The Latin Beat
Picking up where John Storm Roberts’ The Latin Tinge left off, journalist/poet Ed Morales sets himself to the Herculean task of boiling down the history, impact and cultural context of Latin music into 351 pages. The result is a book that’s fascinating, full of surprises and, in the end, more than a little overwhelming.
The recurring theme throughout is the cyclical cross-pollination, beginning not with Spain and Portugal’s colonization of the “New World” but with the occupation by north African dynasties of the Iberian peninsula in the postclassical era. Morales traces the music as it moved from Europe to the Caribbean and South America, then to North America with Cuba serving as the locus around which evolution in the music continues to this day. If that sounds a bit academic, well, it is; but Morales argues persuasively that to understand the music, you need to first understand the history, and he makes clear that the shorthand term “Afro-Cuban” to blanket virtually every style in the book is well-earned.
The opening chapter (“The Beat Is In The Blood”) is a good primer on the things that define what Latin music is, especially the five-beat pattern called the clave. While clave refers both to a five-beat pattern at the core of Latin music and the wooden sticks used to voice that beat, Morales also discusses the clave as metaphor, a flexible rhythmic figure that is adaptable to a variety of styles, from Cuban son to Brazilian samba — much in the way that Latin cultures have both adapted and adapted to various racial, ethnic and political influences.
Positvely revelatory is the chapter “The Hidden History Of Latinos And Latin Influence In Rock And Hip-Hop.” Much has been written about the Mexican influence on 1960s garage rock, particularly in Los Angeles and Texas; but Morales also discusses the Latin rhythms with which Brill Building songwriters infused dozens of 1960s hits, and Frank Zappa’s love of Latin doo-wop as manifested on Freak Out! and Cruisin’ With Ruben And The Jets. He also examines the way Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” exploited a Cuban habanera pattern — one that his band slowed down on the Milton Berle show to give Elvis maximum hip-shaking rhythm.
In other words, Morales’ book does what any great music book should do. Not only does it serve as an introduction to artists and styles that might be foreign to the reader; it also demands that you listen to familiar music with fresh ears.