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Salsa Magazine

    SalsaMagazine.com

The Rise of Salsa

BY ERNESTO LECHNER

The word salsa is actually an umbrella term that encompasses a wide
variety of clearly distinctive, but equally addictive Afro-Caribbean
rhythms and dances: the mystically tinged rumba, the elegant danzón, the
sinuous cha cha cha, the joyful guaracha, the explosive mambo and, most
importantly, the earthy son, the islands quintessential song format.

The origins of the term are the subject of debate among the more
obsessive aficionados. Some go back to a 1933 recording by Cuban
bandleader Ignacio Piñeiro and his Sexteto Nacional named "Echale
Salsita," which uses the sauce word as a metaphor for the
dance-friendly flavor found in the music. Others credit an obscure
Venezuelan radio DJ who used the term to describe the new school of
Afro-Cuban music coming out of New York, via the legendary Fania label,
and Puerto Rico in the 60s. Founded by impresario Jerry Masucci and
bandleader/flautist Johnny Pacheco, Fania gathered the most talented
musicians of the time under one roof, blending the percolating
combustion of Afro-Cuban rhythms with the swing of big-band American
jazz and the gritty, inner-city vibe of r&b.

The Fania catalog represents the apex of tropical music, the standard
against which all subsequent efforts continue to be measured. Theres no
denying the cathartic power of the earlier, more traditional examples of
the Afro-Cuban canon. But seminal efforts by the likes of Pacheco, Rubén
Blades, Héctor Lavoé, Willie Colon, Larry Harlow, Eddie Palmieri, Celia
Cruz and the Fania All-Stars (the labels own mega-orchestra) took the
entire genre to another level by adding to it a modernist approach,
social commentary and an omnivorous taste for outside influences.

The Fania movement influenced salseros all over the Americas, who
started creating their own version of the new sound, fusing it with
their local folklore. When Fania collapsed in the mid-80s and a new,
watered-down style by the name of salsa romántica took over the
airwaves, it was Colombia that assumed the reign of quality tropical
music with artists such as Joe Arroyo, Grupo Niche Fruko y sus Tesos and
the Latin Brothers. But the insipid salsa romántica craze didnt last. It
was replaced in the 90s by a return to the more organic, hardcore
sensibility of the 70s, with the four geographical super powers of salsa
(New York, Puerto Rico, Colombia and Cuba) releasing their share of
noteworthy recordings.

In the last 15 years, a new generation of Cuban musicians has cultivated
a more extreme style known as timba. Using their conservatory-earned
skills, these artists perform salsa at the speed of light, adding strong
doses of American hip-hop and r&b. Groups such as Los Van Van, Bamboleo
and the excellent NG La Banda have divided fans with the aggressiveness
of their sound. Some consider their efforts the anathema of tropical
music, while others applaud their creative restlessness as a sign of
exciting new salsa sounds to come.



HECTOR LAVOE - Shooting Star of Salsa

Because of his mercurial charisma and appetite for self-destruction,
Héctor Lavoé was as much of a rock star as salsa has ever known. Those
who were lucky enough to see Lavoé in concert before his untimely death
in 1993 will tell you that it was an unforgetable experience.

Ironically, only hardcore salseros are aware of Lavoés importance.
Casual Latin- music lovers are more familiar with the work of his
producer and songwriting partner, trombonist Willie Colón, whom Lavoé
met after moving to New York from his native Puerto Rico in 1963. Young,
streetwise and eager to impress, the duo was exactly what the recently
established Fania label was looking for when it released Colóns
appropriately titled debut, El Malo (The Mean One). Between 1967 and
1974, Lavoé recorded a string of hits as the featured vocalist in Colóns
orchestra, his throaty, thickly textured vocals gracing such cuts as the
gritty "Calle Luna Calle Sol" and the bouncy carnival anthem "La Murga."
Lavoés joyful presence also added an extra bit of spark to the
supergroup the Fania All-Stars. In 1975, Lavoé recorded his excellent
solo debut La Voz, which crackled with the singers new creative freedom.
Tunes such as the euphoric "Mi Gente" and the darkly morbid "El
Todopoderoso" showcased the Lavoé aesthetic in full blossom: The music
overflows with flavor and swing, while the lyrics betray Lavoés deep
knowledge of Puerto Rican slang, as well as his deliciously cynical view
on life and love.

