Larry Harlow, a Salsa Revolutionary

In some ways, Larry Harlow — one of many central figures of salsa and its defining label, Fania Records — was a grasp at mixing the various musical connections between New York and the Caribbean. In a profession that spanned six a long time, he stitched collectively overlapping genres like rock, jazz and R&B and numerous Cuban genres like rumba, son and guaracha via intimate, soulful information of each musical traditions.

Harlow grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and studied classical piano. His father, Buddy Kahn, was a Jewish mambo musician who led the home band at New York’s Latin Quarter membership. The musician and scholar Benjamin Lapidus writes in his new ebook that Jews had been sponsoring Latin dances with reside bands as early because the 1930s in New York City. Harlow got here out of a custom of mamboniks, Jews who danced mambo at areas like Midtown’s Palladium, numerous spots in Brooklyn and the Catskills resort circuit. Jewish musicians like Marty Sheller typically wrote preparations, and radio D.J.s like “Symphony” Sid Torin and Dick “Ricardo” Sugar promoted the music. Immortal Latin band leaders like Tito Puente frequently performed the Catskills, a area the place younger musicians like Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, who grew to become a Harlow collaborator, minimize their enamel.

Yet Harlow, who died on Friday at 82, needed to transcend the Europeanized mambo efficiency kinds heard within the Catskills and be true to the music’s African roots. He traveled to pre-Castro Cuba within the 1950s and returned decided to mix what he discovered with what was occurring in New York, creating a fashionable synthesis of the normal and the avant-garde. Seeking acceptance amongst core post-mambo musicians, he even went as far as to change into initiated to the Afro-Caribbean faith of Santería to stake his declare to authenticity and earn respect from the music group.

“Here was a Jewish guy hanging out with all these Cubans and Afro-Caribbeans,” he informed me in a 2004 interview. “I figured when in Rome, do like the Romans do.”

Harlow by no means tried to faux he was not who he was. Even after attaining insider standing within the Santería group, he was typically photographed carrying a Star of David round his neck. He was affectionately identified by Spanish-speaking audiences as El Judío Maravilloso (the Marvelous Jew), a sobriquet given to him due to his devotion to the music of the blind Afro-Cuban bandleader and mambo progenitor Arsenio Rodríguez, often called El Ciego Maravilloso (the Marvelous Blind Man). When he selected, within the early 1980s, to launch an album known as “Yo Soy Latino” (“I Am Latino”), the lead vocalist who delivered the lyrics was the much-loved Puerto Rican singer Tito Allen.

Beyond immersing himself in Afro-Carribean spirituality, Harlow was straight concerned within the evolution of salsa music, collaborating with Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci, the founders of Fania. According to Alex Masucci, Jerry’s surviving brother, Harlow was the primary artist contracted to report for Fania. His first few albums, “Bajándote: Getting’ Off,” “El Exigente” and “Me and My Monkey,” which incorporates a model of the Beatles tune “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” traded on the bilingual, R&B-influenced bugalú sound, which united Black and Latino listeners.

Harlow’s transfer away from búgalu to a jazz-influenced replace on Rodríguez’s extra Africanized conjunto sound — which added extra trumpets and percussion like conga and cowbell — was essential for salsa’s gestation. His mix of jazz, mambo and conjunto would change into one of many main influences on the rising thought of salsa. While Eddie Palmieri and Willie Colón’s modern use of trombone gave the horn sections a extra aggressive, city sound, Harlow and Pacheco’s affect was additionally decisive. Harlow’s early ’70s releases, “A Tribute to Arsenio Rodríguez,” “Abran Paso” and “Salsa,” crystallized his new aesthetic. He pioneered recording with each trumpets and trombone. He gave the Cuban charanga sound, which featured flutes and violins, new life. And he integrated the batá drum, utilized in non secular ceremonies, into his decidedly secular venture.

Harlow exulted within the spirit of the late 1960s — Rubén Blades informed me he was the “Frank Zappa of salsa” — and was a voracious collaborator. His bilingual Beatles cowl and the album paintings for “Electric Harlow” flaunted psychedelic type. He performed piano for Steven Stills and Janis Ian, and had a rock-jazz venture with the Blood, Sweat & Tears keyboardist Jerry Weiss. In 1972, after Miranda left his band briefly, he painstakingly tailored the Who’s “Tommy” because the salsa opera “Hommy,” transferring the unique British characters to New York’s Latino barrios.

Although salsa’s burst in recognition in the course of the mid- to late 1970s was natural, feeding off the hip younger Latino audiences from the Bronx and Uptown, Harlow helped it blow up by taking a main producing function in Leon Gast’s vérité live performance movie “Our Latin Thing.” The movie was a breakout occasion for the Fania All-Stars, a supergroup that includes Ray Barretto, Colón, Cheo Feliciano, Pacheco and plenty of others, with Harlow on piano. Last week Masucci informed me that Harlow was the connection to each Gast’s involvement and the looks of genuine Santería devotees that seem late within the movie. In 1976, he recorded a celebratory musical historical past, “La Raza Latina Suite,” with Blades singing in English.

Though Harlow wasn’t born into the traditions that birthed salsa, all through his profession he was extensively accepted as a pillar of the music. He was one in a lengthy line of Jewish musicians who’ve performed a key function in Afro-Caribbean music, going all the way in which again to Augusto Coén, a Jewish Afro-Puerto Rican who led a Latin massive band in 1934 that was a predecessor to the mambo kings Puente, Machito and Tito Rodríguez. (The change went each methods: Even the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz, recorded the Jewish people tune “Hava Nagila” along with her band La Sonora Matancera.)

For Harlow, mixing cultures and genres was merely second nature. In 2005, he contributed a wide-open keyboard solo to “L’Via L’Vasquez,” on the Texas psychedelic punk band the Mars Volta’s album “Frances the Mute” — a alternative that shouldn’t be thought-about out of the strange. Several musicologists and writers have acknowledged the affect of Cuban bass patterns, known as tumbaos, in addition to cha cha cha patterns, on early rock hits like “Twist and Shout,” and “Louie Louie.” To Harlow, the connection between rock and Latin, funk and salsa was pure, a product of the period when he got here of age.

“It was revolution time,” he as soon as informed me. “People were writing songs about protest, and me and Eddie and Barretto were changing the harmonic concept of Latin music. I was the one who psychedelicized them a little bit.”