Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Latin Music USA launched on PBS

Documentary follows the evolution of Latin music
''Latin Music USA'' will air in two parts, the first two segments at 9 p.m. Monday, and the second two at 9 p.m. Oct. 19 on WPBT-PBS 2.

When the Fania All-Stars played a legendary concert at Yankee Stadium in 1973, the stands were filled with 63,000 people who were so crazy for the radical new music called salsa that they stormed the stage. It was a bigger audience than the 55,000 who turned out for the Beatles' famed show at Shea Stadium eight years before. And yet there was almost no mention of the event in mainstream media, as if, for most of the country, one of the biggest concert events to take place in America hadn't happened.

A four-part PBS documentary aims to tell the story of that concert and the largely unknown history of Latin music in the United States, a rich tale of a vibrant music mostly ignored and misunderstood by its home country. Latin Music USA, which begins at 9 p.m. Monday on WPBT-PBS 2 and PBS nationally, fills in the role Latin music plays in American music, from the Cuban and Mexican influence on early rock and roll to the way reggaeton allowed young U.S. Latinos to find their own place in hip-hop culture.

Produced by Boston PBS station WGBH, the series tells the quintessentially American story of immigrants combining their musical heritage with the music of their new home, to create something that could only have happened in the United States.

``What we set out to do is place this story in the great stream of the American story,'' says Elizabeth Deane, Latin Music USA's executive producer. ``This is American music, these are American artists.''

Deane and fellow WGBH producer Adriana Bosch came up with the idea for the series in 1997, as a Latino version of Deane's award-winning history of rock and roll. Concentrating on the role Latinos played in American music was a way to focus an enormous subject, and make it compelling to both Latinos and a broader audience.

``We started out saying, what is Latin music? Bossa nova? Andean flute? Corridos?'' says Bosch, the series' Cuban-born senior producer and director of its fourth segment, Divas and Superstars. ``For Latinos, it's a question of history and memory and validation. We have had a very large impact on American music, and we are part of the history of this country.''


The first segment, Bridges, reaches back to the 1940s to show the creation of Latin jazz, or Afro-Cuban jazz, as Mario Bauza, the Cuban bandleader who first linked Cuban rhythms and American jazz, called it, and the mambo explosion. The Salsa Revolution tells the story of Fania and the creation of salsa in New York in the '70s, while the third section, Chicano Wave, shows Mexican-American figures like Richie Valens, Selena, Linda Ronstadt and Los Tigres del Norte, ``the most famous band that North Americans never heard of.''

The last hour, Divas and Superstars, looks at Gloria Estefan, the ``Latin Explosion'' ignited by Ricky Martin in 1999, crossover, reggaeton and the vital role that Latin pop plays in staking out a place for Latinos in American pop culture and identity.

Narrated by Jimmy Smits, the project does a fine job of weaving together explanations of the music itself, the way it rose from and affected the mainstream, and of capturing Latin music's energy and appeal. Bridges not only depicts the considerable musical achievements of artists such as Bauza, Machito, Chano Pozo, Dizzy Gillespie and Tito Puente, but the excitement and social ferment of the era, where Latinos, blacks, whites and Jews mixed it up on the dance floor of the famed Palladium nightclub, whose most famous dancers, a black Puerto Rican, Pedro ``Cuban Pete'' Aguilar, and a white Italian American, Millie Donay, electrified a crowd, and eventually a nation, even in segregated 1950s America.
Bridges also illuminates hidden links between mambo and mainstream American music. Mambo and cha-cha-cha rhythms found their way into rock classics like the Rascals' Good Lovin and the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction. It turns out that pioneering rock promoter Bill Graham was a Palladium ``mambonik'' whose love of Cuban rhythms led him to promote seminal San Francisco rocker Carlos Santana. We see Tito Rodriguez, one of the big three mambo era bandleaders, spinning on the dance floor in a way that looks almost identical to the Puerto Rican homeboys who would help invent breakdancing decades later.

``It's remarkable how resistant the American mainstream is to the Latino voice,'' says Bosch. ``Yet the music reverberates through so many genres.''


Along the way there are terrific stories and personalities. Santana, high on LSD for his career-making Woodstock performance, wrestling the guitar he thought was a snake and praying ``just keep me in tune and in time and I'll never do this again.'' The famous ``Wanted by the FBI'' album cover and poster for gangsta-styled salsa pioneer Willie Colon that had people calling the feds for a reward. Mexican-American country music star Freddie Fender (real name Baldemar Huerta), who wrote the hit Wasted Days and Wasted Nights on toilet paper, and was living in a converted chicken coop when he was discovered by an American producer.

Divas deals with the often maligned but crucial effect of crossover and the Latin explosion that saw Martin, Marc Anthony, Shakira and Jennifer Lopez become mainstream stars. Bosch credits Gloria and Emilio Estefan for pioneering that crossover, and the shrewdness of pop architects like producer Desmond Child, who talks about designing the video for Livin' La Vida Loca so that Martin seems like a modern-day Elvis Presley, a reincarnation of a familiar pop icon.

Bosch found justification for Latin pop's importance, even if the music was watered down for the mainstream, in an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical In The Heights, which he was inspired to write by the success of the ``Latin explosion.'' Miranda said that ``young Latinos were so hungry to see themselves represented in the mainstream that it didn't matter how `authentic' the sound was,'' Bosch says. ``Just the presence of the Latino voice in the mainstream, and the acknowledgement that we were here and a presence in society was enough.''

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