Eddie Palmieri’s ‘Live at Sing Sing’ Turns 50 This Year
“For all mankind!” he shouted into the loudspeaker in the courtyard, saying there should be ‘no walls’, ‘no fears’ and ‘only one thing in life: freedom in the years to come “. Palmieri’s performance at Sing Sing reflected a time when popular discourse around systemic oppression had reached heights in the cultural mainstream, just as many Americans were encountering an exciting, aggressive, and focused genre of Latin music for the first time. on young people – salsa. Socially conscious musicians of this era, by expressing prisoner solidarity—or simply recognizing prisoners as human beings worthy of love, empathy, and entertainment—raised public awareness of prison conditions and critiqued incarceration. mass as an inadmissible stain on American society. This work continues today.
It’s no coincidence that 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. in September 1971, also in upstate New York – an event that became a flashpoint in modern American history. . More than 1,200 inmates took over 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 care. Governor Nelson Rockefeller (right) refused their demands and ordered state police to ‘take over’ the prison. The resulting assault left 10 hostages and 33 prisoners dead and over 100 injured.
The resounding political and cultural repercussions of the Attica massacre, a galvanizing moment for New Leftist Activism, signified a turning point in the prisoners’ rights movement, a struggle that coincided with the steady increase in incarceration. The successful Nixon-age moral crusade for drug prohibition and the emergence of New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws in 1973 – tough, minimum mandatory guidelines for nonviolent drug offenses – presaged a new era of mass incarceration and devastation of American communities of color caught in his crosshairs.
Palmieri, a Bronx-born Nuyorican already immersed in social and racial justice politics, extended his militant interest in the plight of the incarcerated. Lamenting the “sterile creativity” of contemporary Latin musicians, Palmieri said Billboard magazine in May 1973 that he was dutifully required to continue giving free concerts in prisons, insisting that inmates 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 to play in prisons throughout the decade.
For performance at Sing Sing, Palmieri’s label Tico Records – the Latin jazz subsidiary of Roulette Records run by a notorious New York mob associate and music mogul Morris Levy – sent a team of engineers from Manhattan’s Variety Recording Studio upstream to capture the magic on tape.
Palmieri’s sense of the political possibilities of his music matched the spirit in which salsa music was maturing. Racial pride and liberation movements coalesced into formative challenges to the prevailing status quo of race, class, gender, sexuality and social citizenship. Although celebrated in popular histories as the spirit of Latino pride in 1970s New York, salsa music – a newly established “dance genre” of astonishing transatlantic cultural hybridity – was genetically and historically the product of black liberationism from its Caribbean origins. An outgrowth of black Cuban music, salsa was rooted in the forced migration of enslaved West Africans who altered or masked indigenous religious dance practices into Spanish-Cuban creolized conventions. Evolving on the island from guaracha to guaguancó to son montuno, indigenous Afro-Cuban musical styles were born from the constellation of West African percussion and Yoruba religious practices accompanying these rhythms.
Afro-Cubans thus shaped the most powerful musical and cultural force in Latin America in the 20th century. Yet black Latinos and Latinas tended to be overlooked as groundbreaking salsa artists, as well as the most powerful performance radical politics of the time.
But the early ’70s provided a time when up-and-coming salsa realized its black liberationist roots, connecting impulses of Spanish colonial-era slavery resistance to its abolitionist spirit for the 20th century.
For example, one of Colombia’s most acclaimed salsa bands, Fruko y sus Tesos, recorded the Andean nation’s most successful salsa hit, “El Preso” (“The Prisoner”), in 1975 – a “lamentation” telling the true story of an Afro-Colombian man imprisoned in North America and caught in the net of the American 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 greatest decade, including “The Abolition(“The Abolition”) in 1976, invoking the systemic conditions of black oppression in the aftermath of emancipation in the Caribbean and Latin America.
During the performance of Sing Sing in 1972, Palmieri’s opening act, Felipe Luciano, the Afro-Puerto Rican poet and militant member of the Young Lords Party, affirmed the importance of black and Puerto Rican unity in light powerful social forces that separate them, especially prison cells: “We know as a people that black people and Puerto Ricans have their destiny ahead of them. We will continue to move forward and build a nation because everything of our people.
Moments later, as the crowd erupted in cheers, the prisoners’ fists hanging in the air, the curtains opened on Palmieri and his Harlem River Drive Orchestra as they embarked on a scorching 10-minute descarga , or jam, “Pa La Ocha Tambo», a new composition celebrating the resilient power of Afro-Caribbean percussion. New York’s greatest Latin music innovators have filled Sing Sing with the uplifting sounds of live concert music. Amplified brass, organ, wah-wah guitar, bass, drums, clave and timpani ricocheted through the artificial maze of impermeable stone and reinforced steel.
Reminiscing about the evening in a essay for the New York Times, Luciano caught the electricity flowing through the air. “They were going to obliterate Sing Sing; they were going to turn the prison right side up,” he wrote.
As Luciano had prophesied, Palmieri and his orchestra managed to channel their groundbreaking sounds into a performance brimming with self-liberating possibilities. Although barely 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 number 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 on, “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 by the political mainstream. But it’s also a remarkable moment in the pop tradition of live albums – a defining Latin musical tour de force at the crossroads of Afro-Caribbean musical hybridity, jazz improvisation workouts and early ’70s psychedelic experiments directed by a multiracial group of New York borough New Musicians and professional studio talent.
As Latin music has entered the mainstream, becoming part of a global popular culture – thanks in part to hip-hop, another offshoot of the black Caribbean diaspora – we could stop to remember the Navarro’s hopeful aspiration for “freedom in the years to come” and the possibilities of a world with fewer walls and more pathways to freedom.