For Larry Harlow, one of the pivotal figures of U.S. salsa, music is something made by people live on stage — pounding piano and congas, blasting trumpet and trombone. For DJs like Miami’s Mr. Pauer or Los Angeles collective Moombahton Massive or New York’s Que Bajo, music is made from a vast virtual universe of sounds accessed and released via computer.
But they do have something in common — they all make music for dancing, and they all draw in some way from the rhythms and sounds of Latin America.
This week Harlow and nine DJ/electronic music makers, some young enough to be his grandchildren, will gather in Miami in search of musical common ground. They’re coming here for the launch of Red Bull Siempre Fresco, a new program the energy drink maker is adding to its Red Bull Music Academy, a popular and influential series of creative forums for electronic music artists. The plan is to boost awareness and connections to Latin music with popular DJs who tour the United States, Europe and South America.
Siempre Fresco will encompass a public conversation with Harlow led by Miami’s DJ Le Spam on Thursday, a composing/recording session, and shows Friday at Bardot Miami in the Design District and Saturday at Grand Central downtown.
“All the sounds you’ll experience at Siempre Fresco are music to dance to,” says Toto Gonzalez, aka Mr. Pauer, a popular South Florida DJ and Latin Grammy-nominated electronic music producer. He grew up on the Caribbean coast of Venezuela listening to salsa, merengue and cumbia, styles he incorporates into his fluid dance mixes. “What connects us all is the roots, the influences, the music we grew up with,” Gonzalez says. “We love this music, and we’re looking for a way to bring it back, keep it alive.”
Harlow is an embodiment of those musical roots. Now 75, he was a producer and key member of the Fania All-Stars, the New York group that defined U.S. salsa in the late ’60s and ’70s and included a host of legendary Latin musical figures, among them Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Ruben Blades and Celia Cruz. Harlow, a pianist and non-Latino nicknamed “El Judio Maravilloso” (The Marvelous Jew), whose vast list of credits includes producing more than 300 albums, seems intrigued but slightly skeptical of his collaborators in Siempre Fresco.
“I’m a purist, an old-school Cuban New York salsa guy,” Harlow said from New York. But with salsa audiences and music shrinking, and electronic dance music booming, he realizes he has to be open to new things. “But [the DJs] are mixing it up and I guess it’s the future, so I want to see what they do and go with the flow. I’m willing to listen, to hear what’s going on.”
The electronic music acts in Siempre Fresco have different styles and ways of using Latin music. The three DJs in Moombahton Massive bring reggaeton and non-Latin Caribbean styles like Jamaican dub and dancehall. Texas-based Peligrosa, founded by Panamanian-born DJ Orion, heavily features Colombian cumbia. Que Bajo reflects the mix of cultures in their home city of New York. Gonzalez, who calls his music Electropico, is probably the heaviest user of Latin Caribbean styles like salsa.
Some of these groups’ music includes little that’s recognizable as salsa. And not all the DJs are Latino. But Gonzalez says they all connect to Harlow.
“Fania is in pretty much all these people’s record collections,” he says. “We’re all connected into creating a common sound.”
Harlow has played with DJ Le Spam and the Spam Allstars and worked with other electronic music artists, but he says those occasions mostly involved him playing on top of their tracks. The collaboration in Siempre Fresco is more complex. The nine DJs have been creating music and sending it to Harlow for several months. On Friday they’ll gather for a daylong rehearsal and recording session at which they’ll figure out how to mesh their efforts with Harlow’s ideas and piano playing.
“It’s going to be an intercambio — an exchange,” Harlow says. “We’ve been rehearsing on the Internet; they sent me some stuff; some of it’s very interesting. Some of these DJs really know music and chord changes, and I’m kinda counting on them to show me the way. I’m very curious to see what comes out.”
The recordings will be the first content on a new Siempre Fresco channel on Red Bull Music Academy’s online radio station, which will also stream audio from Thursday’s panel and Friday’s show at Bardot.
Harlow’s hit La Cartera and other Fania records were family favorites in Gonzalez’s home in Venezuela. Now he says that he and his colleagues are thrilled at the prospect of working with Harlow. “He’s a legend,” Gonzalez says. “To be able to meet him, work with him, have a chance to interact with him will be an epic moment.”
The results of Friday’s session will be showcased in Saturday night’s concert, at which each DJ crew will have 15 minutes on stage with Harlow and another live collaborator, Marlow Rosado y La Riqueña, a Grammy-winning salsa band led by a dynamic pianist and composer.
Whatever their backgrounds, they’ll find common ground in performing and getting the crowd to move.
“We have to play with each other,” Harlow says. “We’re musicians.”