New York Music Daily

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Category: salsa music

Spanglish Fly Push the Envelope with a Classic, Slinky Latin Soul Sound

Much as the hypnotically clattering opening track on Spanglish Fly’s new album Ay Que Boogaloo! is titled Bugalú pa’ mi Abuela, this isn’t your grandmother’s latin soul. For the the past few years, Spanglish Fly have been putting a spicy horn-driven spin on the classic sounds that percolated out of Spanish Harlem in the mid-60s, when the local Puerto Rican and African-American populations started what would become a legendary musical cross-pollination. Much as this is dance music first and foremost, the new album is packed with neat instrumental touches that flash by so fast that it’s hard to keep track.

And much as the record – recorded live to two-inch analog tape, available on delicious vinyl and streaming at Bandcamp -pays mucho respect to the greats who came before, several generations of Nuyorican multi-disciplinary artistry are represented. To kick it off, El Callegueso guests as emcee, as do a number of poets and personalities from across the decades on several of the tracks.

“This is Subway Joe talking to you from way back,” the godfather of latin soul, Joe Bataan grins as New York Rules slinks along. It’s a shout-out to the B train (and the scary shit that every New Yorker risks every time we swipe through, or jump the turnstile). The closing interlude, with its sly Ellington quote, is irresistibly fun even if it’s kind of obvious

The band reinvents Amy Winehouse’s You Know I’m No Good as Chica Mala Mambo, a brooding, simmering groove under Mariella Gonzalez’s gritty vocals, part brass and part smoke. Morgan Price’s smoldering baritone sax rises out of a jungle of percussion and coros on the outro.   

Ojalá-Inshallah dances around a catchy, anthemic brass chart, proto-Afrobeat and latin soul mashed up like Hugh Masekela might have done it in the late 60s…but with hints of Arabic music. As with the rest of the tracks here, there are all kinds of tasty tradeoffs and interplay, in this case between Kenny Bruno’s piano and the percussion section – timbalero Teddy Acosta, conguero Dylan Blanchard, bongo player Ronnie Roc and drummer Arei Sekiguchi.

Gonzalez celebrates the Spanish Caribbean/New York, rural-to-urban connection in the summery La Clave e’Mi Bugalú, punctuated by a tantalizing breakdown, Bruno’s organ shimmering behind the horns and a thumping thicket of percussion. The most distinctly retro number, with its sultry jazz harmonies from the two frontwomen and mashup of jump blue and latin soul, is  Boogaloo Shoes – tenor saxophonist Matt Thomas steps out on that one. 

Mister Dizzy Izzy – a shout-out to Salsa Magazine founder Izzy Sanabria, featuring actor Flaco Navaja – hides an oldschool son montuno tune inside the band’s intricate interweave and a blazing crescendo driven by trumpeter/bandleader Jonathan Goldman.

Aretha sang about Spanish Harlem, but the group really take her sound there with a smoking,, boogaloo-ized reinvention of Chain of Fools, with sizzling baritone and tenor sax breaks, and percussion by Snowboy.

Swinging along over an incisive, LA Woman-style electric piano and organ groove, Coco Helado features an unexpectedly somber cameo by poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips. They wind up the party with the mighty noir soul anthem How Do You Know/Cómo Sabes, Paloma Muñoz’s richly brooding vocals over the uneasy, brassy backdrop that morphs into a streetwise call-and-response at the end. Goldman and the rest of the band find it appropriate that this multi-lingual, multicultural female-fronted mashup would be one of the first albums recorded during the scary first days of the current Presidential administration. If Putin’s big fat obese bitch in the Oval Office survives impeachment, he can always go see these guys at the Kennedy Center.

Spanglish fly’s next gig is at 8 PM on April 20 on a twinbill with wild Fela cover band Chop & Quench at Flushing Town Hall; cover is $16/$10 stud, and ages 13-19 get in free with school ID.

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Jose Fajardo, Jr. y Sus Estrellas Give a Hot Kickoff to This Year’s Monthly Latin Dance Party Series at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez didn’t waste any words introducing Jose Fajardo, Jr. y Sus Estrellas to inaugurate this year’s edition of the monthly Vaya 63 dance party series this past evening. The eleven-piece oldschool Cuban-style charanga also let the music do the talking, sending more than one shout-out to Puerto Rico throughout two tirelessly undulating sets. Now based in Florida, the bandleader continues a tradition that his famous dad began about seventy years ago. With a mix of familiar and often iconic material, they turned the atrium dancefloor into a Cuba, or a Spanish Harlem, of the mind, four decades ago, sounding as fresh as you possibly want on a January night.

