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Puerto Rico: Rock And All That Jazz

By Ed Morales

January 20, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Newsday. All Rights Reserved.

A RECENT TRIP to Puerto Rico revealed that despite its reputation as one of the strongholds of tropical music, other genres are flourishing on the island as well. In early January, for example, a

historical recording session came to a close featuring some of the best Latin jazz talent on the scene. Recorded in San Juan, "Dos Almas," a project put together by longtime Puerto Rico jazz veteran Humberto Ramrez, features pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, percussionists Ignacio Berroa and Giovanni Hidalgo, bassist Eddie Gmez and saxophonist Mario Rivera.

Conceived similarly to the Grammy- nominated "Nocturne," last year's collaboration between Rubalcaba and bassist Charlie Haden, "Dos Almas" contains jazz adaptations of classic boleros that were made famous by singers such as Tito Rodrguez, Jos "Cheo" Feliciano, Vicentico Valds and Roberto Ledesma.

"Dos Almas" marks the first time that Rubalcaba has recorded in Puerto Rico. He met Ramrez in 1995 during the yearly Puerto Rico Heineken Jazzfest, and since then Ramrez has been planning a bolero- meets-jazz jam session by a "dream sextet." The teaming up of Rubalcaba and Berroa with the other four musicians also represents a rare meeting of the minds by Cuban and Puerto Rican jazz musicians. The album will be available next month through the independent label AJ Records.

For many years, Puerto Rico seemed as if it would never embrace rock music, holding on tightly to its loyalty to tropical salsa and merengue. But the situation recently changed dramatically. Since island station WCOM/FM switched formats and became a full-time rock station last spring, rock en Espaol has caught on as a mainstream genre. Two weeks ago, La Secta, the most popular band on the island, staged a sold-out concert at Roberto Clemente Coliseum. Billed as "La Secta All-Stars and Friends," the concert also featured local reggae sensation Cultura Profetica, and even legendary salsa singer Cheo Feliciano, who was brought out to sing Hector Lavoe's classic hit "Todo Tiene Su Final."

The sudden success of La Secta seemed unlikely a few years ago when I met the band members during the recording of their first album, with Andrs Levin (Aterciopelados, Ely Guerra, El Gran Silencio) producing. Lead singer Gustavo Laureano, sporting a scraggly beard and his ever- present aviator shades, was an Everyman sort who was just happy to be recording in New York and traveling with his bandmates. Their first self-titled album was recorded on Fonovisa, and although it did fairly well, the band soon ran into trouble with label brass and their career went into a kind of limbo. In the meantime, bands such as Vivanativa, Skapulario, Sol d'Menta and El Manjar de los Dioses held Puerto Rico's sway.

But the independently produced "La Secta All-Stars" has yielded unimagined success, with sales of more than 60,000 records on the island alone - a formidable figure for a rock en Espaol band. While its sound is rough-edged, jangly and not particularly original and Laureano's vocals leave something to be desired, La Secta has captured Puerto Rican youth's imagination in a way that none of its predecessors has, even the Nirvana-meets-Vieques activists quartet Fiel a la Vega. The use of Cultura Profetica, whose reggae sound is also a fast growing phenomenon on the island, and Cheo Feliciano as the grand-old-man figure in their show, is not only shrewd, it's instant cause for celebration. For now, Laureano and his mates are dominating newscasts, local advertising and the radio - and ushering in a new era in Puerto Rican music with them.

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