14th July, 1989

This is the second extended dance song we've seen here, and while it's not quite as epic as Juan Gabriel's "Debo Hacerlo," it's the kind of song that if you don't like the sort of thing it's doing wears out its welcome very quickly. Luckily, I like the sort of thing it's doing. A lot.

It's also our first real encounter with Cuban music. Not that most modern Latin dance doesn't have some cubano in it somewhere -- the New Yorkers who invented salsa were all Cubans in exile -- but this tale has so far mostly focused on Mexican music at the expense of the Caribbean. But this song is far from entirely Cuban -- in addition to rumba, I can hear Trinidadian soca, the "Miami Sound," and of course the juddering beats of post-New Order British dance.

Rumba is often used as a generic term in Cuban music, and in the generic sense it bears the same general relationship to Cuban music as jazz does to American music, a black-originated, dance-based music that swiftly evolved into many disparate forms. But there are also specific rhythms and sounds that are unique to rumba as a music and a dance form: in the opening to this song, the piano plays rumba while the percussion is rather busier, evoking the southern Caribbean as much as the north.

Soca is to calypso what dancehall is to ska/rocksteady/reggae: a modernized, electronic update of an island music that isn't nearly as respected, musicology-wise, as its venerable ancestors. Which only means it's a living music, not having been trapped in amber by the killjoy curatorial instincts of the Hundred Best Ever listmaking set. (Among whom I of course count myself.) The hip-shaking jollity of the percussion, in fact, reminds me of no late 80s music so much as Buster Pointdexter's Latin-kitsch-and-the-kitchen-sink cover of "Hot, Hot, Hot," originally a soca hit by Monserratian singer Arrow.

But this song wasn't recorded in the Caribbean; though it fleshes out its curves with tropical signifiers, its throbbing spine moves with the sleek, violent precision of drug-glazed, neon-decadent Miami. Emilio Estefan, Gloria's husband and the ringleader of the Miami Sound Machine, co-produced it, and it is the clearest example we have yet seen of the impact new American pop music was having on the overall Latin scene. Those stiff jackhammer beats are like nothing we have heard before; and while neither José Luis Rodriguez, a soap opera actor taking a flier on an uptempo summer jam, nor his overly-sweet backing singers really have the vocal fire to match the banging music, it's still the party-heartiest number we've heard yet, the first song on this travelogue it wouldn't be impossible to imagine working into a DJ set today, provided the crowd was either callow or knowing enough to not hear it as Pointdexterian kitsch.

The lyrics barely matter, and he sings the back half in English anyway. Twenty years later, the only arresting words are a mondegreen: the backing girls sing "ritmo ritmo" (rhythm, rhythm), but it sounds a couple of times like "Gitmo ritmo," which has a whole lot of other, entirely unintended connotations; but it made me realize where I'd heard those jacking beats before. Of course! Paul Hardcastle's "19."

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