The eleven-piece, oldschool Cuban-style charanga had the dancers out in full force with the first tumbling chords of the piano. They began with a brief bounce through his famous dad’s theme song. Transcending the deep-freeze outside, they followed with a long romp through Muñequita, first recorded by the senior Fajardo in Cuba and re-recorded for Fania in the 60s. Trills and flutters from the flute and violin and no-nonsense guy/girl vocals from Fajardo and his sister Ines pulsed hypnotically, working the crowd with a catchy Guantanera style hook and a final trick ending.

They broke down the indomitably, clave-fueled minor-key anthem after that with a lushy, swoony interlude where the pianist suddenly hit his string synth patch in tandem with the violins before leaping back in, Fajardo taking a long, serpentine break on timbales. His sister brought a simmering intensity to a moody, wounded, bolero-tinged ballad – nobody would have known this was the first time she ever sang it live if she hadn’t told the crowd that afterward.

“An oldie but a goodie,” said Fajardo Jr. as the band launched into a singalong Guantanamo, whose hints of Veracruz folk wafting across the water to Cuba gave way to an expansive, emphatic, leaping violin solo midway through and then a big timbales/cowbell break that was just as epic. The clave got more intense behind the moody flute and edgy flamenco-flavored violin break on the next number.

And that was just the first set. Anchored by fat bass and the incisive piano over a mesmerizing percussive groove, the band wound their way through slinky cha-cha and more hyper, leaping rhythms as the crowd twirled and shot video. If you’d been there, you probably would have done the same. 

The next dance party at Lincoln Center’s atrium space just north of 62nd St. on Broadway is Jan 26 at 7:30 PM with Burnt Sugar playing a tribute to the livewire 70s Dayton, Ohio funk scene, featuring songs by the Ohio Players, Lakeside and more. Admission is free; get there early if you’re going.

Changüí Majadero Bring a Rare, Slinky Oldschool Cuban Sound to New York This Weekend

“It’s gonna be an amazing night,” Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh beamed, a couple of hours ago.  “Our programming is designed to represent the best of New York and beyond. Even though they’re from East LA, and Cuba, Changüí Majadero represent the kind of quality that we need at Lincoln Center.” She was on to something.

Changüí Majadero play the roots of salsa with a slinky passion. It’s the kind of Eastern Cuban dance music that was popular back when US gunboats were self-destructing in Havana harbor and mishaps like that were blamed on the occupying Spanish forces. It’s a soundtrack for rum and lechon parties on the beach that last for days. Which is to say that the six-piece band play it that way. It’s what the Buena Vista Social Club guys’ grandparents would have listen to as kids.

The tingly, metallic chimes of bandleader Gabriel Garcia’s tres opened the first song of the night, Guararey de Pastora. Roberto Bauto Segarra had a very serious reason for writing this undulating, crescendoing vamp: to placate his mother-in-law, who didn’t like him. Reggae-like polyrhythms between the tres and David Gomez’s 6-string bass percolated throughout this song, and much of the rest of the set, testament to the influence of Jamaican music. Lots of cross-pollination floats across the water in the part of the world this music comes from.

A bouncy tres riff and friendly, conversational trumpet from Roque Garcia kicked off Popurri De Sones, a catchy, upbeat ballad with jaunty harmonies between Garcia and frontwoman/guayo player Norrel Thompson. The bandleader took pride in telling the crowd that he’d written Pa Cuba Me Voy, a fearlessly political shout-out to the island: the packed dancefloor responded with a spontaneous clapalong.

Jorge Ortiz’s bongo de monte opened the steady, pulsing Mayumbero. His twin drums differentiate from your typical set of bongos since one is tuned with the usual drum pegs, but the hardware on the other is fire-tempered, and the sound is boomier. That might be a Haitian influence, considering that Haitian lights are visible across the water from Guantanamo.

