With a career spanning over 60 years, Eddie Palmieri’s contribution to the Latin music canon is unparalleled. Whether it’s his intervention in jazz, salsa, funk, and even boogaloo, Palmieri is a trailblazer whose genre-busting sound managed to survive generations of shifting tastes and trends. From hits like “Azucar” to the fiercely political “Idle Hands,” his oeuvre traverses the American jazz community, encompasses the consolidation of salsa and New York City’s rise as a Latin music hub, and even touches base in the protest music world.
Beyond his innovative technical approach, Palmieri is a powerful activist in his native Bronx. His commitment to social justice is perhaps most visible in Harlem River Drive, an exuberant, funk-driven slapper of a record that censures the super-rich and demands justice for communities of color in 1970s New York. Palmieri and his band famously broke into Sing Sing Correctional Facility in 1971, performing the record for inmates and guards.
Forty-five years later, New York’s Red Bull Music Academy Festival is revisiting Harlem River Drive in the form of a free concert. To celebrate the occasion, we spoke to five Latinx musicians who have studied Palmieri’s music and extracted its influence for their own work. At a time when black and brown communities face continued attacks in the form of overpolicing, immigration raids, and racism, Palmieri’s music remains as influential as ever.
Jeremy Bosch, Puerto Rican composer and vocalist
“I would say that Palmieri’s legacy influenced my music and my career greatly, as a composer, arranger, pianist and icon in Latin music, not only in salsa, but in jazz and world music. I think it’s safe to say that he is one of the ‘Last of the Mohicans,’ in the sense that he was there before [salsa] started, during its development, and even after many of the legends that were [his contemporaries] passed away, he continues to perform and dazzle audiences around the world with his music. Some call it the heavy metal of salsa, because of his uniquely aggressive sound.
I was in Puerto Rico and I went to his concert at the Coliseo Roberto Clemente. It was enlightening and unforgettable. I still remember everything about that concert. I was a young, ambitious, teenage musician watching some of his favorite singers perform their greatest hits with Palmieri. La India, Lalo Rodriguez, Herman Olivera, and the recently deceased, late, great Fania All-Star member Ismael Quintana. Funny enough, I just saw Palmieri and his band in Puerto Rico two months ago at the Dia Nacional De La Salsa. It was dedicated to him!
[Back then], I believe that the process of production was way more raw, collective, and specific in terms of the search for a sound. Each band in that era (i.e. Sonora Ponceña, Ray Barretto, Roberto Roena, Ismael Rivera, Gran Combo, etc.) had a very specific sound. Eddie Palmieri was no exception.”
El Bles, Puerto Rican beatmaker
Eddie Palmieri “reminds [me] to keep an element of surprise and anticipation. To also keep that human touch in music, that ‘feeling.’ I don’t recall ever seeing an Eddie Palmieri performance that didn’t feel like he was rippin’ his heart right out of his chest and handing it to you. He splits every atom into his music. I’d love to mirror that.
I’m sure it was my pops who put me on to him. He helped me distinguish Palmieri’s sound from the other bands and piano players. Pops helped me develop a huge appreciation for his sound.”
According to El Bles, the way music was made back then, there was “a lot more soul! Less shiny, raw and gritty. Just pure fun and genius.”
Flaco Navaja, salsa singer, poet, and actor
“I think most importantly, his legacy gave me permission to be innovative, to use all musical influences to be creative.
I feel like I have been aware of Eddie’s music all of my life. His Gold album is just that – gold! ‘Justicia’ is the first song I memorized the lyrics to. Also ‘Deseo Salvaje,’ sung by Lalo Rodriguez, is one of my favorite love songs.
With a career that has lasted over 50 years, Eddie has had various eras. It’s hard to comment on one. It is amazing how timeless his music is. On May 21, I have the honor of being a vocalist on his latest project, Harlem River Drive Revisited! He is still innovating. He is not resting on his laurels. Still creating. To be a part of that legacy means the world to me.”
Irka Mateo, Dominican singer-songwriter and folklorist
Mateo says Eddie Palmieri has influenced her work through “his vision of fusing Black and Latin sounds. I felt a mix of euphoria and surprise [when I first heard his music].
It was the magnificent era of discoveries, a whole new music world opening in front of us. Back then was the Nuyorican culture clash in New York City and other than the unique Palmieri there was the music of Cachao, Joe Bataan, and Machito Orchestra. In Jamaica, there was Bob Marley, in the rock scene Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, and in the jazz scene, Pat Metheny, John Scotfield, and Jan Garbarek. In Latin America, there was the nueva canción movement, social and political lyrics in the music, interpreters and composers [like] Silvio Rodriguez in Cuba, Los Guaraguao in Venezuela, Atahualpa Yupanqui in Chile, and Mercedes Sosa in Argentina. In the Dominican Republic the documentation and re-interpretation of the folkloric rhythms was in vogue and led by ‘Convite’ where Luis Días, this iconic Dominican composer and interpreter, started his prolific career.”
Pedrito Martinez, Afro-Cuban percussionist and santero
“I first saw Eddie Palmieri perform at the Blue Note in NYC in 1999. I was immediately impressed with his energy. I found his performance to be inspiring and very exciting.
The most memorable playing experience I’ve had involving Eddie was being part of the Grammy-winning album he and Brian Lynch did in 2011 called Simpatico. Eddie contributed great songs and his playing gave the music a very powerful lift.
As a person, Eddie is very sweet and humble. And he has been a great supporter for me, personally. I can remember a couple of nights when he came to see my group at Guantanamera, a Cuban restaurant that we used to play in in NYC. I was honored to have him there and appreciated it very much.”