February 18, 2009 A Master of Tropical Music, Recalled With Reverence By LARRY ROHTER He never did give up that day job, laboring in the Postal Service in Puerto Rico for more than 30 years, mainly as a clerk. But in the recording studio the biggest names in salsa, from Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe to Celia Cruz and La Lupe, all deferred to Catalino Curet Alonso, the man -- known to all as Tite (pronounced "TEE-tay") -- who seemed to be able to write hits for them at will.
"Tite was El Maestro, the essence of what we call salsa or Antillean or Caribbean music," said the singer Cheo Feliciano, whose career was revived when his association with Mr. Curet began in 1970 and who went on to record 45 of Mr. Curet's songs. "He didn't play piano and only knew a couple of chords on the guitar. But he was a wellspring of expression who knew how to write songs that were made to measure for your style, the way a tailor makes a suit."
A little over five years after Mr. Curet's death at age 77, there has been a revival of interest in his music, on a pair of fronts. When Fania Records late last month released "Alma de Poeta" ("A Poet's Soul"), a two-CD compilation of the original versions of 31 of his most popular compositions, it entered Billboard's Latin music chart at No. 5 and immediately became the top-selling recording in Puerto Rico.
Also in January, a settlement was announced in a complicated legal dispute over performance rights that since the mid-1990s had not only prevented hundreds of Mr. Curet's best-known songs from being played by radio stations but also discouraged salsa artists from recording his compositions, or even playing them in concert. As a result, Curet-written standards like "Anacaona" and "Periódico de Ayer" ("Yesterday's Paper") are now back on the air and once again animating Caribbean dance floors.
"He is the most prolific and, in a sense, the most important writer of tropical music, so we felt he deserved a package like this, especially since there has been such an absence of his music," said Giora Breil, the chief executive of Fania, who helped organize the disc. "It's like trying to imagine the U.K. without the music of the Beatles for 14 years."
In its heyday, from the late 1960s through the 1970s, Fania Records, based in New York, was often called "the Motown of Salsa." If that comparison is justified, as many historians and critics of Latin music think it is, then Mr. Curet was surely Fania's Holland-Dozier-Holland, working in virtual anonymity but providing the hits that made international stars of the label's singers.
His daughter, Hilda, a nurse who lives in Baltimore, estimates that Mr. Curet, who was largely self-taught, might have written as many as 2,000 songs in a career that spanned nearly 40 years. Boleros, the bomba and plena style typical of Puerto Rico, merengue, Cuban danzas and sones, even an adaptation of Stevie Wonder's "Part Time Lover" -- Mr. Curet's willingness to test and stretch genres seemed to know no limits.
"Dad was always writing songs, at home and out on the street, from sunrise until he went to sleep," Ms. Curet recalled. "He carried a notebook with him almost everywhere he went, but I even saw him write on napkins, and I can also remember him walking around the house, waving his hands as he sang lyrics or scatted a melody into a tape recorder."
Mr. Feliciano remembered an occasion when, one song short for an album, Mr. Curet asked him what style of song he wanted, promising to write something on the way to the recording session. After a half-hour bus ride, Mr. Curet showed up with lyrics written on a paper bag for what turned out to be "Mi Triste Problema" ("My Sad Problem"), a bolero that became one of Mr. Feliciano's biggest hits.
"Tite was like a human sponge," recalled Rafael Viera Figueroa, owner of the record shop La Parada 15 in San Juan, P.R., where Mr. Curet, dressed in the straw hat and African dashiki that were his trademarks, liked to drink coffee and talk music, sports and politics. "Any joke he heard, two hours later he'd have written a song with the punch line as the title."
Although Mr. Curet was a teenager when he began composing, he was able to turn his craft into a living only at a comparatively late date. He was already past 40 when he had his first big hit, "La Tirana" ("Tyrannical Woman"), with La Lupe. And even afterward, he not only held on to his post office job but also continued to write for Spanish-language newspapers and magazines in San Juan and New York.
One characteristic that made Mr. Curet's compositions stand apart from the run-of-the-mill salsa tune was their willingness to address social and political problems. As Rubén Blades, the Panamanian singer, songwriter, actor and politician, put it in a telephone interview, "Tite wrote songs that were directed not just at the feet but also at the mind."
Mr. Curet's best-known song is probably "Anacaona," about an Indian princess killed by Spanish conquistadors during their conquest of what is today the Dominican Republic. "Juan Albañil" was a portrait of a bricklayer too poor to visit the luxury hotels he helped build; "Galera Tres" protested violence and abuse in prisons; "Estampa Marina" portrayed the fisherman's difficult life.
Because Mr. Blades's music can also be overtly political, many salsa fans assume that he is the author of "Plantación Adentro" ("On the Plantation"), a song about the exploitation of workers that established him as a star. But, he said, he chose it after hearing it on a cassette loaded with songs Mr. Curet had written expressly for him.
"In spite of the fact Tite was often depicting a harsh barrio reality, he wrote with an elegance of words and imagery, with lyrics that could be very poetic and cosmopolitan," said Mr. Blades, whose next recording will be dedicated to Mr. Curet. "And he opened up the scope of the music, too, pushing it beyond the tropical salsa enclaves by writing stuff that was more pan-American."
In songs like "Las Caras Lindas (de Mi Gente Negra)," which translates to "The Beautiful Faces (of My Black Folks)," written for Ismael Rivera but more recently also a hit for Susana Baca, Mr. Curet demonstrated a strong sense of racial consciousness and pride, much as James Brown was doing around then in the United States and Gilberto Gil in Brazil. "It wasn't normal at the time he began doing it, but he always talked of what it meant to be black, and he had the courage to say he was proud of who he was," Mr. Feliciano said.
But Mr. Curet also knew how to write songs that were unabashedly romantic, imbued with a sense of drama that made them especially appealing to filmmakers. Two of his songs, "Puro Teatro" ("Pure Theater") and "Salí Porque Salí" ("I Left Because I Left"), appear on the soundtrack of Pedro Almodóvar's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," while "La Esencia del Guagancó" was included in Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather: Part II."
After the glory years at Fania, Mr. Curet was later recruited by Paul Simon to work for a while on what became the critically panned 1998 Broadway musical "The Capeman." Though he never saw much money from the publishing rights to the dozens of hit songs he had written, he soldiered on: at the time of his death he was working on an opera for children, to be called "The Bell at the Bottom of the Sea," with Mr. Blades.
"I wish now, looking back, that I had asked him more questions, because he had a lot to teach," said Mr. Blades, who suspended a tour so he could attend Mr. Curet's funeral in San Juan. "That man loved music and culture and words and ideas, and talking about all of those things. He was just exceptional in every way." -- New York Times by: Larry Rohter, February 18, 2009