The group went back to vampy, matter-of-factly rising proto-salsa in Me le Llevo al Megaton, the guy/girl vocals slowly rising toward fever pitch as the dancers twirled in front of the stage. The deadpan, sardonic Peor Es la Envidia dealt with “Haters that you can’t get off your back,” as the bandleader put it; Gomez’s soulful, serpentine solo echoed Garcia’s tres lines as the percussion section bubbled and clattered behind them. 

They finally, finally slowed it down a little bit with Canconera, sung with wounded poignancy by Thompson over a similarly brooding, bolero-tinged bass groove punctuated by the chime of the tres and a mournful trumpet solo. It was the best song of the night. La Rumba Esta Buena, with its graceful minor-key riffs, was also pretty chill.

From there the band took a fat, bass-centered, trumpet-fueled departure into oldtime Cuban son and followed with the catchiest song of the night, which also most closely foreshadowed the sound that would become classic oldschool salsa in the 1960s and 70s. At the end of the show, the group left the stage and led the crowd in a parranda around the space.

Changüí Majadero are at SOB’s this Monday, Jan 15 at around 10; what’s even better is that the show is free. If you missed the Lincoln Center gig, this is a rare chance to see rural Cuban party music that doesn’t sound like it belongs in a museum. If you’re lucky they’ll play Un Burro y un Elefante, their wryly spot-on critique of American politics written in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election. 

And the next show at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is this Jan 18 at 7:30 PM with classic oldschool Cuban-style charanga José Fajardo Jr. y Sus Estrellas. These free dance parties are wildly popular – if you’re going, get there early.

Avenida B Turn Lincoln Center Into a Lower East Side Salsa Hideaway

Emcee and NYU professor Carlos Chirinos grinningly told the crowded dancefloor at Lincoln Center this past evening that salsa dura revivalists Avenida B’s show was “Designed to get you to come back every month.” And it looks like pretty much everybody here does. The couples didn’t wait to get their twirl on while oldschool salsa hits resounded through the atrium space just south of 63rd Sreet. The monthly dance party series there is called Vaya 63 – get it?

This was a real throwback show – it wasn’t hard to imagine frontman/crooner David Frankel and his octet grinding it out in some tightly packed Lower East Side social club forty years ago. With twin trombones, congas, bongos and cowbell, piano, bass and coros, the group mirrors the multicultural lineups of the great bands of the Fania years. Frankel explained that as the son of a popular Lower East Side bandleader in the 80s, he “Basically grew up with a salsa band underneath me, from birth.”

The band opened with a couple of dark, undulating originals, minor-key piano tumbling elegantly over the waves of beats and the trombones’ nocturnal lustre. Frankel kept a close eye on the dancefloor: “That’s the way to do it!” he announced, inspired by a veteran couple close to the stage. 

Did Lluvia Con Nieve hang overhead, gloomy and cold? Not really: as the band broke it down to punchy brass riffs, with a little suspense from the piano in between verses, it fit in with a day that forty years ago would have been called unseasonably balmy. There were hints of vintage James Brown and glittering Fender Rhodes psychedelia in their take of Cañonazos. They wound up the first set with a stormy new one, Paradoja, driven by an ominous, lingering bass riff, the band getting into it with Frankel who by now was showing off some dance moves of his own.

They picked right up where they left off, starting the second set with Que Humanidad, a blustery stomp centered around a ridiculously catchy four-chord riff. The next number was Guaguanco, “But you’re gonna hear a lot of different styles,” cautioned Frankel, and he wasn’t joking, in this Cuban-Loisaida mashup of rhumba, mambo and gritty Nuyorican flavor. They contrasted the fire of Timbalame with a balmier original inspired by Frankel’s teenage dreams of Latin America and the Caribbean, then made coy salsa out of the jazz standard All of Me and wound up the show on the slinky tip, alternating between classics and originals.

Avenida B’s next gig is at Taj II, 48 W 21st on Nov. 6 at 9 PM. And fans of edgy music from south of the border ought to check out witchy singer Edna Vazquez and her band, who are at the atrium on Nov 2 at 7:30 PM. The concert is free, the earlier you get there the better.

