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.

After a stint with the Navy during World War II, Tito used the G.I. Bill to study composing and arrangement at Julliard and formed his own band that played nightclubs both in el barrio and in mid-town Manhattan. Tito Puente revolutionized Latin big band music, moving the timbales from the background to the front of the stage, using his instrument to direct the band and to solo with a virtuosity that was unknown for drummers at the time. Not far away, jazz innovators such as Dizzy Gillepsie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis were making history of their own, forging the driving new sounds of be-bop in the clubs of New York’s 53rd Street. The proximity of such musical creativity led to the natural blending of two distinct streams of music that originally flowed from the same Afro-Caribbean source.

THE ROOTS of Afro-Caribbean culture we now imprecisely call "Latin" are easily discernible in the music Puente excelled at, which features the percussion and call-and-response vocal patterns of Africa, the melodic sensibilities and horns of Europe, and use of Native American instruments such as the maracas and guiro.

Tito Puente (whose last name in Spanish aptly means "bridge") is recognized not just for bringing Latin music to the mainstream, but also for transcending mainstream boundaries between salsa and jazz, Latinos and African Americans, American and Latin American. He was a leader in the cultural movement that got Latinos, African Americans, and people of European descent dancing together, setting the tempo for the social movements of the 1960s that demanded these connections on a political level. Puente’s tune "Oye Como Va" became an indicator of this cultural shift in America, going from a Latin dance number to Carlos Santana’s electrified, psychedelic Afro-Latino rhythm at the close of the 1960s. In the 1990s, Puente continued his presence at the heart of mainstream pop culture, guest starring on an episode of what may be the quintessential show of that decade, The Simpsons.

While Santana’s recording of "Oye Como Va" is often credited with exposing Puente’s music to a wider audience, Santana’s own career gained legitimacy among Latinos by having Tito’s name associated with it. Carlos Santana said he had been "touched by Tito Puente’s spirit and his monumental talent. He opened doors for me and other musicians. I especially feel happy that I had a chance to tell him personally how deeply I appreciate, honor, and respect his contribution to the arts."

El Rey’s passing is another loss for the big band era, a musical form that was becoming obsolete before many of us were born. With technology and marketing now in control of most commercial music—manufacturing faux-talent like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys—artists with the sincerity of Tito Puente are increasingly rare. It seems in music, as in life, nothing can replace the simple truth of heart and soul. Isn’t this what the rhythm is teaching us?

AARON MCCARROLL GALLEGOS, a Sojourners contributing editor, is a writer living in Toronto.

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