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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Puerto Rican Band's Blend Worthy Of Grammy

January 25, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.

Like so many specialty Grammy categories, the nominations for best salsa/merengue album don't necessarily reflect the year's greatest achievements. The Recording Academy's selection committees, mindful that voters can mark ballots in dozens of categories, often gravitate toward established names whose best work may not have been in the last year.

This year's field runs true to form: There's Regalo del Alma, the last effort from the late queen of salsa, Celia Cruz, obviously a sentimental choice, as well as CDs by established artists Ismael Miranda, Victor Manuelle, Tito Rojas, and revered New York vocalist La India.

But also on the list is an innovative Puerto Rican band nearly unknown in the States: Truco & Zaperoko, whose Musica Universal is the second release from the independent label Libertad Records of Wynnewood.

Here we have a curiosity: a recording that's earned Grammy consideration and international visibility simply because it's vital, daring, unconventional.

It might not stand much chance of winning, but in a year when tropical Latin music was defined by commercial rehash, Musica Universal deserves consideration. As Edwin Feliciano, the band's trombonist-leader, said the other day from his home in San Juan: "When we put out our first record in 1999, maybe people weren't prepared for this type of innovation. Now, people are looking for that."

The innovation he's talking about is found deep inside the sparkly, deceptively smooth grooves of Musica Universal in rhythms that fuse a centuries-old pulse, plena, with more contemporary dance polyrhythm.

T&Z is actually a merger of two established outfits. In 1999, the esteemed folkloric ensemble Truco, which specializes in the native Puerto Rican bomba and plena played on hand drums, joined forces with the large orchestra known as Zaperoko. The latter group, formed in the early '80s, had a reputation for its high-energy Puerto Rican version of Cuban songo, a descendant of the rumba.

The resulting ensemble, which can number more than 20 musicians, is dedicated to weaving the stately pulse of the plena into the more assertive rhythms of Afro-Cuban dance music. It wasn't easy, Feliciano recalls.

"You have to be very, very careful about what the drums are doing so you don't have a clash of rhythms... . We have... percussionists who know the folkloric rhythms and also are really experimental."

The trick, he explains, is keeping the heritage rhythm and the more accessible new beats running at the same time, like trains on parallel tracks. Other Puerto Rican dance bands shift styles in a piece, dipping into plena for contrast or as an interlude. The pleneros of T&Z discovered that the rhythm acquires an almost levitational energy when both pulses are maintained simultaneously.

The rhythms "don't switch back and forth, they morph," says record producer Aaron Luis Levinson, cofounder of Libertad. The group has "created a new way of playing that's very fluid. To my ears, it's a breakthrough."

Levinson knew about Zaperoko from its '80s work, and issued the first T&Z effort in 1999 on RykoLatino, which had an office in Ardmore. Just as he and John Robertson, a Philadelphia entertainment lawyer, were starting Libertad, he received a cassette from Feliciano containing the basic drum parts that are the foundation of Musica Universal. It came as a shock.

"It was logarithmically beyond what they did before," Levinson says, adding that the music's renegade energy helped crystallize Libertad's philosophy.

They knew they couldn't compete with the Miami labels that dominate Latin music, Levinson explains. "The idea was that we're here on the edge of Latin music, and we're not concerned with whether radio will play what we do... . We just tried to make the best record we could make, really just catch the feeling these guys have when they play. There's no paycheck in this record."

For all its rhythmic sophistication, Musica Universal is plain old hot-wired dance music - suave as the most stylized New York salsa and boisterous as the most heated mambos of today's Cuban orchestras, with a touch of Latin-jazz improvisation thrown in. Never does it demand to be appreciated as some high-art intellectual smash-up: It's just a relentlessly grooving celebration.

Levinson still can't believe the album turned up on the Grammy ballot. "The odds are almost astronomical that it would survive to that point... . That tells me there's starting to be an understanding of Afro-Latin music since Buena Vista [the Buena Vista Social Club], and maybe a wider embrace of what's going on in the form."

Feliciano says he's not exactly stunned, because he's watched how people in Puerto Rico have responded over the last few years. Several young bands are developing their sounds using the same basic rhythmic concept, and whenever T&Z performs, the hard-core dancers come out.

"Everybody dances like crazy when we play," he says. "It's like they need a fix. The drums get into your blood."

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