Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mambo Film, Demos TONIGHT in Richmond

This just in: a new documentary film, La Epoca: The Palladium Era will be shown Sunday, 3/22 in Richmond at the Fuego Restaurant.

The 7:30 pm screening costs $10 and includes a "live orchestra" and dancers who will demonstrate mambo styles, as well as a Q&A session with producers, who are taking their film around independently to show it in nightclubs and universities. More at the website,

Behind the scenes: the soundtrack includes new music by Alfonso "El Panameño" Joseph and his son, the film's executive producer Josue Joseph, as well as his vocalist daughter, Raquel-Maria. Tres legend Charlie Rodriguez also plays.

I'm a little confused by the soundtrack, which appears to be half originals by the Joseph family band, padded with long-reissued tracks by Arsenio Rodriguez, the godfather of son conjunto. I hope the movie doesn't turn out to be more creative niche marketing to the dance congress crowd than a true mambo documentary. It should be interesting to see how they connect the dots.

[Update: ok, I get the connection now--Alfonso played bass with Arsenio. So what the album appears to be in reality is a retrospective/renewal of his career. The clips do make this film appear to be pretty much oriented to dance obsessives--do I really need the difference between "on 1" and "on 2" explained to me again? This is just counting, it doesn't take a new film to grasp it. What is disappointing already is that the group purports to be purists of the style, but the producer's sister's vocal ("Vale Mas") is already an R&B flavored modern fusion. That is fine, for what it is, but how does this take me back to the roots of mambo? Also, there is an awful lot of straw man construction; Johnny Pacheco as the epitome of "salsa," not to mention some very strange (to me) implicit tearing down of Fania including Hector Lavoe! Don't tell me Hector Lavoe doesn't have clave. There is a LOT MORE to salsa/son/mambo/Afro-cuban music/whatever you want to call it than counting from 1 to 2.

I think this project makes a lot of good points, about connecting the dots from Arsenio to mambo through Cachao, about the marginalization of black guys like Arsenio in the salsa market. But you can hardly say that Arsenio's sound or his commercial presence was central to the mambo scene, either. They make a big point about mambo coming before salsa, historically, but mambo is also a modern urban creation in New York City that was in essence a commercial adaptation to the influences of that time and place. But so was Arsenio's son, which came before that. I don't like the leveraging of these arguments about the history in such a way that one era is privileged as purer, better, than the others. If people want to dance mambo today I think that is cool and well and good but it's very obvious that commercial interests are behind the mambo revival as well. They aren't giving away dance lessons or salsa congress subscriptions or instructional videos. Do I think dance instructors and musicians have a right to earn money from their art and instruction? Absolutely. But the narrative of a golden age can get carried away. There is absolutely NO NEED to tear down the artistry and craft and poetry and clave brilliance of a Hector Lavoe, in order to recognize the importance of an Arsenio or a Cachao. Can't we all just get along?]

If Charlie Rodriguez is in the house, that would worth the drive. Tres, though, is not really a mambo thing, it comes from the tipico side of Cuban music, not the big band era. Hence I'm mildy confused, yet curious as hell.

Basically, in a world of iPods and cable TV, I think I speak for many when I say we are hungry out here for a anyone and anything bringing a consciousness of history to the scene, and maintaining the dancer's connection to live performance. Bring it on.

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