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Spanish Civil War: Paul Preston: ‘Franco was shy with women, Mussolini an aggressive predator, and Hitler harbored a range of perversions’ | Culture

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With the United Kingdom in a post-Brexit tailspin, Paul Preston, 75, is living in London in what he considers a kind of dystopia. “Well, we knew this was coming with this incompetent, corrupt and lying government,” he says.

His forte is clarity, both as a person and a historian, which comes in very handy when approaching his specialty, Spain’s 20th century, particularly when there are those who continue to twist the truth. Preston’s insightfulness has delivered the best biography on Francisco Franco to date, and he has also penned a number of essays on the more ruthless aspects of the late dictator to counteract his portrayal both in Spain and abroad as a mild version of his tyrannical contemporaries.

Preston has made sure to point out that when it comes to cruelty, Franco was on a par with his fellow fascist colleagues. And this cruelty stemmed not just from fanaticism but also from opportunism, to ensure that he would remain in power until his death. This goal of dying as head of state was achieved by crushing his opponents and making sure they did not stand in his way.

This behavior is described in Preston’s The Spanish Civil War, A People Betrayed and the book which he found hardest to write, The Spanish Holocaust. Now, he depicts Franco’s brutality again in Arquitectos del terror (or, Architects of terror) in which he narrates how Francoism took hold in the 1930s due, among other things, to misleading information that provoked a civil war at the time and now, 90 years later, is still being spread among a not inconsiderable sector of the population, as incredible as that may seem.

The attempts to whitewash Francoism are unrelenting. We have had to listen to leaders of Spain’s conservative Popular Party deny the war took place after a coup d’état in 1936, and to the far-right Vox describe the current government of Pedro Sánchez as the worst in 80 years; in other words, more harmful than the dictatorship. Do you find it depressing that, after years of countering these claims with facts, they continue to be spouted by political leaders?

I remember 20 years ago, when journalists used to ask me if the tension over the Spanish Civil War was going to last, I, an innocent foreigner, would answer, “No, it is surely just a matter of time.” But every time I say this, there’s a concerning new outbreak of Francoism. What I don’t understand is what advantage can be gained from speaking in these terms. In the West, there is an intense and interesting debate between the left and the right on issues that affect people whereas in Spain, this is reduced to a cultural war. This is particularly so when they touch on issues such as homosexuality and come up with nonsense fueled by bitterness. Even in the UK, now that everything has become polarized over Brexit, it hasn’t come to that. A colossal amount of time has elapsed since the 1930s. But, even so, they’re still going at it.

Preston pictured in Highgate Wood in London.
Preston pictured in Highgate Wood in London.Manuel Vázquez

Is this due to masochism?

There is some justification for those on the left or the relatives [of the victims] to still be talking about pending issues. But the right already mourned their dead. They solved that on the spot in the areas taken by the Francoists. So what the hell are they going on about?

When you first came to Spain in the 1960s, as you say, it was only a matter of time before you would start talking about the war. How long did you think you would be discussing it for?

I understood very little. It was truly a strange and foreign country. My grandfather used to warn me, “Be careful, son. They eat very strange things there and they cook everything with olive oil…” I was born just after World War II. In almost all the atlases in school there were many countries that were colored red; that is, countries that were part of the British Empire. We were brought up with this superiority complex that I soon got rid of. And now, you see, this is where Brexit has come from. When I began to study Spain, the Republic, the Civil War, I was shocked by the pigheadedness of the right. British conservatives, by comparison, were much smarter.

In what respect?

They applied what the Italian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard: “If we want everything to stay as it is, everything has to change.” Now the British right is almost as pigheaded as the Spanish one.

You say you got rid of that sense of superiority early on. How?