Whereas his career was blessed with success, Lavoés personal life was a
horrible succession of tragedies, including the death of his son at age
17, the brutal murder of his mother-in-law and a heroin addiction that
eventually resulted in his infection with the HIV virus and his death of
complications from AIDS at age 46. Lavoés persona as the famous salsa
singer, happy on the outside but psychologically bankrupt on the inside,
was perfectly encapsulated in "El Cantante," a song written by Rubén
Blades, which Colón convinced him to give to Lavoé. When it came time
for Lavoé to record it, Colón did the unthinkable, enlisting a string
section for a memorable instrumental passage that adds a majestic,
mournful atmosphere to the song. To this day, "El Cantante" is
considered by many to be the greatest salsa anthem.



Since Lavoés death, countless salsa acts have covered his songs, making
it painfully obvious how difficult it is to emulate his one-of-a-kind,
guttural delivery. Of the many post-mortem tributes out there, none can
match the emotion in Colóns 1995 cut "Homenaje a Héctor Lavoé." To this
day, Colóns voice breaks whenever he remembers the lifelong friend with
whom he changed the course of salsa forever.

Essential Listening:

DE TI DEPENDE FANIA. A superlative date from 1976, including the classic
"Periódico de Ayer." Here, both slow and upbeat numbers are equally
torrid. COMEDIA FANIA. The breathtaking "El Cantante" alone is worth the
price of admission. Other delights include the openly misogynistic
"Bandolera," with a smoking piano solo by Gilberto Colón Jr. HARD TO
FIND BUT WORTH HEARING: W/ WILLIE COLÓN VIGILANTE FANIA. Together, Colón
and Lavoé experiment with extended compositions and elaborate
arrangements. Their most experimental album is marked by a strong r&b
influence.



RUBéN BLADES - Latin everyman

Whereas Héctor Lavoé was the definitive salsa singer, Rubén Blades was
the genres ultimate songwriter, a brilliant thinker who revolutionized
Afro-Cuban music by combining infectious melodies with lyrics that cast
a poetic, often sarcastic glance at the vicissitudes of modern life.

Born in Panama, where he would eventually return as presidential
candidate, Blades moved to New York in the mid-70s, following his dream
of becoming a salsero. A job in the Fania Records mailroom led to a
guest spot in conguero Ray Barrettos band. It was only a matter of time
before stellar producer and trombonist Willie Colón discovered the young
mans potential and decided to produce Blades debut, 1977s Metiedo Mano.
The record was vibrant and refreshing, Blades voice sounding uniquely
poignant, and Colóns production guaranteeing an authentic salsa spirit.
Songs such as "Pablo Pueblo" talked of the downtrodden people of Latin
America. This theme would recur often in Blades work over the years.

The Blades / Colón collaboration came to full fruition on the 1978
classic Siembra, which included the seven-minute mega-hit "Pedro Navaja"
and was, until recently, the best-selling salsa album of all time.
Everything came together on Siembra: Blades knew how to swing, but at
the same time he was a masterful storyteller, creating vivid tableaus of
Latin American magical realism. By the early 80s, the singer signed to
Elektra in a bid for creative freedom. He replaced his big band with a
jazzy sextet named Seis del Solar, and released his all-time
masterpiece, the concept album Buscando América (Searching for America).
Here, the gritty stories revealed a more cynical yet still hopeful
Blades. Miraculously, he was able to enlighten without sounding preachy,
telling complex stories while delivering some of the spiciest salsa in
the business.

