My Latin Music Godfather, Alan Geik

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Tom Schnabel at left with radio journalist Betto Arcos and Alan Geik, who co-hosted KCRW’s long-running tropical Latin show, Latin Dimensions Photo courtesy of Alan Geik

I am affectionately referred to as “The Godfather” at KCRW. Jason Groman, the “go to guy” who does so much behind the scenes at the station, started calling me that a few years ago and it stuck. As the first Music Director and host of Morning Becomes Eclectic (1979-1991), I’d much rather be called “The Godfather” for my role as KCRW’s elder statesman than something like “Jurassic Deejay.” So it always feels good, and I take it as a compliment and gesture of friendship.

There’s another godfather, however, who figures into KCRW history. His name is Alan Geik, and I consider him my Latin music godfather. Alan co-hosted KCRW’s long-running tropical Latin show, Latin Dimensions, airing every Friday night from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. This remarkable man has taught me so much about great Latin music over our 40 years of friendship. I asked Alan to select ten of his favorite tropical Latin songs for this week’s playlist. While the word “curate” is bandied around a lot, this playlist truly distills decades of great Latin music into ten epic tracks, with a nice slice of personal history mixed-in, too, as you can read below in Alan’s own words.

Alan Geik was born and raised in the Bronx, where he was exposed to many cultures and first became fascinated by Afro Cuban music. He attended the City College of New York and earned a graduate degree from the London School of Economics, but was drawn to filmmaking. Upon graduation, Alan worked for several years as a film editor in television sports including for the Wide World of Sports. He moved to Los Angeles in 1979 to work in feature film editing and landed at Paramount Pictures for over a decade. His credits include director’s cuts on Saturday Night Fever, Urban Cowboy, and Star Trek, as well as longer versions of Fatal Attraction and Beverly Hills Cop.

Around the time he started working for Paramount, Alan tuned in to KCRW and discovered the Friday night show, Latin Dimensions, hosted by Eddie Lopez. As Alan recalled, “I knew Eddie as one of the hosts on Alma del Barrio, another favorite show of mine on KXLU, a college radio station in L.A. I called him to ask why he was doing this late night show. He said he was just doing it until he found someone else. I blurted out 'what about me?' never for a moment before had I thought of hosting a radio show. He said, ‘Oh you would be perfect.’ The next week I was in a junior high school classroom converted into the small KCRW radio studio. I thought it would be fun to do the show for a few months.” The rest was Los Angeles radio history.

Eddie Lopez later told Alan that, “This show will change your life. It will be the greatest adventure you ever had.” Indeed, it led to Alan meeting his late wife Nina Lenart and being on the radio for 25 years, for both KCRW’s Latin Dimensions and KXLU’s Alma Del Barrio. “Eddie was right—it was the greatest adventure of my life. In addition to Nina, the many years on the air, the show led me to adventures in San Francisco, Miami, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and Cuba.”

I used to stay home on Friday nights to clean the house while listening to Latin Dimensions. Alan had great taste and gravitas in Latin music, winning respect from everybody who listened. When he’d show up at musical gatherings, he was greeted as the Godfather. Those Friday nights were my musical education in tropical Latin music, and it paid off when I interviewed mambo kings like Tito Puente, Cachao, and Ibrahim Ferrer. I felt confident, prepared, and at ease.

On the music front, I also know Alan as the producer of the acclaimed CD series Caravana Cubana, the first of which (Late Night Sessions) was nominated for two Grammy awards. Alan also worked with Cuban-American actor Andy Garcia on a documentary about the great Cuban bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, inventor of the mambo…another godfather. The film Cachao: Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos” (there is no rhythm like his) was named after a famous Cachao song. Alan left the airwaves a while back and turned to writing. He published a novel in 2015 titled Glenfiddich Inn, a WWI era tale about romance, Boston corruption, American politics, and the beginnings of radio. Alan is currently writing a family memoir focusing on the Murder, Inc. assassins and other “kindly characters” in his family as he grew up in the Bronx.