A Blue Note Stand and a Tour From Perennially Fiery Latin Jazz Icon Eddie Palmieri           

At this point in his career, latin jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri has nothing left to prove. Is he a NEA Jazz Master yet? If not, let’s get those wheels in motion before Trump and his minions get rid of the NEA altogether. In the meantime, Palmieri has just released a new album, Sabiduria (“wisdom” in Spanish), his first since 2006, streaming at Bandcamp. He’s celebrating that, and his eightieth birthday, with a week at the Blue Note leading a septet starting tonight, Oct 10 through the 15th, with sets at 8 and 10:30 PM. You can get in for thirty bucks – and if you’re not in New York, you can catch him on US tour right afterward if you’re in the right place.

The core of the band on the new album is Joe Locke on vibes, Luques Curtis on bass, Anthony Carrillo on bongos and cowbell, Little Johnny Rivero on congas and Luisito Quintero on timbales, with a long list of special guests – as usual, everybody wants to play with the guy.

It opens with the aptly titled Cuerdas Y Tumbao, a mighty largescale take on a classic, whirlingly celebratory charanga sound. After the string section develops some pretty otherworldly textures, there’s an Alfredo de la Fe violin solo and then a chuggingly energetic one that Palmieri builds to a pretty far-out interlude himself, grinningly half-masked behind the orchestra.

Palmieri famously wanted to be a percussionist but switched to the piano because the competition wasn’t so intense, and the rest is history. That backstory vividly informs Wise Bata Blues, with its punchy, tumbling rhythmic riffage and a similarly kinetic, dancing exchange of solos from trumpet and alto sax, the bandleader choosing his spots with a tongue-in-cheek suspense and a lefthand that hasn’t lost any power over the decades.

Marcus Miller’s snappy bass kicks off the album’s title track, a bizarrely catchy retro 70s mashup of latin soul and psychedelic rock, fueled by Ronnie Cuber’s deliciously acidic baritone sax and David Spinozza’s sunbaked guitar riffage over Palmieri’s dancing incisions. Then the band flips the script with the serpentine guaguanco groove of La Cancha, Locke’s wryly chosen spots contrasting with de la Fe’s stark, insistent solo as the charanga blaze caches fire.

Donald Harrison’s modal sax spirals uneasily in Augustine Parish, a bracingly salsafied blues, up to a hypnotic streetcorner interlude from the percussion crew. Then Palmieri goes solo with Life, a pensively energetic, neoromantically-tinged prelude. The group follows that with the slinky, noir-tinged Samba Do Suenho, Locke’s lingering lines contrasting with Palmieri’s gritty drive – it might be the album’s best track.

Spinal Volt rises from a balmy intro to a blaze of brass and and an energetic exchange of horn solos throughout the band. The Uprising switches back and forth between a casual vocal-and-percussion descarga and a mighty anthem that brings to mind McCoy Tyner’s 70s catalog, with dueling saxes to wind it up.

The steady, Monk-like Coast to Coast slowly brings the sun from behind the clouds, Palmieri and Harrison leading the charge down and then back from a trippy tropical bass-and-percussion break. Driven by Curtis and the bandleader’s relentless attack, the mighty blues shuffle Locked In is the album’s  hardest-hitting number. It winds up with the epic Jibarita Y Su Son, shifting from a  thicket of percussion to a classic salsa dura groove lit up with a fast-forward history of Afro-Cuban beats from the percussion. It’s inspiring to say the least to see a guy Palmieri’s age putting on as wild a party as this one with a group which also includes drummers Bernard “Pretty” Purdie and Obed Calvaire, percussionists Xavier Rivera, Iwao Sado and Camilo Molina, saxophonists Louis Fouché and Jeremy Powell, and trumpeters John Walsh and Jonathan Powell.

Charanga America Provide Some Uplift in a Dark Time For Puerto Ricans

A full house was already on their feet and dancing as golden-age 60s and 70s charanga music played over the PA at Lincoln Center this past evening. Their monthly Friday night Vaya 63 dance party series at the atrium space just south of 63rd Street has become a New York institution and draws major players from across the decades. Charanga America, based in the Bronx since their beginnings in the late 70s, were the latest to get a multigenerational ocean of bodies slinking and twirling, a rare appearance by a band who still enjoy a big fan base.

In the devastation left behind by the hurricane, it’s certain that there were plenty of people in the crowd still uncertain about how their loved ones are doing. But as lead singer Jorge Maldonado insisted, “Puerto Rico will rise again.” This time out, Eliot and George Maysonet Jr., scions of a five-decade Nuyorican music legacy, led the musicians – in this current incarnation, a hefty ten-piece charanga – in place of their dad, George Sr., the group’s founder, who was unavailable.

