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Living Salsa Legend Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, 87, Going Strong

87-year-old salsa and mambo king Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros, pictured here with the "Queen of Salsa", the late Celia Cruz.

Cuban-American trumpet player Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros is a walking salsa music encyclopedia. He may not have been present at the birth of the genre in 1928 (he was four years old) but the 87-year-old musician might as well have been. He studied and played with the originators of the music—Arsenio Rodriguez, Septeto Habanero, Sonora Matancera, and Machito and his Afro Cubans Band. He even helped set up his first cousin Benny Moré’s legendary swinging big orchestra.

Chocolate, who got his moniker because he was often confused with Kid Chocolate, a champion boxer and fellow Cubano, has visited seventy-six countries playing and recording with who’s who of Latin and world music virtuosos—from Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco, to Ismael “Maelo” Rivera, and Eddie Palmieri. He played with Nat King Cole when the singer performed to Havana’s famed Tropicana Nightclub and was featured in Cole’s unforgettable “Cole en Español” album.

Like salsa music itself, the octogenarian - who belies his years when playing his horn with his signature cigar between his fingers - has served as a bridge bringing people of different cultures, ethnicities and religions together. When the South African singer Miriam Makeba made her American debut at the Apollo Theater, the Cuban virtuoso was with her on stage, blowing his horn. Most recently Chocolate’s trumpet can he heard backing up his compatriot Gloria Estefan and salsa crooner Gilberto Santarosa.

Chocolate lives in East Harlem where he says “salsa was born,” surrounded by music memorabilia that spans almost a century, cooking his favorite meals, and when fancy strikes, playing the hell out of his horn.

On the eve of an Easter Sunday concert in New York City celebrating his birthday, Chocolate sat down to talk to NBC News. This is a condensed version of the interview:

You are a virtuoso on the trumpet; what is the role of the instrument in a salsa band?

It’s the instrument that – after the singer—guides the band. I feel like it’s the most important instrument. The trumpet is like la yunta del buey, it’s stuck to the cart weighing it down. It keeps the orchestra swinging.

Why do you think salsa has traveled so far around the globe? Why is salsa is so beloved?

It’s amazing music, why not? It’s invaded the world. I’ve been to 76 countries thanks to this music. It’s sensational. Salsa is everywhere. The first band to play Latin music in Japan was El Trio los Panchos. And the second was Machito’s band. In 1961 we went for three months to Tokyo to inaugurate a cabaret called Golden Akasaka. We spent time in Finland, Germany. I went to seven African countries and of course, all over South and Central America. I am wearing now a sweater I bought in Australia where I have a huge fan base? (But) I feel like I am in Cuba when I play this music.

Why do you say that salsa was born in El Barrio?

When I came in 1957 to play in Machito’s band it was the Puerto Rican dancers that were always dancing and the musicians who were playing it. It’s where salsa lives and breathes. This is a neighborhood of salseros. Yea, I am playing Cuban music but it’s in El Barrio where it was reborn.

I remember back in the 1960’s when on Wednesdays, the Jews took salsa dance classes, and then on Fridays, it was the Boricuas (Puerto Ricans) who came to dance, and on Saturdays everyone came. Then Sunday, when we played matinees, it was the African American dancers' turn on the dance floor. The fact is that New York is salsa.

Actor and Cuban jazz aficionado Andy Garcia poses with “Chocolate” Armenteros. Courtesy of Chocolate Armenteros

You are part of musical royalty, aren’t you related to Cuban tenor and mambo great Benny Moré?

He is my first cousin. And he didn’t know much about music—or, I knew more than he did. He knew how to play the guitar, dance and sing and he was a bombastic and extraordinary performer but he did not know how to put a band together and asked me to help him.

Of all the bands and singers you played and recorded with, do you have a favorite?

They are all my favorites. Each band brought their unique sound and so it was a very special experience with each of them.

How many hours do you practice?

I don’t practice. I have been playing since I was a young boy. I have a PHD in the trumpet. I studied eight years of music in Cuba including a master’s degree in Cuba where I specialized in the trumpet. After all these years I don’t need to study. But sometimes I may be watching a film and I hear a song I like, and I mute the TV and start playing along with the film. It’s been 66 years blowing the horn; I don’t need to practice anymore.

Salsa legend Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, at right, poses with musicians Barry Rodgers, left, and Chombo Silva. Courtesy of Chocolate Armenteros

How do you feel about the embargo being loosened and the doors opening to travel to Cuba?

I don’t know about politics. I haven’t been back since I left in 1957. Next month I am going to visit the island with my son who wants to meet his sisters. I left six daughters in Cuba. When I came to this country and drank American water I had a son. (He laughs.) I have been married 8 times and 8 wives have dumped me. Each wife leaves me because they say I love the trumpet more than I love them.

But yes, I look forward to going back and visiting my town in Santa Clara where I was born, and where I learned to play and where my mom and dad are buried. When I come back from Cuba I expect to be recharged and be 67 years old all over again.

Are you in favor of the lifting the embargo?

Yes of course. I don’t understand politics but it’s all silly—we should be traveling and exchanging like we were before the embargo.

Some of your fans are pushing for a street in East Harlem to be named after you. What would that mean for you?

Yes, and I want it to be called “The Chocolate Way,” but I want the city to do it before I die.

What would it mean to you to have a street in Spanish Harlem named after you?

It’s the where I have lived for 57 years. I came here (to the U.S.) when I was 30 years old, I have lived more years here than in my native land. I gave my youth to Cuba, and the rest of my years to East Harlem.

Chocolate Armenteros will play on Sunday, April 5th at the Julia de Burgos Center in East Harlem in New York City as the featured guest for Zon del Barrio.