Ambitious ‘Latin Music USA’ leaps into uncharted territory

By James Reed
Globe Staff / October 4, 2009

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Halfway into the second episode, “Latin Music USA’’ compels - no, forces - you to sit up in your chair and wonder what rock you’ve been hiding under for the past 40 years. The salsa revolution, we learn, got a rip-roaring start in New York in the late 1960s, and watching the Fania All-Stars essentially dismantle a packed Yankee Stadium with blazing beats and ferocious energy is the equivalent of beholding Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock.

But as actor Jimmy Smits’s narration points out, it was a watershed event that played largely to a Hispanic audience with little ripple outside the city’s barrios. That singular moment, spectacular for its musical and cultural impact, burrows deep into the heart and soul of “Latin Music USA,’’ WGBH’s new four-part documentary series.

The series, which debuts Oct. 12 on Channel 2, makes a startling case that its subject matter had been ignored for far too long. Divided into four segments, the documentary traces Latin music’s infiltration first in Harlem’s jazz clubs in the 1930s and its spinoff dance crazes, through the salsa explosion and regional movements that birthed Tejano and Chicano rock, to its eventual crossover into popular music.

WGBH producers Elizabeth Deane and Adriana Bosch knew early on that they were working without a net, delving into music history that hadn’t been well-chronicled. They couldn’t even cull from previous television documentaries because they simply didn’t exist.

“We were not only telling history,’’ says Bosch, “we were really making history as we went along.’’

That came at a cost, of course. “That was one of the early discoveries for Adriana and me that was kind of daunting,’’ Deane says. “The scholarship on this subject is very thin. A lot of these musics and cultures really haven’t been looked at. There are only one or two good books on Tejano music. So we found ourselves really having to dig. It’s not like you find the wise guy or the wise woman who can lead you through it.’’

The series was exceptionally long in the making. Deane and Bosch remember how they hatched the idea in 1997 - a year before the Latin-pop explosion made household names of Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez - in WGBH’s cafeteria, emboldened by Deane’s recent success with a 10-part series on rock ’n’ roll. Bosch thought Latin music’s influence in the US deserved similar recognition, but where to even begin?

“We waded in looking at norteño, Peruvian flutes, and bossa nova,’’ Deane says, laughing at the early prospect of navigating the myriad themes and subgenres. “Eventually we decided that we were working with fusions.’’

They hit roadblocks almost immediately, from a struggle to secure funding to skepticism that the whole story could be told with such brevity.

“It took us a long time to get any traction, and ultimately WGBH really saved the documentary with putting down its own money,’’ Bosch says, adding that many folks were surprised by the project’s ambitions, from co-workers to some high-profile supporters.

“The last person who told me it was going to be a challenge was Justice Sonia Sotomayor at a gala in Washington, D.C.,’’ Bosch says. “She said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s a lot of stuff to put in four hours.’ ’’

And it was, but the producers knew there was at least a general bank of Latino artists already familiar to the masses: Carlos Santana, Tito Puente, Gloria Estefan. The bigger challenge was telling their stories under a unifying umbrella.

Originally Deane and Bosch envisioned episodes based on where the music came from, but tying it all together was nearly impossible. Instead “Latin Music USA’’ unfolds in eras while retaining the importance geography played in each. You can’t talk about Tejano music without putting it in a Southwestern context, obviously.

The next hurdle was gauging the series audience and striking the right tone. Deane and Bosch wanted to appeal to a PBS crowd, but also to Latinos who had grown up in this country with limited understanding of their musical heritage.

“I felt the music was initially a way to tell a Latino story that would be friendly to a mainstream audience,’’ Bosch says. “I came to it with the idea of music being a vehicle - and a friendly and wonderful vehicle that could tell our story to the mainstream, but also to ourselves and the many generations who have already come up in the United States.’’

It helped that Deane and Bosch approached the series with different but complementary perspectives. Bosch, who was born in Cuba and lived in Boston for many years, knows and breathes this music, while Deane was excited about the notion of discovery.

“For me, it was falling in love with the stories, the artists, the music, and wanting to share that with a wider audience,’’ Deane says. “Finding that balance between the depth and legitimacy that a Latino audience would expect and the accessibility that the wider PBS audience would want and need was our real challenge.’’

Even in just four hours, though, the series clocks in at an appropriate length. Deane and Bosch - along with a team of writers, producers, and researchers - linger on the pioneers (Ritchie Valens, Hector Lavoe, Santana, Selena), while illuminating forgotten footnotes in Latin music’s history, folks whose names aren’t exactly boldface.

The story of Mario Bauzá, a Cuban musician who fled to Harlem and introduced Afro-Cuban rhythms to jazz, is an unearthed treasure. The bits about Jerry Masucci, the late salsa impresario who ran Fania Records (into financial ruin, some would say), paint a balanced and enlightening portrait of a man riddled with contradictions.

Mining the importance of Latin jazz, salsa, Chicano rock, and even Freddy Fender’s unsung contributions to country music was easy enough; it was harder to extract the relevance of other musicians and movements. Bosch admits she grappled with putting Latin pop into a greater context.

“What do I say about pop? is how I approached it,’’ Bosch says of making episode 4. “I kept running around in circles thinking, what is there to say about pop? Pop is pop. And then you start digging and realize there’s a heck of a lot to say about pop.’’

The closer they got to completing the series they began in earnest in 2007, the more Bosch and Deane finally realized what had been their guiding principle all along.

“The series is based on the notion that there is an identity coming together in the United States that is distinct and unique,’’ Bosch says. “Some people still question whether there’s a Latino identity that unites us all and unites us with the mainstream culture.’’

As comprehensive as the series is - stretching all the way up to reggaeton and the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical “In the Heights’’ - Bosch and Deane concede some artists (like José Feliciano) fell between the cracks. But that’s the peril of dealing with such a broad subject and its enormous cultural importance.

“Our whole point was that this is American music,’’ Deane says. “This is music made here, and we wanted to place it in the stream of American culture. We could have done so much more, but you can also say this is just the beginning.’’

James Reed can be reached at

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