Where classic Cuban big band salsa music relies on brass, classic Nuyorican charangas typically feature violin and flute. This version of the group currently has two of the former and one of the latter: barely a couple of minutes into the first brightly vamping number and their bespectacled lead violinist was firing off a long, wildly shivery solo.

The flute took flight on the next groove as the rest of the the sharply dressed group – on elegantly tumbling piano, fat punchy bass, hypnotic congas and wryly emphatic timbales – ran a bubbly, upbeat 1-4-5 Afro-Cuban riff behind the trio of singers.

They waited until about a third way through the show before they broke out their signature 1978 hit,  Ayúdame San Antonio, steady clave from the woodblock contrasting with the lushness of the strings as the flute bobbed and weaved in between the call-and-response of the voices. A swaying mambo featured a biting, suspensefully syncopated, blues-infused Ely Rivera piano solo.

As the night went on, the music grew more majestic and enveloping, a big cha-cha ballad followed by the funnest and funniest tune of the night, an irrepressible 99-percenter anthem capped off by a high-voltage violin solo. The only thing that could have possibly have made this more fun, in a distinctly New York way, would have been a big steaming plate of maduros straight from the pot – with a squeeze bottle of hot sauce. Charanga America don’t play live much anymore but if you get a chance like this…now you know what you don’t want to be missing.

And the free, frequent Thursday night, 7:30 PM concert series at the atrium continues this Sept 28 with hypnotic Niger duskcore guitarist/bandleader Mdou Moctar.

The Battle of Santiago Bring Their Wild, Hard-Rocking Latin Dancefloor Jams to Red Hook

The Battle of Santiago sound like no other group on the planet. Ostensibly, they’re an Afro-Cuban dance band, but that’s just for starters. They also bring elements of Afrobeat, dub, south Asian sounds and even a little stadium rock to their undulating, serpentine dancefloor jams. They’re bringing their wild live show to Pioneer Works in Red Hook at 8 PM on May 14; the show is free.

Maybe more than anything, the Battle of Santiago are all about contrasts. They fill the sonic picture from boomy lows to airy highs over a clattering, hypnotic beat from Sty Larocque’s drums in tandem with the congas and percussion of Reimundo Sosa and Magdelys Savigne. Their album La Migra – an obvious reference to the terror facing displaced persons and immigrants these days – is streaming at Bandcamp.

It opens with the stormy, seven-minute jam Aguanileo, part shamanistic call-and-response chant, part Afrobeat and part dub, awash in ominous low brass and Lyle Crilly’s resonant guitar as bright alto sax flutters overhead. The second number, Rumba Libre sets distantly fiery, tremolo-picked guitar and a hypnotic interweave of horns over a circling, qawwali-like groove. In Pa’ Bailar, the band sticks with that pulse but picks up the energy, burning electric guitar anchoring the sax and Elizabeth Rodriguez’s violin. Congo is much the same, centered around a bright, anthemic Hawaii 5-0 brass hook.

After the music box-like miniature El Viajes del Bata, a balafon solo, the band brings back the bluster with Asi Vengo Yo, a blazing, galloping, cinematic theme awash in nebulous atmospherics, spiced with guitar, sax and a little reggaeton. Barasu-Ayo is a diptych, opening with a lively santeria chant over bubbly balafon, then picking up with a brisk Afrobeat drive and a scurrying Jason Hay baritone sax solo. With cloudbanks of synth slowly turning overhead, it’s the album’s most hypnotic number.

Se Me Complica, a big, dramatic Afrobeat jam, bounces along with clip-clop percussion. The album winds up with Bomba Grande,  a launching pad for a long, treetop-brushing bari sax solo. For those who like like Radiohead and Pink Floyd but wish that you could dance to them – or who would like Fela better if his music was more focused and heftier – this is your jam.

The Pedrito Martinez Group Play Rugged, Sophisticated Cuban Grooves at Lincoln Center

The Pedrito Martinez Group are Lincoln Center favorites. Their Friday night show there felt like a block party. There was a comfortable, multi-generational, multicultural afterwork crowd in the house for the latest in the ongoing series of concerts by world-class acts from across the world of latin music. Lincoln Center calls it Vaya 63 since the atrium space is just south of 63rd Street.

