The Unknown Dancer

While dancing with a partner, Electrico was one of many, but as couples left the floor, including his partner, he went into a solo as the band continued playing, now for him alone. We soon saw that we were in the presence of greatness. Here was something stunning, like Mike Tyson's debut in the boxing world. He would arrive and leave alone. No one embraced or approached him, respecting his stature with distance, as we did on the dancefloor proper. A low key modesty characterized his social behavior. Only the musicians, the drummers in particular, were seen close to him. Respect was more appropriate than celebrity. In 1938, dancers dressed in a serious fashion, with jackets and tires and gray suites (except for Midnight's black suit and vest). The scene at the Park Plaza was incongruous with raw African moves dressed in Western garb. His partner was the seated drummer more than una Latina. They were working rather than performing, as we tried to catch their smallest gestures.

There were many Electricos in Cuba, but here in New York, we were unaware of them. After his style became a name called Electrico, others became known as dinamita, mecanico, el indio, Killer Joe, Cuban Pete. He seemed embarassed for having made us all look like unaccomplished beginners. It took years -- almost ten -- before the stars at the Palladium caught up to his style, but I never heard his name mentioned. In fact, on one ever knew his name. That is true celebrity, like the Unknown Soldier.

The Drums Have Spoken

(note: Originally written 12/13/2010)

What would Arsenio, Cachao or Lecuona Think of today's Latin jazz? Would they be welcoming the growing global phenomena of la musica while at the same time supportive of the jazz contribution that distributed it worldwide? Ever protective of Afro-Cubanidad, Arsenio cried, "Iese maldito mambo!"

According to Bohemia Magazine in 1952, Cachao was slow to embrace Latin jazz and I doubt Lecuona would have embraced it any faster. But times and tastes change us all. "I once was blind..." Gone is my Latin Jazz criticism. Discarded is my fear of any calamitous consequences supposedly involved in the merger of Latin and jazz. Perhaps I lacked the secret teaching, the "disciplina arcana" essential for such an unpopular undertaking’s success. All music is musica sacra. It is commercial materialistic greed that befouls all.

The drums have spoken and I have taken this proper moment that the ancient Romans called punctum temporis, to surrender to better sense. Las dos alas de Latin Jazz make better bedfellows than my malingering, my belittling the evident advantages of a union that benefits both houses like a royal marriage.

All this does not change my duty. I was assigned a mission back in Regla in 1941 to promote and protect Afro Cuban music around the world. One can become popular by becoming unpopular. But as Charles Baudelaire (paraphrased) said, "Latin ou jazz, qu' importe?" Good or bad, the ardent masses on our dance floors prove it. This music within itself dispels counter-productive differences that tend to exist among mankind naturally. Viva la musica!

Foreplay at the Park Plaza

Fancy footwork on the dance floor was a form of foreplay, complete with perspiration, panting, and pre-coital contortion. Friction caused internal combustion in such a pressure-cooker environment, often leading to consensual mutual masturbation called “dancing.”

Where else could such somatic satisfaction be bought for a $.35 admission price? A price that could include outright orgasm? Cover and excuse for ecstatic behavior was provided by rhythmic overtones. Expect dancers abandoned concentration on agile footwork in order to create, instead, intentional sexual excitement. They played the women like slide guitars -- finding her center of gravity located in the small of her back. By raising his supporting hand, or by lowering it up and down her spine, the couple achieved better focal contact. Raising his hand allowed him to brush her nipples as she rotated in front of him.

Lowering his hand down her spine brought the lower part of his partner’s body to him. This enabled her to press hard, rubbing against his leg like a pole dancer. This vise-like conjunction could skillfully remain in place even while dancing. Remaining in one corner meant better communication, concealment, and concentration. Unnecessary conversation, especially in the dim light, was like phone sex whispered in her ear. Her name, added to the lyrics, her head on his chest, induced romance. Sexual signals were ocular, sensed, mouthed, physical, or very obvious.

Loving intimacy, shared confidence added to gallantry, grace, speed, surprise and strength defined expert foreplay, as well as great dancing proper. A parting kiss, not on the cheek, but on the neck or hand, together with playful laughter at the end pardoned the risqué behavior of their shared secret.

Post-script: Calle Ocho, Miami, 1999: El Baile del Gato. Four couples down on all fours dancing doggy-style never caught on – in public at any rate.

