Photo: Jessica Lipsky
8 Things We Learned At The International Salsa Museum's Tito Puente & La Lupe Exhibit
Held during the New York International Salsa Congress, the ISM pop-up featured artifacts from NYC's rich salsa history. The exhibit highlighted items from legendary singer La Lupe and GRAMMY-winning percussionist Tito Puente.
Salsa was born in New York City, so it's only natural that there should be a museum dedicated to its origins, influence and multifarious sounds.
The Bronx-based nonprofit International Salsa Museum is at the center of that mission. While they don't have a dedicated space yet — organizers hope to take over a decommissioned armory in the Bronx within five years — ISM brought part of their collection to the New York International Salsa Congress over Labor Day weekend.
Featuring art, clothing, instruments and photography, the exhibit highlighted legendary musicians such as percussionist Ralph Irizarry and singer/songwriter Luis Figueroa, as well as trailblazing choreographer Eddie Torres sr. Images of Latin culture in New York from the 1980s and '90s, from block parties to early shots of Marc Anthony, were also present.
Yet the heart of the exhibit centered on Tito Puente, the six-time GRAMMY-winning percussionist, bandleader and producer, and Cuban singer La Lupe. Dubbed "The Queen of Latin Soul" in her 1960s heyday, La Lupe sold millions of records and was the first Latina to perform at Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden. She was a friend and frequent collaborator of Puente's in the '60s.
ISM Co-Founder and musician Willy Rodriguez went to the musicians' families to speak to them about their relative's legacy. "I get emotional talking about it," Rodriguez told GRAMMY.com. "Us doing this is not necessarily just showing the history, but it's also healing for the families."
On display is one of Puente's suits — a black three-piece with a wide lapel, which he wore while performing with the Puerto Rican Symphony — alongside his bandstand, musical charts, contracts and various honors. La Lupe's music charts, photos and albums were all rescued following a devastating fire in her New York City apartment in the 1980s; some of the items bear water and fire damage. "Looking at these pictures, I can envision her going into the apartment, grabbing her kids, grabbing all these items and just running out. That's why this is so important," Rodriguez says.
The Puente/La Lupe section of the exhibit was curated around feeling, Rodriguez adds. "It's about going out to the family, speaking to them about: What is it that we're doing? Why are we doing it? It's not about the money; it's about the legacies of these people."
With preservation and education in mind, read on for eight things GRAMMY.com learned about La Lupe and Tito Puente.
La Lupe Transcended Genre And Broke Barriers For Women In Latin Music
A display of salvaged items owned by La Lupe┃ISM
Born Lupe Yoli Raymond, La Lupe arrived in New York from Cuba in 1962. Already a successful performer in her home country prior to the revolution, La Lupe initially worked with percussionist Mongo Santamaría before connecting with Tito Puente. La Lupe's work with Puente predates his work with that of legendary Cuban singer Celia Cruz.
By 1968, La Lupe performed as a solo artist, singing boleros, boogaloos and Latin soul in both English and Spanish. Some of her biggest hits were "Fiebre," Qué te pedí?" and “La Tirana,” an anthem about the aftermath of a love affair. Although maligned for her sexual performances and forthright personality in the male-dominated Latin music industry, it's impossible to deny La Lupe's talent and professionalism.
At the ISM exhibit, Rodriguez points out a handwritten musical chart. "The entire band is here: the piano, the trombone, the trumpet. This is soul/salsa and all the parts are there, all original with her hand signature. That's her handwriting."
La Lupe created polyrhythmic arrangements, "putting them into sounds that you hear in R&B and pop music and soul music,” artist-scholar Jadele McPherson told "Latino USA."
La Lupe Personified Resilience
Creative Producer, Philanthropist, and Publicist Janice Torres-Perez with La Lupe albums ISM
A fierce performer with a powerful voice, La Lupe embodied a particular sensuality on stage that drew admiration and criticism. She would regularly "improvise lyrics, change styles, tear her dress up, pull her hair, moan her trademark cry of 'ayyy yiyiyí,' clutch her breasts and push the pianist to go faster and faster," documentarian Ela Troyano wrote for Fania Records, the boogaloo and salsa label that acquired Puente's Tico Records.
