New York’s salsa scene, still going strong in Spanish Harlem, valiantly beats back the McCondo purge
by Raquel Cepeda
I almost broke my neck the other day, walking across the intersection of Third Avenue and 109th Street in Spanish Harlem—better known as El Barrio—to pick my daughter up from school. I whirled around at the sight of a man I thought didn’t exist anymore in New York City. He was a local titere (a street tough), sauntering down the very same “Calle Luna, Calle Sol” that salsa legend Héctor Lavoe sang about on a song from friend and fellow icon Willie Colón’s classic 1973 album, Lo Mato.
The cautionary tale, sung in Spanish, warns the citizens of John Lindsay’s New York to stay clear of the matóns (hoodlums) locking down the streets unless they’re prepared to go fisticuffs, or worse. But here, in 2008, the older, weathered man—well into his fifties—strutted right past me rocking a beaded Puerto Rican flag necklace and matching T-shirt, carrying a shoddy boombox on his shoulder that blared yet another of Lavoe’s many emblematic collaborations with Colón, “Che Che Colé,” from its rustic speakers.
I couldn’t help but flash back to a rare interview—obviously one of his last, now canonized on YouTube—wherein a melancholic, barely recognizable Lavoe slurred that “Che Che Colé” was, to him, the most indelible song among all his nonpareil repertoire, because it transported him back to happier days when he had money, and his wife Nilda and son Héctor Jr. were in his life.
Sung in the authentically jibaro, rural timbre that makes every listen a visceral experience, the opening track off Colón’s (recently remastered) 1969 long-player Cosa Nuestra feels like an astral excursion into the countryside of Lavoe’s native Puerto Rico.
But to hear it now? In Manhattan?