August 10, 2007

El Cantante Hits the Stars, Misses the Roots

By Roberto Lovato
New America Media

NEW YORK – For a single memorable moment, it appeared that real life and film had actually intersected in El Cantante. During the opening night at a cineplex near Times Square of the J-Lo and Marc Anthony movie about the salsa music legend Hector Lavoe, the digital film projector went out, sending the staff scrambling to fix the problem for fear of what the sellout crowd of mostly Puerto Ricans in the audience might do. There were grumblings, some whistling and calls for “refund!” but in the end, enthusiasm for salsa music prevailed.

As the audience started clapping a clave (beat arrangement around which the complex, ancient rhythms & syncopations of African & Afro-Cuban music are organized) a handsome, goateed young Boricua (Puerto Rican) man in a colorful guayabera (summer shirt) got up from his seat near the front of the theater and started the call and response with “Mi Gente,” one of the Lavoe songs featured in the movie. “La- la- la- la- la- la- la,” called the young man, and the men, women and children in the audience, some of whom got up from their seats to dance, responded “Que baile mi gente” (let my people dance). As this went on for several minutes, you could feel how the music on-screen, and in us, still provided a sense of belonging. It was also a respite from the new Nueva Yolk, a city that is pushing poor Puerto Ricans and others out of El Bronx (now sold to salsa-dancing hipsters as “SoBro” by realtors), El Barrio (sold as “SpaHa,” aka Spanish Harlem) and other neighborhoods where salsa once spilled out on the concrete bringing relief like water from a fire hydrant in August.

While the mere fact of seeing something like the salsa street fairs we grew up with on the big screen for the first time was enough to make some of our eyes watery, the film failed to tell us about the intimate link between the music and the people who were bobbing and tapping, singing and dancing, and calling and responding in the theater that night. While most reviewers criticized the movie for centering around J-Lo’s character, Puchi, and not Marc Anthony’s mostly drugged out Lavoe character, they failed to note the flattest characters in the movie: the Nuyoricans. There is no sense of the community that inspired Lavoe to croon in his paean to Puerto Ricanness, “Mi Gente,”

Vinieron todos para oirme guarachar;
pero como soy de ustedes,
yo los invitaré a cantar
(You all came to hear me sing/ but because I am of you/ I invite you to sing).

It is understandable that the movie tells the story of Lavoe and Puchi. But to do so without also telling at least part of the story of the rise and challenges of the Puerto Rican people that salsa embodies in its upbeat and often sad lyrics of love, death and politics makes El Cantante an incomplete movie at best. Spanish Harlem Latin jazz legend Eddie Palmieri once told me his aspiration had always been to “write the background music to a revolution.”

A woman who owned a salsa music store in El Barrio that had been in existence for almost a decade before Lavoe, Willie Colon, Johnny Pacheco and many others ushered in the salsa era in the 1970s, told me that, “Yes, there were lots of drugs around at that time. We used to have to clear the entrance to the store because there were so many drug users. But the way that [salsa musicians] told our stories in these buildings around here and in El Bronx…that was amazing. That’s what made the music – the comunidad (community).”

Longtime community activist and scholar Angelo Falcon agrees. “The movie missed a great opportunity to educate people, especially young people and the larger public, about the context of salsa,” said Falcon, who, like many Nuyoricans, was active in the 1970s around the many issues – open admissions, creating Puerto Rican Studies, housing rights, Puerto Rican independence – that defined Puerto Rican identity along with the music. “They promoted [El Cantante] as a movie that would show how the music changed things, but they didn’t tell us what it changed. The music fueled pride and was an integral part of the movement. The movement was also an integral part of the music. They were inseparable, but somehow the movie managed to separate them.”

Still, in the end, many of us are moved and grateful that something of our reality – the intimate, smoke-filled little apartment parties packed with men and women sporting leather coats, the pre-corporate and Pentagon-sponsored salsa street fairs, the concerts only we went to – was captured for the first time in the history of big cinema. Now, at a time when Puerto Ricans and other Latinos are again marching and organizing for immigrant and other rights by the millions, it is a matter of getting history to acknowledge the intimate link between the movements of our bodies, our communities and the musica. Que Baile Mi Gente.

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