As salsa rose to prominence La Lupe was sidelined, the Guardian noted. Celia Cruz, a powerful and unique voice in her own right but a less provocative act, became the Queen of Salsa.
Still, La Lupe "never gave up. She was never fake. She was always her authentic self," Rodriguez says. "She doesn't care what people think about her. She goes off, she takes off her shoes, and she does what she does, whatever she feels.
"I've noticed that a lot of the females that talk about La Lupe like her because of her strength and her tenacity, and that's why she's important to the culture," he continues.
La Lupe Remained Her Own Advocate For Decades
La Lupe's daughter, Rainbow “La Yoli” Garcia, with a letter her mother wrote┃ISM
Although she performed at Madison Square Garden in '77, La Lupe's career was a shell of its vibrant self by the decade's end. Her personal life was also in shambles, but she continued to stump for herself and her artistry.
The ISM exhibit featured a form letter that La Lupe sent to promoters and club owners asking for gigs because the industry had pushed her aside. "She's writing to them in English saying, 'Give me a shot. I have a new show.' She's saying, 'I want to go back into show business,'" Rodriguez notes.
In the mid-'80s, La Lupe met an evangelist at a hospital and later became an ordained Pentecostal minister and preacher (she previously practiced Santeria). She died of a heart attack in 1992.
Although La Lupe's work and story have received renewed attention, the issues she faced as an artist with a strong perspective and style remain largely unchanged.
"We see a lot more females in the artistic world now, but it should be more. There should be more opportunities," Rodriguez says. "She was going at it at a time where you barely saw women in salsa. Even to this very day, you still don't see many women in salsa, and that's not the way that it should be."
Tito Puente Was Meticulous — With Himself And Others
International Salsa Museum Co-Founder Willy Rodriguez┃ISM
Today, Tito Puente is synonymous with Latin music of the 1950s and '60s, becoming known as the "King of Mambo." The six-time GRAMMY winner had a decades-long career, was the go-to person for salsa legends, and continued to write and perform through the 1990s. Puente was known for his work ethic, and was active in the music industry until his death in 2000.
"He was very meticulous with the way he did things, with the way he directed the bands," says Rodriguez, who is the musical director for Tito Puente Jr.'s band. "If you were bad or did something not-so-good on stage, he would let you go and call somebody else. There was always another person that would want to play in his band."
Tito Puente Had Multiple Honorary Doctorates, Among Many Other Awards
Several of Tito Puente's many awards ┃Jessica Lipsky
Tito Puente traveled the world, performing in dozens of countries and receiving multiple awards. His last (and posthumous) GRAMMY win came at the 2001 GRAMMYs, where his collaboration with Eddie Palmieri, Obra Maestra, earned a golden gramophone for Best Salsa Album.
Among his many honors, Puente received honorary doctorates from Columbia University and Berklee College of Music.
He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2003, Puente received a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy.
Tito Puente Handwrote And Numbered His Sheet Music
Tito Puente's sheet music┃Jessica Lipsky
Tito Puente numbered each of his musical charts and by the 1950s, was already on his 265th composition. On display is the chart for "Tito Timbero" and his timbale mallets.
"This was one of his first original songs that made him famous," Rodriguez notes.
Puente Kept His Contracts
An appearance contract┃Jessica Lipsky
While many musicians were subject to flimsy contracts and meager pay, Tito Puente kept meticulous records. The ISM pop-up had several of Puente's contracts on display from 1965, for which the musician made between $600 and $1,000 per engagement.
"His oldest son was telling me that back in the day, you could do a lot with that amount of money," Rodriguez notes.
Adjusted for inflation, Puente would be making between $5,800 and $9,700 per gig today.
Salsa Is A Family Legacy
Tito Puente Jr. and Rainbow "La Yoli" Garcia┃ISM
Puente’s son Tito Puente Jr. and La Lupe’s daughter, Rainbow “La Yoli” Garcia, reunited at the International Salsa Museum pop-up and were heavily involved in its curation. As Rodriguez explains, the exhibit is ideally just the beginning of honoring legacies in the way this one did.
"[Once] we share the story about the legends, how do we keep this culture moving forward?" Rodriguez questions." It's our motto; it's our mission statement: Preserving the past, educating the present, influencing the future."
