Latin Music USA: The Rhythm Will Get You

January 29, 2010 by  
Filed under - Home, Reviews

5l;atin300LATIN MUSIC USA: Friday 29th February, BBC4, 9pm ALERT ME

Never in a documentary will you see so many colourful shirts, maracas and sparkling waistcoats – and that’s just in the opening titles.

If you’re feeling sleepy, this programme, which tells the story of how Latin music took over America, will make you get up from your sofa and attempt the Mambo or throw a brick at the television. Hopefully the former.

Yes, Latin America may be to blame for Ricky Martin and bad moustaches but it also pioneered new musical genres and broke racial barriers. The jazz age of the twenties saw young Cuban immigrant, Mario Bauza, influenced by a ‘King of Jazz’ show (if you thought people emerging from inside giant pianos couldn’t be done, think again). Soon he was performing all over Harlem, incoorporating American swing with the distinctive Afro-Cuban beat.

“It’s a meringue lemon pie,” says Bauza. “Jazz at the top and Afro-Carribean at the bottom.”

The doc proceeds with footage of his brother-in-law’s band, provocatively titled, ‘Machito and his Afro-Cubans’, a fixture at the ‘La Conga’ club in Manhattan that moved Latin music into the mainstream. Viewers will be as transfixed on the instruments (and moustaches) as musician Dizzy Gillespie was.

As eccentric performer (and documentary highlight) Frank Colon says, “When Dizzy left that night, he didn’t know where to put his brain.” Music, it seemed, was the drug of choice.

It then moves seemlessy into the 1940s and 50s, which saw the Mambo change morals, fashion and social attitudes. Indeed, recordings from The Palladium make Strictly Come Dancing look like a child’s playground.

Clips from pioneering film ‘West Side Story’ that showed the struggle of Peurto Ricans in the US and sitcom ‘I Love Lucy’, portraying a revolutionary mixed-race couple, are especially engaging.

The arrival of 1960s rock and roll samples gratuitous Beatles footage, who were interestingly influenced by the Latin sounds of the past. Carlos Santana’s infamous gig at Woodstock is also shown, justifying the huge success of the Latin music star.

Informative as it is entertaining, as colourful as it is sobering, this historical-musical extravaganza is a must-see. With commentary from established musicians of the era, including solos which make you lament that “no-one plays their own instruments anymore,” watching these musical maestros you can see why – it’s hard to compete. Plus, do you really think you’re as good at the Maracas as Machito? Didn’t think so.