Christian Mártir is a DJ with a cause. The co-creator of the Rice & Beans Sounds System and founder and resident DJ of Pa’lante! NYC, he has been in New York City for several years now sharing his love for Puerto Rican and Afro-Caribbean sounds. His specialty is salsa and other Nuyorican rhythms of the 1960s-1970s.
The mixes Christian Mártir has released demonstrate his commitment to cultural affirmation and liberation—one is named in honor of Afro-Borinqueño historian Arturo Schomburg, another is an homage to Borinquen, featuring news clips of nationalist events and selections of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos’ poetic and passionate oratory. Intrigued by Mártir’s work, we met up to discuss his musical passion, culture as a tool of resistance, and gentrification in New York’s Puerto Rican communities.
ALM: So, how did your passion for music develop, and when did DJing come about?
CM: Since I can remember, I have always loved music. I guess like most Boricuas it was born in me. Interestingly enough, I wasn’t raised on salsa but rather soul music. My mom would always play Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder records in the house. Her record collection, which is now part of mine, contained everything from Roy Ayers to Diana Ross to Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. My father is another music head; his collection was just as diverse. My first salsa record was Ray Barretto’s “Que Viva La Musica” which was from his collection, which I borrowed from him on a visit to his house one time. That record blew my mind. The cover art, and the poem on the back by Felipe Luciano, spoke to me as a young teenager starting to define myself as a Puerto Rican. Of course, like most people from my generation, my personal choice of music was Hip-Hop which is how I got into DJing in the first place.
ALM: You’ve been consistently performing as a DJ in New York City for several years now. Tell us a little bit about what Pa’lante! NYC is and how you started it.
CM: Pa’lante! NYC is a bold effort I started to re-invigorate and challenge the current cultural options available to us here in New York City. It is a way to remind us of our cultural brilliance. My goal is to develop a community of forward thinking people and have an exchange. I want to have scholars, musicians, artists, poets, fans, young folks, older folks, photographers, entrepreneurs, rich, poor, everyone in there dancing, talking and building. To me, the sounds that emerged in the 1960s through 1970s demonstrated the peak of our music, which is why I play those vibes. I play all vinyl so I also try to keep that tradition alive. “Pa’Lante” is about not only celebrating our musical and cultural heritage but, more importantly, challenging ourselves to push it forward. In a time where music has become disposable, we aim at returning to a time when music was timeless and classic. In a sense we are going back in order to move forward. The name speaks to that. I borrowed the name from a book about the Young Lords, to pay homage to that era, however as the name implies we want to move forward.
ALM: Recently the venue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where your party was beginning to be held every month decided not to continue hosting it due to your heavy use of salsa. Do you think this decision is related to the issue of gentrification/ cultural displacement in that community?
CM: Absolutely! Williamsburg has been a haven for Puerto Ricans in New York City for generations now. Graham Avenue, which I would take to get to that venue, is also officially known as the Avenue of Puerto Rico. Although there remains a large Puerto Rican community in the area, you have seen many of our people displaced as a result of gentrification and also the migration of Puerto Ricans from the Northeast and Puerto Rico to Orlando. The crazy part about it is that Brooklyn has an amazing history of salsa. Ray Barretto, Richie Ray, the Lebron Brothers are all well-known from the Fania crew. But when you study the indie salsa game of that time, no other borough was doing it like Brooklyn. You had Amaral Records which put out Dax Pacem and La Orquesta Moderna de New York. Then on Salsa International you had the Brooklyn Sounds. I am working on a project now that will shed more light on that. But back to your initial question, as our people leave certain communities and new people move in, those cultural centers and places that serve our people are forced to adjust or shut down. If you would have said “too [much] salsa for Williamsburg” 10-15 years ago people would have looked at you crazy, now it’s crazy to hear salsa at a venue in Williamsburg.
ALM: All of your mixes can be described as expressions of cultural affirmation. Why is it important for you to approach your work this way, and can you tell us more about your views on culture as a tool for resistance and liberation?
CM: Culture is our greatest weapon to combat colonialism. Fela Kuti understood this like no other. Colonialism’s strength lies in its ability to destroy the unique characteristic and nature of the people it wishes to control. The colonizer knows and understands that in order to be successful he must break the individual and his culture in order to implement in its place the culture and attitudes of the colonizer. This allows the notions of superiority of the colonizer to be cemented into the colonized. He, the colonizer, realizes that if the colonized maintain their culture and value system they will never be fully entrenched into the oppressive and inhumane conditioning of colonialism. So long as people are conscious of their uniqueness and identify themselves with it they will fight to liberate themselves.
ALM: Are there many politically and socially active Puerto Rican DJs that you can speak of? How can the Puerto Rican community develop the use of music as a tool for cultural resistance?
CM: There is a few, the main one that comes to mind is Bobbito García. He has definitely been an inspiration for me since I was a teenager. I have followed his career since he was doing the Stretch & Bobbito show on WKCR. Tony Touch as well, I remember how hyped I got when I heard his record with Albizu Campos on it! In terms of the community developing the use of music as a tool for cultural resistance, I think it is so critical. Music to me is Puerto Rico’s and Puerto Ricans’ greatest artistic gift to the world. If you do the knowledge you will see that Puerto Ricans have been a player, often major, in the majority of the musical genres that have emerged over the last few decades. I’m talking about Jazz, House, Salsa, Boogaloo, Reggaeton, and of course Hip-Hop. I’m not saying we were solely responsible for the birth of these musical genres, but Boricuas definitely played critical roles in their emergence and development. I say all that to say that we have music running through our veins and should use that to our advantage. You take away music from our people and you will kill us. That is why I am so critical of what is being passed nowadays as our music. Salsa is so watered down its become something else. Which is why I take such great responsibility with what I am doing with Pa’lante! NYC and everything else I do. I look at what Calle 13 does, Rene in particular as a source of inspiration. The fact that he uses his platform as a way to address some of our greatest needs, from directly addressing the murder of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, to his support of the teacher’s strike and the freeing of Oscar López Rivera, makes me proud as a Boricua and shows that you can be commercially successful while at the same time socially and politically responsible. Same thing with Ricky Martin.
ALM: Are you working on any projects right now? What do you see yourself doing in the near future?
CM: Well I started a label, Sociedad Records, this past year and I am in the process of getting everything squared away to be able to put out some new acts I have my eye and ear on. I am in the process of finalizing a deal to put out a compilation album of rare salsa from New York City that I am really excited about putting out. I think it’s going to make some serious noise. I’m tired of other people defining our music and our culture and I feel it’s my responsibility to do so. Pa’lante is continuing to grow and I see the party going on “tour” this year. Hopefully working on a special series of mixes and shows with La Respuesta?