ISM's team hopes to raise enough capital to open up a museum at the Bronx’s Kingsbridge Armory, where they will build teaching recording studios for youth and adult producers and musicians
"The only way we're going to move forward is by creating," Rodriguez adds. "We don't move forward by recycling the same songs; we have to create."
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
10 Facts About Latin Music At The GRAMMYs: History-Making Wins, New Categories & More
For decades, Latin music has been an indispensable part of the GRAMMYs landscape. Ahead of the 2024 GRAMMYs nominations, here are some milestones in Latin music at Music’s Biggest Night.
The 2024 GRAMMY nominations are right around the corner — and as always, inspired Latin musical offerings will lie within the heart of the list.
While the Recording Academy’s sister academy, the Latin Recording Academy, naturally honors this world most comprehensively, it plays a crucial role in the GRAMMYs landscape just as in that of the Latin GRAMMYs — and there’s been crossover time and time again!
On Nov. 10, the world will behold nominations in all categories — including several within the Latin, Global, African, Reggae & New Age, Ambient, or Chant field. Within the world of Latin music, the awards are: Best Latin Pop Album, Best Música Urbana Album, Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album, Best Música Mexicana Album (Including Tejano), and Best Tropical Latin Album. The Recording Academy also offers a GRAMMY Award for Best Latin Jazz album, though that award is a part of a different field.
Like the Recording Academy and GRAMMYs themselves, these categories have evolved over the years. Along the way, various Latin music luminaries have forged milestones in Academy history.
Ahead of the 2024 GRAMMYs nominations, here are some key facts to know about Latin music’s history at the GRAMMYs.
The First Award For Latin Music At The GRAMMYs Was Given In 1975
The first winner for Best Latin Recording was pianist and composer Eddie Palmieri, for 1974’s The Sun of Latin Music. Now an eight-time GRAMMY winner, Palmieri took home the golden gramophone in this category at both the 1976 GRAMMYs and the following year for Unfinished Masterpiece.
At the 1980 GRAMMYs, the first group winner was the thrice nominated Afro-Cuban jazz band Irakere, for their 1978 self-titled debut.
Percussionist Mongo Santamaria holds the record for the most nominations within the Best Latin Recording category.
The Sound Of Latin Pop — And The Title Of The Award — Has Shifted Over 40 Years
Back in 1983, this category was called Best Latin Pop Performance. The first winner was José Feliciano, who took home the golden gramophone for his album Me Enamoré at the 26th GRAMMY Awards.
Best Latin Pop Performance eventually pivoted to Best Latin Pop Album and Best Latin Pop or Urban Album, then back to Best Latin Pop Album — just another example of how the Academy continually strives for precision and inclusion in its categories.
As for most wins, it’s a tie between Feliciano and Alejandro Sanz, at four. Feliciano also holds the distinction of having two consecutive wins, at the 1990 and 1991 GRAMMYs.
The Best Latin Urban Album Category Was Introduced In 2007
The first winner in this category was the urban hip-hop outfit Calle 13, for their 2007 album Residente o Visitante.
The first female nominee was Vanessa Bañuelos, a member of the Latin rap trio La Sinfonia, who were nominated for Best Latin Urban Album for their 2008 self-titled album at the 2009 GRAMMYs.
Here’s Who Dominated The Best Norteño Album Category
The first GRAMMY winner in the Best Norteño Album category was Los Tigres Del Norte, for their 2006 album Historias Que Contar, at the 2007 GRAMMYs. To date, they have landed four consecutive wins — at the 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 GRAMMYs.
The Intersection Between Latin, Rock & Alternative Has Shifted
Best Latin Rock Or Alternative Album; Best Latin Rock, Alternative Or Urban Album; Best Latin Rock/Alternative Performance… so on and so forth.
If that’s a mouthful, again, that shows how the Academy continually hones in on a musical sphere for inclusion and accuracy’s sake.
Within this shifting category, the first winner was Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, who won Best Latin Rock/Alternative Performance for 1997’s Fabulosos Calavera at the 1998 GRAMMYs.
At the 2016 GRAMMYs, there was a tie for the golden gramophone for Best Latin Rock, Urban Or Alternative Album, between Natalia Lafourcade and Pitbull. Overall, the most wins underneath this umbrella go to Maná, with a total of three.
