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CHA-CHA Vinyl: The lure of latin

Re-printed from Fall 2009

The community I grew up in, a suburb of Chicago, was the whitest in North America. As in, Wonder Bread White. There was a Japanese-American family around the corner; the kids who hung out with the son called him ‘Buddha’. One wonders what the parents thought of that. They invited us to dinner one night and, my Mom being a devotee of all things Asian, anticipated some tantalizing tempura. Mrs. Yamamoto fixed lasagna.


Mrs. Golden, the Jewish lady across the street, would sometimes let loose with an oy vey, quickly covering it with ‘I-mean-oh-my-gosh!’. And an older gentleman who lived in the yellow house down the street spoke with an accent. It was either Albanian or Mandarin Chinese. We were blissful in our ignorance of all things non-suburban. Some days, it was difficult to determine whether it was Mrs. Grey or Mrs. White, blonde, perky and swathed in a powder blue shirtwaist, who dropped off a casserole. They all looked the same.

And then one night my Dad brought home a package of records and the universe shifted. Red became scarlet, the stars glittered in the sky like sapphires, and my Mother slipped into a pair of backless high heels. We had discovered Latin American Dance Music. We never went back to beige.

This was the early Sixties, PB (pre-Beatles). Pat Boone, in a cardigan and white bucks, topped the charts. We were living through a Cold War, building bomb shelters, and practicing duck-and-cover drills in the classroom. WWII was a not too distant memory for my parents. Those who moved from the cities bought new split levels and station wagons, enjoying a ‘new’ prosperity.

Latin-American music made it fun. Those suburban barbeques were swingin’ affairs, with the sounds of Xavier Cugat, Perez Prado and Jose Martinez blaring from a Hi-Fi set. The orchestras of Miguelito Valdez, Paquitin Lara, and Edmund Ros were popular. We loved the Cha Cha Rhythm Boys. For sheer volume, there were four bandleaders with the name ‘Tito’- Rivera, Rodriguez, Portillo, and Morano. Our neighbors would hang colored lights, mix martinis, and sashay across the kidney shaped concrete, tipsy and happy.

Years later, I found an album by Pedro Garcia and his Del Prado Orchestra- probably one of the most famous LP covers, hands down. It reads ‘Cha Cha Cha’ in staggered type on the left, and to the right, a woman’s legs in fishnet stockings are bent in a delicate crouch. It is pure sculpture on a muted primary colored background. The music is original and sublime. If you can find it on eBay, it’ll run you $45.


Xavier Cugat, who died at the age of 90 some eighteen years ago, was a headliner until his death. His recording of Orchids in the Moonlight, from the early Thirties, is a classic. He played the Waldorf-Astoria during the 40’s and 50’s and appeared in several films featuring his orchestra. Female vocalists ranged from Carmen Miranda to Rita Hayworth to Charo (the ‘cuchi-cuchi’ girl, whom he married in 1966). From the beginning, his band was professional and precision oriented; in films, the camaraderie of the musicians is obvious. They were having a ball making music.

Cha Cha Vin

The influence by Latin-American artists continues today, with names like Victor Manuelle, Oscar D’Leon and Charlie Cruz creating fantastic sounds. Afro-Cuban music from the Fifties morphed into Salsa music, which originated in the 60’s and 70’s with the arrival of Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants. It then moved from the barrios to the ballroom. Dance programs on television feature performers doing the salsa, tango and merengue weekly, and people of all ages and backgrounds are signing up for dance lessons. I even learned to cha-cha, at fifty. That was fun for me, and my partner was only in the ER for few hours.


I don’t live in the suburbs any longer- my navigation of Life has taken me from suburban to urban to rural, and even overseas. Diversity has changed more than a few communities in the last half century. And music, as it turns out, may have liberated the suburban set instead of soothing the savage breast. Our ideas of community have changed, with an inclusiveness which- especially now, with a new President- seems to have arrived. We are all one, as the New Age folks say: Black, White, with all the variations in between. Somos familia– we are family.


And we aren’t going back to beige.






About Darin Lowery

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