Cultural Circularity

As I write, the Septeto Nacional is playing “Echale salsita” and “El son es lo mas sublime para…,” right here in New York. Ignacio Piñeiro was a contemporary of the most popular bandleader of the 1930s, Paul Whiteman, was billed as the King of Jazz. Naturally, black musicians protested the white man’s gratuitous label (as B.B. King would become their king.) Whiteman, as we believe, also influenced Ignacio when he introduced the phrases “get hot” and “hot stuff.” The salsita connection is evident and was also popular with black jazz musicians. Latin composers contributed “Calientico,” a popular rumba at that time, and spiced-up tunes.

When African-rooted jazz musicians began to hear Miguelito Valdes’ Yoruba-authentic ritual incantations such as “Bruca manigua” and “Babalu,” and Arsenio Rodriguez’s “Sabroso y caliente” and wild “bembes lucumies,” and Chano Pozo (as, later, Celia Cruz would sing “El Quimbo”), they tried to adopt these odd-sounding chants. But ended up with “heidi, heidi, ho,” “cubop, bebop,” “rumba boogie,” and whatnot.

“La-di-o-de” is a sacred invocation. Latino musicians did not protest what could have been called an insult to their patrimony.

Music is aria made sonorous, and humans will produce it as part of our seventh sense: the sense of rhythm that resides in our brains. That sense is in the company of our other senses, including our sense of balance, located not in our feet, but in our ears.

It doesn’t matter who influences who, but to the struggling musicians of El Barrio, it mattered. Last year, Willie Colon, playing New Year’s Eve at Del Posto Restaurant in Manhattan’s meat-packing district, was able to advertise: $850 per person for admission! Sold out! Musicians can never be paid enough. Let’s remember, it was music that helped bring us out of the Great Depression, not the bankers. We sang “Happy days are here again” throughout the country, and the musicians were our pied pipers.

Speaking of mimicking, in the dance world, the Twist was an explosive effort, and sad excuse to deride, willfully or not, the hip movements of the rumba, humorously. Anglos had uptight social attitudes that were made acceptable under the cloak of comedy, like minstrels. The playful Twist became the forerunner of Elvis’ rock ‘n roll show, with roots in the South. (Webster’s dictionary claims that rock ‘n roll “derived from rhythm and blues,” but I say it was the Twist.) If the Twist had gone north, and on into mambo instead, imagine what our culture would have become! Elvis never learned salsa and if he had I’m sure our colleges would have less trouble teaching Spanish, for one thing.

I’ve heard many bad rock ‘n roll bands, but never a bad conjunto. Are the hundreds of pop groups trying to reach the heights of the salseros? African drums have saved many Latin jazz performances, but can we please get rid of those big, fake conga prop drums on Jay Leno’s show? Why don’t we have a term, Afro-jazz? Who can dance salsa wearing a Mexican sombrero, and how many of us can dance a Dancing With the Stars salsa?

Claves and the Cosmos (The Music of the Spheres)

Like the old Morse Code, sound waves send messages out into space. In this fanciful premise, we claim that claves, with their asymmetrical rhythm, have a disruptive influence on the atomic celestial clock. The classic tick-tock, one-two, one-two beat is disturbed by the clave’s one, pause, one-two beat.

There are no events without the involvement of energy. Some planets release energy, such as the sun, while others both emit and receive energy, such as the earth. The sound waves of the claves disrupt the symmetrical flow of orderly emission of energy. The repetitious clack of the claves would hypnotize a listener if it were not for the pause that is its distinguishing feature. With this pause, the claves control the entire orchestra. If we were to modify our clocks to mimic the claves, replacing the regimented sound of seconds to the clave beat, we would syncopate the music of the spheres.

We humans are not sufficiently inspired by such possibilities. The magician employs a pause to achieve his trickiness. In that significant instant, he accomplishes his purpose. Nature may “hate a vacuum,” but the vacuum (read: the pause) exists for good reason. The claves involve man in the way the cosmos works. They may command the respect and control of the celestial orchestra, like a Toscanini. What is repetitive in clave rhythm can be called cyclical when applied to the cosmos. If life is both the teacher and the test, claves can be said to cheat, by not fitting the mold. Our learning never seems to fit into our lives properly.

The workings of cycles influence education itself and can, with their foreshadowing, show us the unseen, the unknown, and in that way achieve the goal of education. We mortals invite the sickness of misfortune by waving our fists in the face of the gods with our prideful approach to learning. The answer is in the claves: two simple wooden sticks.

