Red Bull’s Siempre Fresco program touched down in Miami earlier this October, the first edition of the weekend-long “celebration of nu-Latin electronic music and its identity and its history.” Intended to bridge the generational gap between the new and old school of Latin music, the program brought together salsa legend Larry Harlow — a.k.a. el Judio Maravilloso — with a who’s who of new wave Latin parties across the country: Austin’s Peligrosa collective (Orión, Manny, El Dusty), DC’s Moombahton Massive (Dave Nada, Sabo, Matt Nordstrom), NYC’s Que Bajo?! (Uproot Andy, Geko Jones), and Miami’s Mr. Pauer of Electropico. Ten musicians, one performance; an experiment to see what happens when the clave meets the computer.
Harlow encouraged the creation of Siempre Fresco in response to the shifting role of salsa in popular culture as Latin identity evolves, venues dry up, and his comrades become less active or pass away. “It’s very interesting– I don’t think this had ever been done before– I think this is the first time a full live band and myself have played with nine different DJs, ” he mused. “It’s funny to think– how’d they find me, a Jewish guy, playing salsa music with nine DJs in Miami at a college.”
Though it seemed unlikely to Harlow, in a way, this direct collaboration was an inevitable next step for the new school collectives, many of whom developed their signature sounds in part by sampling musicians like him. Toto Gonzalez–a.k.a. Mr. Pauer–noted, “It’s a matter of keeping the evolution going. Salsa wasn’t a pure sound…it [has roots in] basic drumming, patterns from Africa. After talking to Larry, what they were doing with Fania back in the day is basically just like us– grabbing from soul, from funk, from cha cha cha, from mambo, and then creating a new sound, way before it was called salsa.”
In Manny’s eyes, this era represented “the punk rock of the big band sound. Jamming it out, extending it, dressing really crazy.” Orión, elaborating on this, commented, “[Larry’s] someone from a Jewish New York perspective; he’s looking at it differently than a Latino would. He’s mixing styles together, and not playing it traditionally. He had to learn the way it was played…he’s an experimenter, a producer, in exactly the way we are. Fania led a movement of music; that’s the same thing we’re doing.”
Harlow’s unorthodox involvement in Latin music culture was rooted in classic New York nightlife spot the Palladium Ballroom– “the Latin dancehall,” as he puts it. “It was owned by a Jewish guy, he knew I was underage, and it was 75 cents to get in. I used to collect soda bottles and milk bottles to save up to go see Tito Puente and Machito. I learned how to mambo and cha cha, and once I was in Havana [for school] it was like cha cha heaven. So I hung out after the school closed and I would travel with the band on the buses, my friends were all musicians and I was too scared to play with them…I was a kid, just learning.”
Watching an afternoon of rehearsal unfurl at Miami Dade College, it quickly became clear the performance would have to be largely improvisation-based due to time constraints. Either this was going to be an epically awesome free-form jam session, or an awkward half-baked show. “This thing is a total experiment,” Andy told me at one point. “It’s putting two types of musicians together that are sort of diametrically opposed in a lot of ways. These guys, their whole thing is being live, being acoustic– [Larry’s] talked a lot about the way playing to a click track takes out the soul of the music. It’s really an exploration so the rehearsal was like, can this work?”
“It’s not like I show up and drop the needle and everyone goes crazy–a lot of work goes into creating the spaces that I get to show up to.”
The answer is maybe. The show that night, booked at trendy music venue Bardot in the city’s Design District, underscored the importance of a backdrop friendly to experimental and underground sounds. At 2 AM, only a few songs into his set, Andy was kicked off the decks by the club owner, who wanted to hear house music.
It was unfortunate, but Andy didn’t let it phase him. The next day when I asked him about the incident, he said “It’s not like I show up and drop the needle and everyone goes crazy–a lot of work goes into creating cultural spaces that come with an expectation, come with references, and preconceived notions– the reason this scene exists and is growing is very much because of the work people put in to create these spaces in all these different places where I’m lucky enough to get to play. It’s all thanks to them. So being in those kinds of situations like last night makes you appreciate all the people that are creating the good spaces for us to work in.”
