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Because of the United States’ longstanding embargo against Cuba, Americans often fail to recognize its vast influence upon their culture. Before 1960, Americans frequently traveled 90 miles south of Florida for vacations, just as they visit Jamaica today, where they openly enjoyed Cuban music, cuisine, and its legal gambling. By the turn of the 20th century, Cuban music had also arrived stateside on phonograph records; later, Cuban musicians themselves, like Desi Arnaz, arrived. Latin music would add new textures and rhythms to jazz and introduce a plethora of new dance steps like the tango and the rumba. Roots of Rhythm, narrated by Harry Belafonte, explores the origins of Latin music, its growth within Cuba, and finally, its influence on jazz and popular music in the United States.

Cuban music originated from two major sources: Spain and Africa. When the Spanish arrived in Cuba, they brought the music of their troubadours and gypsies. Small farmers lived in the mountains and continued to play the Spanish folk music and flamenco of their forefathers. Like South American plantations, Cuban landowners eventually imported slaves to work on large farms and in the shipping industry. At first there was little interaction between African Americans and the small farmers; but when the farmers had little work, they took jobs on the Cuban docks. There, Spanish folksongs began to mingle with African rhythms, creating a pulsating Latin hybrid.

Latin music would profoundly influence American jazz players from Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie. Chano Pozo moved to New York in 1947, bringing his congas and exotic Latin rhythms with him. Pozo joined Gillespie’s big band where he would become a major influence on Latin-jazz, writing pieces like "Tin Tin Deo" and "Manteca." Multiple instrumentalist Tito Puente ("King of the Mamba") became a major influence in the mid ‘40s and ‘50s, fueling dance crazes like the cha-cha-cha. Through constant touring and excellent showmanship, he has continued to spread Salsa and Afro-Cuban jazz for fifty years.

Roots of Rhythm allows the music to tell the story, with Belafonte’s narration often giving way to a musician’s performance. This provides concrete examples of the music described within the narration, and lets the viewer experience the music for him or herself. At two hours and forty-five minutes, the program is a bit long; but it can easily be broken into three sections as it was originally shown on television. For anyone who enjoys Cuban music and dance, and wants to learn more about its origins and influence on American culture, Roots of Rhythm provides a good introduction.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.