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Tu Vez Blast-From-The-Past Truck: Tito Puente

Marty McFly and Doc Brown had the Delorean to go travel through time; We have the Tu Vez Blast-From-The-Past Truck. Every week, we’ll hop in our time traveling machine, gun it to 88 MPH, and go back in time to bring you the best from the good ol’ days. Will it be a clip from an old telenovela? An old school music video? Stick around and find out!

By Jack Tomas

When I moved to New York, one of the first things I did was visit Spanish Harlem. It was a pilgrimage to the hallowed grounds were giants once walked, (plus it’s the only decent place to get yucca con chicharrones). It was here, in the 60’s and 70’s, that salsa was born. Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe, Willy Colon, Mongo Santamaria, and El Gran Combo all hung out there. They played in the crappy dive clubs, drank beer on street corners, and ate mofongo in the cafes. When you get to 110th street, “Tito Puente Way”, you are in the holy of holies. It was here that the king of the timbales, Tito Puente, was born.

Tito’s parents came over to Nueva Jork during the first wave of Puerto Rican migration. People from all over P.R. headed north to fill the factory jobs left by previous immigrant groups on their way to the middle class tax bracket. Ernesto Antonio Puente was born in 1923 on 110th st. into ghetto poverty. Tito was part of the first generation of what came to be known as Nuyoricans. A Nuyorican is someone of Puerto Rican descent who grows up in New York City and belongs to the particular subculture the Boricuas created there. Young Tito played stickball in the streets, made out with girls, and ran with a gang, (the really non-threatening kind like in “West Side Story“. But mostly, Tito loved music. This was the golden age of what were to become his two biggest influences: Afro-Caribbean music and jazz. Hundreds of records were pouring out of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico charged with the beat of the son, the bachata, and the guaguanco. Twenty blocks up from where Tito grew up, Black Harlem was having its jazz age renaissance. But how does a poor kid from 110th st. become a professional musician?

Luckily for Tito, he got drafted into the Navy during WWII. Not only could you get awesome 1940’s sailor tattoos and stories about sinking Japanese subs, it also gave you opportunities to go to college. Tito used the GI Bill to go Julliard and study music. It was there that his genius truly developed. Tito was probably the greatest percussionist of the last century. He could play anything that has the ability to keep a beat. At Julliard, he learned the xylophone and marimba as well as traditional drumming. Tito’s primary instrument would become the timbales. Timbales are shallow snare drums that are tuned to a high note and played with sticks. You could practice everyday for your next 50 Earthly incarnations and not come close to being as good as Tito was. He exploded on to the music scene in the 50’s during the mambo craze. Tito was one of the most respected bandleaders around, and he played all over the world. He was one of the first Latino musicians to make a name for himself on the traditional WASP American record charts. By the late 50’s, Tito was on top of his game. Barely 40, he was already a living legend. Then he met Celia Cruz.

To say that the two of them invented salsa is an oversimplification. Salsa was born out of the collaboration of many artists from Puerto Rico and Cuba in New York in the 1960’s. However, no one would have as big an influence as Tito and Celia. They would often play together after Celia moved to New Jersey in 1959. Together, they formed relationships with jazz musicians and rock bands to create a new sound called salsa. It was faster and more electric than other forms of music, perfect for a mad percussionist and a singer that runs on AZUCAR! Celia was called, “La Reina De La Salsa” and Tito was “El Rey Del Los Timbales”, the reigning monarchs of Afro-Caribbean music. If you ask any salsa musician or fan, “Who were the greatest of all time?”, they will tell you Celia and Tito. I had the great honor of seeing them both as a kid, and even old and crusty they were unbelievable. Tito’s drumming was electric, funny, sexy, and provocative all at the same time. Tito kept banging the timbales until his death in 2000. Thousands showed up for his funeral in Spanish Harlem. Today, Tito’s music lives on on the dozens of records he recorded during his 60 year career. Not bad for a kid from 110th st.

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