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I bought my first Willy Chirino album (a cassette to be specific) in 1988, “Amandote”. I was in my senior year of college and it was the first Spanish language album I owned. The sound was different from the rest of the stuff in my mom’s treasure trove of a Cuban music collection—one which I seemed to be sifting through on a more regular basis.
The fusion of sounds in Chirino’s 11th studio album was not common and initially it may have even been dissonant however at some point after sampling the tape for several days there was a familiar attraction to those arrangements that was taking hold of me. The rhythmic blend rang true and the lyrics of elusive dreams, moonlit fantasies and Don Johnson depicted reality in Miami of the late 80’s. Amandote became the soundtrack of my endless summer of 1988.
Everything Miami was in vogue in the mid to late 1980’s—we were infamous, posh, pretentious, and risqué. South Beach glittered in neon, a playground for wannabe starlets and marimberos (cocaine cowboys). Miami looked and sounded different. Espadrille shoes, Willi Smith suits and big hair (both for women and men) punctuated the era. As did our sing-songy cadence (which unfortunately we’ve never ridded ourselves of). Politically, Miami was transforming as well. We elected our first Cuban mayor, Xavier Suarez in 1985 and Cuban political organizations (Cuban American National Foundation), trade associations (The Latin Builders) and charitable groups (The Kiwanis of Little Havana) were now prominent sculptors of the socio economic and political landscape of our city. Miami morphed into an important Latin American hub. It converted itself from simply being a largely Latino/Hispanic populated town (like Los Angeles and New York) to a Latino/Hispanic owned and operated metropolis.
In the 1970’s and 80’s, Chirino along with Carlos Oliva y Los Sobrinos del Juez, Frankie Marcos and Clouds, and the Miami Sound Machine put forth a nascent, original latin sound in the magic city. In fact, you could add Hansel y Raul to the list because although they were reared in Union City, New Jersey (Cuban exiles’ second city) Hansel Martinez and Raul Alfonso moved to Miami in 1980 and immersed themselves into Miami’s glitzy milieu.
Unlike the hard-edged salsa sound of New York’s famed Fania label, “the Miami Sound” was laced with Motown sprinkled with the Beach Boys and doused with a little Beatles—it was more melodic than Pacheco and Colon’s salsa dura. It reflected the easy going, laid back climate of South Florida not the depressing, snow plowing winters up north.
During the 1980’s and early 1990’s Cubans once again arrived in Miami in droves (the Mariel Boatlift and the Balsero era of the 90’s). Willy Chirino’s uniquely welcomed newcomers. Although he came to the U.S. as a teenager via the Pedro Pan exodus, Chirino has always identified with “el cubano de a pie” the rank and file Cuban. He also steadfastly and proudly manifested his Cubanity (as Celia said, “del lado de aca”). “Undoubtedly Chirino’s posture as a proud Cuban exile cost him in the music world,” commented culture critic, Alejandro Rios. “His political views were not widely held outside of Miami and yet he consciously and bravely dove ahead with his message of solidarity with freedom loving Cubans on and off the island.”
It was in that endless summer of 1988, when I was working as an intern at Raul Alarcon’s FM92, that Willy Chirino stopped being an artist in my parent’s record bin and became mine. He is the first Cuban artist (along with Celia) to find his way to my tape collection inside my beat up Monte Carlo. I strongly affirm that the “Amandote” album is the first in what would be an amazing 10 year, five album stretch for Chirino. I would put up Chirino’s five albums from 1985 to 1995 (Amandote, Acuarela del Caribe, Oxigeno, South Beach, Asere) against any legendary salsero’s catalog.
I formally met Willy Chirino and his talented wife Lissette while working on my second film project Adios Patria (who Willy narrated in Spanish and Lissette recorded the title track.) Lissette and Willy became good friends and mentors. They’ve always lent a helping hand and a word of encouragement. Our friendship developed as all good friendships do, quick and easy. Years ago, while having lunch I mentioned to Willy how terrific I felt his Son del Alma disc was (it went on to win the Grammy later that year) after blushingly thanking me, Willy said
“my music is nothing more or less than who I am, feel and think. It is the world that surrounds me.”
I’m fortunate and very proud to be part of the Cuban exile tinged Miami that Willy sings about. The songs touch, embrace and ignite sentiments in many, who like me, negotiate our identity every day—living on the cultural hyphen that Gustavo Perez Firmat so brilliantly depicted in his book decades ago. Life as a Cuban-American in Miami will forever be etched in Chirino’s music.
tu cafecito por la mañana,
tu musica antillana
tu convertible del año
seguir rumbeando hasta la mañanita
“Lo Que Esta Pa’Ti”
My Willy Chirino playlist
Nuestro Dia (Ya Viene Llegando)
- Medias Negras
- Lo Que Esta Pa’ Ti
- Amigo de la Luna
- Te Estoy Queriendo Tanto Que
- La Jinetera
- Tu Eres Mejor
- El Cantor Del Pueblo
- Gracias Por La Musica
- San Zarabanda
- Hechizo de Luna
- Tu Cumpleanos
- Soy Guajiro
- Hablame de Jatibonico
- Just the Two of Us
- Dicen Que la Vieron Sola
- Alla Se Quedo (dueto Johnny Ventura)
- Todo Pasa
- El Collar de Clodomiro
Filmmaker, Radio Host, Community Activist and last, but not least, a café drinker