The Park Plaza

When one steps outside the circle of the family and by doing so, encounters the true world for the first time, whatever knowledge gained in that way has a tremendous impact on the future course of one’s life. Americans taking le grand tour of Europe returned home with a cultural concept with high values. Thus, we became a society interested in learning. Parents today who send students off in mass to Cancun, Jamaica, Nassau for instance, expose these young minds to other influences. The students quickly adopt as part of their formation unrefined behavior, mediocre interests and less sophisticated lifestyles.

Next to visiting a foreign country is the familiarization gained through the literature that country produces. Visiting the West Indies, literary achievement is scarce, and it is music that has the power to influence and formulate the direction of one’s life, perhaps more than parenting.

What has this to do with the Park Plaza? Like a first time encounter with a foreign country, for me the Park Plaza dance hall in 1937 and 1938 helped to fashion a more salutary individual, thanks to the free musical education it offered. Very much unlike “Youth Gone Wild”—more contented with life.


I traveled to the Park Plaza searching for music of a certain flavor: Afro Cuban. I couldn’t dance a step, I didn’t know a soul, couldn’t understand a word, couldn’t play a note nor could I spare, during the Great Depression, the carfare and admission. At a time when there was little joy in the world, the music gave me the reasoning I needed to set off from Ft. Hamilton, Brooklyn, up to Harlem, when it was dangerous to do so.

I found what I was searching for the moment I heard the Happy Boys orchestra, while paying my twenty-five cent admission. The ticket window was grilled, like a Bronx bodega’s cashier. The only bandstand was a lighted area as I sought a chair near an exit sign. The ladies, young and old, were lined up facing the young and old men, all sitting on the rows of chairs along the walls. For the first few numbers that the band played, I felt no need to do other than sit and listen, filled with satisfaction at having found what I needed and had accomplished.

I was not destined to remain a wallflower for long, for after my second visit, I was approached by a girl who came and asked me to dance, something unheard of at the time. I wisely declined, feeling foolish—but better to feel foolish than to look foolish on the floor. What I needed now was the ability to dance rumba. On my third visit a tall black fellow came up to me. “I see you sitting—why don’t you dance?” “I don’t know how,” I answered him. “Show him how,” he said to his partner.

So it was that Rene and Estella, the top Afro-Cuban dance team perhaps of all time, got me dancing. That brief encounter was the first step that led me around the world on cruise ships, to hotels, nightclubs, dance studios and lectures, carrying Afro-Cuban rumba with me for others to learn. To popularize it was what became necessary, to pass its joyous content on to others.


There was no band stand or microphones at the Park Plaza, no amplifiers or spotlights, though alarm bells were visible in two opposite corners to signal to the bouncer where to hurry to in the room in case of need. Nor was there fire-safety equipment evident. The fire exit led to an alleyway that was shared with the neighboring Teatro Hipsano and its fire exit, both leading onto Fifth Avenue.

The Happy Boys band, with Doroteo Santiago singing, did not take long breaks. Their two-minute numbers allowed frequent changes of partners. Particularly favorite pieces would be repeated. To tease dancers, the band employed a mock break, resulting in chairs being thrown to the middle of the floor—in jest, not in anger. (This display of bogus protest was inspired by barroom fights popular in cowboy movies of the 1930s.) The music resumed with prostrate suppliants rising up off the floor to continue dancing.

As one of the only sources of gaiety during 30% unemployment in America, the Park Plaza’s rumba world was vital. At a time when, elsewhere, you would be asked to “Please leave the dance floor” if your dancing was considered indiscreet, here these behaviors were encouraged as an ingredient of joyful exuberance. The piropo, that titillating, sexy, verbal innuendo of everyday Cuba, manifested itself in the physical activity on the dance floor, like intimate paintings springing to life.

Four iron columns supported the ceiling. The one in the far darkest corner served, in addition to holding up the ceiling, to provide support for the girl while her partner pressed into her, grinding away at her body while the music accompanied a clandestine, sexual-outburst performance. Couples would take turns using this structure for gratification. This was not acceptable behavior, nor was it condemned—it was conveniently ignored.

When the management of the Park Plaza installed a very large upright fan, the admission went up to thirty-five cents. It was set at the top of the stairway that led up from the basement, where the toilets and men’s latrines were located. Currents of air carrying male and female pheromones floated over the dance area. In this way ethereal substances, sex steroids, were blended into the suggestive lyrics, the flirtations in progress, the orchestral vibrations, the sweet-smelling tobacco, libido Latino, overlapping perfumes floating in the congested intimacy of a room one-third the size of the Palladium, filled to the brim with sensuality.

