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Valley Life | After Dark

Tropical Reign

Larry Harlow helped blend up Afro-Cuban music and make the 'salsa' label stick.

July 16, 1999|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

These days, salsa pianist Larry Harlow keeps hearing the same words from the young fans who frequent his concerts: "My mother has all your records at home."

A quarter-century ago, you could not be a tropical music fan and not have one of Harlow's records in your collection. What's more, the musician has kept the spice of his Afro-Cuban combo alive.

Tonight at the Sportsmen's Lodge, Harlow will perform with a band he has nicknamed the Latin Legends. There's no hyperbole to the moniker. In addition to Harlow, the legends include the rootsy vocal talent of singer Adalberto Santiago and the man known as "the Jimi Hendrix of the cuatro," Yomo Toro. The cuatro is a small guitar-like instrument of Cuban origin.

The three men share an extraordinary past, including a decade of phenomenal creativity when they recorded together as the Fania All Stars in New York's burgeoning salsa scene of the 1970s.

It was the time when a handful of musicians perfected the electrifying combination of Cuban beats with big band jazz. One of Harlow's most popular albums was 1974's "Salsa!," which helped cement the popularity of the word.

"The children of the Puerto Rican immigrants who had migrated to New York in the '50s and '60s were looking for something to identify with, something of their own," Harlow said last week in a telephone interview from his home in New York.

"That something was salsa," he continued, "which in reality is nothing else but Cuban music with a touch of New York bebop and some good lyrics behind."

Harlow's other albums include "Hommy," described as a "Latin opera" with vocal contributions by Celia Cruz; and his personal favorite, "La Raza Latina," a concept effort that follows the history of Latin music.

Born in Brooklyn, the pianist became enamored with the popular Latin music he heard in the streets of his neighborhood. He took his passion seriously and traveled to Cuba, the source of all tropical music. After a two-year stay, Harlow emerged a changed musician, able to play complex piano parts while still maintaining the basic danceability of the tunes. He was soon named "El Judio Maravilloso," which in Spanish means "The Marvelous Jew."

Tonight, Harlow will probably perform many of the tunes that made him famous. But he is far from resting on his laurels. Last year, he released an album of new material, and the Latin Legends is one of three projects he has going.

"I also have a Latin jazz band called Thunder Drums," he said. "It's more of an instrumental group. There are six drummers, five brass players and a singer."

The pianist has also found time for a children's musical named "Sofrito," which he hopes to bring to Southern California early next year. "It's a children's show, but the parents seem to like it more than the kids," he said with a laugh. " 'Sofrito' is a collection of stories from different Latin American countries set to original music. And it's completely bilingual. Every word that is said in English is also repeated in Spanish and vice versa."

The current resurgence of Latin music hitting this country like a tidal wave has helped Harlow remain busy touring all over the world. "Ricky Martin has helped us a lot," he acknowledged. "Right now, there's a return to traditional salsa. All of my records are being released on CD, and a new generation of kids is being exposed to my music."

BE THERE

Larry Harlow & the Latin Legends at the Sportsmen's Lodge. Tonight. Doors open at 8; show at 10. Tickets $20 advance, $25 at the door. Free dance lesson included. Call (310) 450-8770.

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