By Scott MacClelland
In 1955, Cereza Rosa (“Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White”) took Pérez Prado and his trumpeter Billy Regis to the top of the Billboard charts and kept them there for ten weeks. I don’t remember the last time I heard it… Oh, wait, I heard it last Sunday on KUSP’s “In the Latin Quarter,” hosted by Brett Taylor.
Taylor’s program, Sundays from 1 to 3pm, is just about the only place on radio where Afro-Cuban music is consistently available. And when he talks about it on the air you can feel the love. His mission is to “celebrate the African diaspora in the New World.” He’s been celebrating it on KUSP for twenty years, or, as he puts it, “best guess is between twenty and twenty-two.” Not only does the California native—born in Alameda—speak with a seasoned radio baritone, but he shares his knowledge and zeal in both English and Spanish.
Did he grow up in a bilingual household? Yes, English and New Orleans black English, the languages of his parents who came to the Bay Area from The Big Easy. Spanish only entered the picture when he heard that one day California would be predominantly Latino. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, he worked hard to master it, at community colleges and—“whenever I had a hundred dollars in my pocket”—quick trips to Mexico.
Taylor and his family arrived in Santa Cruz in 1987, and he took a job with the Santa Cruz Fire Department. Retired four years ago, he now works part-time for the American Red Cross as health and safety instructor and class coordinator. From the start of his career with the fire department he taught CPR. Today he reflects with some amazement, “I’ve certified 20,000 people.”
“I’m primarily a jazz fan,” Taylor describes himself, “listening to it since I was a little kid.” Gospel, rhythm and blues, and all the varieties of Afro-Cuban music were his steady diet. “It’s good for your soul.” He underscores the point this way: “People talk about eating good, healthful, organic food, to live a healthy life. So why would you put some kind of crap in your ears?” And he lives his credo. “I won’t listen to shitty music. It’s bad for you.”
In fact, Taylor began with KUSP doing a jazz show until the previous host of a Latin music program stepped aside and he came up with the title, “In the Latin Quarter.” I wondered why it is so hard to find this music on the airwaves. “Back in the ‘50s, mambo was big, like Main Street,” he says. “But as popular taste comes and goes, this music rises and then fades. 1999 and 2000 were big years for Latino music. Ry Cooder discovered the Buena Vista Social Club in Havana, and the Monterey Jazz Festival brought in Latin music. Then it disappeared again.” But he’s philosophical. “There’s always an underground. The music never goes away.” Taylor makes sure. “We’re deep in that river. We’re immersed in the whole deal.” He’s happy if a listener tunes in and gets hooked.
At the end of our conversation, I sought his advice on where I could find this music live. “Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz books Latin bands, and Don Quixote’s in Felton, which may come as a surprise to some.” I mentioned the Fox Theater in Salinas, but he said those acts are essentially of the Mexican banda-tejano-norteño traditions. “There’s not enough critical mass there to sustain Afro-Cuban music.”
Meanwhile, with thanks to Brett Taylor, “In the Latin Quarter” remains a spirit-lifting option every Sunday afternoon at FM 88.9.