When Barbara Craddock takes to the dance floor, the music transports her back half a century to the Palladium Ballroom in New York, where incredible bands reigned during the heyday of the mambo.
It was a heady time, when master bandleaders such as Arsenio Rodriguez, Machito, Tito Puente and Mario Bauza introduced Afro-Cuban rhythms to Puerto Ricans, other Hispanics and North Americans.
Helping to shape the music were acclaimed dancers — among them Pedro Aguilar, a phenomenal talent better known as “Cuban Pete, King of the Mambo Beat,” who would become Craddock’s longtime dance partner.
The jam and dance sessions at the Palladium were fitting metaphors for centuries of musical exploration in Cuba that fused African rhythms with Spanish musical traditions.
Though Latin dance music would continue evolving, and lead to the modern salsa now prevalent on today’s Spanish-language radio, Craddock said she misses the authentic and varied rhythms she heard in the 1950s toward the end of a golden era of Cuban music.
A professional dancer who often speaks on music and dance, she hopes to introduce people to salsa and its storied traditions through a series of lectures for Hispanic Heritage Month.
“Most people have no idea of the roots and history of salsa,” said Craddock, who will give the last of three lectures on salsa music this Monday, Oct. 26 in West Park. “This music and dance have a very rich history. It’s a culture and it really has to be experienced.”
Salsa, which means “sauce” in Spanish, is the term many people use to describe a variety of Afro-Cuban rhythms that include rumba, guaguancó, son, mambo and conga. Bands play to the clave rhythm, the 3-2 or 2-3 beat that characterizes much of Latin dance music.
For hundreds of years, waves of enslaved Africans in Cuba kept their culture and musical traditions alive, even without drums — often by playing on boxes and furniture or with gourds and sticks. By the 1800s, Afro-Cuban musicians were fusing such African rhythms with Spanish genres such as the danza and danzón, musical experimentations that would lead to Cuban son – the precursor to salsa – along with the cha-cha-chá and mambo. Arrivals from Haiti brought flutes and violins that are heard in charanga music.
In the 20th century, Cuban bandleaders added horns, pianos and congas, creating large bands that played rhythmic and danceable music that spread to the United States.
Jelly Roll Morton often spoke of the importance of adding a “Spanish tinge.”
By the 1940s, jazz musicians in New York were collaborating with their Afro-Cuban counterparts, as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie did with conga player Chano Pozo on the ground breaking tune “Manteca (Lard).”
So by the time the mambo took New York’s Spanish Harlem and then Manhattan by storm, North American audiences were becoming familiar with Cuba’s sounds. But when the island’s 1959 revolution slowed the free flow of musical ideas between Cuba and the United States, Puerto Rican musicians in New York largely became the guardians of the music, working with Cuban performers such as Celia Cruz.
Among the more notable musicians was Bronx-born Tito Puente, who moved the timbales to the front of the orchestra. Puerto Ricans in New York would continue making innovations. Trombonist Willie Colon did this by adding more horns to salsa bands during the celebrated Fania music era of the 1970s, when the city’s Latin musicians gave salsa an urban sensibility.
For Craddock, the lectures also are a tribute to Cuban Pete, who died earlier this year.
“I promised Pete that I wouldn’t let the legacy die,” she said.
In recent decades, salsa music has fallen in popularity, as young fans have gravitated toward hip-hop and reggaeton. Craddock also laments that too many of today’s bands aren’t faithful enough to the traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms, instrumentation and sense of musicianship.
She said she still hears good music, particularly from venerable groups like El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, innovative new bands such as the Spanish Harlem Orchestra and solid local groups such as Miami’s Conjunto Progreso. But for her, she said, the good bands are few and far between, in part because the public doesn’t know what it’s missing.
Using vintage films, music clips and musical instruments, she said, she hopes her lectures will convince people to listen — and dance.
“In all of the Caribbean, music and dance are one,” she said. “The Northern Hemisphere is the only place that separates dance and music. Whoever heard of going to a concert and not dancing?”
Photo: Barbara Craddock
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Barbara Craddock will lecture on the Roots of Salsa.
WHEN: Monday, Oct. 26, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Carver Ranches branch of the Broward County Library system, 4735 SW 18th Street, West Park.