Monday, June 13, 2011

Viva La Musica

Mariachi on the Boardwalk, 2011

I went to the Hardee’s Latin Fest this past weekend. We’re not talking the famously dead language, mind you. No togas or people reading Cicero out loud. And the sponsorship by Hardee’s suggested a strange connection with Big Ass Burgers and cholesterol, neither of which, as I understand it, have anything to do with either ancient Rome or Cuba.

Ever since Oscar Hijuelos’ book The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love came out in 1990 and, a few years later, a terrific soundtrack accompanied the movie version of the book, I’ve been convinced that America is just one good trumpet blast away from re-embracing Latin music in a big way. HBO made a movie about Arturo Sandoval, and Ry Cooder went down to Havana and recorded the Buena Vista Social Club.

But none of these was the tipping point I'd expected. If I wanted to find good Latin music, I had to go to the big cities. Andy’s, on Hubbard Street in Chicago, features terrific Latin musicians and orchestras from time to time. There are good clubs, too, in New York. I’m sure there must be dozens in Miami, though what I know about them mostly comes from having watched Miami Vice.

I don’t know what explains my interest in this kind of music other than that Latin music—think Xavier Cugat—was big in the 1950s when I was a child hanging over the railing at the Cavalier Beach Club watching my parents mambo and rumba across the oceanfront dance floor.

But even if you don’t have that memory, it’s hard to argue with the punch of all that brass and the deep resonance of all that percussion. If New Orleans music gets to your soul, then Latin gets to your gut. And it also gets to places best not mentioned out loud. I mean, really; short of Barry White is there a sultrier music anywhere?

I’m hardly an expert on this genre of music. But I’ll bet I have more Tito Puente music on my iPod than all the other people in my zip code put together. When my daughter interned at an indie record label after college nothing gave me as much pleasure as when she sent me new recordings from the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.

“Latin” is a pretty broad category. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when, after spending about an hour listening to the languid ballads of the an Afro Cuban-style group called the Latin Jazz Conspiracy, it was a little bit of a shock to wander down the boardwalk and run into a mariachi band.

Mariachi bands might be a staple in Border States. But they’re a rare commodity hereabouts. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mariachi band around here before, much less mingling with their big hats, elaborate suits and pointy toe boots among the throngs of beachgoers dressed in bathing suits and flip flops. I can now say with some authority that nothing stands out more and clears a path on a crowded boardwalk like a mariachi band.

It’s a good thing I came across them when I did because I encountered them just as their gig was finishing. I was headed north and they were headed south. I took a few pictures as they approached and then fell in behind them as they marched the last block.

The view was really better from behind. With the benefit of hindsight I can now see the pictures I should have taken. There were a few brief moments when the band members lined up diagonally across the boardwalk. It was not only a good story picture, but also an interesting juxtapositioning of lines. But just as that confluence of elements came together someone walked right into me. By the time we got untangled, the moment had passed.

When I looked at the first picture I took after that moment, I wasn’t happy with it because I knew there’d been a better moment. But I also knew that the moment I did capture in my camera had to be interpreted in b&w instead of color. Otherwise the colors would have been distracted and you’d have wondered what in the world I ever thought was worth photographing about that moment.

1 comment:

  1. That's a great shot! Love the Buena Vista Social Club. And Latin music does make you want to get up and dance, for sure--even if you don't know how. I think it's the law.