ROUTES OF RHYTHM PBS, tomorrow, 9-11 p.m. (check local listings). With Harry Belafonte. First of three programs on the Afro-Cuban influence in pop music. Parts 2 and 3 air June 22 and 29. IF you think the lambada - the erotic Brazilian dance now sweeping the US - is hot, you might be surprised that its Latin forbears - the salsa, mambo, cha-cha, merengue, pachanga, and rhumba - were once even hotter.
And if you can get past the distracting fuzz in host Harry Belafonte's smoky voice and some monotonous - in some cases amateurish - camera work, ``Routes of Rhythm'' will show you where these music forms came from.
Actually the series is well served by Belafonte, whom American audiences know as the man who helped popularize Caribbean music here (``Island in the Sun,'' ``The Banana Boat Song''). You can feel that Belafonte's heart is in preserving the authentic roots of Latin music in a broader world leading toward synthesized sounds.
In the first hour of this three-continent odyssey, Belafonte and crew travel to Africa for a lesson in the tribal conjuring of gods and spirits - wind, fire, rain, and iron. The instrument is the drum: animal skin stretched over every shape and size of bowl and box.
The program then shows how these rhythms were transported to the Caribbean - especially Cuba - during the colonial period, where the melodies and harmonies of Spanish troubadors and Andalusian gypsies were added to produce the core of Latin music.
To explore Latin music as a populist, grass-roots sound, the second program visits the streets and docks of Havana, where workers still dance the rhumba on their breaks. Belafonte interviews local performers such as Orestes Lopez (creator of the mambo) and Enrique Jorrin (songwriter of the first cha-cha). He narrates film of locals and workers performing dances that tell stories - some of passion and love between lovers.
The final segment follows Latin music Stateside to radio, Broadway, and Hollywood as it jumped in waves from between the '20s and '60s and then again in the '80s.
It traces Xavier Cugat's band playing the circuit from Carnegie Hall to the Sunset Strip. Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie recalls his Cuban drummer and dancer Chano Pozo.
Hollywood clips from George Raft and Fred Astaire to Rita Hayworth and Doris Day show how Afro-Cuban rhythms went mainstream, even in animated movies like Walt Disney's ``Dumbo'' and the Donald Duck feature ``Three Cabelleros.''
Footage of interviews with Cugat are used, as well as more recent ones with salsa queen Celia Cruz and musician/actor Ruben Blades. Archival film of such performers as Carmen Miranda and Desi Arnaz complement contemporary interviews with Gloria Estefan and members of her Miami Sound Machine.
There is precious little reference to the ethno-musicologists on whom the veracity of ``Rhythms'' rests. One wonders, for instance, how much claim Cuba has on the origins of the tango.
And, at three hours, ``Rhythms'' is a somewhat labored journey with some too-long digressions into topics like Cuban food. An insistence on mid-range camera work achieves the nearly impossible: making some of the hottest rhythms around seem boring.
But in the PBS tradition, ``Rhythms'' is educational, pulling its diverse threads together: footage from West African villages of the Yoruba to the hills of Costa del Sol in Spain to the Spanish colonies. Belafonte's reputation helped producers cut bureacratic red tape in getting cameramen inside Cuba for the film's most precious footage - that of ordinary citizens dancing in their own neighborhoods.
It's an important point, as Belafonte points out: The Xavier Cugats and Ruben Blades are responsible for broadening Latin music's appeal, but the origins and greatest utility rest with ``the people.''