The music was slinky, and raw, and irresistibly physical. With just piano, bass, percussion and lots of call-and-response vocals, Martinez kept the dancers on their feet for about an hour and a half. When a couple would sit down for a breather, another would spring up to take their place. It is physically impossible to sit still and listen to this band – your body rebels and begins to hurt. Much as there’s a gritty, no-nonsense, streetwise feel to their music, it’s also extremely sophisticated. Martinez plays a hybrid kit that includes both congas, snare, cymbals and plenty of other bangable objects. He was rocking his usual Yankees cap, this one with a bright gold metal logo.

Because he’s a generous bandleader and likes to keep company with musicians who have chops as daunting as his, Martinez switched to cowbell while his longtime co-percussionist Jhair Sala took a turn on the congas: it turned out to be the most boomingly adrenalizing solo of the night.

Throughout the set, they teased the crowd with false endings. Pianist Edgar Pantoja-Aleman opened the show with a display of elegant classically-tinged phrasing before buckling down into energetically tumbling salsa riffs and cascades. Meanwhile, bassist Sebastian Natal played with a growly, incisive tone, often spicing his hypnotic lines with hints of reggae or bachata. While the clave was always present, it also wasn’t ever completely straight up – there was always something going on between the beats, or against the beat, not to mention the constant jousting between Martinez and Sala. They hit a quasi-triplet gallop midway through which brought the rhythmic drive to a peak. They finally led the crowd in a familiar one-two, one-two-three clapalong at the end.

While the group didn’t take the songs as far into jazz territory as they can, they never stayed in one place for long, even as a tune would go on for ten or twelve minutes. Sala beckoned for “all the single ladies” to come down front and sing coros with him; a little later, they launched into a long, undulating take of Que Palo that started out crepuscular and mysterious but by the end was a triumphant anthem with polyrhythms and vocals from everybody. Pantoja-Aleman opened a recent Martinez original, Dios Mio – an OMG-good moment – using a cheesy 80s salsa romantica DX7 synth patch, but by the middle of the song, the congas were thundering and he was back on the piano. As the set went on, the jams got longer, with more sparring between band members. They closed with a joyous singalong of the salsa standard Bacalao.

“I’ve never known them to play with a setlist,” one audience member in the know revealed: Martinez simply called out the tunes and the band knew them. Martinez’s next gig is tomorrow night , Feb 28 at  7 PM at Subrosa on Gansevoort St.; cover is a measly $7. Then they hit the road for a long international tour. 

And the next dance party at the Lincoln Center atrium space, on March 16 at 7:30 PM features the first-ever US performance by the master musicians of the Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde in Essaouira, Morocco with Maalem Hamid El Kasri, Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane and special guest Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, leader of wildly popular NYC ensemble Innov Gnawa.

Spanglish Fly Bring New Relevance to SOB’s

Spanglish Fly packed the dancefloor at SOB’s last night. There would have been more people out there if had the club had moved more of the tables out, although plenty of the diners eventually ended up hitting the floor. For the rest of the posse who’d come out on one of the coldest nights of the year, Spanglish Fly’s psychedelic blend of classic salsa and oldschool soul kept everybody listening.

Spanglish Fly’s irrepressible sense of fun matches their originality. On one hand, they work a well-loved New York style of music: boogaloo, the magical Afro-Puerto Rican blend that first fermented back in the 60s in Spanish Harlem. On the other hand, Spanglish Fly are pushing the envelope. Just as Chicha Libre would take a theme by, say, Erik Satie and make a psychedelic cumbia out of it – and make it work – Spanglish Fly made a slinky dancefloor smash out of a familiar Woody Guthrie song. Bandleader/trumpeter Jonathan Goldman explained that his new version of This Land Is Your Land – retitled Esta Tierra – celebrated the same idea of of a world without borders, and without anti-immigrant bigotry, that Guthrie envisioned. And if there’s ever been a time to fight fire with fire with that idea, that time is now. That got the most applause of the night.

They set up that number with Ojala-Inshallah, aloft on a blast of tight, heavyweight minor-key horns over a careening clave pulse, spiced with Kenny Bruno’s tumbling Afro-Cuban piano.  As singer Palome Munoz put it, it’s about wishing for a better world. They’d gotten the night started with Boogaloo Shoes, trombonist Vera Kempster taking the first of several spine-tingling, uneasily sliding solos – she felt the room and then went with it.  Bruno brought both gospel and postbop jazz to Micaela, a slithery clave soul number.

