I thought I knew what to expect, walking into the Fleming Museum last Wednesday evening. The musuem had advertised a 5pm showing of the influential 16-minute 1929 silent surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou. A non-linear, non-cohesive black-and-white collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, the film’s one stated mission is to show nothing that is rational. It succeeds.
What I did not expect was the Chien chaser, a short film that made for a surprising double feature: Iris Morales‘ fascinating 48-min. documentary about the Young Lords, the Latino advocacy organization that worked in impoverished areas like the Bronx, and the barrios of Chicago and Puerto Rico in the 1960s and 1970s.
¡Palante, Siempre Palante! employs vintage video footage and stills and many first-person interviews to concisely cover the formation, zenith, and ultimate disbanding of the Young Lords organization. We follow them in their many organized efforts (“Palante” translates to “struggle”) to raise the social profile and equality of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos, and improve their living conditions and life opportunities in the nation’s inner cities.
Including the famous garbage strikes in the Bronx, breakfast programs for young children, and the hijacking of a mobile TB screening truck, the film also documents some of the personal and philosophical struggles within the Lords and covers the key points in their evolution, notably the adaptation of an amended platform to be more inclusive of the women who had joined the group.
When a historian is interviewed, she talks about the realization that Puerto Ricans must come to in embracing their own culture – the fact that it is actually a blend of three distinct world cultures: Spanish, African, and native Taíno Indians.
It’s an insight that goes a long way to explain the amazing diversity in the island’s musical sounds and styles: from the simple strumming of the native cuatro to the dramatic, story-heavy plenas, to brassy and percussive Afro-rican big band sounds.
It’s such an exciting variety – Puerto Rican music is all of these things.
The visual narrative in Palante! is supported by a soundtrack packed with great Latino music: I thought I heard Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, maybe the Palmieris (Eddie and Charlie), and Ismael Rivera(?) And other music I couldn’t as easily identify. Hard to tell. I waited for the music credits at the end but only found one, for the composer who had contributed some original compositions to the soundtrack. Who were they? Maybe it’s a question best left unanswered, so that the music can be left in its context as part of the documentary.
For some grooving Puerto Rican sounds I can make a few recommendations, and you’ll probably have a few of your own to add to this very short list:
– one of my favorites: Willie Colón – trombonist, singer, big band leader. For hot, sassy salsa try his brassy “La Gran Fuga” (The Great Escape) or “Cosa Nuestra”, both on Fania records. The extra bonus on these two is the legendary singer Héctor Lavoe. There is real chemistry here, it does not get better than this.
– Eddie Palmieri and Dave Valentin – two Latin jazz greats together on the recordings “La Perfecta” and “La Perfecta II” – the name says it all.
– Ramito – classic. You could almost even say ‘old school’ except for the fact that Ramito’s style and licks are so good and timeless they keep getting borrowed and recycled by today’s artists. It kind of makes even his old recordings sound fresh. Try “Un Aguinaldo Para Ti” (on Ansonia records).
– Pulpo (Gilberto “Pulpo” Colón, Jr): a protégé of Charlie Palmieri, the pedrigee shows in a terrific new recording with a lineup including TEN other top Latin musicians: “Pulpo’s hot bread” – not to be missed.
Like I said – this is a really short list and doesn’t even begin to cover the wealth of recordings by Puerto Ricans like Ismael Rivera, Los Tres Hermanos, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, the Fania All-Stars, Rafael Cortijo, and…and…and…! Can you believe it, all of that great music from an island about the size of Connecticut.
As always I recommend starting the exploration with something you like. Listen to it, learn about it, find related recordings and artists, and you’re on your way! Curiosity will take you much further than any formal music education ever could.
For further reading: P.O.V.’s Youth Outreach Tool Kit
3/22/09 – NOTE: The filmmaker was kind enough to respond to the music soundtrack question, please see Iris Morales’ answer in ‘Comments’ below. Thank you Iris – and congratulations on the film, it is a complete (and completely realized) vision.
Tags: Charlie Palmieri, Dave Valentin, Eddie Palmieri, Fania All Stars, Hector Lavoe, Iris Morales, Ismael Rivera, Latino, Los Tres Hermanos, Luis Bunuel, Palante, Puerto Rican, Pulpo, Rafael Cortijo, Ramito, Salvador Dali, The Fleming, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Un Chien Andalou, Willie Colon, Willie Rosario