By traveling. For me, the most important thing in my life were the years I spent in Spain. That’s how I became aware of what it meant to be British, by living abroad. I learned at Oxford that to become a specialist in a country you have to acquire a kind of second identity. During the four years I spent in Spain, I developed a perception of difference and an appreciation of the meaning of family life. With the industrial revolution in the UK, many folkloric, traditional customs had disappeared. But not in Spain. And that seemed wonderful. Also, the fact that accents were not linked to social class. I belong to the northern working class. Now it doesn’t matter. I’m old and closer to kicking the bucket, but to survive in the world in which I grew up – for example, my going to Oxford on a scholarship was not at all normal. That’s still the case. It’s still very elitist. You felt that pressure; the pressure to speak like them. What happens is that, being from Liverpool, we have a tough attitude that helps us defend ourselves. You could say that in the UK there are two languages: Norman for the upper classes and Anglo-Saxon for the lower classes. I was very struck by these differences.

How long did you stay in Spain the first time?

It took me a long time to return [to the UK]. Traveling then was very expensive and more complicated. I stayed for about two years. [When I got back] I arrived at Gatwick airport at rush hour. I was accustomed to people with olive skin and when I got on the train, I was surprised to see so many red faces. They all looked like caricatures from Dickens novels. I was pleased to have learned another language. That is something that has been lost now too with the Erasmus scholarship – that wonderful thing that has been axed thanks to the Brexit ne’er-do-wells.

Paul Preston at Highgate Wood in London.
Paul Preston at Highgate Wood in London.Manuel Vázquez

It brings to mind the old news announcement from World War II: “Fog in the channel, the continent is isolated.” Does that depress you?

Very much so! On top of that, the pandemic has benefited [UK prime minister] Boris Johnson. It has delayed the consequences, which we are going to see far more of than we are seeing now. The referendum was bad enough. A victory of just 51% should not have been allowed. Too many mistakes have been made. If, as in the Scottish referendum, they had allowed 16-year-olds to vote, the result would have been different.

When you first came to Spain, is it true that you went straight down to the working-class district of Vallecas in Madrid?

It was just one day, to get in touch with a friend. But when I arrived in Madrid, what surprised me in the area around the central Puerta del Sol were all the orthopedic shops for those wounded in the war; also, the smells in the restaurants and the craftsmen working outside their stores. For a Brit, it was very exotic.

One has to feel sorry for you after reading your latest work. It must have been traumatic, while researching the book, to have to pore over speeches by General Queipo de Llano [responsible for mass killings in Seville during the civil war] and Emilio Mola [one of the leaders of the 1936 coup] or those of Father Tusquets [who disseminated anti-Semitic and anti-Masonic conspiracy theories] and the pro-Franco writer José María Pemán. How do you cope with that?

Well, I had already developed a thicker skin during the writing of The Spanish Holocaust. Back then, my wife would often find me crying at the keyboard when she came home from work. The crimes against women and children were unbearable. In this book, I was tracing concrete biographies. We are talking about twisted, perverse figures or, in the case of Tusquets and Pemán, people whose doctrines led to many deaths despite the fact they themselves at times gave the impression of being lay saints. The Pemán who was still around during the Transition had little to do with the man who was around in the war. Regarding Father Tusquets, for someone like me who grew up a Catholic – though I am no longer one – I find the case repulsive because of the inherent hypocrisy.

They couldn’t leave the Jews alone. They were fanatically anti-Semitic.

It was unbelievable. There were 3,000 Jews in Spain before they began to be expelled from northern and central Europe. Then the figure rose to 6,000. And there were more or less 8,000 freemasons. In Tusquets’ file, it was stated that there were 80,000; many of Franco’s military were listed among them. How could this be true? The fact is that it served as a good excuse to persecute whoever.

In fact, Franco’s own library had a few masonic volumes, which would have put him in a difficult position, had word of it got out.

Of course! It’s very interesting. It seems that, yes, Franco flirted with freemasonry and tried to join it.

Yes, because, early on, did Franco even know what it was to be a Francoist?

Indeed, his wife, Doña Carmen, had to teach him that.

Before that, he was a kind of ideological amoeba. He kept his cards close to his chest.

He didn’t even know where he kept them.