Blades was never able to match the brilliance of Buscando América, but
all of his Elektra albums offer their share of intriguing tunes. During
the 90s, he gradually abandoned his salsa roots, searching for a
universal pop language similar to that of a Sting or a Peter Gabriel. As
a result, most of this output sounds somehow tepid compared with the
Afro-Cuban splendor of the past. Blades also increased his involvement
in politics during this time, ultimately running for president of Panama
in 1994, on the ticket of his own Movimiento Papa Egoro party; he came
in second place. And Blades is currently proving all of his critics
wrong with Mundo (Sony Discos/ Columbia) a spectacular return to form
that fuses Celtic, African, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban idioms for a
soulful feast that nourishes the mind and the soul. (For feature
coverage on Mundo, see next months Pulse!) u

Essential Listening:

WILLIE COLON, SIEMBRA FANIA. Its only his second solo album, but Blades
is already in full control of his powers. The anthemic "Pedro Navaja"
and the disco satire "Plástico" would forever change the face of salsa.
BUSCANDO AMÉRICA ELEKTRA. You can dance to the music and shiver at the
sheer emotionality of the lyrics. Blades volcanic love for Latin America
doesnt obscure the sharpness of his social criticism. RUBEN BLADES Y SON
DEL SOLAR ... LIVE! ELEKTRA. Blades in concert is even better than
Blades in the studio, as this smoldering live record can attest. "Ojos
de Perro Azul" is particularly illuminating.

JOE ARROYO
Red light means go At age 10, Colombian singer Joe Arroyo was already
performing the salsa hits of the moment at a whorehouse in his native
Cartagena. Customers and prostitutes alike were very impressed with this
working-class black performer and his booming, syrupy voice. When the
police happened to raid the place, the whores would hide the young
singer in their bedrooms. It was a matter of time before Arroyo was
discovered by the Colombian music industry, always in search of new
talent in the tropical arena. Sure enough, in 1971, when he was only 14,
Arroyo was enlisted as vocalist with Fruko y sus Tesos, an orchestra
created by record label Discos Fuentes with the purpose of emulating the
Fania sound. Led by the talented bandleader and multi-instrumentalist
Julio Ernesto Estrada, aka Fruko, the group boasted two other formidable
vocal talents: Wilson "Saoko" Manyoma and the late Piper "Pimienta"
Díaz. Fruko y sus Tesos was the perfect vehicle for Arroyo to master
his vocal skills. Throughout the 70s, the band was a veritable factory
of hit singles, and many of them were performed by Arroyo: "Manyoma,"
"El Caminante," "Nadando" and, in 1975, the self-penned "Tania." In
1981, Arroyo founded his own orchestra, La Verdad and began
experimenting freely with many kinds of music. He treasured the folklore
of his land (which includes tasty local styles such as vallenato, cumbia
and gaita), and felt a strong affinity to all things African. Better
yet, he had an instinctive understanding of the many dances to be found
in the Caribbean. When the above-mentioned genres werent enough to
satisfy his voracious appetite, he invented his own-"joe-son"-a
sparkling blend of son, calypso and merengue best exemplified by his
mega-hit "La Noche." Sadly, Arroyo fell prey to the excesses associated
with the salsa lifestyle, including a much-publicized addiction to
alcohol and drugs. Inevitably, his voice suffered the consequences,
turning his live performances of the last few years into hit-and-miss
affairs. At 46, Arroyo looks considerably older than his real age. His
charisma, however, remains unchanged, as does his prodigious talent for
composing quality tropical music that transcends its genre. The singer
is, perhaps, the only salsero who continues to release an album of new
material a year without ever lowering his remarkable musical standards.


Essential Listening: FRUKO Y SUS TESOS, GRANDES EXITOS DE SALSA VOL. 1
DISCOS FUENTES. All
the Fruko hits you need in one single package, including the poignant
"Tania" and the fiery medley "Mosaico Santero" with Arroyo and Saoko
alternating on vocals. GRANDOS EXITOS DISCOS FUENTES. "La Noche" and
"Rebeliòn" (a historical account of slavery in Colombia) are some of
Arroyos spiciest hits with La Verdad. Manic and intense. HARD TO FIND
BUT WORTH HEARING: CRUZANDO EL MILENIO SONY DISCOS. Youd swear this
slice of classic salsa was recorded sometime in the 70s, but the years
actually 1999, proving that Arroyo has lost none of his brilliance.

