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One movement, many voices

Fifteen years of Latin music in one book

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While bearing witness to a metamorphosis that changed the world, few have had the presence of mind to press the shutter and hit record. Thank the orishas, Mary Kent did. Mary Kent is a woman who loves salsa. But more than that, she's a photographer who has had intimate backstage access to Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco and a host of other stars and starmakers in the Latin music industry.

Salsa Talks! A Musical Heritage Uncovered is Kent's lavishly illustrated personal scrapbook of her 15 years in dressing rooms, studios, on stages and subway platforms with salsa's luminaries. Over 400 pages of previously unpublished photographs and interviews bring fans heart-thumpingly close to the fantasy of being a fly on the wall as Celia removes her metallic beehive wig, Ruben Blades doffs his Pedro Navaja hat, and Marc Anthony unbuttons that last, bottom button on his open-necked oxford shirt. Salsa Talks! is a history of salsa straight from the horse's mouth. Like a skilled salsera, Kent lets her subjects lead. Not a scholarly tome, there are no footnotes--rather, imagine a book where the footnotes are the text. Most of the words come from the artists themselves. Showing respect for the critical community, she has sought (and received) the blessings of top experts in the field of Latin music, publishing and show business. Writer Aurora Flores edits the volume, and producers/actors Andy Garcia and Edward James Olmos wrote accolades for the book, as did Celia Cruz' husband (Pedro Knight) and the editors of Latin Beat Magazine and Descarga.com.

A snapshot of an art form in time-release animation, Salsa Talks! is already invaluable. It couldn't be replicated if you started today, because many of the key figures it documents have passed in the last decade, including Mambo King Puente, Salsa Queen Cruz and Fania record label co-founder (and salsa's marketing mastermind) Jerry Masucci. This oral history captures the industry just before the crucial turning point posed by today's changing market, when demographics, new media and generational turnover pose new pressures.

While Salsa Talks! juices the diehard salsaholic with a truckload of new stories and photos, the structure of the book also offers a dance lesson for the debutante, as it were, a handbook of salsa's vital questions and major players. In the first chapter, "What is Salsa?" Kent offers as definitive a set of definitions as you can get, ironically by trying not to. Rather than refereeing among her sources, she lets them all sound off, yielding a polyphonic portrait of the movement, its angles and controversies. "What is salsa? Beats the shit out of me," says Joe Cuba. "Salsa is nothing," rates Mario Bauza with skeptical dissent, whereas Larry Harlow boils it down pragmatically: "It's a mix of Afro-Cuban music with a little New York know-how." Good questions don't divide so much as multiply, and the explanatory power of the book ends up being more sociological than musicological. No jargon-driven discussions of clave take up space here, but a glossary (contributed by music educator Rebecca Mauleon) and bibliography lead readers seeking deeper knowledge to sources on salsa's technical aspects, national histories, and religious and cultural elements.

The book's incredible wealth lies in its firsthand, individual artist portraits, from Afro-Cuban originators such as Bauza, Chucho Valdes, Patato and Cachao, to Puerto Rican progenitors like Eddie Palmieri, Papo Lucca, Andy Gonzalez and Giovanni Hidalgo, and popular performers like Gilberto Santa Rosa, Oscar D'Leon, Jose Alberto "El Canario" and La India. It's astonishing to find crossover star Marc Anthony so humbly self-aware ("I knew that I was a singer and not a sonero") and so proudly scornful of attempts to stereotype his work: "They wanted to sell 'I Need to Know' as Latin music. It's not fucking Latin music, man ... Get out of my face. I've been Latin all my life."

Composer Tite Curet Alonso's lyrical reflections ("Isadora Duncan was like a white La Lupe"; "Brazilians are sorcerers of the half-tone") give pause and insight into the writing of hits like "Isadora" and "Anacaona." Cuban flautist Eddy Zervignon, who gave up a meteorological career for music only reluctantly, gives Puerto Rican dancers the credit for his survival: "If I had had to depend on the Cubans, I would have died of hunger." There are warm hearsay accounts of stars not included in the book, such as early mambo singer Miguelito Valdes, and salsa's earliest casualty Hector Lavoe.

While an incredible tapestry of collaborative artistry and genuine affection forms the backdrop, it's not all sweetness and light. Tales of generosity, humor and redemption live alongside pettiness, addiction and jockeying for credit. Blades bitterly describes royalty disputes with Masucci's organization, and RMM's Ralphy Mercado gives a brash, streetwise evaluation of his role as one of salsa's early promoters. A surprise twist in the Fania legend is the story of how Johnny Pacheco nearly signed the "Venezuelan Celia Cruz"--singer Canelita Medina--if only sexism and greed hadn't gotten in the way.

All the movers and shakers in the history of salsa as a commercial phenomenon are represented, forming a nice complement to the artist portraits. These include DJ extraordinaire Izzy Sanabria, who popularized "salsa" as a marketing label, arranger Marty Sheller, whose many credits include Mongo Santamaria's Latin soul arrangements, and sound engineer Irv Greenbaum, who reminisces about the very first Fania album session. Music critics and historians weigh in as well, including Max Salazar, author of Mambo Kingdom: Latin Music in New York, and Yale professor Robert Farris Thompson. Like Salazar, Kent writes in a romantic, first-person voice that sees history unfolding in the fine detail.

The final chapter takes the reader live to the launching pad of salsa as an international phenomenon, profiling three important concerts in the '70s through the eyes of the artists and promoters who were there. The concerts at the Cheetah club in 1971, at Yankee Stadium in 1973 and in Zaire in 1974 spawned movies and soundtracks that spread salsa all over the world and made salsa musicians international stars. "I have never seen such euphoria in the Latin world," says Cheo Feliciano of the 1971 Cheetah show, filmed in the documentary Our Latin Thing. "It was never that good again," agrees Harlow. Nonetheless, salsa remains a global force to this day, with local bands springing up from Finland to Japan.

Salsa Talks! is an intimate portrait of a cultural explosion. Kent has turned out a coffee-table book rich in information, both visual and textual. It's a must-have for collectors and any music lover who's ever waited backstage to catch a glimpse of the artist who changed their life. Kent's work is a testimony to the power of fandom, and takes you inside the Latin music world like no other history or encyclopedia.

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