And your new book makes it clear that he was the moderate one compared to Mola, Queipo de Llano or Tusquets and Pemán. Did he take them seriously?

By comparison, yes, he was. And not only compared to these individuals, who have their own chapter in the book, but also in relation to their satellites: [Francoist politician Ramón] Serrano Suñer and [Franco’s right-hand man Luis] Carrero Blanco both became crucial for the regime as prominent members of the government, but also the writer [Ernesto] Giménez Caballero. All of them were very moralistic without exactly leading an exemplary life themselves.

Regarding the anti-Semitism they all shared, didn’t the Spanish Church maintain a more ambiguous position?

I believe that the Church was then clearly anti-Semitic. But, as it was with the Nazis, there was no distinction for any of them between the ethnic and the religious. They were simply anti-Semitic, period.

Where does the right’s sense of ownership over Spain come from?

Among other things, from the construction of the anti-Spain as a concept. It pushed them to want to eliminate 60% of the population. The majority was “against” the country. That is why they decided to exterminate or expel them.

British historian Paul Preston.
British historian Paul Preston.Manuel Vázquez

Special attention was paid to teachers, for example, and there was an aversion to the influential educational center Institución Libre de Enseñanza, which formed liberals rather than a dogmatic left.

They talked about the dangers of education. This was due to fear rather than contempt. Hence their reluctance to make education more accessible, because they believed that educating laborers or shepherds increased the risk of revolt.

Did the fanaticism and radicalism of Mola and Queipo de Llano scare Franco himself? You use data to illustrate almost beyond doubt that the death of the former could have been deliberately provoked. And that the fall from grace of the second is not surprising. And in the case of the latter, you also mention the strange relationship he had with his daughter. What happened?

He had an unhealthy relationship [with her], I would say. In the biography written by his granddaughter, Ana Quevedo, she describes the bond of the general with his daughter Maruja as suffocating and triggering his wife’s suspicions. When Maruja decided to marry without his consent, Queipo disinherited her in a fit of uncontrollable rage. His wife then gave vent to her suspicions and asked Maruja if his opposition to the marriage was due to motives “that went beyond paternal love,” as she put it. And she asked her, “Has he ever made a pass at you?” Maruja refused to answer. They were all immersed in double standards and hypocrisy. It’s delicate territory. I have been very careful. On the one hand, the book portrays adoration; on the other, rejection. I have dealt with the material within what is legally permissible.

Hence the title of the chapter devoted to Queipo, whom you call the psychopath from the South? It’s an extreme allegation maintained by witnesses of the violence and abuse with which he incited his troops.

He was absolutely repugnant.

But his remains are still inside the Basilica of Macarena in Seville.

It is curious that he is still there, yet Franco himself has been taken from the Valley of the Fallen.

Having spent your life using facts to flag up the brutalities carried out by these characters, do you despair that they have been either vindicated or their crimes downplayed?

I am aware that my books reach a tiny section of the population. I try to be honest, even if the right-wing press paints me as an amateur and a liar. But I don’t feel like responding to them or to those who spend their lives trying to discredit me. I am aware that I can only do so much. Besides, I don’t use social media. They seem to me to be a waste of time – time that I prefer to spend reading the classics.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on something that I’m not sure will come together. I’m collecting material and I’d like to write something about the sex life of the dictators. It’s going to be complicated, though. I’d like to tackle Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. There’s not much on the others. I could write hundreds of pages on Mussolini, but three at the most on Salazar [the head of Portugal’s authoritarian government from 1932 to 1968].

So what were Franco, Hitler and Mussolini like in that department?

Franco was shy with women; Mussolini was an aggressive predator – a rapist even, and Hitler harbored a range of perversions.

That sounds juicy. What about the political noise in Spain right now? Does it come to your attention in the UK?

I know about it because I read the Spanish media, but if I were to limit myself to the reporting in the UK, I would not be aware of it. They neither cover it, nor give it any importance.

Does that worry you?

