How Latin soul was born
There are certain musical genres that, despite their short duration on the public stage, marked history to such an extent that they continue to be named and taken into account when analyzing the process experienced by Latin music in the United States. One of them is Latin soul, which is defined as a musical genre born and developed in the 1960s in New York City, such as in the case of many of the rhythms we have today.
Latin soul was born of the mixing of Cuban mambo and some elements coming from the American version of soul and Latin jazz. Even though it was a set of rhythms that became relevant only in the aforementioned decade, it played a particularly valuable role in the salsa movement that was starting to take shape at that time.
One of its most striking characteristics is that it places a lot of emphasis on its Afro-Cuban rhythms, but at the same time, most of its songs are in English, which reveals an extremely interesting mix of Cuban and American cultures. After to have acquired a little more specific style, it started to become popular among New York-based Latin artists, who used the emerging genre to win over communities of their respective countries and local media at the same time.
Among the greatest exponents of Latin soul is Joe Bataan, an American of Filipino descent who is regarded as the most famous vocalist of the genre. Something that made him really different from the rest of the artists of his kind was the merger between American soul and salsa that was already sounded at that time. For this and many other reasons, Bataan is still seen as one of the greatest idols of those golden years of music.
Bataan, Willie Colón, and other performers represented the emergence of a generation of musicians whose formation was the street itself and the harsh experiences occurring it. At the same time, there were others who had an academic background and studies that made them play and behave otherwise. When the union between both groups took place, the result was a display of talent that is still turning heads. All those who were trained in academies and on the street joined the new oncoming wave of rhythms.
An important detail about this is that the Latin audience in general was eager to look for artistic role models through which to reflect their daily lives. We must remember that many of these people lived in poor conditions in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, so many did not really identify with educated music that came from the music academies and schools. All that changed greatly after the emergence of a group of artists who wanted to have their own place in the Anglo-Saxon entertainment business. In some cases, these young people came from an origin very similar to the one that has been described.
This led to the creation of groups and orchestras in which formal and sophisticated music training had to coexist with other styles emerging from the humblest alleys in certain Latin neighborhoods. Music had ceased to be an elitist thing and would go on to become a mixture of different flavors and colors that were gradually brought together as the decades of the ’60s and ’70s went by.
Around this time, the figure of Monguito Santamaría (Cuban percussionist and bandleader Mongo Santamaría’s son) emerged, who would be his biggest inspiration to take the path of music. The boy studied piano and proved a great talent for leading bands, but he needed something to push his career, since the mere fact of being a legend’s son was not going to guarantee the success he longed for. This led him to be carried away by the current of Boogaloo, another nascent genre that had gained overwhelming popularity at the time.
From there, Monguito created his own orchestra and invites some of his schoolmates to join him, which resulted in a quite complete group in which these guys designed their own American R&B versions and sounds and an accent that made them much closer to the African-American community that loved soul and funk. This made them put aside the Latin community for a while, but that would change sooner than expected.
Long after Monguito completed his musical studies, he and his band decided to audition for Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci. Let us not forget that Santamaria and the rest of his orchestra had a typically American vision of music, but they did not put aside the Cuban heritage behind them, so they always included songs in genres from the Caribbean island. This pleased the Fania All-Stars so much that they agreed to work with the orchestra, which adapted to the exigencies of the record label without losing sight of their goal: making music for Latinos in New York.
This is how Monguito and Bataan became the Fania artists whose repertoires were more inclined to Latin soul. In view of the great success that Mongo’s son had with his projects on the label, he continued to immerse himself in the aforementioned rhythm and to enter Boogaloo, whose popularity was at its peak at that time.
The bad news is that there were a set of factors that did not help the musician to make history as he wanted. One of them was the birth of salsa orchestras that perfectly read the social moment that lived by the poor Latin neighborhoods of the United States, a point on which Monguito stayed in the past. He and his musicians may have been better than many other bands of their generation, but they did not know how to read the historical moment when they were in. This and his little promotion in much of Latin America made much of his legacy be buried and forgotten.
Eddie Palmieri’s role in this process
American bandleader and pianist of Puerto Rican descent Eddie Palmieri played a very important role in the process carried out by Latin music during its evolution into what we know today. The artist radically changed the way Latin music was perceived thanks to his spectacular mix of Afro-Cuban rhythms and certain touches typically of Latin jazz.
During the heyday of Boogaloo and Latin soul, Palmieri did his best to mix the best aspects of soul and funk with these Cuban rhythms, which would in turn be united with a typical revolutionary message of those years. Thanks to all these messages captured in his lyrics, the musician’s repertoire became more and more present in acts promoted by leftist movements and his music was brought to several prisons, giving it a nuance of denunciation that was very difficult to ignore.
In contrast to other talents of those years, the New Yorker cannot be classified as a salsa, Boogaloo or soul musician. This is because he knew how to handle all genres and combine them in a novel way for that time.