Puerto Rico: My Heart’s Devotion (and Rhythm)

Poetry and song are divided by a line that becomes increasingly blurred the more it is scrutinized: Bob Dylan was considered a “serious” writer long before Michelle Pfeifer and George Dzunza discussed their favorite poets in that quintessentially nineties movie, Dangerous Minds, where he referred to Dylan Thomas and she to Bob Dylan; French chançon is, nowadays, revered with far more enthusiasm than French Symbolism; and Bob Marley is the international ambassador of cool and legalization, but he is also acknowledged as a peaceful activist whose lyrics raised important issues of emancipation, of Pan-Africanism, of race relations and so on. In a similar vein, I want to embark upon a journey that shall take us through some of the most outstanding characters in the history of the music from Puerto Rico, the development of which imprinted the XX century with far more than simple entertainment.

The Gospel tells us that in the beginning there was the Word, and in Puerto Rican music the word and the voice are one and the same. I refer to Daniel Santos (Santurce, 1919 – Florida, 1992), a name that among the more, experienced, shall I say, readership will evoke a sense of romance and nostalgia that is not necessarily only the result of years long gone. The man of the far-out-eyes and the closely-trimmed angular mustache was an absolute sensation during the late thirties and the early forties, renowned in particular for his heart-felt rendition of boleros such as “Perdón” (“Sorry”), written by his long-time collaborator Pedro Flores or “Dos gardenias” (“Two Gardenias”). But Santos was also a committed advocate for Puerto Rico’s independence and turned into an outspoken anti-war activist when large numbers of Puerto Rican’s, including himself, were enlisted in the army roundabout 1942. From that period, precisely, is his famous “Despedida” (“Farewell”), describing the sorrow of the parting conscripts. Santos came to be known as “El jefe” (”the Chief) for his iconic cha-cha-cha, “Tibiri Tabara”, and his “Lamento borincano” (“Lament from Borinquen”) remains widely performed.

Precisely the nostalgia evoked by the latter, the homesickness felt by the immigrant abroad, and the sense of patriotic identity sparked by the distance are the characteristics that best define the lyrics of Bobby Capó (Coamo, 1929 – New York 1989), such as can be seen in his “Mi Borinquen” (“My Borinquen), where he claims to love his country, despite the fact that he knows it no longer to be a country at all. Like Santos, Capó emigrated to the United States as a young man and there achieved fame, not least through his incorporation in the Xavier Cugat Orcchestra. Capó’s style was far more melodious, more melodramatic, even, than Santos’s, although they were both equally prone to going from slow, romantic boleros to more lively cha-cha-cha and mambo rhythms. Still today Capó is famous for his playful plena, “El negro bembón” (“The Thick-lipped Black Man”), which arguably preempted the feel of the salsa that would be developed in New York in the late sixties. Capó remains an unmistakable point of reference in Latin American music and the tradition of the bolero, through his “Piel canela” (“Cinnamon Skin”) and “Sin fe” (“Hopeless”).

Latin American music in the second half of the XX century became increasingly diverse and, accordingly, Puerto Rican artists often had to reinvent themselves halfway through their careers. One of the most accomplished interpreters in this style of refashioning was Tito Rodríguez (Santurce, 1923 – New York, 1973), who, following the tradition of his predecessors, left for New York as a teenager. Following a spell in the army, Rodríguez joined one of the Cuban big bands and eventually went solo with his Los lobos del mambo (Mambo Wolves), which would compete with Tito Puente’s bands for the supremacy of the mambo and cha-cha-cha markets. But towards the beginning of the sixties Rodríguez sought to explore new rhythms, recording albums of bossa nova and jazz, before linking up with the songwriter Leroy Holmes in 1964 for the release of From Tito Rodríguez with Love, a collection of boleros that to this day remains his distinctive trademark.

His slow and elegant delivery and his deep, grave voice gave Rodríguez the perfect tools to stand out as a bolero singer, even at a time when the world of music was about to turn on its head and move far away from the romantic vein of old. While Tito Rodríguez recorded his “Inolvidable” (“Unforgettable”) and Carmen Delia Dipiní (Naguabo, 1927 – 1998) consecrated herself as “La bolerista de América” (the bolero singer of the Americas), following up on her previous successes with charismatic renditions, full of attitude, of songs such as “Amor perdido” (“Lost Love”) or “Congoja” (“Grief”), Héctor Lavoe (Ponce, 1947 – New York 1993) was making his journey from Puerto Rico to the Big Apple, where soon he would stumble upon Willie Colón (Bronx, 1950) and Johnny Pacheco, who, together, would manufacture arguably the most radical musical revolution in popular culture in the last 50 years.