These Artists Made History In Tropical Latin Categories
Over the years, this component of Latin music has been honored with GRAMMYs for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Performance, Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album, Best Tropical Latin Performance, and Best Tropical Latin Album.
The first winner of a GRAMMY for Best Tropical Latin Performance was Tito Puente & His Latin Ensemble, for "On Broadway," from the 1983 album of the same name.
This Was The First Latin Artist To Win Album Of The Year
Ten-time GRAMMY winner and 14-time nominee Carlos Santana holds this distinction for 1999’s "Supernatural," at the 2000 GRAMMYs.
This Was The First Spanish-Language Album To Be Nominated For Album Of The Year
That would be Bad Bunny’s Un Verano Sin Ti, at the 2023 GRAMMYs; Bad Bunny also performed at the ceremony, but Harry Styles ended up taking home that golden gramophone.
Ditto Música Mexicana — Formerly Known As Best Regional Mexican Music Album
The Inaugural Trophy For Best Música Urbana Album Went To…
The one and only Bad Bunny, for 2020’s El Último Tour Del Mundo. He took home the golden gramophone again at the 2023 GRAMMYs for Un Verano Sin Ti.
Keep checking back as more information comes out about the 2024 GRAMMYs — and how the Recording Academy will honor and elevate Latin genres once again!
Photo: Mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images
Celebrating Tito Puente's Centennial: 10 Essential Songs By The Mambo King
Born Ernest Anthony Puente Jr in 1923, Tito Puente has brought to the world some of the most exciting sounds of modern Latin Music — GRAMMY.com shines light on 10 must-hear songs by the King of Mambo.
Born and raised in Harlem, New York, Tito Puente follows a lineage of musicians who have pushed Latin American sounds to the future while holding onto traditional forms and century-old rhythms. There aren't many who could handle the burden of moving forward with an eye on the rearview mirror, but Puente, a son of immigrants, did it gracefully. Whether playing his famous, devilish timbales and his ever-precise vibraphones or arranging multiple orchestras sections, from brass to drums, Tito was a key-figure in shaping Latin American modern music in the U.S. and across the world.
Puente's life was intertwined with music from an early age. First a piano student (his mom enrolled him in a 25 cent class) and then a teenage dancer who loved drumming, he always showed a knack for going beyond reading music scores or reproducing the same old standards. In Tito Puente and the Making of Latin Music, ethnomusicologist Steven Loza, the six-time GRAMMY winner recalled mixing "jazz and Latin music all the time while I was a young kid, you know, studying."
A talented kid who was used to playing at every impromptu stage in Spanish Harlem and who got the chance to attend the Juilliard School of Music, Tito's credentials were solid by the early 1950s when he first started his professional career. From then on, the maestro enlisted in several projects, recordings, and collaborations. It didn't take long for him to become synonymous with the modern Latin Music that was beaming out of the Latino diaspora in the States. In the 1950s and '60s, Puente helped to shape a melting pot of identities that found common ground on the dance floor.
Tito was the go-to person for the likes of Celia Cruz or La Lupe and an inspirational figure for musicians such as Carlos Santana. Even during the '80s and '90s, he didn't quit touring and writing new music. Sones, montunos, boleros, merengues, salsas, cha cha chas, rumbas, and mambos: there's only so much Puente could carry in his bag, but he made a lot by reassembling all of these cards into more than a hundred albums, countless performances, and several all-time songs.
Tito Puente passed away in 2000, yet his legacy in Latin music continues unabated. In honor of his centennial birthday on April 20, GRAMMY.com revisits 10 essential songs in Tito Puente's canon.
"Oye Mi Guangancó" (1956)
Cuban Carnival is one of the first albums by Puente fully dedicated to celebrating Cuba's musical plethora — a diverse landscape of claves and patterns where he laid the foundations of his own work.
"Oye Mi Guagancó" revamps the traditional guagancó, a strain of the complex rumba family, demonstrating his innovative approach early on. Instead of reproducing the genre's essential form, Puente uses the different sections of the song as modules and blends percussion and brass with fine artistry: breakdowns free the way for his timba to shine while saxophones and trumpets wander through melodies and countermelodies that fit each other.