The large fan added spice to the feverish environment, increasing body temperatures to the maximum. The latrine windows were open to allow cold air to enter the building. A communal urinal there, like a trough found on animal farms, served to allow a constant flow of water that kept the pipes from freezing in winter.

No one lingered long, for the glare of the white tile walls disturbed one’s mood. You returned at the sound of the first note of the rumba to the darkness of the dance floor, the music and your partner, buttoning up as you ran. If someone were to yell “Fire!” the dancing would continue until flames might be seen.


Electrico was a “live wire,” to use a post-Edison label. He was “greased lightning” with his spasmodic quebradas, razor-sharp style, top speed, and dead-pan (cara fea) showmanship. His solos were the highlight of an evening of highlights. Every part of his body was in complete synchronization with the music. Perhaps it helps to envision Killer Joe at the Palladium, except that Electrico was closer to a style of rumba called columbia, which was closer to true Afro-Cuban ritual, including hitting the floor with the flats of your palms and your feet off the ground.

Midnight, negro como el telefono—black as a 1930s telephone—was the only dancer who challenged Electrico, the dance master of the Park Plaza. He would hurry out on to the floor while applause for Electrico was still resounding, so as to cut into Electrico’s performance appraisal. Midnight dressed entirely in black, including a rare vest that was an encumbrance but which gave him a more full contrast to Electrico’s string-bean frame. Midnight had a “down and dirty,” “solid man” quality that contrasted with Electrico’s height advantage (a four-inch difference).

Where Electrico flew, Midnight was glued deep into the music: “heavy, man.” Electrico was “far out.” He had the whole place stunned, shocked. Like two road runners, their movements risked stress fractures. Amazingly, neither seemed to be out of breath off the floor. It was the audience that was left breathless.


The trumpets of the Happy Boys brought down the walls of the Great Depression. They were the pipers we followed to recovery. From a low-key, romantic locale hidden away in El Barrio, they raised the level of intensity in their choice of more cheerful melodies such as “Ahora seremos felices.” Most Park Plaza patrons were from W. 114th St., “the most dangerous street in New York” at the time. Many of them did not own a radio. They went home, singing along the dark streets love songs that sweetened the dreams of their sleeping neighbors.

In 1937 the Puerto Rican and Cuban population in the neighbor I estimate could not have been more than three or four hundred. Why was there never a long line waiting to enter the Park Plaza? It was due to the fact that money was so scarce that they were too broke to pay the admission. Even today, Latin nightclubs are less numerous and struggle to survive (long gone are the La Congas and Havana Madrids; house parties in Washington Heights, for example, fill the need for the desire to dance).

My partner Catin, short for Catherin, and I were standing on the stoop of her building on W. 114th St., about to enter. A screaming woman exited with a furious man grabbing at her. They fell to the gutter, where the beating continued.

Catin calmly showed me her razor blade, wrapped in a rubber band. “We women all carry one,” she said, pulling it out from her stocking as we entered to go to sleep.

One of the songs heard at the Park Plaza was “Camina como Chencha,” written for Chencha, a lame girl who danced every dance. She showed determination, spirit and courage to enjoy life, inspiring everyone present during those dark days of the Great Depression. Everyone at the Park Plaza was great in their own way. Puerto Ricans, in the 1930s and 1940s, were seen as inferior to us. Today with what has happened to US culture, they are superior to us. We are put to shame by them.


In summer months, the Park Plaza offered what one only found in the tropical islands of the West Indies—and that was the opportunity for a “quickie,” a quick “dip,” by going out on the Harlem Meer, the lake opposite the dance hall. In the islands it was the sandy beach, in Harlem it was on a rowboat during the band’s break.

Three rowboats lined the shore of the lake. We untied them, rowing them out into the darkened privacy, in the middle of the lake and under the stars. When we heard the band playing across the water, we hurriedly towed back to shore.

Sex finds a way. In the Dominican Republic, at the Club Taino, were shacks with mattresses. In Montevideo’s waterfront dives, there were curtained areas with mattresses on the floor landings of the buildings. Modern cruise ships can be called floating bedrooms, with comfortable cabins near discos. These convenient arrangements go back to Roman baths, and up to Bangkok brothels with dancehalls. The rocking rowboats were more naturalistically romantic under the open sky, with an element of danger and stolen pleasure that’s unlike Amsterdam’s walk-in, walk-out policies, that by comparison seem more sordid. These images remind me of that iron column at the Park Plaza—it was almost part of the festivities.