Through the creation of Pacheco’s Fania record label, which sponsored a great number of Latin America’s most outstanding musicians, among them Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe, the foundations of Latin American music were shifted, allowing for far more experimentation, blending and development than ever before. With Lavoe as singer and Colón as band leader and trombone player, Willie Colón’s band produced some of the most iconic and groundbreaking pieces in what would come to be known as salsa. After a collaboration that lasted through seven years (1967-1973) and eight records, and which produced such classics as “La murga” and “Todo tiene su final” (“Everything Has an End”), Lavoe decided to go his own way and work solo. Colón furthered his relationship with a new-found talent, Ruben Blades, with epic productions such as Siembra (Reap) (1978), while Lavoe continued on the fast lane with hits such as “Mi Gente” (“My People”) and “El Cantante” (“The Singer”), a theme written for him by Blades himself, included in Lavoe’s most accomplished album, Comedia (Comedy).

By now there was, however, plenty of room for Puerto Rican artists to incursion fields outside the traditional Latin American big band. Enter the blind prodigy from Lares, José Feliciano (1945), whose uncanny ability to handle the Spanish guitar would land him straight at the top of the charts with his idiosyncratic version of The Doors’ “Light My Fire.” Much like Blades, however, Feliciano would exploit his multicultural roots from the start, practically leading parallel careers in English and in Spanish and choosing to pay tribute to the tradition of boleros in his native language. Thus, as early as 1966, Feliciano had already recorded his album La copa rota (The Broken Glass) in which he produced a remarkable version of Capó’s “Sin fe” (“Hopeless”). Five years later, in 1971, Feliciano would record a Spanish version of the Italian song “Che Será” for the Festival of San Remo, which still today remains one of his most distinctive songs.

Upholding the tradition of boleros was, too, Cheo Feliciano (Ponce, 1935), a percussionist who had been part of Tito Rodríguez’s band in the fifties. Cheo Feliciano had lived in Spanish Harlem since 1952 and he was part of the Joe Cuba Sextet for over ten years back in the days prior to salsa. Long before Héctor Lavoe discovered the pitfalls of heroin, however, Cheo Feliciano was battling for his life against the opiate. Upon his return from a long rehabilitation, Cheo relaunched his career with the help of Johnny Pacheco and the rest of the Fania team. Swiftly, he made the transition from the old-style rhythm to the more adventurous salsa tones of his “Anacaona,” released in 1971, before he established himself as a romantic ballad and bolero singer. Much like José Feliciano (with whom he is not related), he exploited the English and Spanish markets with his trademark deep, distant, yet powerful voice, which shapes his lyrics with an unmistakable texture.

As the eighties unraveled the stars of old faded in a distance that seemed larger than that rendered by the years. Salsa had established itself as a commercial powerhouse, meringue emerged as a catchy, jumpy alternative to the three-beat rhythms of salsa, and even sub genres, such as erotic salsa found a place in the market. The likes of Daniel Santos and Carmen Delia Dipiní were still alive, but the bolero had been relegated to the background in the world of music. Instead, it was the second generation of salseros who broke into the scene. Here, too, there were Puerto Ricans aplenty, and suddenly Gilberto Santa Rosa (Carolina, 1962) was making thousands of people dance to his “Vivir sin ella” (“To Live Without Her”) in Venezuela, in Puerto Rico and eventually, even, in New York’s Carnagie Hall.

Marc Anthony as Héctor Lavoe in El cantante.

The legacy continued into the nineties and is well and alive today. Marc Anthony (New York, 1968), for instance, was a major success as a salsa singer long before he was famous for his relationship with Jennifer López. Indeed, during the early nineties he was touted as the upcoming star of salsa, together with another Puerto Rican, La India (Río Piedras, 1969). Among the more versed audience in cult popular culture of the nineties, the music video of their duet, “Vivir lo nuestro” (“To Live Our Story”), will, no doubt, remain unforgettable. Many years later, Anthony would pair up with his wife, Jennifer López, in the production of the movie El Cantante (2007), which traced the troubled life of Héctor Lavoe, played by Anthony. Tropical music in general, and Puerto Rico’s influence in particular, was finally being celebrated at large, and rightly so.

But that is only my opinion, and this list is, as all lists must be, subjective, distorted and incomplete. You might disagree with my selection; you might feel I have left out the most relevant, the most influential albums, records, songs; you might argue half of these people would not be able to write a poem if their lives depended on it. It might well be. Yet, I invite you to take this as the starting point of your own journey through the music. And if you feel like sending me your conclusions, I’m all ears!


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