Latin-music pianist and bandleader Eddie Palmieri recorded his two-volume album set “Live at Sing Sing” in the early winter of 1972 — 50 years ago this year. Before an enthusiastic audience of mostly Black and Latino inmates, the event’s emcee, radio DJ and native Puerto Rican Francisco “Paquito” Navarro, spoke to the politics of their performance in the sequestered confines of the New York State Department of Correction.
“For all mankind!” he shouted over the courtyard loudspeaker, saying there should be “no walls,” “no fears” and “only one thing in life: liberty in the coming years.” Palmieri’s show at Sing Sing reflected a moment when popular discourse around systemic oppression had reached peak levels in the cultural mainstream, just as many Americans were first encountering an exciting, aggressive and youth-driven Latin music genre — salsa. Socially conscious musicians of that era, in expressing prisoner solidarity — or simply acknowledging prisoners as human beings worthy of love, empathy and entertainment — raised public awareness about prison conditions and critiqued mass incarceration as an unconscionable stain on U.S. society. This work continues today.
Not by coincidence, Palmieri’s performance at Sing Sing, Upstate New York’s notorious maximum-security men’s correctional facility, emerged on the heels of the Attica prison riot of September 1971, also in Upstate New York — an event became a flash point in modern U.S. history. More than 1,200 inmates seized control of the prison in a four-day standoff. In a manifesto, the prisoners called on the state to recognize their most basic human rights, including legal representation and adequate medical attention. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R) refused their demands and ordered the state police to “retake” the prison. The resulting assault left 10 hostages and 33 prisoners dead and more than 100 wounded.
The resounding political and cultural aftershocks of the massacre at Attica, a galvanizing moment for New Left activism, signified a turning point in the prisoners rights movement, a struggle coinciding with the steady rise of incarceration. The successful Nixon-age moral crusade for drug prohibition and the onset of New York’s Rockefeller drug laws in 1973 — harsh, mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenses — presaged a new dawn of mass incarceration and the devastation of America’s communities of color caught in its crosshairs.
Palmieri, a Bronx-born Nuyorican already immersed in the politics of social and racial justice, was expanding his activist focus to the plight of the incarcerated. Bemoaning the “barren creativity” of contemporary Latin musicians, Palmieri told Billboard magazine in May 1973 that he was conscientiously bound to continue performing free prison concerts, insisting that the imprisoned should be “given a chance to grow” and “not just stagnate in their cells.” Palmieri also played gigs at Rikers Island and Attica (twice) and continued playing prisons throughout the decade.
For the performance at Sing Sing, Palmieri’s label, Tico Records — Roulette Records’ Latin jazz subsidiary run by notorious New York mob associate and music mogul Morris Levy — sent a team of engineers from Manhattan’s Variety Recording Studio upriver to capture the magic on tape.
Palmieri’s sense of the political possibilities of his music fit with the spirit in which salsa music was coming of age. Racial pride and liberation movements were coalescing into formative challenges against the prevailing status quo surrounding race, class, gender, sexuality and social citizenship. While celebrated in popular histories as the spirit of Latino pride in 1970s New York, salsa music — a newly established “dance genre” of astounding transatlantic cultural hybridity — was genetically, and historically, the fruit of Black liberationism from its Caribbean origins. An outgrowth of Black Cuban music, salsa was rooted in the forced migration of enslaved West African people who altered, or otherwise masqueraded, native religious dance practices into creolized Spanish-Cuban conventions. Evolving on the island, from guaracha to guaguancó to the son montuno, Indigenous Afro-Cuban musical styles were born of the constellation of West African percussion and the Yoruba religious practices accompanying these rhythms.
Afro-Cubans thus shaped Latin America’s most powerful musical-cultural force in the 20th century. Yet Black Latinos and Latinas tended to be overlooked as pathbreaking salsa artists, along with the radical politics of the era’s most powerful performances.
But the early ’70s provided a moment when salsa-in-the-making realized its Black liberationist roots, connecting the pulses of Spanish colonial-era slavery resistance to its abolitionist spirit for the 20th century.
For example, one of Colombia’s most acclaimed salsa orchestras, Fruko y sus Tesos, recorded the Andean nation’s most successful salsa hit, “El Preso” (“The Prisoner”), in 1975 — a “lament” narrating the true story of an Afro-Colombian man jailed in North America and caught in the web of the U.S. war on drugs. In the United States, Afro-Puerto Rican salsero and Fania All-Star Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez recorded songs of freedom throughout salsa’s biggest decade, including “La Abolición”(“The Abolition”) in 1976, invoking the systemic conditions of Black oppression in the aftermath of emancipation in the Caribbean and Latin America.
At the Sing Sing performance in 1972, Palmieri’s opening act, Felipe Luciano, the Afro-Puerto Rican poet and activist member of the Young Lords Party, affirmed the importance of Black and Puerto Rican unity in light of the powerful social forces driving them apart, especially jail cells: “We know as a people, Blacks and Puerto Ricans have their destinies out before them. We’re going to keep on moving and build a nation, for all of our people.”
Moments later, as the crowd erupted in cheers, prisoners’ fists suspended in the air, the curtains opened on Palmieri and his Harlem River Drive orchestra as they launched into a scorching, 10-minute descarga, or jam, “Pa La Ochá Tambó,” a new composition celebrating the resilient power of Afro-Caribbean percussion. New York’s greatest living innovators of Latin music filled Sing Sing with the uplifting sounds of live concert music. Amplified brass, organ, wah-wah guitar, bass, drums, clave and timbales ricocheted through the man-made labyrinth of impermeable stone and reinforced steel.
Recalling the evening in an essay for the New York Times, Luciano captured the electricity coursing through the air. “They were going to blow Sing Sing into oblivion; they were going to turn the prison right side up,” he wrote.
Falling short of obliviating Sing Sing with the sheer power of rock-and-roll, as Luciano prophesied, Palmieri and his orchestra did succeed in channeling their revolutionary sounds into a performance brimming with the possibilities for self-liberation. Though hardly noticed in the press, Black New York’s largest newspaper, New York Amsterdam News, took note of Palmieri’s “prison soul show” with its “large numbers of Black and Puerto Rican inmates.” Later that spring, the live album made its way to record stores.
Fifty years later, listening to “Eddie Palmieri Recorded Live at Sing Sing” reminds us of the power of politicized music amid ongoing struggles against the injustices of mass incarceration and racial disparities in the justice system. Further, “Live at Sing Sing” feels particularly prescient as the historic impact of bipartisan “tough on crime” laws for nonviolent offenders has been scrutinized and condemned in the political mainstream. But it is also a remarkable moment in the pop tradition of live albums — a watershed Latin musical tour de force at the nexus of Afro-Caribbean musical hybridity, jazz improvisational workouts, and early-’70s psychedelic experimentations led by a multiracial band of New York barrio musicians and professional studio talent.
As Latin music has moved into the mainstream, becoming part of a global popular culture — thanks in part to hip-hop, another fruit of the Black Caribbean diaspora — we might pause to remember Navarro’s hopeful aspiration for “liberty in the coming years” and the possibilities of a world with fewer walls and more pathways to freedom.