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The Music Of Africa, By Way Of Latin America

Afro-Latino culture was in the news this past week with the death of Gilberto Miguel Calderon. In 1967, Calderon -- known by his show-business name, Joe Cuba -- and the Joe Cuba Sextet bridged a gap between two different branches of the African diaspora without a social movement, speeches or scholarly treatises.

Joe Cuba did it with two words: "Bang Bang!" Or maybe he did it with the song's chorus, which sings the praises of down-home soul food: "corn bread, hog mawl and chiterlin's."

Whatever it was, the combination of Afro-Cuban groove and R&B backbeat moved way beyond Joe Cuba's home turf of El Barrio in Harlem to the rest of the country -- and even back to the Caribbean.

It was called boogaloo, and it was an organic, cross-cultural musical reflection on how Afro-Latinos in this country have one foot in both cultures.

In the most simple definition of the term, Afro-Latinos are Dominican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Panamanian, Colombian, Venezuelan; descendants of people who are from anywhere that had Spanish slave owners and African slaves.

Most Afro-Latinos arrived in this country by way of various waves of immigration. Sociologists say most choose where to live by way of language rather than skin color. Afro-Latinos will tell you of discrimination from those who speak Spanish, as well as from those who speak English.

But there are more stories of peaceful coexistence, and that's most vividly expressed through music.

For starters, let's travel down to New Orleans, which many in the 19th century considered the northern-most port of the Caribbean. Can you imagine the rich musical exchanges in those port-side bars among freed slaves, Caribbean sailors and other musical adventurers?

Trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and percussionist Bill Summers did. In fact, in 1998, they formed a band called Los Hombres Calientes to play jazz that reflected possibly the first blast of Afro-Latino culture in this country: a mix of African rhythms, Caribbean instrumentation and New Orleans funk.

Afro-Latino expression in the U.S. had its most enduring impact thanks to Puerto Rican, Cuban and African-American musicians, who created a musical hothouse in New York City in the late '40s.

They didn't really have a name for the mixture of Afro-Cuban music and bebop. Mambo jazz, cubop, and descargas were just a few of the names that didn't stick. We know it today as Latin jazz.

But many of those musicians who grew up tapping their feet to both Afro-Cuban dance music and African-American big bands simply called it "our music."

Let me tell you a story about a gig by Mongo Santamaria in a Bronx nightclub in 1962. During a break, the substitute pianist, a young African-American jazz musician named Herbie Hancock, was doodling with a tune he'd just written.

The story continues that Mongo's ears perked up, and he asked the young pianist to keep playing it. The great Cuban percussionist began playing a driving cha-cha-cha rhythm behind the jazz riff, and a classic was born: "Watermelon Man."

Or so the story goes.

Whether it happened exactly like that doesn't really matter. What matters most is that, with the song "Watermelon Man," Herbie Hancock and Mongo Santamaria connected the latter's West African roots from his grandfather and to the New World traditions of jazz and R&B.

Later, in the 1960s, another Afro-Latino son of Spanish Harlem, Willie Bobo, was mixing Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz and R&B on a series of records that made him popular with both African-Americans and Latinos. Like the cut he called "La Descarga de Bobo," or "Bobo's jam session."

Fast forward almost 40 years.

Two more Puerto Rican sons of New York, masters of a dance genre called house music, have remixed Bobo's jam session into an Afro-Latino sound they call Nuyorican Soul. They call themselves Masters At Work.

The latest expression of Afro-Latino culture is the best-selling song on iTunes this week.

It's a reggaeton tune called "Virtual Diva," and it's by a young Afro-Latino who calls himself Don Omar.

Reggaeton was actually born among Afro-Latinos in Panama, made its way to the streets of San Juan and finally found arguably its most creative expression here in the U.S.

Even if you don't understand the lyrics, you can hear the influence of hip-hop and rap, which have become the lingua franca of Afro-Latinos, African-Americans and just about anyone under the age of 25 in the rest of the world.

In this digital world, where mixing cultures could be as easy as pressing a few buttons, it still takes good old-fashioned vision to imagine a sound that reflects an honest expression of what it's like to be from two great histories.

Or, as Joe Cuba's music illustrated, sometimes it just takes being yourself.

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Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.
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