October 13, 2011 — By Fernando Gonzalez—Before becoming part of American pop culture, musical styles such as rock, blues, and jazz needed an “Elvis-type” artist-entertainer, typified by Elvis Presley in rock’n roll, to bridge the gap between the creators of the music and their milieu and mainstream audiences.
For Latin music in the United States, one such figure was Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III, better known as Desi Arnaz. A showman and bandleader, nearly overnight Arnaz came into millions of homes in the 1950s playing his alter ego, Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo, the TV husband of his real-life wife, Lucille Ball, in the enormously popular “I Love Lucy.”
“There was so many talented people making [Latin] music at that time,” says singer, actress and producer Lucie Arnaz, reflecting on her father’s contributions in a phone interview from her home in New York. “But he can be given credit for one thing: the ‘I Love Lucy’ show and insisting that his band and his music, be part of that show. So every week, while they were getting into all these crazy, wacky stuff, you were also getting a lesson in Latin music.”
“And the arrangements were not dumbed-down,” she underscores. “These were the same arrangements his orchestra played in the clubs. And he brought this music to Middle America and all of us who were just buying TV sets. Latin music was introduced to many of us through him, and if wasn’t for that door opening, where would the Julio Iglesias and Ricky Martins and Gloria Estefans and J Los be?”
In fact, the Music of the Americas series at Festival Miami, featuring Willy Chirino, Ivan Lins, Suénalo and Lucie Arnaz, suggests a salute to the evolution of Latin music in North American culture, from Desi Arnaz´s conga breakthrough and the Bossa Nova craze, to the Miami Sound and the Miami-made 3.0 global fusion of Suénalo.
Lucie Arnaz’s “Latin Roots” is a distillation of her “Babalú” show, a tribute to her father that started as a one-off event before becoming a travelling attraction.
“After that, people were asking me to book something like that, a Latin show but with a bigger band not just the trio, not the combo,” recalls Arnaz. “So I thought ‘We can’t always carry dancers and 5 people or even a 15 piece band with strings, but I can do my show a little bigger.’ So while ‘Latin Roots’ is titled after my CD, it’s with a 12 piece band and is actually a hybrid between what I can do from the ‘Babalú’ show, songs from my CD [which includes both Latin classics and standard such as “You and the Night and the Music”] and songs from my show. This is not ‘Babalú.’ It’s not strictly a tribute to my father. It´s exactly what it says it is: a tribute to my Latin heritage. It’s partly him, it’s partly some of the music that I like. It’s American music with a Latin twist.”
Discussing her father’s work, Arnaz recalls an anecdote from working with the original scores of classics such as “Cumbanchero,” and “Quiéreme Mucho” (Yours) that, in a funny way, underscores his commitment to spreading the word about Latin music.
“I remember looking at an arrangement and saying ‘Oh, this is in a different key that the version on the CD from the ‘I Love Lucy’ show—and then someone told me ‘Oh no, what happened is that when they recorded the show they wanted it to go faster because they wanted to put more music on [the show], so they sped up the tape and it went to a higher key.’,” she says with a chuckle. “With ‘Cumbanchero’ when he would do it in the show, as part of his nightclub act, he would go [relaxed] ‘Cumba-cumba-cumba-cumbancheero.’ But when they did it in the ‘I Love Lucy’ show it would be more like [singing much faster now] Cumbacumbacumbacumbanchero’ because they wanted to get the whole song in. It was very funny.”
But for his father, being the bridge between cultures was not always funny, or easy, says Arnaz.
“When my dad started with the band he was what was called a relief band for the Buddy Rogers Orchestra. And Buddy Rogers was as white-bred America as you can get, a Guy Lombardo type. When the band needed to take a break, the relief band would come on and play those 15 or 20 minutes, to keep people entertained until the main band came back. And all the good people would be on the dance floor dancing their foxtrots, and their waltzes – and then my dad’s band would get on the bandstand and they would play the mambos and cha-chas and these people would sit down. They didn’t know what to do with that music. But instead of saying ‘They hate me!’ or ‘These people are stupid’ my father said ‘I get it. They don’t know how to dance this. They are a little afraid of the beat.’ So he asked Buddy to end his set with one of the songs that Rogers’s band knew but that my father’s band also played and proposed that ‘One of my guys would sneak in and take over one of your guys and we can do it little by little and maybe they won’t notice.’ And that was they did, they exchanged places, one by one, and before anybody knew it they were playing the mambo beat and people kept dancing.”
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