The main live event at downtown club Grand Central the following evening with Larry Harlow, Marlow Rosado y la Riqueña, and the four crews, had a more cohesive outcome. Each DJ crew did a live set while the band improvised over the tracks– Mr. Pauer worked his roots as a drummer using a digital drumpad; Peligrosa brought a high-energy turntablist vibe to the stage with MLKMN making a guest appearance on the mic; Moombahton Massive provided a steady, deep house-rooted beat after opening with Otto Von Schirach on stage to emcee his Miami bass mutations. Dusty summed it up best when got on the mic to say, “We didn’t practice this shit, we’re just doing this shit for ya’ll– let’s go!”
The performance felt–as intended–like an experiment, revealing certain moments when the live band was noticeably working to navigate the key and tonal changes of the pre-planned electronic tracks. One of the more successful moments of the night was Que Bajo?!’s set, with Andy taking control during his track “Worldwide Dembow” to direct the percussionists for the build of the track– a dynamic the musicians carried over while improvising over global bass staples like Munchi’s “Sandungueo” or Andy’s “Homenaje a Justino.” Harlow jumped on the mic at one point, playfully inviting people to dance to fill out the dance floor, offering up a bottle of champagne to the best dancer.
Technical aspects aside, the real success of the event seemed to be the conversations that came out of the experience. As Peligrosa, for example, plans to launch a label in December, the advice they extracted from Larry was essential was valuable input as they grapple with how to grow a movement beyond the party-throwing ambit.
“None of us are ever going to get more popular than Pitbull, but they’re seeing that these subcultures are also valuable.”
As Orión put it, “A lot of paths don’t have bridges between each other, and it’s hard to get from one place to another. There’s a lot of parallels between Larry’s generation and our generation. For me it was awesome to come to that realization, and I think for him he also came to that realization as well– that as young kids doing music, whatever it is, we’re struggling to figure out in what context it fits and how we can continue doing this for the rest of our lives. Larry figured out how to do it in his time, and now we’re trying to figure it out for our time.”
Dusty, who recently signed with Universal Music, is already witnessing signs that these subcultures could blow up on a bigger scale. “The big guys are opening their eyes to the small subcultures that are coming up. None of us are ever going to get more popular than Pitbull, but they’re seeing that these subcultures are also valuable. Punk rock became a multimillion dollar industry because some label head believed in them…they’re professional risk-takers. A lot of this stuff hasn’t come out yet, but me, seeing it from the inside, I’ve seen a lot of the bands that these guys are working with, and they’re a lot of the musicians that I’ve been playing with in my band for years– so it’s like, alright, here we go, we’re starting to come up. It just goes up and up every year.”
Now that entities outside of the scene are taking notice of cultural currents below the Pitbull radar, the question becomes– what do the artists of this underground want the future to look like, as they’re approached by mainstream opportunities? What are lessons that can be learned from the past through these intergenerational exchanges, and what are the mistakes not worth repeating? In Larry Harlow’s case, his missteps with former labels have inspired him to encourage younger artists to protect their rights and intellectual property– but on the cultural level, what else can we learn from?
Just as Larry Harlow was not an island to himself–his craft emerging from immersion in New York’s Latin culture at the birth of the Fania era–these artists and their successes are not islands to themselves either. The crews selected to represent new Latin culture this weekend are surrounded by artists and organizers that identify beyond the all-male roster at Siempre Fresco, who are working just as hard to propel the movement forward, who are building platforms that make venues that want to kick us off the decks a non-issue. When these lineups are assembled, a statement is inevitably made on the value of such contributions.
With the launch of Siempre Fresco and likeminded series as a welcome option for funding independent artists’ sustainability–this being Red Bull’s first program targeted specifically at Latin artists in the United States–comes the chance to make a statement. Who will be included in this dialogue, and who, ultimately, will be afforded self-sufficiency?