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Bridges

Chapter 2: Only in New York: Machito & His Afro-Cubans

BOBBY SANABRIA: Mario was insulted by some comments by a musician in the Cab Calloway orchestra when he played him some of the music of Cuba. He said "That sounds like hillbilly music. Country music." He goes, "Yeah, it's the music of my country. Cuba. But one day there'll be a band, just like this band, The Cab Calloway Band, real classy, elegant, with modern harmonies, etcetera," he said, "It's going to have an Afro-Cuban rhythm section. And I'm going to tell you, it's going to sound better than this band."

BAUZA: You ever hear the expression meringue lemon pie? This is exactly what it is. Jazz in the top and the Afro-Cuban rhythm in the bottom.

[STILL: BAUZA AND MACHITO HOLDING TRUMPET]

Bauzá's first step was to recruit his brother-in-law, bringing him up from Cuba. To the world, he'd become known as Machito.

[MUSIC: MACHITO SINGING "YAMBU"]

SANABRIA: (OC) Machito's real name was Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo de Ayala. His nickname when he was a kid was Macho. And then the story goes that a promoter in New York City told him that sounds like too harsh is there any way to make that a little bit softer, like how would you say 'Little Macho'? So he goes, 'oh, Machito.' (VO) So that's how basically he got his moniker.

[STILL: MACHITO PLAYING MARACAS]

AURORA FLORES: He was the kind of man that was the salt-of-the-earth, really, the salt-of-the-earth, and what a pair of maracas. Nobody could play maracas like him. And the way he sang was just completely endearing.

[STILL: MACHITO PLAYING MARACAS]

[MUSIC BREAK]

Bauzá's fusion of an African-American Big Band with traditional Cuban rhythms was ground-breaking...

[ALBUM COVER: MACHITO AFRO-CUBANS]

...right down to its name.

WASHBURNE: Just the fact that the name that they chose for the band was Machito and his Afro-Cubans says a lot.

BAUZA: Machito and his Afro-Cubanos. A whole lot of people object that, that, that Afro thing there.

WASHBURNE: It's the first time where we see this kind of public acknowledgment through the naming of the band of something that is African derived.

BAUZA: I'm of African descent... and the rhythm that produces the music we play is African.

SANABRIA: Nobody was acknowledging Africa. All of a sudden this band comes up and right in your face it says Machito and the Afro-Cubans.

[Nagüe performance by Afro-Cubans]

Bauzá and Machito had a strong base to work from.

[STILLS: EL BARRIO]

Granted US citizenship in 1917, over thirty thousand Puerto Ricans had migrated to New York, many settling into East Harlem which came to be known as El Barrio or Spanish Harlem.

[STILLS MONTAGE]

The mix of Jazz and traditional rhythms spoke directly to this new generation of New York Latinos. They provided both an audience, and musicians for the band.

[FOOTAGE: CONT. MACHITO AFRO-CUBANS, NAGUE]

FRANK COLON: (VO) I stood in front of that bandstand, (OC) It changed my whole life. It changed my whole life -everything changed! I changed!

[FOOTAGE: CONT. MACHITO AFRO-CUBANS, NAGUE]

COLON: (VO) You know when I heard that band in person, in the flesh....[Bongó plays]... and I heard those drums and going and how they start and I was looking around you know and I felt like that (OC) feeling you get in your nose when you're gonna cry or something; and you try to... It just, it just destroyed me.

[FOOTAGE: CONT. MACHITO AFRO-CUBANS, NAGUE]

COLON: (VO) Godamn! And I'm looking... (OC) woooh man, and I look at the people and the people were dancing and, "Vaya, Vaya Papi!" And I'm saying, man, this is impossible, this is impossible. You know, man, it changed my whole life!

[FOOTAGE: CONT. MACHITO AFRO-CUBANS, NAGUE]

COLON: (VO) That was one of the experiences that stay with me 'til I'm in the tomb.

[FOOTAGE: CONT. MACHITO AFRO-CUBANS, NAGUE]

[MUSIC BREAK]

An immediate success in El Barrio...

[FOOTAGE: NYC at night]

Machito and his Afro-Cubans became a bridge between worlds when they also found success with white audiences in midtown Manhattan ... [CONGA CLUB EXT.] becoming the house band at the La Conga Club for three years.

Though the Afro-Cubans succeeded with varied audiences, that didn't mean everyone heard the music the same way.

WASHBURNE: (VO) It's almost like a double performance, (OC) performing a piece that was translating to a general audience as a swinging, killing dance piece. But at the same time, there would be messages, coded messages for those people in the know.

[STILL: MACHITO WITH MARACAS] [MUSIC: "TANGA" - "TANGA! BORU BOYA!"]

WASHBURNE: "Boru Boya", you know, it goes by so fast, that you hardly recognize it. But anybody who was a practitioner of Santería would look up because it's a traditional greeting.

[CONTEMPORARY BAND / RECREATION: TANGA AND STILLS OF MACHITO]

During the 1940s, the Afro-Cubans developed what became a landmark composition and the band's theme song, "Tanga."

[CONTEMPORARY BAND / RECREATION: TANGA AND STILLS OF MACHITO]

WASHBURNE: There is a nice balance there, it's what Mario Bauzá and Machito were really pushing for, Jazz improvisation over really, you know intense Afro-Cuban grooves.

[CONTEMPORARY BAND / RECREATION: TANGA AND STILLS OF MACHITO]

SANABRIA: And you get this wall of sound happening with the horns.

[MUSIC BREAK]

SANABRIA: It's like a tidal wave of sound coming at you.

[MUSIC BREAK]

SANABRIA: It just stays on one chord. Boom. And is just gets more intense, and more intense, and more intense.

[MUSIC BREAK]

SANABRIA: It was the harbinger of the experiments that Miles Davis would eventually start doing, much, much later.

[STILLS: MACHITO AFRO-CUBANS AND BAUZA ON TRUMPET]

With music like 'Tanga', the Afro-Cubans quickly drew the attention of the most innovative Jazz artists, including an old friend and bandmate of Mario Bauzá's.

[STILLS: DIZZY GILLESPIE]

COLON: (VO) And who comes in at the very end? Dizzy Gillespie. (OC) The trumpets were here, sax over there, the rhythm... he's sitting right there. He wanted to hear that thing coming right through him. And so Mario, seeing that Dizzy's there, he said, "all right, let's take out the heavy stuff."

COLON: (VO) ...Dizzy looked around, tells Mario, "Hey baby, knock me out! Play some more of that stuff. "(OC) And I know when Dizzy left that night, man he didn't know where to put his brains in.

FADE TO BLACK

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