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SONIDOS LATINOS LATIN SOUNDS / A Rising Star From Another Levittown

By Ed Morales

February 3, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Newsday. All Rights Reserved.

EVEN THOUGH she won the Grammy award for best merengue album last year, Puerto Rican singer Olga Tan isn't resting on her laurels. When this year's Grammy nominees were being revealed, she nearly jumped out of her skin when she saw her name again. "I was watching the broadcast, and when they said, 'To see who else has been nominated, go on the Internet,'" Tan said from her home in Orlando, Fla. "So I went online, and when I saw my name, I started to scream, and I called my neighbor [salsa star] Tito Nieves, and I said to his wife, 'Congratulations!' and she said 'Why?' And I said, 'Because you got nominated, too!'"

Maybe Tan just takes joy in her steady stream of accomplishments - nine solo albums, three Grammy nominations, mother, designer, Latin celebrity goddess - or maybe she's shooting for something bigger. "Winning a Grammy opens a lot of doors to meet important, talented people," Tan said. "Next week, I'll be in New York to sing at a private function where Quincy Jones and Aretha Franklin will be. I'm doing a duet with [Egyptian singer] Hakim, and I loved working with his producer, Narada Michael Walden, who has produced Barbra Streisand."

Tan's latest nomination is for "Yo Por T," a collection of songs that range from merengue to pop and even bugaloo. The album combines the production talents of Angel "Cuco" Pea, Humberto Gatica, Kike Santander and Manuel Tejada. "We wanted to do a tropical dance mix, something that wouldn't divide the audience by nationality," Tan said. "Cuco is Puerto Rican , Humberto is from Chile, Kike is Colombian and Manuel is Dominican. We wanted to create a kind of celebratory movement, a form of happiness."

Tan, who comes from a working- class family in Levittown, Puerto Rico (designed by the same people behind the Long Island community), took an unusual route to stardom by becoming a merengue singer in the early '90s. At the time, the genre was dominated by male singers from the Dominican Republic. Tan's move into merengue not only opened doors for more female singers, but began a wave of Puerto Rican merengue acts, such as Elvis Crespo and Grupo Mania, who are now at the forefront in sales and visibility.

Still, Tan is careful to give her mentors from the Dominican Republic their due. "I've always approached the music with great pleasure and respect," she said. "I love working with people like Manuel Tejada and also Jaime Querol, who was the one who defined my style of merengue."

Another crucial development in Tan's career was recording an album of pop ballads with Mexican composer Marco Antonio Sols, once a member of balladeers Los Bukis. The album, called "Nuevos Senderos," gave Tan a broad appeal somewhat like Thala's and allowed her to be one of the few Puerto Rican acts to gain popularity among Mexican regional listeners. Last year, she became the first Puerto Rican woman to perform at the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas, and is planning to return to the Lone Star State in 2002.

Meanwhile, Tan is thriving in Orlando, her home of three years. "I lived in Miami for a while, but I'm not a party person." She moved to Orlando in part to create a quiet environment for Gabriela, her 5- year-old daughter from her brief marriage to baseball star Juan Gonzlez. "A couple of weeks ago, she told me she wanted to be a singer, like me, so I wrote it down in my journal," Tan said. "I'm also a designer, so she saw me doing something in suede and said, 'I want to do that, too.' I almost had an attack."

And although Tan left Puerto Rico in part to get away from the maddening gossip-mongers, she is defiantly proud of her roots. "To be Puerto Rican is wonderful. We come from a small island filled with talent, with a lot of people who have heart," Tan said. "It's small, so unfortunately everyone knows what everybody else is doing, and sometimes they make up stories. But I'm so glad I was born there, and I wouldn't wish it to have been different. People ask me, 'Where do you get so much flavor?' And I say I don't know. I know that Spaniards, Indians and Africans came here, and that mix is what made us."

Crucial Sonidos

The Gonzalo Rubalcaba Trio will be at Iridium (212-582-2121) Sunday at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.... "Plena S, Bombas No!" a Vieques fund- raiser featuring Yerba Buena, Son de la Calle, Yahuba and the Welfare Poets will be held Monday at S.O.B.'s (212-243-4940)...Jay Rodriguez and Btidos will perform Monday night at Joe's Pub at the Public Theatre (212-539-8770), and Daphne Rubin-Vega, one of the original stars of "Rent," will perform pop-rock at the same venue next Saturday...If Benjamin Bratt's performance isn't enough, go see Len Ichaso's film "Piero" for its excellent soundtrack, which features Eddie Palmieiri and the Fort Apache Band, among others...Little Johnny & His Giants, including Andy Gonzalez, Ricky Gonzales, Luisito Quintero, and Mario Rivera, will play at the new Latin jazz joint the Arka Lounge, 4488 Broadway (at 192nd Street) on Wednesday. Call 212- 567-9425.

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