"Mambo Gozon" (1958)
Dance Mania was a club banger of its time. Released in 1958, the album unleashed a multicolored palette of Latin America-through-New York music with the sounds of Puente's youth wandering Spanish Harlem and sneaking into jazz clubs.
Tito Puente applied his theoretical learnings from Juilliard in clubs such as the Palladium Ballroom, where he quickly mastered the Afro-Cuban fast-paced, counter-metric heir of montunos that would make him a king: mambo. The genre represented a pivotal point, allowing Puente to arrange, conduct and perform creatively while making the crowd dance.
One of the highlights of this time, "Mambo Gozon" features flaring and poly melodic horns, rattling marimbas and scrapping guiras, chorus and ad-libs melded together into a single and ordered mess.
"Oye Como Va" (Live w/ El Canario) (1962)
Few songs have embraced so much of the Latin American spirit in popular music as "Oye Como Va." Released in the early '60s, this song was covered and revisited by a number of artists all across the world, from Santana's dreamy guitars to SoundCloud club-made remixes.
Showcasing his resourceful and inventive arranging skills, Puente imagined an ostinato piano (the guajeo pattern) that creates a cyclical build-up alongside horns and vocals filling up voids with an irresistible sing-along type of melody. The outcome is a genre-bending and yet straightforward take on cha cha cha — another of the several Cuban music genres that fueled Tito's orchestrations, which are reminiscent of Arcaño y sus Maravillas' "Chanchullo" to and the Champs' "Tequila."
In this live performance with Dominican singer Jose Alberto 'El Canario', whose flute-like whistle is nothing but amazing, Puente plays at ease — he knows this song is the strongest card in his pocket.
"El Mambo Diablo" (1963)
Historically, especially in Eurocentric cultures, percussion has played a supporting role in music — from their position behind the band to the fact that bandleaders are usually guitarists, pianists, singers. Tito Puente is amongst the most important artists in the world to have given percussion the weight it deserves, doing so with the help of timbales and also vibraphones, his second home.
In this live recording of "El Mambo Diablo," a young Tito showcases his skills as both instrumentalist and bandleader, moving swiftly from the main theme to a powerful crescendo and yelling to signal changes to his musicians. For Puente, percussion takes center stage.
"La Guarachera" with Celia Cruz (1966)
Celia Cruz, alongside La Lupe, stands out as one of the most remarkable female vocalists to have shared the frontstage with Puente. By the late '60s, Tito had already established himself as an eminent figure in the making of traditional Cuban music. This was when he first collaborated with Cruz, and their partnership continued for over a decade.
In "La Guarachera," Puente masterfully blends a frenzied mambo section into the typical guaracha form and engages in a thrilling call-and-response game with Cruz. As they challenge each other, Puente's timbas sound like vocals. This recording is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and iconic crossovers between Puerto Rican and Cuban music.
Fania All Stars - "Sabor Sabor" (1968)
If Tito Puente has formalized the wide, diverse Latin music idiom in the U.S., Fania Records did the same for salsa. The New York-based label transformed that club music that soundtracked frenzy nights for Latin, brown and Black youth dance into world-famous records — and have never left the dancefloor.
Fania All Stars, a dynamic big band featuring the label's top talent, including Salsoul's founder Joe Bataan, percussionist extraordinaire Ray Barreto, and Puente himself, is a testament to the label's incredible influence. Puente plays a supporting role on "Sabor Sabor," expertly setting the rhythmic pace that drives pianist Eddie Palmieri's feverish and incisive keystrokes.
"Que Falta Tu Me Haces" (1977)
Just like many of his peers, an early career Puente had to master a large repertoire of ballroom classics — from old-time sons, to newly arrived bossa nova tunes and boleros. All the drama and melancholy surrounding this genre seem odd to Tito's oeuvre.
But even in such an immense collection of upbeat and festive tracks, there's room for some sadness. In the 1977 album The Legend, the composer and arranger goes back to his origins with the wholehearted and bittersweet "Que Falta Tu Me Haces." Alongside Santos Cólon, another of his long-time collaborators, Puente delivers enticing vibraphone lines, an unusual element to bolero's deepness that fits in smoothly.
