The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New York Daily News, Billboard, and Variety all had obits, as did Spanish-language, European, and African news media. My only quibble with some of these tributes? They dub Fania Records “the Motown of Salsa.” Fania was Fania, but I guess they needed a Black American reference, rather than use any reference pointing to Black Latinos.
NPR’s Felix Contreras gives us a glimpse into his background.
Pacheco was born in the Dominican Republic to a musical family in 1935. His father was a band leader that played popular dance music including the Cuban danzón, which would have an influence on the younger Pacheco’s musical career.
When the family moved to New York in the late 1940s from the Dominican Republic to escape the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, Pacheco became immersed in music. He taught himself to play accordion, violin, saxophone and clarinet. He attended the Juilliard School of Music to study percussion and soon became a busy A-list studio musician, playing on sessions for commercial jingles, record dates and with the NBC Studio Orchestra.
In the early 1960s, his band Pacheco Y Su Charanga popularized a style called pachanga and soon he was touring throughout the US, Latin America, Europe and Asia, where he learned how to appeal to larger audiences.
Streaming service TIDAL paid tribute with an image of a young Pacheco.
Many of the tweets honoring Pacheco paired him with La Reina (the Queen) of Afro-Cuban music, Celia Cruz.
The joyful clip above is from the groundbreaking Fania concert, FANIA All Stars Live in Africa.
In 1974 the FANIA All Stars played a concert at Stadu du Hai in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) as part of the build-up to the Muhammad Ali / George Foreman fight.
The FANIA All Stars played for an audience of over 80,000 people. The audience was thrilled by this sound that was foreign, but clearly African. American Latins are also Black. The artists were super amped up by the opportunity to play in our ancestral homeland.
The opening tune in the clip, “Quimbara,” evokes the Central African “Kongo” roots of Cuban religious practice. For those of you who have time, I encourage you to watch the entire performance; I was elated to see that Fania has posted in full.
This clip, of Cruz, Pacheco, and Tito Puente riffing at a restaurant is delightful.
I’ve probably watched Fania’s 1972 documentary, Our Latin Thing, at least 100 times. Here’s a snippet.
And here’s the full, 86-minute adventure.
The opening scene, of a child in East Harlem (aka Spanish Harlem or El Barrio) running through the streets to get to a place where other kids are holding an impromptu jam (and dance) session, always evokes the politics of the time for me. The New York Young Lords Party’s first street action addressed the environmental hazard of garbage in the streets of East Harlem. The New York Times looked back at that initiative in “Garbage Fires for Freedom: When Puerto Rican Activists Took Over New York’s Streets.”
The first thing they did was hit the streets to ask their neighbors what was needed. Expecting lofty talk of revolution and systemic change, the Lords instead found that the community’s needs were very straightforward. “This place is filthy, man. It stinks. There’s garbage all over,” was the complaint Mr. Maristany heard. Sanitation pickups were irregular, and piles of trash accumulated on street corners, fouling the air and presenting a significant health risk. Waste bins were nowhere to be found.
A small contingent of Young Lords went to the local Department of Sanitation office to ask for better service. “We were naïve,” Mr. Maristany says. “It’s not a mistake, the way they operate. They provide service to the powerful, the people with political clout, not to us!” They asked for brooms and trash bags so they could do the cleanup themselves. “They threw us out!”
Back to Our Latin Thing. The film segues to the Cheetah Club, a New York disco which used to hold a Latin Night, where people of all races and ethnicities gathered to dance salsa. Fania Records put together a concert at the Cheetah on Aug. 26, 1971, with artists they had signed on the label, dubbing them “The Fania All-Stars,” mentioned earlier.
Starting in my teens, my friends and I were salseros and salseras (salsa dancers). As soon as we
were looked old enough to get into clubs with fake ID, we went out dancing. We had almost no money; we funded by entering Latin dance contests. Whoever won covered the other members. We were a mixed group of African American, Afro Caribbean, and Black Puerto Rican teens, carrying on a dance music tradition established at New York clubs like the Palladium Ballroom, whose dancers gained both local and international fame.
Some of the most famous of those dancers were Black — which you can see in this clip from the amazing documentary footage captured by Mura Dehn in The Spirit Moves.
As noted by the uploader of the clip: “The footage was filmed in the early 1950s of some of the Palladium Ballroom’s best mambo dancers, including: Jackie Danois, Aníbal Vázquez, Tondelayo, Dottie Adams, Teddy Brown, Pedro Aguilar (aka Cuban Pete), Millie Donay, and (Tybee).”
Pedro ‘Cuban Pete’ Aguilar was one of the most lauded Palladium dancers, as noted in his 2009 obituary in The Guardian.
Pedro “Cuban Pete” Aguilar, who has died of heart failure aged 81, was a leading exponent of the US version of the mambo, the Cuban dance craze that flooded New York from the late 1940s. Athletic and sensual, he and the Italian Millie Donay embodied that craze, while their marriage challenged racial taboos. Aguilar enriched Latin dance with a host of new moves – the shimmy-shimmy, the Susie Q and swing step.
Called el cuchillo (the knife) by fellow dancers because of his rapid mambo hand movements, the Puerto Rican immigrant acquired the nickname “Cuban Pete” after Desi Arnaz, who had starred in a film of that name, introduced him as such at New York’s Palladium Ballroom. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Aguilar arrived in the US some years before the 1 million-strong Puerto Rican migration of 1945-60 created el barrio, the Latin community of the South Bronx and East Harlem, where the new mambo took off. His parents settled first in Washington, where Aguilar showed early promise in dances such as the danzón and bolero. However, the breakdown of his parents’ marriage led to Aguilar growing up in orphanages. During those unhappy years, he learned to box. In the early 1950s, Aguilar reached New York, where he continued to box and, one night, turned up at a club with his face marked with bruises. A Puerto Rican singer, Miguelito Valdes, persuaded him to enter a dance contest. Aguilar won the $1,000 first prize and gave up boxing.
Another famed Palladium dancer, Luis “La Maquina” Flores, saw his dancing days ended when he was shot in his club. Though he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, he maintained close ties to all the musicians who loved him until he died in 2017. I had the honor of dancing with him once, in his after-hours club. I also got a chance to dance with Pacheco, who was hanging out there that night. I wanted to have the shoes I wore that night gold-plated, so I’d never forget.
It would seem I didn’t need to preserve the shoes: I’ve never forgotten that evening or those dances.
I’ll close with this video clip from the 2014 film Yo soy la Salsa, which documents Pacheco’s life and legacy. It has English subtitles, though no translation is necessary for the music, which is its own universal language.
Join me in the comments to play some of your salsa favorites, and let’s dance the day away together.