A music documentary generally does a couple things. It might give you an insight into a bands identity and recording process. It may assert the importance of a band or artist. And, if its successful draws you to a certain era, a certain experience, and a (re)evaluation of music and how it connects to people and more importantly to culture at large. Now generally how the last thing happens is that a bunch of high profile names come in and tell you what you're missing, why something is important, and why you should pay attention. Our Latin Thing (Nuestra Cosa) is that rarest of music docs that relies on nothing besides music and through that shows not only how music is the iteration of a culture but becomes the thing that makes culture and identity.
In the early 70s, director Leon Gast became involved with the burgeoning salsa scene in New York. A uniquely American creation, salsa began in New York City because of the encounter of Latin american cultures in the city -- specifically Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Cubans living in Spanish Harlem during the 1970s. The immigration and cultural encounter erupted in a combination of musical rhythms drawn form Afro-Caribbean roots and layered with jazz instrumentation and emerged as salsa. While in Cuba, there was a similar fusion, the NYC-based musicians relied more heavily on percussion. Perhaps the greatest salsa group was the Fania All-Stars headed by Johnny Pacheco and featuring Larry Harlow, Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, and Ray Barreto. Gast's documentary which premiered in 1972 has been lost since shortly after until the NYC International Latino Film Festival premiered a restored version a few weeks ago.
What's immediately palpable from the doc is the vitality of salsa as a creator of identity throughout the Latin community in NYC. This film pulses with rhythms -- from Fania's raucous concert at The Cheetah to people drumming on beer cans on the streets -- it captures the personalities and rhythms of life with little heavy lifting. There's no voice over, no interview, nothing outside of what's necessary: the music and the dancing. The music is exquisite. This is early salsa and so the strong influences are still felt like the unparalleled percussion and the call and response of jazz and blues. But the film focuses on the crowd and the response as it does the musicians. For every shot of the band there's a shot of a suave salsa step, the twirl of a dancer, the gaming of the dance. Many of us tend to forget how dancing and music go hand in hand how it can give life to a crowd and thus make expression that goes beyond the music. Our Latin Thing is an energizing reminder of this power and of how this expression comes to define a community.
The enduring power of music is the power of cultural expression and through that how we're able to define ourselves, change identity, and articulate who we are and where we're at. Too often, we lose sight of this and are searching for the immediate gratification of a good review or a great track. But these little things add up. And looking at this beautiful document of Fania almost 40 years later its immediately aware how necessary music is, how beautiful original fusion becomes, the power of immigration, and that we all need to do some dancing.