What I often say is that I spend enough time wrestling with the past to worry about the future. Perhaps I am too complacent but first, it is very difficult for violence to erupt within the European Union. What they are blatantly seeking is a return to power. And that will depend, as always, on the left not being divided.

That mistake could easily be made again. Don’t you feel exasperated that a lack of appreciation of the past will lead to it being repeated?

In the UK, this is already happening. The current moderate leader of the Labour party, Sir Keir Starmer, is trying to move it towards the center to avoid the mistakes made by his left-wing predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. The followers of the latter, with whom a very interesting comparison can be made with [Prime Minister of the Second Spanish Republic Francisco] Largo Caballero for his hollow revolutionary rhetoric, are standing in the way of what Starmer hopes to achieve. So, it could be said that the British left is unaware of Spain’s past. The person who was very aware of it and acted accordingly, at the beginning at least, was [former Socialist Party prime minister] Felipe González. And I think [the current prime minister] Pedro Sánchez is too. Having said that, I have to stress that I don’t know if politicians read the books that deal with these issues. I have no idea to what extent a politician has time to read a 700-page tome.

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Margot Robbie’s self-confessed ambition has made her the highest paid actress of the year | Culture

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Self-doubt is Margot Robbie’s greatest motivator, and competes with ambition in the Australian actress’s psyche. She couldn’t believe her own eyes when she first saw herself on a giant ad for the Pan Am TV series in New York’s Times Square. “I still have the photo,” she told EL PAÍS a few years ago, somewhat wistful for the days when she was still a nobody. The script of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), the Martin Scorsese film that put her on the map, touted her as “the most beautiful blonde in the world,” but she didn’t believe the hype. “I remember saying to a friend, ‘I haven’t worked in six weeks.’ I’m sure there’s nothing out there for me,” laughed Robbie. But Hollywood didn’t share her skepticism. In July, Variety magazine ranked Robbie as the highest paid actress of the year when her US$12.5 million salary for the upcoming Barbie movie was announced.

Margot Robbie may be this year’s highest paid actress, but 17 men made even more money, led by Tom Cruise who was paid US$100 million for Top Gun: Maverick. Her Barbie love interest, Ryan Gosling, was paid the same as Robbie, even though she has the titular role, more evidence that pay parity in Hollywood is far from being a reality. Robbie ranked ahead of Millie Bobby Brown (US$10 million for the Enola Holmes sequel); Emily Blunt (US$4 million for Oppenheimer); Jamie Lee Curtis (US$3.5 million for Halloween Ends); and Anya Taylor-Joy (US$1.8 million for Furiosa).

Robbie’s misgivings about her career aren’t shared by other industry giants. Martin Scorsese compared her to Carole Lombard for her comedic genius, Joan Crawford for her toughness, and Ida Lupino for her emotional range. He described Robbie as having a surprising audacity, and recalls how she clinched her role in The Wolf of Wall Street by stunning everyone with a tremendous, improvised slap of Leonardo DiCaprio during her audition.

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling during the filming of director Greta Gerwig's Barbie in California, June 2022.
Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling during the filming of director Greta Gerwig’s Barbie in California, June 2022.MEGA (GC Images)

Robbie showed the same boldness when she lobbied director Quentin Tarantino for another role opposite DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (2019). She sent the director a letter telling him how much she admired his films, especially her all-time favorite, True Romance (1993). The letter probably wasn’t necessary, as Tarantino already had the I, Tonya star in mind to play Sharon Tate in his new movie, describing her to EL PAÍS as an actress with a visual dynamism and personal qualities that you don’t see every day.

Robbie has wanted to work in movies ever since her start in Neighbours, the long-running Australian TV series that is coming to an end after 9,000 episodes and 37 years on the air. “Of course I’m ambitious. My career motivates me. I came to the United States with a plan, and I’m always looking ahead,” she told us. Even as a child growing up in Queensland (northeastern Australia), Margot Elise Robbie displayed her business smarts and drama queen chops when she decided to sell all her brother’s old toys from the sidewalk in front of the family home.

