Thursday, October 20, 2011

La Vida de La Lupe

It was in high school when the Spanish language first sparked my interest. Outside of class, I would listen to the radio station La Mega while trying to pick up the language through song. I enjoy merengue and bachata, the two most popular styles of music in the Dominican Republic but I prefer salsa, especially the good, Fania shit. Fania Records was essentially the Motown of Latin music that housed salsa pioneers like Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe, and Ray Barretto. Salsa music was instrumental in introducing the larger world to the sounds of Caribbean oriented music, musica tropical. 

But before there was salsa, there was Puerto Rican bomba. There was cha-cha and mambo. Though salsa music is huge, it still is a fairly new genre of music, originating in the 1960's and 1970's. The aforementioned styles of music, as well as many others, were the components of musica tropical and La Lupe was the champion of them all. I can't pinpoint when I first discovered her music, but I promise that I have not listened to music the same way since.

Brash, flamboyant, witty and fiery, the Cuban-born singer was dubbed the Queen of Latin Soul but has been largely forgotten over the years. La Lupe's music was just as much sexy as it was political. Exiled from Cuba, she kicked off her shoes after each performance as a form of protest against Castro's regime.

She started her career singing traditional Cuban music with an orchestra led by Latin jazz great Mongo Santamaria. Impressed with her rich voice, she caught the attention of Tito Puente and together they had a string of hits including her most famous song, "Que Te Pedi." Her mastery of tropical rhythms along with her over-the-top persona, gave her performance an edge never seen before by Latin audiences. She would erratically hit her face, clap irregularly to the beat or at times, even slap her breasts while shouting "Ahi Nama!" With an act like none other, she was on top of the world in the sixties. But it wouldn't last for much longer.

La Lupe's life soon became consumed by alcoholism and drug addiction. Her drug-addict husband, who was later diagnosed as a schizophrenic, became abusive towards her. Between his hospital bills and her endless donations to Santeros, she went broke. The despair that now defined her life began to taint her professional life as she became more and more of a burden to her associates. According to Tito Puente, she her refusal to convert to salsa music and sticking with traditional musica tropical would soon make her a hasbeen. He decided to part ways with her.

In "Oriente," she beautifully emotes her falling out with Tito Puente as she shouts "Ay ay ay, Tito Puente me botó!"- a loose translation of 'he kicked me out.' She died from a heart attack at the young age of 52. How did this happen? She was the first Latin singer to sell out of Madison Square Garden, but some how once ended up homeless and destitute. She traveled around the world, wowing audiences with her musical genius but is relatively unknown to many fans of Latin music. La Lupe was as much passionate and talented as she was troubled. Once loved, but now forgotten, she lived a life free of apologies or restrictions. It may have worked to her detriment but that's what makes her legacy so incredible.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Going Back to Our Roots

Word dropped a few days ago announcing The Roots' new concept album slated to come out December of this year. Entitled Undun, the album is going to be a “existential retelling” of the life of Redford Stephens, a man who was murdered at the young age of 25 in 1999. I was unable to find more information about Stephens but I am speculating that his story is one of symbolism, one that challenges common narratives of young black men while exploring the intricacies of "ghetto life." The band's drummer ?uestlove (Questlove) explains more:

"undun is the story of this kid who becomes criminal, but he wasn’t born criminal. He’s not the nouveau exotic primitive bug-eyed gunrunner like Tupac’s character Bishop in “Juice”… he’s actually thoughtful and is neither victim nor hero. Just some kid who begins to order his world in a way that makes the most sense to him at a given moment… At the end of the day… isn’t that what we all do?”
I think the concept, like the band itself, is brilliant. It took some time for The Roots to gain success in the mainstream, with their fourth album Things Fall Apart being the first to go gold. And although they have made it big, they have been able to stay true to their uniqueness. Hip hop fans respected the insightful content and complexity found in Black Thought's lyrics, giving the group street cred. Critics appreciated their artistry which blended traditional hip hop beats with jazzy, live instrumentation.

The Roots have continued to grow throughout their career with many of their music tackling a variety of social issues. Undun may not sell a mil in its first week like a certain, lesser talented, squeaky voiced rapper but I am expecting nothing short of greatness. I remember back when rap songs used to tell a story. Well, not really considering I'm only 22 but that is besides the point. Many great hip hop songs featured storytelling but to my knowledge, the concept has never been expanded to an entire album. So this December I'll be at the record store, coppin this album. Until then, I'll be rockin' to their throwbacks.

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