"Take Five" (1985)
Every jazz musician knows that standards not only provide a common ground for mingling and getting into the mood, but also offer an opportunity to show off and shine amongst peers. Tito Puente's rendition of Paul Desmond's timeless classic is a prime example of this.
Instead of the original song's odd 5/4 stride, Puente opts for a seemingly easier 4/4 pattern. However, it's precisely this welcoming arrangement that allows the maestro to showcase his creativity and take center stage. In his tasteful, upbeat take on "Take Five," Puente leaves ample room for his Latin Ensemble's individual talents to shine. And as the song draws to a close, Puente unleashes a multi-layered, fast-paced timba solo. It's like a minimal, swingy Art Blakey proving that, sometimes, less is more.
"Guajira Soul" (1988)
The relevance of Puente's work cannot be measured solely within the Latin American region and its diaspora. His work has had an impact across different genres, from rock to jazz, by forging sonic connections from the Caribbean to the rest of the world.
On 1988's Salsa meets Jazz, Tito collaborated with jazz saxophonist Phil Woods and revisited the works of legends like Dizzy Gillespie in "Con Alma."
Rather than replicating these masters or imitating the jazz idiom, Puente incorporated the trends and sounds of the '70s and '80s, from fusion to electric organs, demonstrating that there is more Latin music in jazz than one might imagine. His "Guajira Soul" is an excellent example of his skillful vibraphone playing in conversation with Mario Rivera's lively flute melodies.
"Mambo Kings Solo (Timbalero)" with Cesar Castillo (1992)
Tito Puente's influence on popular culture extends far beyond the realm of music. By the late 1980s, the legendary musician had already toured the world, earned GRAMMYAwards, and achieved recognition as the godfather of Latin modern music from North to South America.
A film appearance was just the icing on the cake. His character in the movie Mambo Kings is more than a cameo. Puente portrays himself as a talented musician who lends a helping hand to the Castillo brothers, who have left their hometown of Havana in search of opportunities in New York City. Multi-awarded actor Armand Assante is Carlos, who joins Tito into an impromptu timba jam (or descarga, in Cuban Spanish) in "Timbalero." The frantic and yet short-lived session reaches out to a deadly climax that couldn't be opposite to the joy of the song while embodying all of its energy.
Photo: CBS via Getty Images
GRAMMY Rewind: Tito Puente Dedicates His Best Tropical Latin Performance GRAMMY To A Very Special Fellow Nominee
It was a family affair for Tito Puente at the GRAMMY Awards in 1991. He and his younger cousin, singer Millie P., were both nominated in the Best Tropical Latin Performance category — and he made sure everyone knew it.
The 1991 GRAMMY Awards were a family affair for Latin jazz and mambo star Tito Puente, whose album Lambada Timbales won a GRAMMY for Best Tropical Latin Performance.
The project went head-to-head against albums by Luis Enrique, Willie Colon and Poncho Sanchez, but when he came up on stage to claim his award, he made sure to share his spotlight the sole female nominee in the category: his younger cousin, Millie P., who was nominated for Tito Puente Presents Millie P.
In this episode of GRAMMY Rewind, revisit Puente's heartfelt acceptance speech. Before his special dedication, Puente — dazzling in a silver sequin blazer and grinning ear to ear — quipped, "Muchas gracias, you all."
"I'd like to dedicate this GRAMMY this year to my cousin, who was voted also — conflict of interest," he said with a wink, "her first album recorded on RMM Records and a nominee for the first time, Millie P."
Although it was technically his moment, Puente had Millie P. join him on stage, and even gave her a chance at the mic. She spoke about her love for Puente and his music, and her pride at getting to stand on stage with him while he accepted his trophy.
"I feel like I'm the winner, really. Because if he wins, I win too," she said. "Because I love him very much."
Puente, who passed in 2000, won six GRAMMYs and received 12 nominations overall in his lifetime. Four of his wins were in the Best Tropical Latin Performance category, including the inaugural award in 1984; the category has changed names over the years, and is now known as Best Tropical Latin Album.
Press play on the video above to watch Puente's and Millie P.'s heartfelt speeches, and keep checking back to GRAMMY.com every Friday for more new episodes of GRAMMY Rewind.
