King of Heart and Soul

"Salsa isn’t music, it’s something you put on food!" Tito Puente often said, though he was famous for playing the infectious Latin music of precise rhythms, soaring horns, and emotion-laden vocals that got its name from the spicy condiment.

But in the course of his 60-year career, the late band leader and master timbales drummer had also became one of America’s greatest cultural educators, always teaching through his music—with his legendary panache—that the roots of his culture run deeper than spicy foods, flashy dancers, and glitzy dance clubs.

Though he was nearly 80 years old, Tito Puente’s inexhaustible vitality made his June 1 death unexpected. Indeed, Tito was still touring and performing just days before he entered the hospital for a heart condition. During his career, Puente was known as the reigning figure of the timbales, as well as the dominant force of mambo, of salsa, and of other musical trends. By the time he died his fans, critics, and competition had crowned him simply "El Rey" (The King).

Tito Puente, like the music he recorded, rose out of the mixing and melding of a races and cultures that is at the heart of 21st century United States. Born in 1923 in New York to parents from Puerto Rico, Puente was raised in Spanish Harlem and began his career as a teen-ager, starting out as a dancer until an injury led him to take up the timbales, a set of open-ended drums mounted on a stand and played with sticks.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2000
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