Salsa Under the Stars

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By Yara Palin

It didn’t matter if you were black, white, Latino, Asian, young, or old at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park last Friday night. People of all backgrounds and ages attended the 2nd Annual El Barrio Latin Jazz Festival for one reason: to celebrate the legacy of the King of Latin Music, Tito Puente.

Although the performance was scheduled to start at 6 p.m, the band took the stage at around 6:30. However, with DJ TedSmooth on turntables, no one seemed to mind. The DJ played everything from salsa to disco hits, which was just what the older audience needed to get in the dancing mood.

Puerto Rico native and breakout Latin star Jeremy Bosch, 27, also headlined the event with The Mambo Legends. Before the show, Bosch compared Puente to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Dizzy Gillespie. “How did [Puente] not influence musicians in general?” he said. “Tito Puente is at the very forefront of Afro-Caribbean, Latin, and world music.”

The festival was headlined by Tito Puente’s original orchestra, The Mambo Legends, who played with Tito Puente for over 25 years. The epic 22-piece ensemble was fronted by Frankie Vazquez and also performed alongside Marco Bermudez, who is a main vocalist and member of the Spanish Harlem Orchesta.

By the time the Mambo Legends took the stage, everyone was warmed up and ready to have a good time. As Tito Puente said himself, “If there is no dance, there is not music.” There were people dancing on bleachers, in the middle of stairways, and on the grass. And when there was no room left in the audience to dance, the people moved closer towards the stage. Some people brought their own maracas to jam on their own, while others danced with their children in their arms.

You could feel the good vibes and the fun energy in the air. The joy and cheer was palpable. As the Mambo Legends played Puente hit after hit, it was virtually impossible to stay seated. It was difficult to tell whether the passion of the band poured over on to the audience, or if the energy of the audience influenced the performers.

Nearly 2,000 people came together in Spanish Harlem, where Tito Puente was born and raised. In true El Barrio fashion, everyone was dressed in jeans, t-shirts, tank tops, and sneakers. There were no fancy suits, flashy accessories, or gimmicky hairstyles in attendance, although there were a few Puerto Rican flags on t-shirts.

No one even noticed when afternoon turned to night in the park and no one cared either. At around 8 p.m the band began to wrap up their set with the Puente signature track, “Oye Como Va.” When they heard one of the most recognized musical compositions in the world, the audience knew that it was soon time to leave. But it made no difference if the Mambo Legends kept playing or not. The audience was already in too good of a mood to let go that easily. The lights on the set turned off, the band left the stage, but the audience was still cheering and dancing towards the exit.

With the Richard Rodger’s Amphitheater at capacity, festival-goers were all but assured that the Latin Jazz Festival would be back next year.

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