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Salsa from New York to Florida to Puerto Rico

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Jeremy Marre | 11:12 UK time, Tuesday, 2 February 2010

lmusa_salsa_500.jpg

Latin Music USA is a coproduction with WGBH (the Boston PBS station) and although I was series producer for the BBC, the choice of which programme I directed was not solely down to me. So when I was asked to direct Salsa, it seemed at first like a case of déjà vu, since I'd once made a film on Salsa Music in New York. But the two experiences turned out to be very different. In 1979, I'd started a 14 part series called Beats Of The Heart and I arrived in New York at a time when many of the greats, like Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Ray Barretto and Ruben Blades were still performing there and were happy to participate in a film that examined the social and political dynamics of Salsa music at that time.

Now, 30 years later, I was back. I met up with some old Salsa friends like Joe Conzo (a former pal of Tito Puente) and Felippe Luciano, formerly head of the Young Lords gang which had fought for young and 'disenfranchised' Latinos. But this new programme for Latin Music USA, needed a different theme, with more historic resonance, so we decided to trace the rise and fall of Fania Records, the company that created, promoted and - in the end - helped destroy Salsa. When I say 'Salsa', I'm not talking the retro stuff (some of it very good) we hear today, nor the slushy Salsa Romantica of the '80s, but Salsa 'Dura', Salsa with a statement to make about the lives of Latinos in New York and across Latin America.

It wasn't easy locating the Fania stars of the '70s. We started by finding the irrepressible Izzy Sanabria in suburban Florida. He was the man who helped give Salsa an image to match its sound: on record covers, street posters and magazines. We met up with bandleader Willie Colon in the Bronx and the two of them told the hilarious story of how they copied an FBI Wanted poster for an early Fania LP cover (La Gran Fuga) and how their neighbours thought the poster was for real and immediately claimed the reward from the FBI.

We met with legendary pianist Eddie Palmieri at his home in Queens and Eddie told of the days when his dynamic band 'La Perfecta' took young Latinos by storm. Though there wasn't time for his magnificent piano playing in this Salsa programme, our website does feature it, along with many other memorable excerpts of interviews and performances shot for this programme and the whole series; it's a website that really does complement the programmes.

It was a pleasure to drink Negra Modelo again with Felippe Luciano and to meet with dozens of other great musicians from the time. Then we travelled to the island of Puerto Rico and filmed with the gracious singer Cheo Feliciano, another essential ingredient of the Fania Records sound and - most memorably - to Cuba where, aided and abetted by the wonderful William Rakip (a nuclear physicist whose dad helped Al Capone smuggle rum into the States to beat prohibition) we filmed the story of pianist Larry Harlow, 'El Judio Maravilloso'. Larry toured Cuba as a student, exploring the roots of Salsa and the legacy of Arsenio Rodriguez, the blind musician who, in many ways, 'invented' Salsa music. (Incidentally, it was exciting to see Larry back in top form at the Barbican show that BBC4 televised last Friday, still playing Arsenio's music).

There were so many elements that went into making the original Fania sound', such a mix of musical styles and personalities, so many ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies, but ultimately it's the story of an extraordinary and inventive family of musicians. Near the end of our New York trip we met up with one of the founders of Fania, Johnny Pacheco, now frail and in his 70s, who completed the story of how he and Italian American Jerry Masucci created the label that was Salsa. But perhaps the most curious moment of the trip followed our filmed re-creation of Pacheco's trips around New York in his old Mercedes. It was snowing heavily, we were cold and exhausted, when, late in the day, I met up with Joe Conzo (Tito's man, whose wedding I had once filmed). We sat on the same seats in the same bar in Spanish Harlem and Joe began: "I'm so glad you came back, Jeremy. I never finished what I was saying last time .." and he picked up exactly where he's left off 30 years earlier, talking about joys of dancing to Salsa music.


Episode 2 Trailer


Jeremy Marre is the series producer of Latin Music USA for the BBC and also directed Episode 2 of the programme, Salsa, which screens Friday 5 February at 9pm on BBC Four.


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