Bringing Tito Puente’s Fire to a New Generation

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A review by Giovanni Russonnelo for the New York Times.

There was a sense of long-awaited catharsis on Saturday night at the Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture in the South Bronx, as the Mambo Legends Orchestra plowed through a blazing set of Tito Puente’s most famous tunes. It was a proud capstone on the center’s three-day festival, Tito Puente Retrospective: 50 Years of ‘El Rey,’ which was both a celebration and a corrective.

Led by the percussionists José Madera and John Rodríguez (known as Dandy), both longtime Puente associates, the 20-piece band ran through a range of work by the so-called King of Latin Music, from the buoyant mambo of “Qué Será Mi China” to the romantic bolero “Tus Ojos.”

“It’s the first time anyone’s done a three-day retrospective — worldwide,” said Joe Conzo Sr., a Puente confidant turned historian who helped organize the weekend. “It’s never been done in Latin music. Not for Machito, not Desi Arnaz, not Xavier Cugat.”

The festivities handled nearly the full scope of Puente’s career, which spanned well over 100 albums and stretched from the end of World War II to his death in 2000. (The performers appeared to disregard the festival’s rather arbitrary conceit, which suggested, questionably, that Puente had entered a more jazz-influenced phase in 1967.)

But, crucially, the proceedings went beyond celebrating one famous man; for three days, and especially on Saturday, the Hostos Center became a site of intergenerational exchange around Latin music culture and practice, with various points of entry. It included a documentary screening, three concerts, discussions and workshops — aimed at everyone from young children to emerging musicians to older enthusiasts.

Mr. Conzo is right: This kind of celebration is rarely given to the city’s Latin music tradition, though it runs nearly as deep in the New York soil as jazz (even if it is not as globally known). The music of East Harlem and the South Bronx in the postwar years represents a creative flush at a time of broad progressive consensus and national economic boom. Like bebop and early rock ’n’ roll, midcentury mambo and what would eventually become known as salsa will always bear the aspirational residue of their time. Even today, they ring with the inspired resonance of new substances colliding.

Tito Puente was born to Puerto Rican parents in 1923 in East Harlem, known as El Barrio. There he learned piano and saxophone and, ultimately, Afro-Cuban percussion. He also absorbed the influence of jazz kit drummers like Gene Krupa, and composers like Duke Ellington.

He joined the prominent Cuban bandleader Machito, then — after a stint in the Navy — formed his own band. Almost immediately he was headlining at the Palladium Ballroom, Latin music’s haven.

Puente, by then, was playing the timbales, the tightly tuned drums that are the sparks on Latin dance music’s skillet. He was among the first timbaleros to add cymbals, and to mount a cowbell high above his drums, letting it reverberate. He incorporated two extra timbales into his set, and relocated, along with his fellow percussionists, to the front of the bandstand. At a time when visual media were proliferating, and musicians were developing a treacherous new primacy over their dancing audiences, Puente moved to re-emphasize the physical spectacle of performance.

A big part of Puente’s victory was his simple ability to convey the joy of music through movement: his lunges at the drums, half-athletic and half-exerted; his spin moves; his crisscrossing stick work.

A deft arranger, he invested hits like “El Cayuco” and “Cuál Es La Idea” with vocal hooks and chattering exchange between the brass and the reed sections, but the Afro-Cuban rhythms held their primacy. In 1955 he was the most prominent American bandleader to release an all-percussion album, initiating a trend.

Santana’s 1970 cover of Puente’s “Oye Como Va” became a worldwide hit, but it was not until the 1980s and ’90s that he saw his legacy fully embraced around the world.

“He was surprised by it,” Mr. Conzo said. “He used to look at the crowds on the road and say, ‘Who’s playing here?’”

At Hostos, attendees of Thursday’s documentary screening and Friday’s concert — “Puente for a New Generation,” featuring a band of younger musicians playing his older tunes — were well aware of his regnant status. Most appeared to be longtime listeners with their own memories of the King.

But Saturday morning began with a couple of programs aimed at the area’s youngest residents, produced in collaboration with Lincoln Center’s Boro-Linc program. The musician and educator Jadele McPherson led a crowd of about 50 through a basic lesson in Afro-Cuban clave rhythms. Immediately after, the bassist Carlos Henriquez, a curator of the festival, gave an interactive concert.

There was a lot of talk last weekend about keeping Mr. Puente’s music alive: his songs, his recordings, his story. But these educational events went beyond that, and they’re what felt loaded with the greatest weight: The music’s raw materials were being handed down to a future generation, as if to clear a path for further development.

When people lament the loss of instrumental music among youth, they are not lamenting the passing of a style so much as the changed circumstances of music-making. Well before computers revolutionized pop music, places like the South Bronx had lost many of their arts programs, and with them, access to instruments. (Hostos is the area’s only performing arts center.)

And there are ripple effects. On Saturday afternoon, Mr. Madera and Mr. Rodríguez joined their fellow percussionist Annette Aguilar in hosting a master class. Amateur musicians packed the room, asking questions that rightly belonged at a regular jam session. But there are hardly any venues where Afro-Cuban drumming is performed regularly today.

One man in his 30s told Mr. Madera that he did not sense a lack of interest among youngsters. “You guys, in all honesty, are hard to reach,” he said. “There’s nowhere we can find you.” (In an interview that week, Mr. Madera had voiced a similar lament. “There are no places to play,” he said.)

Speaking backstage on Saturday, Mr. Henriquez remembered spending time with Puente as a teenage musician in the Bronx. “He was a nice guy,” he said. “He treated me like a fellow musician, very professional. And the longer I lingered, the more I started to see his humor.” In other words, this was a man of global renown who never lost a sense of symbiotic exchange with his hometown.

If his influence abides, it will be thanks to initiatives like the one at Hostos, giving children and aficionados the opportunity to learn the basics, commune with elders and experience his music as a catalyst for something else.

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