She jokes about her childhood, but part of that little girl always comes out in the wide variety of characters she plays. She has had all kinds of roles in little-known films like Suite Française and Z for Zachariah, and also in box-office hits like Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey. She won Oscar nominations for playing driven women in I, Tonya (2018) and Bombshell (2020). “Yes, many of the women I’ve played share my ambition – this is a tough industry. But I’m full of doubt like anyone else. You never know how things will turn out,” she said.

 Margot Robbie and her husband, Tom Ackerley, at Vanity Fair magazine’s Oscars party, March 2018.
Margot Robbie and her husband, Tom Ackerley, at Vanity Fair magazine’s Oscars party, March 2018. Jon Kopaloff (WireImage)

Seeking more control over her films, Robbie founded production company LuckyChap Entertainment in 2014 with her husband, British filmmaker Tom Ackerley, and some friends. She hopes to use LuckyChap as a vehicle for herself and other actresses, as she did with Promising Young Woman starring Carey Mulligan, a black comedy thriller film that won writer/director Emerald Fennell an Oscar for best original screenplay. “Margot is an extraordinary person,” said Fennell. “That’s why she’s doing so well as a producer who is determined to try different things and give women a voice.”

Robbie met British assistant director Tom Ackerley on the set of Suite Française in 2013. They began a romantic relationship the next year and moved in together right after attending their first Golden Globes gala for The Wolf of Wall Street. Married since 2016, the couple and co-workers in LuckyChap have a bright future ahead, judging by all the work that is piling up for Robbie. In addition to Barbie, she will appear in Amsterdam, directed by David O. Russell; as silent film star Clara Bow in Babylon, directed by Damien Chazelle; and has a role in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City. As if that wasn’t enough to keep Robbie busy, a remake of Ocean’s Eleven awaits her; she will play opposite Matthew Schoenaerts in the post WWII drama, Ruin; produce a remake of Tank Girl; and play a female Jack Sparrow in another installment of Pirates of the Caribbean. Surely Margot Robbie doesn’t have any more doubts about her career.

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Salem’s last witch regains her honor | Culture

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As statues of slave owners and slave traders continue to fall in the United States, the embers of the bonfires that burned women accused of committing spells and witchcraft are also being extinguished. In the umpteenth revision of history to try to exonerate the victims, the most recent episode concerns the last official Salem witch, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., from the massive 1692 and 1693 trials in the English colony of Massachusetts. Thanks to the initiative of a middle school teacher and her students in Andover, located in the same county as Salem, her spirit can now roam free. The enthusiastic students began the vindication process in 2020 and persuaded Massachusetts state senator Diana DiZoglio (D), who took up the cause and pushed for Johnson’s pardon, which was announced last week.

It has taken 329 years for Elizabeth Johnson Jr.’s name to be cleared definitively. She was the last of the Salem witches to be exonerated. While Johnson was spared a death by hanging, she was stigmatized until she died at 77, an uncommonly long life for the time. Historians say that Johnson showed signs of mental instability and was single and childless, all of which were signs of witchcraft during that period. She pled guilty before the court of inquisitors. Almost 30 members of her extended family were also implicated, as if witchcraft were contagious, hereditary, or both. Johnson, her mother, several aunts and her grandfather, a church pastor, were tried as well. According to historian Emerson Baker, the author of a book about the Salem witch trials, her grandfather described Johnson to the judges as a “simplish person at best.” Most likely, the judges would have equated “simplish” with different during that superstitious and pre-scientific period.

The fact that Johnson didn’t have any descendants deprived her of anyone to vindicate her good name, as relatives of the other defendants did. The first attempt to do so happened at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Then, in the 1950s, Massachusetts passed a law exonerating those found guilty, but it failed to gather all the names. A 2001 attempt at justice excluded Johnson because, after her conviction in 1693, she was formally presumed to be dead (executed).

The social hysteria against everything that deviated from the norm, against the minimal exercise of free will, was implacable against women, as Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (the playwright adapted it for the big screen in 1996) and recent variations remind us. The theme lends itself very well to artistic creation, but in real life it amounted to opprobrium for those who suffered it and represented a cause for scorn among puritans.

