Grupo Andino at Park Plaza, 1950’s
Courtesy of Louis Kant.
“Latin bugalú was hot. A mix of Latin music and R&B rhythms, it was born out of the close proximity of Puerto Ricans and African-Americans in Central and East Harlem.”
Tango was the first Latin music genre and dance craze to hit Harlem. By 1913 tango picnics, contests and dances were held in such venues as the Astoria Café, Palace Casino and Manhattan Casino. African-American stage shows at the Cotton Club and others also featured tango.
The Harlem Renaissance, coinciding with the Negritude movement in the Caribbean, spurred the popularity of Afro-Caribbean music, particularly Cuban music in New York City. Manifested primarily through the arts, these movements celebrated an African past and a New World experience shaped by slavery and the struggle.
In East Harlem’s Park Palace Ballroom with its downstairs club, the Park Plaza (formerly the Golden Casino) the Latin music industry took off in the 1920s. The building was such a focal point of the Latin music scene that Puerto Rican musician Noro Morales memorialized it in the song, “110th Street and 5th Avenue.”
The Park Palace remained active until the 1950s when major shows moved downtown to play for largely non-Latino audiences. Musician Bartolo Alvarez remembers, “The Park Plaza was an institution. That’s where all the bands played. The first headliners were the Happy Boys, oh what a bunch of good musicians! The owner was Jewish, and he saw the potential of the Puerto Ricans in the community.”
Clubs that continued operating for uptown audiences included Club Cubanacán on Lenox Avenue, Club Obreros Español at 103rd Street, and the Rhumba Palace on 125th Street. The Odd Fellows Temple on 106th Street was housed in the same building where Machito recorded his legendary album, “Kenya.”
El Barrio’s numerous theaters, including Campoamor and San José, presented popular Latin bands, Spanish-style vaudeville and variety shows, Puerto Rican música jíbara and performers and films from Mexico and Argentina.
Music stores located throughout El Barrio were critical to the development and expansion of Latin music. Musicians gathered there looking for gigs and store proprietors advised record companies of new groups. One of the first was Almacenes Hernández, which opened in the late 20s on 113th Street. It was owned by Victoria Hernández and her brother Rafael, who was a member of James Reese Europe’s 369th Infantry “Hellfighters” band during World War I. He later became one of Latin America’s most famed composers.
The Spanish Music Center near 110th Street is where Gabriel Oller founded Dynasonic, the first Puerto Rican-owned recording company. Casa Latina (formerly Casa Alberto), founded by Bartolo Alvarez, was the longest-running music store in El Barrio, standing as a symbol of the enduring musical legacy of the community.
East Harlem was home to many of Latin music’s most influential musicians including the “Big Three” bandleaders--Machito, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodríguez. Pianist Charlie Palmieri was born there and played his first gig at the Park Plaza; and Joe Loco took piano lessons from Victoria Hernández in her store’s backroom.
Between 1966 and 1968 Latin bugalú was hot. A mix of Latin music and R&B rhythms, it was born out of the close proximity of Puerto Ricans and African-Americans in Central and East Harlem. Two of its major musicians were Joe Cuba and Johnny Colón.
While East Harlem is still home to Puerto Ricans, its stores and restaurants now reflect El Barrio’s growing Mexican community. In addition to the strains of salsa one hears the distinctive sounds of mariachi music--a national symbol for all Mexicans. In 2001 the Mariachi Academy opened at 1775 Third Avenue.
BY ELENA MARTÍNEZ AND ROBERTA SINGER
People would come out and play congas
from sun-up till sun-down
That’s Spanish Harlem
—Excerpt from group poem, Harlem Educational Activities Fund students and artist/educator Benja K. Little