Los Andinos - En Esos Momentos (Kubaney 5350)
En Esos Momentos
Well, I'm back. Where the hell was I? On The Island of Enchantment... Puerto Rico. I was originally supposed to stay one week but ended up extending it to two because I was, well, enchanted.
What an incredible place this is, man. I mean there is a Puerto Rico of cruise ships and fancy hotels and beach resorts, there is even a horribly Americanized one of K-Marts and Wal-Marts and Burger Kings, but the true Puerto Rico is still there just waiting for you if you're willing to poke around a little bit...
One of the first things you notice about the real Puerto Rico is it's love affair with music (the airport in Aguadilla is actually named after the great Bolero composer Rafael Hernandez...). We arrived the day after the death of percussion genius Ray Barretto, and flags were flown at half-staff all over the Island to honor him... something I couldn't even imagine here in the states.
While it is Salsa, essentially an all-inclusive term for Puerto Rico's amazing Afro-Carribean dance music, that gets all the attention, there is much more to be learned about the Island's rich musical heritage. There are several great AM radio stations that play "la musica de bohemia", the great post-war Bolero music of "Los Trios" exemplified by today's selection.
Bolero, romantic ballads sung over African rhythms, originated in Cuba in the late 19th century and soon spread to the rest of Latin America, especially to Puerto Rico. Here the music was taken up by numerous trios and given its own sound by the addition of the Cuatro, a 10 string guitar-like instrument that is unique to Puerto Rico. The Trio Los Andinos, pictured here, were among the most popular and still perform today.
This music just sets this unreal mood... like some Caribbean dream of white suits, ceiling fans, Mojitos and beautiful women... of cigars and big old Cadillacs with lots of chrome...
I love driving around getting lost down there with the AM radio (and its crackly 'lado B' sound) turning my little rental car into a gently rolling time machine...
I was transported on this trip to Tita's record shop, located in an old market stall in the city of Ponce, The Pearl of the South. Using my incredibly bad Spanish, I somehow managed to convey to her the type of music I was looking for, and she played record after record for me to see if I liked it. I was in heaven... finally settling on 25 45s (for $10) to bring back to the present day...
The City of Ponce, founded in 1692 by Ponce de Leon's great-grandson, was separated from San Juan and the rest of Spain's dominance over the Island by 50 miles of nearly impassable mountains, and so developed its own cultural identity. Slaves from West Africa were brought in to work the cane plantations, and they brought their music and traditions with them.
In much the same way as in Congo Square in New Orleans, they used music as a means of communicating with each other, using dance and rhythm to create a whole new art form that was not even remotely understood by the plantation bosses. In Ponce, this music became known as Bomba. While I am not going to begin to even try to explain its wonderful complexities to you, I can tell you that it involves dancers performing in Colonial dress, a call and response between a lead singer and the rest of the troupe, and individual dancers "challenging" the drums to ever more intense levels. I can also tell you that it is just plain great!
I can tell you that because I actually saw the Bomba performed live last Sunday on the Central Plaza in Ponce (You can view a short mpg video I took by clicking here.), for you see, like some parallel universe New Orleans, the city has also developed its own pre-lenten festival, Carnaval Ponceno, and let me tell ya, just like it's northern cousin, it knows how to rock da house!
They even have their own version (more or less) of Mardi-Gras Indians... roving bands of young Vejigantes wearing bright costumes and home-made elaborate colorful masks, brandishing an inflated cow bladder (or whatever else is handy) to smack the living sins out of you!
Let me just say that I was completely blown away by the whole incredible spectacle... especially since I happened upon it by accident. There were virtually no other tourists around. It was like living the roots of Mardi-Gras...
God, I love my time machine!
Thank You Puerto Rico... I'll be back!