Professor Benjamin Lapidus, Ph.D., highlights the remarkable role diversity and New York City played in creating a new Latin music sound.
By Shirley Del Valle
Professor, author, composer, and Grammy-nominated musician, Benjamin Lapidus, Ph.D., isn’t afraid to show his love for music runs deep. On the stage he comes alive playing with his Latin jazz band Sonido Isleño. And in the classroom, he teaches his students about the intricacies of musical instruments, the plight of musicians, and the history of music.
His appreciation for the artform is one built on a profound respect for the history and an even greater admiration for the artists who help give rise to the musical sounds. In his latest book New York and the International Sound of Latin Music, 1940-1990, Lapidus shines a light on musicians and instrument makers from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, who came together in New York City during this pivotal 50-year period to create music that was uniquely their own and continues to influence the industry today. “I believe you can learn to play an instrument or a style of music. But to play an instrument or music well, you have to know the history and the context in which that music was created and evolved,” says Lapidus, elaborating on why writing the book was so important to him. “You have to know the players. You have to learn about the people who played this music before you, who built their instruments, and who taught them how to play.”
Becoming a Musician and Educator
Born into a family of musicians, Lapidus learned to play piano at just six years old, and now he’s mastered a variety of instruments from the piano to the trumpet to the Puerto Rican cuatro—a small guitar-like, string instrument. “I loved music from a very early age, and when you’re an inquisitive kid like I was, you get interested in a lot of different instruments,” says Lapidus, a professor in the College’s Department of Art and Music. “Watching my grandmother play and teach piano, and listening to my father’s record collection, had a deep impact on me and led to my love for all different kinds of music.”
His natural curiosity and inclination toward music led Lapidus to play in school bands and orchestras while he was growing up, and then later in life he earned several degrees centered on the study of music, including a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from the CUNY Graduate Center. “My foot was always in the two worlds, in both the music and academic world, and I found that each one really informed the other,” he says, adding that musicians are by nature intellectuals because to play an instrument requires discipline and research. “I’ve always craved a deeper understanding when it comes to music so that when I create or teach music, it’s not just a reflection of what I hear. It’s also a reflection of what I’ve learned through research, through conversations, and by studying and analyzing the works of others.”
Being Taught by Legends
Aside from diving into academic research, a large part of Lapidus’s learning experience came from his own interactions with music artists. As a young adult, living in New York City’s Upper West Side, he rubbed shoulders with jazz and Latin musicians who would go on to become legends, people like Larry Harlow and Mario Rivera. “Some of them lived in the neighborhood and others played at local clubs. I was the annoying kid, always asking questions, always wanting to learn more from them,” he recalls with a laugh. “They took me under their wing, teaching me the ropes. They showed me the fun side of music but also the discipline it takes to create great music and what it takes to achieve musical excellence.”
As Lapidus began to play with the standard bearers of the industry, his understanding of the history and connection to the Latin music community strengthened. “I started playing with some of these musicians 25 years ago. Throughout the years they would tell me about their experiences coming up, essentially giving me a class in Latin music history,” he says. It was during these intimate conversations that Lapidus began to recognize the pivotal role New York City played in helping to propel these musicians, and Latin music, to a whole new level. “New York City was really the capital of Latinidad. It was this crossroads of all these different people coming from different countries to create something special,” says Lapidus. “It was a fertile period for Latin music and musicians just wanted to be part of it.”
Documenting the History
When he began to document the history for New York and the International Sound of Latin Music, 1940-1990, Lapidus took on a multi-pronged approach. He interviewed musicians he’d come to know personally over the years while also analyzing music and conducting archival research—where he pored over old newspaper clippings, advertisements, interviews, and data from the time. “These musicians came from all over the world, the Caribbean, Central and South America, to New York to play this codified standard of music. But they would also collaborate with one another and study music. They would go to school. There was this intellectual curiosity and proactive approach to their growth,” says Lapidus. “They would choose to learn classical music so they could improve their playing technique, and they’d focus on sight reading because they wanted to play their instrument at the highest level possible. Their music evolved and got more sophisticated.”
Music is often seen as a unifying force and in his book Lapidus shows how the collaborative spirit of a diverse group of people—both culturally and ethnically diverse—played a pivotal role in the creation and innovation of the Latin music sound. “There’s this myth that popular Latin music was created solely by people from the Spanish Caribbean, but that’s not true,” he says. “The story of Latin music in New York is very much a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic story.” Emphasizing that point, Lapidus makes sure to share the stories of triumph and struggles of musicians often left out of the Latin music narrative. “I have entire chapters focused of groups that had an enormous impact on the industry but were forgotten by history. Cubans who came over in the Mariel Boatlift in 1980. Afro-Panamanian musicians, many of whom faced racism and colorism and had to prove that they were Latino,” shares Lapidus. “I have a chapter discussing Jewish musicians in Latin bands, which was a huge phenomenon at the time. People like Eydie Gormé who sang with Trio Los Panchos, a Bolero trio formed in New York in the 1940s, and Larry Harlow who went on to become one of the giants in Salsa music,” he says. “Each group came to New York during this time and had this incredible ability to play different types of music, making them an asset to almost every music scene.”
In sharing the stories of how these musicians learned to navigate the music scene, what their processes were like, and how the interethnic and multicultural collaboration in New York City changed music, Lapidus wants readers and his students to come away feeling an appreciation for the artists. “Their stories are worth sharing with the world,” he says, hoping his diverse students at John Jay find the stories inspirational. “I’ve had students who are related to the musicians we’re talking about in class or related to a political figure who was an oppressor of music in their country, and it’s really quite incredible to see their reaction. The lessons connect with them in a profound way. They feel seen, and to me, that’s important. I want them to connect to the music because music can be transformative.” He also hopes readers of all cultures and backgrounds who live in New York feel a great sense of pride in what was created in the City. “Latin music may have its roots in particular cultures, but here in New York magic happened. They came together, learned from one another, and collaborated to create a sound that continues to resonate with audiences many generations later,” he says. “That’s something worth celebrating and as New Yorkers, it’s something we can be really proud of.”