One night I arranged for a party from the Village to visit the Park Plaza. With Antaole Broyard in one taxi and me in the other, we escorted two loads of people up to Harlem. (During the Depression, taxi meters made a loud ticking noise, not unlike the tracks on subway travels of the 1930s. The standard tip to the driver, no matter the distance, was ten cents.) The barricaded ticket window was unknown downtown and served to make our friends uneasy as we entered the narrow hallway entrance, typical of many old buildings. Normally it was safer inside than outside, in El Barrio.

As we were approaching the cashier, a rush of people came at us, running, frightened, pushing their way through our group of ten (cabs could legally carry five persons during the 1930s). We had, before leaving the Village, briefed our party about acceptable and unacceptable behavior but had never expected the wild demonstration that we were now facing. Was it a fire? I knew it was a fight, and did not stop the Village crowd from returning to the taxis, leaving just four of us—Anatole and his lady, me and mine—to enjoy the evening once the matter settled itself peacefully, inexplicably.


To enjoy the Park Plaza entirely, one had to arrive early and leave last. To watch things evolve from start to finish—good to the last note. The musicians as well as the locals began by embracing happily, and ended not happily but embracing sadly—it was over too soon. The band would slowly dissolve itself, leaving only the piano playing, as an honor perhaps, the last notes, as the trumpeter and the rest tiptoed off individually, softening the departure. It was a merciful ending, for outside on W. 110th St., the waiting world was like Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End.

What we call “cool” today, in the 1930s, was called “hot.” The mainstream bandleader Paul Whiteman’s “get hot” was picked up as “hot tomato” (a cool gal), “hot spot,” “hot shot,” “red hot mamma.”“Hot dog!” meant “great!” as did “hot stuff.” “Put hot peppers on it” is “twisa mdungu” in Kongo, “échale salsita” in Pineiro’s salsa, and “get hot” in Whiteman’s jazzy era.

Today we are both hot and cool, one could say, like the dancers at the old Park Plaza.

Messed-Up Music

At the Park Plaza in 1939, Afro-Cuban jazz had a much different sound when Machito, under Mario Bauzá’s influence, played timid jazz solo partitas on and off as though uncomfortable in that Latin stronghold. They tried it out on the road, so to speak, before introducing it at the La Conga Club downtown. Machito never dropped his proud identity as “Machito y sus Afro-Cubanos.” Bauzá anglicized it. Tinkering with various descriptive names for his band, perhaps in desperation, Tito Puente announced before performing at the World Trade Center Marina, “I don’t play Latin jazz, I play Latin!” He soon discovered that it was here to stay.

As a confused votary purist, I miss the symmetrical “words and music” format of unadulterated Latin music. I don’t sense a proper commingling or easy synergism in Latin jazz. Like some canned output, it lacks soulfulness, which is very evident when heard separately in both jazz and Latin. As for the two Titos, a free spirit of artistic contention was evident in their rivalry. Like pugilists, they ended robust bouts in each others’ arms. Latinos and jazzistas don’t embrace enough. It’s fair to say that Latinos do not have a streak of arrogance in them. They acknowledge the genius, spontaneity, ritual, universality, and sophistication that is found in both camps. But is a happy wedding possible when family roots are involved? The roots of both are in Africa, but Afro-Cuban is Africa. White musicians are less likely to have been taught to play by their grandfathers or family members than Latins or black musicians. Music teachers are less of an influence than family ancestors who are listening from the Great Beyond. Are the self-taught less acceptable?

The musicians of either choosing donate love as a sacred obligation. Their hearts are drums that pulsate with echoes in chambers, murmurs in cavities, fluctuations in their veins. They keep the world resounding within Nature’s super bowl environment. They support a mystery that sings for humanity. They seem chosen.

As an orchestral organ when silenced or expressed, the forte music of Life comes to us as grief or as gaiety from the heart. That internal metronome and ultimate timer is also a sounding board where the vibratos, crescendos, and tremolos of daily life are played by impulse, much of which is for our ears alone.

Imagine an integration of DaVinci and Vasily Kandinsky, of Franz Liszt and Hindemith, or Calder and Rodin — interesting, but one does not mess with the heart or with its music, especially since all musicians are brothers.