Pianists, composers, and producers Marlow Rosado and Larry Harlow discuss their newly released collaborative album “Harlow Marlow Vol. 1”
Marlow Rosado is a formidable force in the salsa and Latin music industry: he won the 2012 Grammy Award for Best Tropical Album against music giant Romeo Santos. In the past, he has worked with artists like Selena, Marc Anthony, Olga Tañón, and Desmond Child. Having worked together in the past, he and Larry Harlow, of Fania All-Stars fame, finally sat down to create an album together, one that fuses both their styles. The songs were written entirely by Rosado, whose lyrics are fresh yet retain a deep connection to Latin culture. I had the opportunity to interview both Rosado and Harlow in New York before their performance at Sr. Frog’s in Times Square on Thursday.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about the vision behind this album?
M: I did this record with Larry, who is an iconic figure in Latin music and who dates back to the very beginning of the salsa genre. Before salsa, there was music like Guaguanco, Charanga, Cha Cha Cha, and then in New York there was a big movement. The explosion from that movement was salsa, and Larry Harlow was at the center of that movement. We’ve known each other for about 15 years, and one day in fun conversation we said “We should do a record!” So we took off on that adventure and a year later we have this album. In this record you’re not getting just Harlow or Marlow, you’re getting a fusion of both our styles. And neither of us are singers, we’re bandleaders. People look at you funny if you say you’ve done four albums but you’re a piano player, not a singer. Now we live in a singer world where we don’t think that if you’re a trumpet player or percussionist you can make a record. But we’re seeing a big change in that, in the last year especially. We have a great situation now where our music is no longer dictated by either radio or record companies, we have other ways of getting music out there.
Q: In what way did your upbringing influence your music?
M: I grew up in a Puerto Rican household. My whole family danced salsa. I was born and grew up in Puerto Rico so before me, no one spoke English in my household. Everybody was straight up puertorriqueños de la isla. But I moved to Miami, so I was the first to learn English and to start studying in the United States. In my house, salsa was the music of the family, that’s what they played. When my mom was cleaning the house, she was doing it to Roberto Roena, to Eddie Palmieri, she wasn’t doing it to anything other than salsa.
Q: Where do you want to see salsa go in the future? What kind of work do you see yourself doing more of that you might not have done in the past?[At this point, we’re having coffee and he spills a packet of sugar on our table]
M: Look at the mess I made! That’s what I would like to say at the end of my life, too, with my music. I would like salsa to be appreciated for the grandfather/grandmother that it is to a lot of the music today. I worked with hip hop artist Vico C, who started Latin hip hop, they call him the Father of Hip-Hop. The hip hop world respects their elders much more than the salsa lovers respect their elders. People still bow down to The Sugarhill Gang, who started the whole hip hop movement. The new rappers recognize them. We don’t do that in salsa. I would like for my genre to get the respect it deserves. For myself, particularly, I think that I would like to influence or bring little salsa flavors into other kind of music. I did a record for Vico C, and my participation was to add piano montunos and to bring some horns to an urban record. I brought my world into the hip hop world and it meshed beautifully.
Q: We’re seeing a lot of collaborations like that recently, where people have blended Latin components into other genres. Do you like the kind of mixes of salsa with different genres?
M: I am a little bit of a purist when it comes down to my music. So, I don’t know that I would like much of it. I don’t mind salsa being involved in other things or other things being involved with salsa. I don’t mind that a hip hop artist and a salsa artist collaborate, I don’t mind that. I just don’t want that to become the new salsa. It shouldn’t become the new way all salsa is done.
Q: Music is sometimes seen by people as having been better in the past. What kind of hope do you see in music, and in salsa, going forward?
M: I think we’re moving in both directions. Because of the influences with Spotify and with the internet and being able to put your music on Facebook, people have the liberty to come up with just about any craziness they want. From this, we are moving very rapidly in all directions. But it also gives people like myself the opportunity to continue doing the classics, so I think music is broadening on both ends.
Q: How is composing for your own albums different from when you do arrangements for other artists?
M: When you compose for another artist, they are telling you what they want, so you have guidelines. Most of it is about love, and whatever they want it to be about. When you’re writing for yourself, you get to go to places you wouldn’t normally when writing for someone else. If I’m going to write for El Gran Combo, you have to write their style. If you write for Ricky Martin, you have to write Ricky Martin style. But when I write for me, I have no limits.
Q: What kind of subjects inspire you most?
M: I like to write about love—but I like to get into social commentary, and la calle [the streets]. Y si escribo de amor, me gusta un amor mas jocoso, mas jugueton. [If I write about love, I like a love more jocular, more playful.]
Q: Como “Gitana”? Like “Gitana” from the new album?
M: Como “Gitana”, exacto! That’s like “Me Despierta el Cuerpo”, the second song, is coqueta, no tanto de “te fuiste, me dejaste herido!” [The song is playful, not about “you left, you left me brokenhearted!] I could, I have, because I’ve been asked to do that. But that’s not me.
Q: You’ve worked with a lot of artists: Ricky Martin, Sisqo, Dru Hill, Selena– who would you like to work with in the future?
M: I really would love to become hip hop’s salsa guy! That when a hip hop producer is looking for that tropical, Latin, salsa influence that they would say “Marlow”. Anyone in that genre that would look my way for my influence.
Q: This is Harlow Marlow Vol. 1. Can we expect more albums?
M: Volume 2 is on its way, yes.
Q: Larry, what was it like working with Marlow on this album?
L: I hated it! No, it was great. We get along so well. We have the same taste in Latin music and we like the same artists. We kind of complement each other. I am an expert mixer. You know everyone records in parts, and somebody has to put them all together to make it sound good. That’s where my forte is. And I have that New York, hard salsa sound, whereas Miami has its own sound and all his previous records have that kind of sound. When I went to do this record with him, I remixed what his engineer had done to sound closer to the hard salsa sound. But he has a marvelous sound, and a wonderful band. The songs were wonderful, he wrote really nice songs that have social meaning to them. The lyrics are really good. And the songs are very danceable. So working with him is always fun. And it was different. When you have two pianos in one song, you can’t step on each other’s toes. So I would play pads, chords, to set the tone. And he would play over the top, or vice versa. We work really well on stage together. So when we’re in New York, we use my band, and when we’re in Florida we’ll use his. He did a great job, I’m very impressed.
Q: Where do you think salsa will go from here?
L: I don’t know. I have no idea. I just hope I’m still around to see it. But I have fun performing. I love performing, traveling. I love working in the studio with new artists, with new people. But I’m looking for that 17-year-old kid who knows how to sing, who knows salsa music. Most of the “young” salsa stars are 45-50 years old, so I’m looking for the young artists.
Q: Aside from the performances for this album, what are you looking forward to in the coming year?
L: I’m having fun. I’m in the twilight of my career, but I feel good, I look good, I don’t look 77! I’m up for an NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) grant. I go to the ballet, I go to the theatres on Broadway, I’m dying to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play [Hamilton]. I wrote a book with Aurora Flores “Man of La Salsa: Tales from an Unexpected, Marvelous Life”, which is in its editing stage. As long as my health stays good, I’ll keep playing, I just love playing. When I think of Machito, who died on stage, Miguelito Valdes, who died on stage, I’ll probably croak on the stage too.
This interview has been edited for clarity.