OSCAR DLEON


Driven to succeed When Oscar DLeón worked as a driver in his native
Caracas, he would entertain himself by playing drum patterns on the
steering wheel of his taxicab. A man of humble origins but boundless
ambition, DLeón taught himself to play the bass, was a founding member
of his countrys quintessential salsa combo, La Dimensión Latina, and
eventually became Venezuelas most popular and influential singer,
regardless of genre. The roots of this miraculous success story lie in
DLeóns unabashed passion for tropical music, specifically the classic
big-band sound of Cuba in the 50s, when macho singers like Beny Moré
reigned supreme. DLeón had no qualms about imitating the style that he
loved. Being Venezuelan, however, he brought to the mix the typically
South American salsa aesthetic, which calls for faster, tighter
arrangements, airy and acrobatic at the same time. Thus, many of DLeóns
recordings of popular Cuban songs (Orquesta Aragóns cheeky
"Calculadora," Celia Cruzs smoldering "Melao de Caña") have become the
definitive versions of these tunes. During the 70s, the trombone-heavy
Dimensión Latina gave DLeón plenty of room to grow and experiment. The
singer performed on his trademark upright bass, and harmonized with the
combos other key vocalist, Wladimir Lozano. He also started writing
songs for the band. One of them, "Llorarás," a throwaway idea that he
brought reluctantly to the group, became La Dimensións biggest hit, and
DLeons all-time anthem. Eager to gain complete command of his musical
direction, DLeón created his own outfit, La Salsa Mayor. In 1978, he
released the groups ultimate manifesto, an eponymously titled double-LP
set loaded with honey-sweet boleros and flavorful salsa tunes. Up until
the early 90s, DLeón was pretty much invincible, recording numerous hits
that still form the core of his impressive live show. By the mid-90s,
however, the singer had succumbed to the influence of the watered-down
salsa romántica style and the hits stopped coming. But his live show did
nothing but improve. An obsessive-compulsive performer, DLeón has
absolute control of both his audience and his band, merging one song
into the next one with precision timing and enviable stamina.
Persistent DLeón fans were rewarded in 2000 with Doble Play, a marvelous
return to form that found DLeón reunited with Wladimir and honoring the
warm, old fashioned sonics of the old Dimensión school. All the while,
his marathon shows remain the very best in the business.

Essential Listening: OSCAR Y SU SALSA MAYOR BALBOA. DLeóns monumental
solo statement contains only a couple of hits, but the 15 selections
here reveal the most soulful side of his complex musical persona. EN
VIVO! RMM/UNIVERSAL LATINO. The fans had been clamoring for a properly
recorded live set, and this two-disc affair culled from a show at New
Yorks Copacabana delivers the goods. W/ WLADIMIR, DOBLE PLAY UNIVERSAL
LATINO. When they harmonize together, DLeón and Wladimir sound
bewitching. Their version of Arsenio Rodríguezs bitter ballad "La Vida
es un Sueño" says it all.



EDDIE PALMIERI
Breaking every rule Because of his unfailingly eccentric vision, jarring
aesthetic choices and penchant for constant sonic excess, Nuyorican
keyboardist Eddie Palmieri, better than any other artist in the vast
landscape of Afro-Caribbean music, fits the definition of genius.
Indeed, when you take a look at his prolific discography in the salsa
and Latin-jazz genres, it is hard to believe that a single man is
responsible for such a kaleidoscopic wealth of quality material. The
younger brother of another talented performer, the late pianist and
bandleader Charlie Palmieri, Eddie began his musical training as a
timbalero, before switching to piano and developing his trademark sound:
furious, dissonant and percussive. After a stint with the orchestra of
legendary singer Tito Rodríguez, he formed a trombone-heavy outfit by
the name of La Perfecta in 1961. At this point, his musical ideas were
somewhat restrained compared to the wild experimentation that would soon
follow. From the very beginning, however, Palmieris take on Afro-Cuban
motifs overflowed with flavor, and he quickly became a favorite among
New Yorks dancers, performing at the infamous Palladium night club
alongside the bands of Rodríguez, Machito and Tito Puente. By 1965,
Palmieri was raising the temperature in his music with "Azúcar," a
classic single, defined by an electrifying piano line that simply dared
you not to shake your hips to it. A year later, he teamed up with vibist
Cal Tjader for a couple of classy Latin jazz albums. It was in the 70s
that Palmieri really blossomed as a composer and salsa anarchist. 1975s
The Sun of Latin Music unveiled the pianists two latest discoveries:
electronics and 19-year old powerhouse singer Lalo Rodríguez. The
combination was exquisite, and Palmieri improvised recklessly with
established musical formats. One moment, hed be the elegant classicist,
caressing our ears with the formal beauty of a danzón. Then again, hed
quote the Beatles and grab your ears with a couple of noisy, psychedelic
chords.
This creative streak continued until the 80s, when the appearance of the
salsa romántica fad, which Palmieri hates with a passion, forced him to
retire into the safer world of Latin jazz. It was an irreparable loss
for the salsa genre, which made his return in 1998 all the more
triumphant. Since then, the pianist has continued to innovate and dream
up new projects. The resurrection of La Perfecta in the year 2002 is
only the latest chapter in a career that will hopefully continue
delivering thrills for years to come.