Alan Geik’s Tropical Latin favorites, in his own words:

1. Conjunto Libre / “El Son” / Discol

Conjunto Libre was always a favorite band of Alma del Barrio (and Latin Dimensions) hosts, certainly of mine. The simple title of this song, “El Son,” refers to the one of the many genres of Cuban music—el son—which is the root of the mambo and later what came to be called salsa.

2. Beny Moré / “Que Bueno Baila Usted” / RCA Records

Beny Moré, the greatest legend in Cuban music, died in 1963 at the age of 43. Supposedly, needing eight minutes to fill out his allotted time on a Venezuelan television program, he improvised the lyrics, the horn parts and the chorus on the spot. The song became an anthem in Afro Cuban music and is still played by many bands sixty years after that first performance.

3. The Alegre All Stars / “Ay Camina y Ven” / Alegre/Fania Records

The Alegre All Stars were named for the New York City label they recorded for in the early 1960s. Their several recordings were jam sessions that were heard in every storefront and boom box. This, I believe, was the first crossover recording in the city. The flute, sax and trombone solos were scatted by non-Latino musicians on street corners.

4. Caravana Cubana / “Una Rumba Con Dos Tres” / Dreamer Music

From Caravana Cubana’s Late Night Sessions, one the recordings I produced. So memorable to me because it was such a thrill to record these legends and then the unexpected success afterwards. This song features L.A. based Lázaro Gallaraga on lead vocals and Harry Kim on trumpet. The very powerful coro (chorus) is the songwriter, Perico Hernandez and the young singers of Cuba-based band Bamboleo.

5. Patato y Totico / “Que Linda Va” / Caribe Music

This 1967 recording is a “must have” in any collection. It features the godfathers of the mambo, Israel Lopez “Cachao” on bass and Arsenio Rodríguez on tres (Cuban guitar). I don’t know of them recording together at any other time. Patato the legendary congero and Totico lead the other great Afro Cuban players.

6. Juan Formell y Los Van Van / “La Havana No Aguanta Mas” / Los Van Van

In the summer of 1986, a few musicians took me in a taxi from Santa Clara in the middle of Cuba up to Ranchuelo, a small town in the hills. Five thousand people were waiting on a baseball field for Los Van Van, the most popular band in Cuba. The locals bought me, the only Yanquí in sight, beer and fried chicken all night. Los Van Van swept onto the stage like the Rolling Stones and played for over two memorable hours. This was their big hit that summer—a song that warns, charmingly, that Havana can’t hold any more people.

7. El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico / “El Swing” / Viva Combo Music

I spent the summer of 1965 in Patillas, a small town on the south coast of Puerto Rico. This song was played day and night everywhere. I hitchhiked with two local friends across the island to San Germán where El Gran Combo was giving a free concert to 10,000 fans. A thrilling night. El Gran Combo is still going strong sixty years later.

8. Cal Tjader / “Tumbao” / Concord Records

In the late 1950s Cal Tjader was the vibes-playing leader of a popular Latin Jazz group. Mongo Santamaría (congas), Willie Bobo (timbales) and Al McKibbon (bass) laid down the rhythms that every Latin jazz musician would embrace forever after.

9. Tito Rodríguez / “Yambu” / Fania Records

Tito Rodríguez led one of the great bands of the mambo era in New York City. A hugely popular singer with a magnetic stage presence, Rodríguez here pays tribute to El Yambú, a country version of the rumba, another genre of Cuban music.

10. Eddie Palmieri / “Ritmo Caliente II” / Concord Records

Eddie Palmieri has thrilled audiences for more than six decades. He has recorded dozens of memorable songs. This one is one of my favorites—Palmieri’s tribute to Mi Ritmo Caliente—my hot rhythm.

P.S. from Tom: For those of you who are interested in Latin music, many radio shows and volunteer hosts keep the Latin music scene thriving in Los Angeles as well as on the web. First and foremost, there’s the long-running weekend show Alma Del Barrio on KXLU (88.9), which started way back in 1973. There’s also Canto Tropical with Hector Resendez and Kathy Diaz, Saturday nights on KPFK (90.7). José Rizo hosts Jazz on the Latin Side on KJZZ (88.1) on Friday and Saturday nights.