Illustration of the 1692 trial of two Salem witches. The Granger Collection.
Illustration of the 1692 trial of two Salem witches. The Granger Collection.The Granger Collection / cordon press

Salem was more than a witch trial. According to historians, it was a collective exorcism fueled by a puritanical inquisition based on paranoia and xenophobia, a gratuitous auto de fe that unleashed people’s worst instincts: fear and the human tendency to blame others for one’s own misfortunes. At least 172 people were indicted in the 1692 trial. About 35% confessed their guilt and were spared the gallows; according to sources, around twenty insisted on claiming their innocence and did not escape that fate. The rest of the detainees were acquitted or sentenced to prison. The Salem witch trials represented a collective bogeyman through which one can foresee the later threat of the Ku Klux Klan. It is hard not to wonder what bonfires would have burned today on the pyre of social media and extreme polarization.

The great Salem witch hunt can be re-read through the prism of gender. As the adage goes, se non è vero è ben trovato (Even if it is not true, it is well conceived). Witches, like those in Salem and the woman in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (made into a film in the 1950s), were demonized for going off the rails. The dominant society’s puritanical stance against any kind of heterodoxy or freestyling, against rebels with or without a cause, led people to be targeted for dressing exotically by puritanical standards or for daring to drink at a tavern, a sacrilege for the morals of the day. It’s not difficult to draw a straight line from the bonnet of a witch on the gallows to the handmaid’s white bonnet in Margaret Atwood’s novel: all were women who were demonized, objectified, and scapegoated for deeper ills.

Beyond gender, other historians emphasize the socioeconomic dimension of the Salem witch trials, which combined a deep-seated inequality with racism, the United States’ original sin since well before the Declaration of Independence. The trials targeted colonial society’s most vulnerable during a period of economic instability that unleashed fierce rivalry among Salem families. According to historian Edward Bever, society was permeated by interpersonal conflict, much of it stemming from competition over resources. People did whatever they could to survive, from physical aggression to threats, curses, and insults. One of the first women accused, Sarah Osborne, was a poor widow who dared to claim her husband’s land for herself, defying the customary laws of nature, which granted the inheritance to sons. The accusation of witchcraft ended Osborne’s claim. Tituba, an indigenous slave, was accused of being a witch because her racial origins differed from the norm. Sarah Good was also poor, but she defended herself against the humiliations of her neighbors, which led her to the gallows; her daughter, Dorothy Dorcas Good, was Salem’s youngest victim: she was arrested at only four years old and spent eight months in prison.

Since then, history has not changed the fact that vulnerable women pay the price for circumstances beyond their control. That the Puritans of the time considered women—the evil heirs of Eve —prone to temptations such as the desire for material possessions or sexual gratification was only an added factor. Poor, homeless, and childless, these women in the shadow of society’s dominant morality were fodder for the gallows. But Elizabeth Johnson Jr. didn’t just manage to save her life; 329 years later she recovered her honor as well.

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Meridian Brothers: A fake salsa band ignites the rebirth of an old New York record label | Culture

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A new album will land on the salsa dance floor by the end of this week; one that fuses rhythms from the 1970s with the technological dystopias of the future. Behind it is Ansonia Records, a label that, after its creation in 1949 among Latino immigrants from New York, would produce several merengue, jibara, bomba, guaracha, mambo, and boogaloo albums, before stopping altogether in 1990. This Friday, after more than 30 years, Ansonia Records will return with a salsa album.

Hermano del futuro, vengo buscando iluminación; brother from the future, I come looking for enlightenment. So says one of the songs from the new album, called Metamorfosis, by the old salsa group Renacimiento. But there is a catch: Renacimiento does not exist. It never did. It is a fake group, and this is a fake cover, explains musician Eblis Álvarez, founder of the Colombian group Meridian Brothers, who had already experimented with various genres, from cumbia to vallenato. A group that practices “tropical cannibalism,” says Álvarez. This year, Meridian Brothers decided to launch a group of salseros straight out of fiction: Renacimiento.

