pm Sunday at the Alamo Ritz Downtown. Bump & Hustle caught up with the Marvelous Jew by phone at his New York home and respectfully disagrees with his disdain of the boogaloo.

Bump & Hustle: Fania is a hugely important label but I think it doesn’t get that much recognition outside of record collectors and music scholars. Explain the importance of Fania for people outside those circles.

Larry Harlow: Fania was a small independent record label that sprung up in New York in the mid-1960s that was started by an Italian music attorney by the name of Jerry Masucci and, of course, the great Dominican musician Johnny Pacheco. Pacheco went to Masucci for a divorce and said, "I’m not happy with this record company I’m with," and Masucci said, “Well, how much money do you need to make a record?” He said 3,000 bucks, they shook hands, and that’s how the label started. But the importance of it was that there were a lot of things going on in the 1960s: the Civil Rights movement, the war in Vietnam, Woodstock, and the Beatles just to name a few. So it was a time of revolution and upheaval in the United States. Everything was changing and the influx of the Hispanic immigrants into urban areas of the United States had a big importance because they were coming in hand over fist from the islands, from the Caribbean, and settling in Miami, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Of course, they had their own tropical music but the Hispanics in New York were looking for something to identify with musically. When Fidel Castro came into Cuba and we stopped trading with Cuba, we couldn’t hear Cuban radio and we couldn’t buy Cuban records any more and we weren’t hearing any good tropical Afro-Cuban music. The musicians in New York City decided to take up the cause and started to play Afro-Cuban music but they mixed it in with a little New York bebop, New York jazz, and New York harmonies. They expanded the harmonic structures of the song forms, the melodic structures of the song forms, the lyrical content of the song forms so instead of having some silly songs they were now writing songs about protest, about love, about humanity, and about war and the urban Latinos kind of hooked on to this and made it something that was theirs.

They put a word to it and the word was called “salsa.” Tito Puente used to say, “Salsa? That’s what I put on top of my spaghetti!” It’s just a word but what it is is a mixture of Afro-Caribbean music mixed with New York bebop. After that, all these dance clubs popped up, you had 100 dance clubs and 500 bands playing. This label Fania just started at the right time and I was one of the first artists with Fania. I signed with Fania in 1964 and recorded my first album in 1965 and then one by one Masucci started signing all these young talented Hispanic guys – Bobby Valentin, Cheo Feliciano, Willie Colon, Ray Barretto, and all the top musicians between New York and Puerto Rico – and in a five year period had a great stable of musicians and singers and because he had a master’s in business administration he really knew how to run a record company. He was fighting the big guys but there were many independent record labels in those days and he wound up buying his own radio stations, playing his own product, pushing it down people’s throats and before you know it we were making movies and traveling around the world like the Rolling Stones and having a great time. There was a very important era between 1965 and 1980. We had a nice 15-year run where we just exported our sounds to South America, Central America, the Orient, and Europe and spread salsa consciousness around the world.

B&H: You had a chance to travel to Cuba as a young man. What was that like?

LH: I went to a special school in New York, a music and art high school in the middle of the Latin barrio. I used to walk up and down the street and hear Latin music coming out of the mom and pop record shops. In the 1950s, if you weren’t African-American or an intravenous drug user you really weren’t accepted in jazz circles. It was like beating my head against the wall because I knew I would never be accepted in these circles. The closest music where I could improvise and get off playing solos was Latin music so I started playing with African-American guys who were playing Latin music. You know, you start with these little bands and it goes from a fivepiece band to a six to a seven to an eight to a nine to a 10. I wound up playing with a couple of good bands in the early 1960s but upon graduating high school I took a Christmas vacation to Havana for the first time – I’d never been out of the States before – and I ended up in paradise. I fell in love with the mambo, the cha-cha, and the African roots and I started practicing my craft. I was a schoolteacher for a while but I really didn’t want to do that, I just wanted to play Latin music. But it was very difficult bucking the odds, being the gringo and being the white Jewish guy from New York trying to play Latin music and getting accepted by the Latinos in this country. For many, many years I came across a lot of reverse Uncle Tom and a lot of resentment from the Hispanic promoters until I was able to command the language and I could play as good as everyone else if not better.

Then I ran into a lot of envy along the way and then the Latin guys started getting hostile with me because I was playing better than they were! But I stuck to it, went to audio school and became an engineer and was in the forefront of the electronics age of the Latin recording business and became a prolific producer for Fania and other labels. But Cuba was a paradise, I learned a lot and when Fidel entered Havana and everything got cut off, I came back to the States. I was studying at the university for a while, making friends with all the Cuban musicians and just sucking up as much information as I could.

B&H: I know you produced more than 250 albums for Fania. That’s an extraordinary amount of music.

LH: Probably more. They were knocking out two or three a week. We were having a great time. We didn’t care about the money. I was making about $300 a week or something like that but my rent was $49 a month in those days so we didn’t care. We were having a good time and playing our music. There were lots of girls, lots of parties, lots of traveling. Where else would I have gotten to see the world and go to Africa, Japan, and Europe if not for playing with the Fania All-Stars and all these great musicians?

B&H: When I think of the music of Fania and the salsa scene it seems like a distinct product of New York City.

