Beyond the hordes of teens screaming for ricky martin, far from the sepia glow of the reinvented roots music of Buena Vista Social Club, lie the soulful pleasures of authentic Latin music. And the best place to sample those pleasures isn’t the charming ruins of Havana or the glittery shores of Miami – it’s the dance palaces, music shops, and radio dial of New York. The city that cradled mambo kings in the fifties and salsa heroes in the sixties and seventies still hosts a nonstop jam session of Latin rhythms today.
Up at Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe (281 West Fordham Road; 718-329-2000), weekends bring high-draw salsa and merengue acts – and sometimes even Cuban legends like pianist Chucho Valdes. The big dream of Jimmy Rodriguez Jr., a Bronx boy turned nineties Toots Shor, Jimmy’s has an adjoining restaurant serving seafood and spot-on skirt steaks until 3 a.m. Keep one eye on the mambo memorabelia on the wall and the other on celebs like John Leguizamo.
The Copacabana (617 West 57th Street; 212-582-2672), the grand yacht of Latin nightspots, still cruises along splendidly. Tuesday-night buffets under its white palm fronds are an institution; the rest of the week, acts like Puerto Rican salsa machine La Sonora Ponceña and Dominican merengue superstar Sergio Vargas heat up dapper dance pros who dazzle while dodging tourists on the hardwood.
With its mirrored walls and frosted-glass faux sconces, Upper Broadway’s Latin Quarter (2551 Broadway, at 96th Street; 212-864-7600) gives the Copacabana a thriftier run for its Deco dollar as the place to admire chicas and their partners of the moment stepping sublimely to live salsa. The club presents live music Thursdays through Saturdays.
Downtown world-music citadel S.O.B.’S (204 Varick Street; 212-243-4940) corrals the most eclectic bookings in town on its La Tropica Mondays. You might catch the flute-and violin-fueled charanga of Cuba’s beloved Orquesta Aragón or the showstopping rhythms of Los Van Van. The supper club is also intimate enough for you to (carefully) shake the hand of ageless Grammy winner Cachao.
Wednesdays are jammed: Midtown’s kitschy old-Italian La Maganette (825 Third Avenue, at 50th Street; 212-759-5677) specializes in charanga, with performances by such vintage regulars as flute legend José Fajardo and New York’s seminal Orquesta Broadway. Nell’s (246 West 14th Street; 212-675-1567) throws a hipster Cuban-soul party, featuring guitar-and-trumpet-based son and occasional look-ins from stars like David Byrne; and the Blue Lounge at Gonzalez y Gonzalez (625 Broadway, at Houston St.; 212-473-8787) toasts the R&B-tinged timbales and violins of Los Jovenes Del Barrio.
On varying Thursdays, the arty cubbyhole Zinc Bar (90 West Houston Street; 212-477-8337) showcases two young Cuban talents: up-and-coming bolero mavel Xiomara and Juan Carlos Formell, son of Los Van Van’s main man. Also on Thursdays, Nuyorican Poets Cafe (236 East 3rd Street; 212-505-8183) hosts an ongoing top-quality Latin-jazz jam session featuring some of the most talented sidemen in the city.
On a smaller scale, the pretty, clever Ideya Latin bistro (349 West Broadway; 212-625-1441) treats Monday diners to a modest quartet’s venerable vocalist who once worked with Cuba’s great Arsenio Rodriguez – to accompany dishes like plantain-encrusted lamb with mofongo.
The best Latin-music primer in town is Sunday afternoon on 97.9 La Mega, where veteran D.J. Polito Vega throws an eight-hour fiesta featuring seventies salsa and fifties Cuban mambo with shots of charanga’s surging flute. You’ll hear no musicological nattering on Salsa Con Polito (Sundays, noon to 8 p.m., WSKQ, 97.9 FM.) – just Vega’s sugar-cured exclamations (“Hello, fat mama!” and “Cambio! Cambio!”) amid Furniture King ads and – alas – the usual La Mega fare of slick new salsa and club mixes.
On The New World Gallery (Sundays, 4 to 6 p.m., WBAI, 99.5 FM), Chico Alvarez digs even deeper (sans commercials), waxing pedagogic in English and Spanish about artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo. Right before him is Ritmo Con Ache (2 to 4 p.m.), with Nancy Rodriguez, who recently profiled Orquesta Broadway, with studio interviews amid the lilt.
The unctuous, demure Señor Bolero (Sundays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., WPAT, 93.1 FM) – Bolivian-born Douglas Peña – wakes Latinos on Sunday mornings with “soap operas in two or three minutes”: dreamy golden-age boleros from the forties, fifties, and sixties, plus a couple of tangos every hour. Later in the afternoon, on El Show De Cocco Cabrera (3 to 8 p.m., WCAA, 105.9 FM; also Saturdays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.) on 105.9 Caliente, Alipio “Cocco” Cabrera rips up the weekend with salsa standards and merengue tipico’s rootsy high-speed Dominican accordion.
Saturday afternoons, Vicki Solá serves up musica autentica – mostly salsa and Latin jazz – in a thoughtful, noncommercial style (Que Viva La Musica, noon to 3 PM, WFDU, 89.1 FM,). On Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday nights, WKCR, 89.9 FM, flies the flag, ad-free.
Until the eventual but still uncertain reopening of that living retail archive the Record Mart – a casualty of Times Square subway-station renovation – the following Latin specialty shops (and savvy chain stores) should satisfy your cravings for Latin music old and new.
A schmeer away from Ratner’s deli, Bate Records (140 Delancey Street; 212-677-3180) offers two CDs for $25 on certain items – it’s the perfect place to pick up some Johnny Pacheco or Soñora Matancera.
In the shadow of City Hall, J&R Music World, Latin And World-Music Store (33 Park Row; 212-238-9000, extension 4303) gives Latin music a floor of its own. Prices – on albums by such greats as mambo king Tito Rodriguez and new groups like Caravana Cubana – are rock-bottom. Service is English-speaking but sometimes unenthusiastic.
Manhattan Latin Music Center (471 West 42nd Street; 212-563-4508) is affiliated with (and next door to) the Latin distributor Kubaney Records, and the amiable pros in this store have one of the deeper inventories in the city. Look for the wonderful “Cuban Gold” series of reissues.
A venerable El Barrio Spot, Casa Latina (151 East 116th Street; 212-427-6062) stays particularly strong on old-school salsa with a Puerto Rican flavor. Look for albums by sonero Ismael Rivera among the flags and congas. Not the cheapest.
Multi Kulti (218 Thompson Street; 212-979-1872) offers a small but thoughtful inventory and a genial Nigerian proprietor who lets you listen to any CD before you buy. Chat and special-order to your heart’s content.
Along Jackson Heights’ main strip, Fernandez Records (8319 Roosevelt Avenue; 718-565-6174) sells Colombia’s chugging cumbia (dear to Mexican hearts, too) and vallenato. It helps if you speak Spanish.
If you want to browse and boogie at home, Brooklyn’s Descarga.Com (800-377-2647 or www.descarga.com) is the definitive mail-order and Internet vender. In addition to an impressive selection of albums, it offers reviews, a glossary of terms, and links to other Latin-music sites. A great resource for the truly curious.