Photo: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
1972 Was The Most Badass Year In Latin Music: 11 Essential Albums From Willie Colón, Celia Cruz, Juan Gabriel & Others
From salsa to psychedelia, Latin musicians around the world were experimenting in 1972. These 11 albums show the breadth of the year's musical creativity — and why, 50 years on, the sounds of '72 remain classic.
A pivotal year in Latin music, 1972 signified a coming-of-age. Latin music, at large, was expressing a desire to grow into something more meaningful and transcendent.
As always, Latin American countries fell under the spell of everything musical that was happening in England and the U.S. at the time: the eye-opening ambition of progressive rock, the healing fever of funk, the earnest instrumental virtuosity of jazz fusion. Perhaps reflecting a culture where individuality was so cherished, many Latin musicians absorbed the foreign sounds and ran with them into surprising, unexpected directions.
In New York and Puerto Rico, salsa became pluralistic and progressive. In Brazil, the military government’s invasive censorship only managed to sharpen artistic creativity instead of stifling it. From Argentina to Colombia and Mexico, rock delved into a singular strain of poetic symbolism, psychedelia and the adoption of a desired childlike innocence as a reaction to the stalemate of industrialized society.
Fifty years later, here are 11 essential Latin albums to treasure:
Milton Nascimento & Lô Borges - Clube da Esquina
A visionary singer/songwriter, Milton Nascimento emerged from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais armed with an instinctive understanding of Afro idioms and a wide-eyed reverence to the Beatles.
Clube da Esquina signaled a before-and-after for Brazilian culture. Conceptualized by an artistic collective that also included songwriter Lô Borges and a prodigious team of musicians and lyricists, the double-LP veers effortlessly from the sweet psychedelia of “Um Girassol Da Cor Do Seu Cabelo” to the country-pop nostalgia of “Paisagem da Janela” and the hymn-like fervor of “San Vicente.” The club reconvened for a second (and equally inspired) installment in 1978.
Tito Puente & Celia Cruz - Algo Especial Para Recordar
Until the end of her life, Cuban diva Celia Cruz never understood why the series of sessions she recorded with Nuyorican bandleader Tito Puente between the late ‘60s and early ‘70s received little to no promotion. The duo made an attempt to update its sound to compete for the attention of young, rock-obsessed listeners — to no avail.
Their last collaboration during that specific time, Algo Especial Para Recordar boasts a punchy, adrenaline-fueled sound, as Puente selects trusted nuggets from Celia’s catalog (“Tatalibabá,” “Cao Cao Maní Picao”) and demonstrates what a fantastic arranger he was. Even the bolero “Extraño Amor” is electrifying. Not surprisingly, this evergreen classic is still cherished by collectors.
Sui Generis - Vida
Ah, the innocence. South America fell head over heels in love with the Beatles and the Stones, folk-rock and the blues, and an entire generation of long-haired idealists decided to pick up guitars and record their own protest anthems — en español.
South American rock was stretching and expanding in 1972, and Sui Generis — led by Argentina’s resident genius Charly García — was one of its first supergroups (its career would end abruptly three years later with two massive shows at Buenos Aires’ Luna Park and a double live album.) This luminous debut is a historical artifact, and while the singalong naiveté of “Necesito” sounds a bit peculiar 50 years later, a track like opening gem “Canción para mi muerte” is melancholy and haunting.
Willie Colón & Héctor Lavoe - El Juicio
An intriguing paradox defines the salsa albums that Nuyorican trombonist, producer and songwriter Willie Colón recorded during the first half of the ‘70s with boricua singer Héctor Lavoe. On the one hand, tropical jams like “Piraña” and “Aguanile” brim with the kind of trombone-fueled intensity that makes them ideal for the dancefloor.
At the same time, these timeless classics are imbued in darkly-hued humor and a cosmovision that’s almost disturbing in its fatalism. The songs are fantastic and Lavoe’s dense, soulful, tragic vocalizing is unforgettable. Lavoe died in 1993, at 46.
Novos Baianos - Acabou Chorare
The soundscapes of bossa nova are gorgeous, but the movement’s obsession with its own sadness can get a bit tiring at times. With that in mind, the young group Novos Baianos used their second album (which translates to “Enough Crying) as an excuse to celebrate the more joyful aspects of Brazilian folk.