LH: New York and Puerto Rico, but there is a distinct difference. New York was always a little further ahead musically than Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico always had the roots because it was a Caribbean country. New York was an injection of creativity and a blast of energy that superseded everything that was before it and the arrangements from New York were slicker. Instead of 6th chords and 7th chords we were using 9ths and 11ths. It got much more sophisticated.

B&H: Do you think New York salsa has been ghettoized a little bit? In both music stores and in music history it’s not always seen as American music but rather world music.

LH: It used to be. Not anymore. Let’s go back to 1974: there were no Latin Grammys and no category for Latin music. It took me and a couple other people to make a pitch for Latin music. We pulled out statistics about how many records were being sold and how many Latin people were buying records. Latin music fit into a category called ethnic music so it put us in competition with not only American blues artists but with Australian tribal horns, Hebrew music, Japanese music, and tango. All that stuff was in the same category. I made a big protest at the 1974 Grammys and they gave the first Latin Grammy in 1975. Now, not only do we have 15 Grammy categories, we have our own separate Latin Grammys. Salsa is really tropical dance – it’s my forte and I love it. There’s nothing like it in the world and it really is an art form.

B&H: When the boogaloo craze hit and there was more R&B being injected into the music, my understanding is that it created a rift between the old guard and the young guard in Latin music.

LH: You have to remember that Latin music comes in waves. Before the boogaloo was what we called the mambo era. Then came the pachanga, then came the boogaloo, and then the salsa dura. After that came the Latin hustle. After that came the salsa monga, the salsa romántica, and then the reggaeton. But salsa dura is still here. Boogaloo is not here any more. The problem was that American radio stations would not play anything in a foreign language. So we were stuck and the Latin record company executives wanted some product that it could play on American radio stations so they invented the boogaloo and shoved it down people’s throats. To me it was a little more on the R&B side but it wasn’t really R&B either.

B&H: So you’re not a big fan?

LH: No, I’m not. I did one boogaloo album. I was forced to do a boogaloo album in 1967 that I absolutely hated, but who knew back then what choices we had?

B&H: Is that appropriate then, a rift between the old and new guard?

LH: Well, musically the boogaloo is based on a 1-4-5 progression. You know, [singing] “I like it like that” or “Guantanamera.” It’s all the same. It’s very simple. They pick up a catch phrase like “Bang, bang” or “Push, push, in the bush” or whatever the heck it was. It was really kind of stupid but a lot of the kids that were growing up, Nu Yoricans who were born in the States, didn’t know any better. It was easy to dance to and easy to remember and they got a little radio play on the American stations. A couple people made a couple dollars. The rift was between the staunch Afro-Cuban purists who played in clave, within the parameters of real Afro-Latin music, versus the bastardizing of the music. So Pacheco, Palmeiri, Barretto, and myself were always the purists, the kind of guys that really stuck to the clave and made sure everything was working right whereas guys like Joe Bataan, Joe Cuba, Johnny Colon, and Willie Colon didn’t really care that much. To heck with the clave, we’ll do whatever we want!

B&H: And the clave defines Afro-Cuban music in a lot of ways.

LH: The clave defines all Latin music, from bossa nova to samba to merengue to cumbia to salsa to guaguanco to cha-cha-cha. The clave is the basis of all Latin music which all comes from Africa. It came from the Dark Continent via the slave trade to the Caribbean and is the basis of Latin music. The clave has such a strong feel to it that it’s not even written on paper, it’s just felt. It’s felt within the arrangements, within the songs, within the performances. It’s really what makes it swing. Everything has this 1-2-3-4 and everyone tries to play on the beat but the clave has a little of what we say in Spanish, pa’lante y pa’tras. It’s a little in front and a little in back and has this swing and sway that makes you want to get up and dance.

B&H: So the Fania catalog is being reissued now.

LH: Little by little. It started out like gangbusters, doing 30 or 35 a month, now they’re down to two or three. The economy is getting beat up, the record business is in the pits, the bootlegs and downloads are putting the recording business in jeopardy right now. So it’s been very difficult but they’re doing a great job of remastering digitally. They’ve dug up all the old masters and have gone back and remixed everything and written new liner notes in Spanish and English and added new photographs in addition to the old ones. They’ve made deals with places like Starbucks, K-Mart, and Target and places where our records were never available before. A lot of youngsters who weren’t around when these original records came out are discovering all this great music. It’s really a lot of fun.

B&H: Are you seeing royalties from the reissues?

LH: Well, in my particular instance I don’t but most of the artists do. I had sold all my rights when Masucci was still alive. We made a deal when he was going to take the company public. He hadn’t paid me for many years so he bought me out. I made a lot of money and he died three months later and that was it. But I got rich from it. I was one of the few!

B&H: We talked briefly this summer when I was writing an article on Grupo Fantasma and you were lamenting about the state of Latin music and the lack of young Latin bands out there.

LH: That’s why it’s nice to see groups like Fantasma. Unfortunately, I wasn’t at the live session but they flew to California and overdubbed the solos on a little laptop on the stage of a show I was doing. I would have liked to be there from the beginning but now I’m going to get to meet everybody. I only know a couple of the guys from the band but I want to meet everybody and get a chance to jam and rehearse with them and hopefully pass on some information and some criticisms I have of them in a professional manner so they can understand where I’m coming from. They are the new wave, especially in the Southwest.

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