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Gilberto Santa Rosa And Victor Manuelle:
Delivering Simpático Patter Improvised To A Salsa Beat


August 15, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

Gilberto Santa Rosa and Victor Manuelle, two of salsa's top hit makers, shared the stage at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. They also shared a band, songs, jokes, insults, dueling timbales, professions of friendship, allegiance to Puerto Rico and an urbane determination to hold on to salsa traditions that are threatened by Latin pop, merengue and hip-hop. For the length of the show, as girls raced to the stage to snap photographs and teenage and adult fans sang along, salsa was as strong as ever.

The salsa singers called soneros are not just romantic pop vocalists. Once a typical salsa song moves from its melodic section to its open- ended, danceable vamp, soneros are expected to improvise vocal lines and words in strict poetic meter. Mr. Santa Rosa and Mr. Manuelle are fully qualified.

It was a comradely show with flashes of musical competitiveness. For most of it, Mr. Santa Rosa and Mr. Manuelle sang alternating songs about lost love, with a costume change every few numbers. The concert was called "Dos Soneros . . . Una Historia" ("Two Soneros . . . One Story"); actually, their stories overlap. Mr. Manuelle, who started his solo career in the 1990's, was discovered by Mr. Santa Rosa, who has led a band since the mid-1980's. Now they both record for Sony Discos, and their current albums, Mr. Santa Rosa's "Intenso" and Mr. Manuelle's "Instinto y Deseo," have the same producer, José M. Lugo.

Yet they are disparate performers. Mr. Santa Rosa, short and stocky, looks like the unglamorous salseros of a previous generation. Mr. Manuelle, with blond-dyed hair and sleeveless shirts that show off his muscles, could almost pass for an older brother to members of 'N Sync; he read fan letters onstage and flirted with girls dancing in the aisles. Soneros, who have to hold their own against the brass sections of salsa bands, have hornlike voices; Mr. Santa Rosa, a nimble baritone, sounds like a trombone, while Mr. Manuelle climbs into a thinner, trumpetlike tenor range.

The format of the concert dispensed hits like a jukebox, limiting the extended vamps that Mr. Santa Rosa often turns into virtuoso showcases. Both singers have recorded Latin pop as well as salsa, using sugary synthesizers or quasi flamenco guitar and castanets; they are not purists or throwbacks. But their concert was about the chemistry of Afro-Caribbean percussion, horns and voice.

At one point, the two soneros were onstage together, marveling that they were performing where Madonna and Michael Jackson had sung. They said they were even more impressed by another group that had preceded them at the Garden: the Fania All-Stars, a major force in the worldwide acceptance of salsa in the 1970's. They teased about which one of them would have been worthy to sing with the Fania All-Stars and then, as the band moved into the All- Stars' "Quitate Tú," they got to the improvisatory core of the concert.

They traded rhyming insults that grew ever more elaborate, melodically and verbally, drawing laughs and applause. At the peak, they sang a reconciliation, then turned to praise for V.I.P.'s in the audience: radio disc jockeys and musicians from salsa's younger generation (India) and its older one (Ismael Rivera, whom Mr. Santa Rosa extolled as an idol). Amid the trappings of slick pop success, the old guajira vamp rolled on and the singers improvised in a tradition that harked back to far before the Fania All- Stars, to the African praise songs and Spanish poetry that found themselves dancing together in the Caribbean long ago.

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