The result is an exhilarating collection that delves into samba-rock with panache and electric guitars, anchored on the gorgeous vocal interplay of Moraes Moreira, Paulinho Boca de Cantor and the lovely Baby Consuelo (whose post-Novos Baianos solo work is worth seeking out). Opening track “Brasil Pandeiro” sums up everything that is wondrous about Brazilian music — the effortless bonhomie, the percolating syncopation. No wonder it was named the country’s greatest album of all time in a 2007 poll conducted by the local edition of Rolling Stone magazine.
Fania All Stars: Live at the Cheetah, Vol. 1
No album has managed to capture the New York salsa explosion in all its glorious combustion — but this is as close as it gets.
Recorded live at the Cheetah Lounge in New York with a spectacular orchestra at the top of its game — every single artist, a star in their own right — Live at the Cheetah is the first installment of a two-volume epic. The album includes an explosive version of Cheo Feliciano’s “Anacaona” with Larry Harlow on piano and a simmering “Descarga Fania” with Ray Barretto vocalist Adalberto Santiago. Cheo and Adalberto are joined by Héctor Lavoe, Pete ‘El Conde’ Rodríguez, Ismael Miranda and veteran singer Santos Colón on the 16 minute-long “Quítate Tú,” trading vocal lines in mock competitive spirit.
Juan Gabriel - Juan Gabriel (aka El Alma Joven II)
The Mexican balada movement was on fire during the early ‘70s, as young stars like José José and Juan Gabriel turned three-minute love songs into mini-pop symphonies marked by sophisticated orchestrations. Juan Gabriel’s second album was an artistic and commercial winner from its inception: a batch of his buoyant pop hooks and lavish arrangements by Eduardo Magallanes and Chucho Ferrer. The opening brass line and supple drum beat of “No Puedo Olvidar” set up the stage for the sonic delights that follow.
Erasmo Carlos - Sonhos E Memórias – 1941/1972
Most people know Roberto Carlos as the Julio Iglesias of Brazil — the best-selling artist in Brazilian pop. Only studious fans are aware of the fact that Roberto wrote most of his hits in partnership with singer/songwriter Erasmo Carlos (the artists are not related).
Even better: while breaking records with Roberto, Erasmo also recorded a series of stunning solo LPs exploring art-rock and psychedelia, folk-pop and jazz-soul. This elusive, introspective autobiographical trip is Erasmo’s masterpiece — criminally underrated when released but reevaluated in subsequent decades. “Meu Mar” is probably the dreamiest Brazilian track you will ever encounter.
La Sonora Ponceña - Desde Puerto Rico a Nueva York
Inspired by Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson, Puerto Rican pianist Papo Lucca inherited his father’s orchestra in Ponce and brought his idols’ exquisite harmonies to a rugged salsa orchestra. The combination created an edgy balance, a pungent contrast, and La Ponceña would quickly become one of the most aristocratic outfits in tropical music.
This 1972 session finds the band in a particularly aggressive mood, anchored on a tight rhythm section and the imposing vocals of stars Tito Gómez and Luigi Texidor. Opening cut “Prende El Fogón” is worth the price of admission.
Malo - Malo
The hazy mystique of early ‘70s Chicano rock — the fusion of laid-back Afro-Cuban grooves with jazzy chords and velvety vocals — has resisted the passing of time particularly well, as the elegant debut by this 12-piece San Francisco combo can attest. A down-to-earth version of the more celestial Santana, Malo featured the guitar of Carlos’ brother, Jorge Santana, as well as the percussion chops of Coke Escovedo (Sheila E’s uncle) and the expressive singing of Arcelio García, Jr. Sweet and funky, “Suavecito” is a California classic.
Gato Barbieri - Last Tango in Paris (Original Soundtrack)
In 1972, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci pushed the envelope with his new film: a radical psycho-sexual narrative with Marlon Brando as a suicidal middle-aged man. Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri, already known for his ambitious Latin jazz epics, happened to be touring Italy.
He played a few original tunes for Bertolucci, and the director selected the now legendary theme on the spot. Recording the soundtrack involved getting a piano to a fifth floor apartment in Rome, but it was well worth it. Seeped in an almost delirious ocean of sadness, “Last Tango in Paris” is arguably Barbieri’s most gorgeous composition.