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Subway Salsa: The Montuno Records Story

(Vampisoul; US: 14 Feb 2012; UK: 30 Jan 2012)

Deep down in New York’s Times Square subway station, one of the busiest transport interchanges in the world, stands Record Mart: a beacon of musical and cultural history, the record shop which spawned the Montuno Record label. Home to all manner of subterranean dwellers, Record Mart is a historical New York Latin music landmark.


Vampisoul, another cultural music beacon (this time based in Madrid), have—quite literally—dug deep for the latest in their continually impressive roster of releases by bringing to life the Montuno Record story. Featuring 28 tracks comprising a cornucopia of Latin sounds, from Afro-Antillean to Nuyorican to Haitian compas, this is a seriously hot and danceable album.


Jesse Moskowitz was one of the self confessed “hip Jewish kids in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan” who “loved all things Latin, a Mambonick”. Jesse fell into running the Record Mart store through family connections when the shop opened in 1958, originally at 14th Street subway, where they sold mainly show tunes and jazz before building up their Latin music stock which began to sell well. Not long after, Jesse and business partner Bob Stack bought the business outright. It was, however, the opening in 1961, of the Times Square store, that was the beginning of the good times for Record Mart. Increasing their stock by buying directly form local New York distributors in order to cover more Latin music simply increased the demand from customers whilst increasing Jesse’s knowledge of the scene. In an early display of customer care, Jesse also hired knowledgeable Latinos to work in the store, providing more reasons for customers to head into the nether regions of the subway to seek out the freshest Latin New York sounds.


Such was the reputation of the shop and its employees, it was a natural step for Jesse to begin a record label so he could put out the music he loved, as well as selling it. Partnering with local Latin music impresario Al Santiago, Montuno Records was born in 1975 and was named after a Cuban musical term. Judging by this release, they had sharp ears and impeccable taste.


There are a number of styles on this album, ranging from guaracha-mambo, montuno-pachanga, guaguanco, and doo-wop bata rumba to the more well-known rumba. But fear not, you don’t need to be an expert or aficionado to appreciate the infectious sounds on this album: Just let the music take you over. Opener “Coco My My” by Tambo is full of horns, cowbells, rhythmic percussion, and classic Latin vocals to instantly get your hips swaying. As it’s immediately followed by the fanfare trumpet of Yumba’s “Caballo”, you just know this is going to be a couple of hours of fun listening pleasure.


Then you get a change of tempo with the Puerto Rican band Zaperoko and “No Quedo Ni El Gato”. According to the detailed and excellent liner notes written by Pablo Yglesias aka DJ Bongohead, Zaperoko pioneered a style of Latin music called songo, mixing this with samba, rock, son cubano, and rumba across their recorded output, Zaperoko were one of the more experimental outfits of the time. “No Quedo Ni El Gato” is a more mellow track, driven by acoustic guitar and percussion, while “Balilare” is more rhythmic—quicker and more danceable. Both songs highlight the skills of the musicians at work in this band and also the ease in which they can switch between styles and retain their potency.


More well-known artists like Brasillian Airto Moreira and Cuban/New Yorker Lou Perez are peppered throughout; the latter’s “Bon Bon De Chocolate” is a vintage track with flute, violin, and percussion that demands you get up and wriggle your hips in the best approximation of a salsa that you can muster.


But it is both unfair and impossible to single out artists or individual tracks on this album. It’s hard to pick fault with any of the 28 tracks offered, and while there could be a charge leveled of a certain sameness on some songs, this is what was New York’s Latin Americans were listening and dancing to in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and thus the album serves as an important historical document of the musical, social, and cultural times of this community.


But above all, this album stands as a testament to one man’s love of music and the role that independent record shops play, and still play albeit in lesser numbers, in the cultural life of a city or town. More than mere commercial spaces, record shops and the people who work in them are cultural intermediaries. They are spaces and places that delight in sharing knowledge of new music, a focal point for individuals and communities to meet in and hang out in. They are part of popular music’s rich heritage.


Some, like Record Mart, even put their money where their mouths are by releasing records, providing a further archival service for music, ensuring otherwise obscure artists and records remain to be heard for generations to come. In this, we also need to salute labels such as Vampisoul who continue to search out the lost and forgotten and bring them back to life in beautifully packaged releases.


Wherever you happen to be in the world on 21st April, Record Store Day, try to visit an independent and locally-run record shop. You never know what you may find.

Rating:

Founder of the Birmingham Popular Music Archive and Exec Producer of the documentary Made in Birmingham: Reggae Punk Bhangra (you may discern a common theme here!) I get way more pleasure than is acceptable from uncovering obscure facts and stories about music from my home city. The sight of some long forgotten band performing on stage, captured in a crappy in 1970's photo, is likely to send me over the edge! In my spare time, I work with some fellow popular music and radio fanatics in the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research at Birmingham City University in the UK.


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