Essential Listening: AZÚCAR PATI TICO. The classic Palmieri sound of the
60s, with the rock-solid Manny Oquendo on timbales and a host of notable
players. "Azúcar" simmers with sensuality and tension. W/ LALO
RODRIGUEZ, THE SUN OF LATIN MUSIC VARESE. The opening "Nada De Ti" is a
pungent, straight-ahead salsa number. After which the mischievous Mr.
Palmieri proceeds to demolish our expectations of what tropical music is
supposed to sound like. EL RUMBERO DEL PIANO RMM/UNIVERSAL LATINO. The
old master teaches todays snotty salseros a few lessons on swing
dynamics. He also introduces Hermán Olivera, the best salsa singer of
the new generation.

WillieTrombone.jpg

Essential Listening

1 TITO PUENTE, DANCE MANIA RCA INTERNATIONAL. Its hard to believe so
many hits can fit on one single album. 1958 saw Puente at his creative
peak, recording these 12 three-minute gems with a big band that
functions like a well-oiled machine. 2 FANIA ALL-STARS, LIVE AT THE
CHEETAH VOL.1 FANIA. Fanias own collective of superstars delivers a
raucous concert, including Cheo Felicianos tribal "Anacaona," and a
16-minute version of "Quitate Tu" with improvisations by everyone
involved
.
3 RAY BARRETTO, THE MESSAGE FANIA. Before becoming a full-time,
Latin-jazz devotee, Barretto had one of the hottest salsa combos in the
business. Sung by Adalberto Santiago, "Arrepiéntete" encapsulates the
Fania sound in all its glory. 4 WILLIE COLÓN, THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE
UGLY FANIA. This 1975 release boasts vocals by Lavoé, Colón and Blades.
Theres a wistful, nostalgic air about this record, especially on the
Brazilian flavored "Cua Cua Ra, Cua Cua" and Blades "El Cazangero."

5 EL GRAN COMBO, 30 ANIVERSARIO: BAILANDO CON EL MUNDO COMBO. Puerto
Ricos venerable salsa institution celebrates its first 30 years in the
business. A prime example of the islands brand of salsa, frothy and
elegant.

6 CELIA CRUZ and JOHMMY PACHECO, Celia & Johnny VAYA. This
old-school-meets-new-school pairing is a grand triumph. In the hands of
producer/bandleader Pacheco, Cruz shines like a shooting star. The
feverish "Quimbara" gives an indication of her supernatural vocal
powers.
7 GRUPO NICHE, SUTIL Y CONTUNDENTE SONY DISCOS. The more commercial side
of Colombian salsa at its rustic best. Tracks such as "Miserable" and
"Atrevida" are enhanced by the smoky vocals of Tito Gomez and the
pop-friendly hooks of prolific composer Jairo Varela.

8 MANNY OQUENDO & LIBRE, MEJOR QUE NUNCA
MILESTONE. Salsas most underrated band delivers yet another serving of
its deep, sensuous sound. Oquendos timbale solos are uniquely powerful
and emotional.