Colombian group Meridian Brothers.
Colombian group Meridian Brothers.Perla Hernández Galicia (Cortesía)

“Renacimiento [rebirth] is the typical name that musicians would give a salsa group in the 1970s,” Álvarez tells EL PAÍS. “For example, in the Nueva Trova movement there was talk of a political rebirth, but at the same time they combined this with a spiritual factor: when one listens to groups like La Columna de Fuego [from Bogota] or Los Jaivas [from Chile], there was a common pattern: everyone was waiting for a rebirth of the soul, and of society.”

Although on stage Renacimiento is made up of five artists — María Valencia, Alejandro Forero, César Quevedo and Mauricio Ramírez, besides Álvarez — when the album was recorded it was the founder who played all the instruments, besides doing the voice of the salsero that accompanies the songs. The album has nine tracks, some similar to the older, slower salsa, and others to the faster, contemporary style. Between the piano, the timbales and the percussion, we find verses with the concerns of the 21st century: love that “communicates by algorithm,” or the threats of atomic bombs that “take us to the cemetery.” Metamorfosis, the single that has already been released, begins with a man who wakes up turned into a robot and longs for a time “when nightclubs really had an atmosphere, not like now, full of cameras, full of drones.”

“I wanted it to sound like salsa from the 1970s,” says Álvarez. “There is no originality, or the originality of this lies in being able to replicate the music as best as possible, but in terms of the material there is nothing original, as it is made with the collective unconscious of Latin America, of Colombia, of Latinos. This is an extrapolation from the 1970s to today, and it speaks of transhumanism, like the matter of highest concern that everything, absolutely everything, is now packed inside the damn cell phone.”

The rebirth includes both the album and the label, as this is the first recording in more than 30 years to be released by Ansonia Records, a company created in 1949 and later forgotten, despite having been one of the first labels founded by a Latin migrant in the United States. Puerto Rican Rafael Pérez, its founder, brought Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban musicians from Latin Harlem or the South Bronx, who had not found a home among American record companies, to several studios. He produced his records before the time of the powerful Fania, which made New York salsa famous.

To Liza Richardson, an American radio host who was also a music supervisor on series like Narcos or the movie Y tu mamá también, Ansonia Records is a gem. In the early 1990s, she found an Ansonia album in the station’s archives and, fascinated by the label’s production, became close to the heirs of Pérez. In 2020, she bought the record label with the intention of reactivating it. She, with the help of a small team, has begun to digitize more than 5,000 Ansonia-produced songs; an eighth of them can already be found on streaming platforms like Spotify.

Colombian group Meridian Brothers during a live show in Bogota.
Colombian group Meridian Brothers during a live show in Bogota.Perla Hernández Galicia (Cortesía)

Souraya Al-Alaoui, manager of Ansonia Records, explains that most of the artists chosen by the label were focused on the Latin American diaspora. That was their base; they valued the traditional sounds from islands like Cuba or Puerto Rico, and were not looking to become westernized.

“Johnny Pacheco, founder of La Fania, started with Ansonia Records, and Ansonia was an inspiration for what would later become La Fania,” says Al-Alaoui. “Ansonia was also a pioneer as a label owned by a Latino, an independent label with a founding message: ‘this is from us and for us.’ That’s why it was an inspiration for what came after.”

Over the years, La Fania grew and the seed of Ansonia Records faded away. The label never managed to promote its musicians in concerts like La Fania did, and after the arrival of the digital world, they did not set up a website or try to upload their music to any streaming platforms. Thus, it became a label that was only known by a small group of music lovers, like Liza Richardson and Eblis Álvarez.

“Now, we are hoping to release a new record every year, and we are thrilled to start with this one by Meridian Brothers,” says Richardson. “This is an album that looks to the past but tries to move towards the future, and that is exactly what we are trying to do: look to the past to, at some point, be able to grow again, to thrive.”

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