Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


ALONSO, Catalino 'Tite' Curet

(b 26 February 1926, Guayama, Puerto Rico; d 5 August 2003, Baltimore MD) Salsa songwriter who never gave up his day job, despite writing as many as 2,000 songs, many of them among salsa's greatest hits.

His parents divorced and he grew up in a barrio, raised by his grandmother; among his childhood friends were future salsa stars Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera. He attended the University of Puerto Rico, but went to work in the post office. He had been composing since he was a teenager; he moved to New York in 1960, and he was in his 40s when he had his first big hit, 'La Tirana' ('Tyrannical Woman'), with La Lupe. Among his other early successes was Joe Quijano's version of his 'Efectivamente' in 1965. He signed bad contracts and didn't see enough money from his music; he kept his post office job and continued to write for Spanish-language newspapers and magazines in San Juan and New York even as he wrote hits for the biggest names in salsa, such as Rubén Blades, Willie Colón, Celia Cruz, Héctor Lavoe and many others.

He knew how to write songs for individuals, just as Duke Ellington wrote music specifically for the men in his band. Cheo Feliciano's career was revived when he began recording Tite's songs in 1970; he went on to record 45 of them. On one occasion Feliciano was short a song for an album; Tete asked him what kind of song he wanted, and wrote 'Mi Triste Problema' ('My Sad Problem') on the way to the studio: the bolero was one of Feliciano's biggest hits.  
He wrote in the bomba and plena styles typical of Puerto Rico, merengue, Cuban danzas and sons. He wrote romantic songs with a sense of drama that filmmakers liked: two of his songs, 'Puro Teatro' ('Pure Theater') and 'Salí Porque Salí' ('I Left Because I Left') were heard in Pedro Almodóvar's movie Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and 'La Esencia del Guagancó' was included in Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather: Part II.

But he never forgot where he came from, and he was known for addressing social and political problems. His best-known song might be 'Anacaona', about an Indian princess killed by conquistadors during their conquest of what is now the Dominican Republic. 'Juan Albañil' was a portrait of a bricklayer too poor to visit the luxury hotels he helped build; 'Galera Tres' protested violence and abuse in prisons; 'Estampa Marina' portrayed the fisherman’s difficult life. Blades’s music was often overtly political, and many of his fans thought he had written 'Plantación Adentro' ('On the Plantation'), a song about the exploitation of workers that made him famous, but Tite had written it expressly for him. 'Las Caras Lindas (de Mi Gente Negra)' ('The Beautiful Faces of My Black Folks'), written for Rivera and more recently also a hit for Susana Baca, carries a sense of racial consciousness and pride comparable to what James Brown was then doing in the USA and Gilberto Gil in Brazil.

After the glory years at the Fania label, often described as the Motown of salsa, Tite worked with Paul Simon on what became the critically panned 1998 Broadway musical The Capeman. At the time of his death he was working with Blades on an opera for children to be called The Bell at the Bottom of the Sea. Finally there was a complicated legal dispute over the performance rights of Tite's songs that began in the mid-1990s, and that prevented the songs from being played on the radio or even learned by younger salsa artists. Over five years after Tite's death, a settlement was announced in January 2009, and salsa standards like 'Anacaona' and 'Periódico de Ayer' ('Yesterday’s Paper') are once again current. Fania released a two-CD compilation of the original versions of 31 of his most popular songs; Alma de Poeta ('A Poet’s Soul') entered Billboard’s Latin music chart at No. 5 and was immediately the best-selling recording in Puerto Rico.