9 la iNDIA, LLEGO LA INDIA VIA EDDIE PALMIERI RMM.
A sassy Nuyorican diva with a voice of steel, India released her debut
album under the tutelage of keyboard wiz Eddie Palmieri. The combination
is electrifying. 10 MARC ANTHONY, TODO A SU TIEMPO RMM. Before
achieving crossover success, Anthony recorded this majestic 1995 salsa
album, which includes the wonderfully melodramatic "Hasta Ayer."

11 LOS VAN VAN, LLEGO ... VAN VAN ATLANTIC/CALIENTE. 30 years after its
inception, Juan Formells orchestra continues to define the sound of
modern Cuba. The combination of syncopated polyrhythms with sweeping
violins and trombone is intoxicating. as NG LA BANDA, EN LA CALLE
QBADISC. The best timba band in the business delivers its most cohesive
set, with funky workouts such as the anthemic "Los Sitios Entero." No
doubt about it, bandleader José Luis Cortez was definitely onto
something. ad SONORA CARRUSELES, HEAVY SALSA DISCOS FUENTES. After an
extended creative draught, Discos Fuentes returned to action in the late
90s with Carruseles, a group whose noble mission is to resurrect
standards of the past with tighter, faster arrangements. The sound of
the future.

WillieHector.jpg

HARD TO FIND BUT WORTH HEARING:
af BENY MORÉ, MARACAIBO ORIENTAL RCA INTERNATIONAL. Cubas foremost
sonero shines on these sessions recorded between 1956-58. Morés timing
is impeccable on smoldering boleros such as "Por Qué Pensar Así." ag
MACHITO, YO SOY LA RUMBA WEST SIDE. Machito and his sister-vocalist
Graciela-had a unique talent for expressing the sheer joy of Afro-Cuban
music. This 1965 date is a particularly bubbly example of their
lighthearted touch.


Further Listening
rubén blades, canciones del solar de los aburridos (Fania), escenas,
agua de luna (both Elektra). ROY CARMONA, LA CONQUISTADORA (Vaya).
WILLIE COLON, THE BIG BREAK (Fania), HECHO EN PUERTO RICO (Sony
Discos). CORTIJO Y SU COMBO, BAILE CON CORTIJO Y SU COMBO (Seeco). JOE
CUBA, STEPPIn OUT (Seeco). CHEO FELICIANO, WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY
FRIEND (Vaya). THE BEST OF LA LUPE (Tico). MACHITO, ASIA MINOR,
INSPIRED, TREMENDO CUMBAN!!, CHA CHA CHA AT THE PALLADIUM (all Tico).
MELCOCHITA, EL RETORNO DE MELCOCHITA (Levesque). GRUPO NICHE, HISTORIA
MUSICAL (Combo), CIELO DE TAMBORES, (Sony Discos), ETNIA (Sony Discos).
JOHNNY PACHECO, PACHECO Y SU CHARANGA (Alegre), CAÑONAZO (Fania).
CHARLIE PALMIERI, EL GIGANTE DEL TECLADO (Alegre), ELECTRO DURO (Musical
Productions). EDDIE PALMIERI, MOZAMBIQUE (Tico), CHAMPAGNE (Tico),
UNFINISHED MASTERPIECE (Musical Productions), EDDIE PALMIERI (1981,
Barbaro), EP (Fania). LA SONORA PONCEÑA, EXPLORANDO, LA ORQUESTA DE MI
TIERRA, JUBILEE (all Inca). RICARDO RAY/BOBBY CRUZ, EN FIESTA NAVIDEÑA
(Fonseca). ARSENIO RODRIGUEZ Y SU CONJUNTO, MONTUNEANDO 1946-1950
(Tumbao). TITO RODRIGUEZ, EL DOCTOR DE LA SALSA, LIVE AT THE PALLADIUM
(both WS Latino). FRANKIE RUIZ, ORO SALSERO (Rodven). LOS VAN VAN,
SONGO (Mango), DE CUBA (Caribe Productions). TONY VEGA, HOY QUIERO
CANTARTE (RMM).

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