With her powerful low register, Munoz brought the lights down to every ounce of noir in Amy Winehouse’s You Know I’m No Good. The band made straight up salsa dura out of it at the end, with another over-the-cliff trombone solo and then a jungle of polythythms with the four-man percussion section -drummer Arei Sekiguchi, conguero Dylan Blanchard, bongo player Ronnie Roc and timbalero Teddy Acosta – going full steam. 

A tight, terse instrumental version of Chain of Fools opened with a machinegunning bongo solo while Rafael Gomez ran that classic bass riff, Bruno adding rich washes of organ as the horns and percussion blazed overhead. The show hit a peak with La Clave e’mi Bugalu and its evocation of the classic 70s Fania era salsa. And that was just the first set.  SOB’s has been the band’s home base lately, at least when they aren’t doing weekly residencies at Barbes. Watch this space for their next big dance shindig. 

A Latin Music Legend Up Close and Personal at Lincoln Center

Back at the atrium just south of 63rd Tuesday night to hear Ruben Blades think on his feet and entertain an adoring, sold-out crowd with philosophical insights and some hilarious yarns from a career full of surprises. In a one-on-one discussion with NYU professor Carlos Chirinos, the iconic Panamanian-born salsero was in a characteristically expansive mood. Which makes sense, considering that Blades is one of the greatest lyricists and musical storytellers to emerge in the 20th century.

Blades has a sense of irony as sharp as his name (his grandfather was British; it’s pronounced that way). One of the night’s funniest moments was when Blades recalled how, as a teenage law student in Panama City, he got called in to the dean’s office after being spotted crooning at an after-hours spot. Forced to choose between music and school, he chose…drum roll…school! But after the 1968 coup d’etat there, Blades’ mom – a fine singer in her own right and a major musical influence – sent him packing to New York, to help him “stay out of trouble,” as he put it.

There he reconnected with Fania Records honcho Jerry Masucci, who’d heard Blades jamming one night at Panama City’s lone professsional studio and invited him to record at an unspecified future date. The date almost didn’t happen; when it did, Blades revealed with the hint of a sardonic grin, he didn’t consider it a success – neither the album cover nor the tracks on it have stood the test of time, he averred. Then the opening number played over the atrium’s PA, Blades intoning a disclaimer right from the first few bars: “Any resemblance to any persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” As usual, Blades was looking to the future, in this case, to explaining away this gangster tale as a work of fiction so as to sidestep the attentions of the authoritarian regime in power at home.

Blades relished recounting how many influential DJs thought that his monster hit Pedro Navaja was destined for commercial failure. But more than taking pride in how the over-seven-minute song paved the way for longer songs on latin radio – just as Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone had helped transform the AM rock format – Blades recounted how it was arguably the first salsa hit to feature a heroine who kills in self-defense rather than being cast as villain or victim. Blades also couldn’t resist getting a dig or two in at the critics who assailed arranger Luis Ortiz – “who’d only written charts for about two thousand songs,” Blades recalled – for taking Blades’ advice to break the clave and bring down the rhythm in a crucial moment of suspense.

And in the context of 2017, it was something of a shock to hear how relatively freely Blades was given the green light to record his pioneering song cycle Buscando America, which is esssentially an album-length short story. That a large record conglomerate would allow one of their top-selling artists to have any creative control at all, let alone put out a defiantly populist avant garde suite without a hit single was almost as much of a pipe dream in 1984 as it would be now. Again, Blades had the last word over the critics and the naysayers.

Otherwise, Blades momentarily touched on but didn’t go into much detail about his acting – a side gig he fell into, more or less, which snowballed from there. He also didn’t expand on his political work, including his  Panamanian Presidential campaign or his job as Minister of Tourism there, which put his music on ice for six years. What is the future for latin music? Chirinos wanted to know. Bright, and cross-pollinated, was Blades’ answer. He’s got a grand total of six separate albums currently in the works, as well as a theatre piece and another possible run at politics on his home turf. Now well into his sixties, Blades hardly looks the part of an eminence grise: there’s plenty of fight left in him.

This evening was part of a new collaboration between Lincoln Center and the NYU Music and Social Change Lab, launched last year.