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Chicago Tribune

And The Salsa Beat Goes On

Genre's Alleged Death Greatly Exaggerated

By Ernesto Lechyner, Special to the Tribune

December 21, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

Salsa is dead. Gone. Kaput. Forget about it. A comatose genre swallowed alive by other styles of Latin music: rock en espanol and hip-hop, reggaeton and norteno.

Salsa is dead. Or is it?

For the last few years, the alleged death of salsa has been morbidly discussed in publications across the Americas. Much like the death of rock (or jazz, or punk or reggae), the subject has become a cliche, focusing on the limited commercial success of contemporary salsa in terms of record sales and mainstream recognition.

Take a look at the vibrant salsa community that continues to flourish in the U.S. and Latin America, however, and a different picture begins to emerge.

"Those statements about the death of salsa are made by people who clearly know absolutely nothing about this music," says Rudy Mangual, publisher of Latin Beat, a West Coast-based monthly magazine that for the 14 years has been covering Afro-Caribbean music.

"Salsa is just like rock," Mangual adds. "It has its highs and lows, but it is too established a style to just die.

"For us, salsa is not just music. It's a way of life. It's part of our culture. We grew up with it and we will die with it."

"I think salsa is tremendously alive," says Albert Torres, a Los Angeles-based promoter who travels around the world organizing salsa festivals. "You go to the clubs here in L.A. and they're full of new faces. Musicians like Jimmy Bosch and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra have new albums out that are just incredible. What else do people need to see in order to realize that this music is far from dead?"

Still thriving

In artistic terms, at least, salsa is definitely far from moribund.

An umbrella term that encompasses a number of Cuban-based dance formats such as the guaracha and the son montuno, the music known today as salsa experienced an artistic and creative peak in New York City during the '60s and '70s by combining Afro-Caribbean roots with the electrifying swing of big band jazz and a hint of gritty R&B. From New York, salsa spread all over the Americas, particularly in Colombia and Puerto Rico.

Although some of the genre's biggest artists are no longer with us (Tito Puente, Celia Cruz and singer Hector Lavoe, to name a few), most continue touring and releasing albums.

This year saw the release of excellent new collections by veterans such as Puerto Rico's El Gran Combo and La Sonora Poncena; Colombia's Joe Arroyo, Fruko y sus Tesos, Grupo Niche and Son De Cali; and Venezuela's Oscar D'Leon.

Ruben Blades, salsa's most talented songwriter, also returned to the genre that made him famous by collaborating with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, a collective of notable session players. And trombonist Jimmy Bosch continues on a crusade to resurrect the hardcore sound of the '70s on his third album, El Avion de la Salsa, aided by the stunning vocalizing of Ecuadorian singer Ray Bayona.

Commercially speaking, salsa still boasts its share of viable artists, namely Marc Anthony, Victor Manuelle and Gilberto Santa Rosa. But it cannot possibly compete against the regional Mexican field, which dominates Latin music in this country.

"The groups that you mention are fine, but salsa as we know it is a vertical niche," says Bruce Polin, owner of Descarga, a New York-based mail-order service that specializes in hard-to-find Afro-Caribbean music.

"There is nothing wrong with niche markets, and my business is certainly based on that model. But the days of chart-busting salsa appear to be gone."

Late '70s

Those long-gone days of alleged chart busting salsa were the late '70s, when the New York-based Fania label (think of it as the Motown of salsa) monopolized the market with seminal recordings by the likes of Blades, Cruz and Willie Colon. Blades' 1978 masterpiece, "Siembra," became the genre's best-selling album, a record it held for a long time. (Due to the proliferation of mom-and-pop stores that cater to the Latino community, it is difficult to tabulate exact figures for old tropical music recordings.)

"Back then, I would go and buy the latest Fania album every week," recalls Torres, who lived in New York at the time. "I would spend every penny I had on the new LP by Hector Lavoe or Johnny Pacheco."

Still, many insiders believe the salsa explosion of the '70s is heavily idealized when it comes to actual sales figures.

"I'll even go further and say that salsa in its '70s heyday was a marginal market in the overall music industry," offers Descarga's Polin.

"A few labels like Fania did well, but perhaps only because they paid their artists nothing. Most of those guys -- and I'm talking great talents -- had day jobs. Try developing an artist today and pay them fairly. See how far you get."

"There's a huge misconception about salsa," Mangual says. "It was never a big moneymaker. Maybe two or three artists did well, like Blades, Celia Cruz and Tito Puente. But even Celia didn't sell that many records to begin with. She was famous for her shows. In fact, I think salsa sells more now than it did before, especially in South America. There are more salsa groups in Colombia than in Puerto Rico these days. This music is sacred to them."

Old formulas

Detractors of contemporary salsa decry the music's reliance on proven old formulas that have remained pretty much unchanged for the last three decades.

Indeed, most of the previously mentioned salsa albums released in 2004 deliver the carefully calibrated elements that die-hard salseros expect to find in their music: over-the-top brass riffs, flavorful piano lines and a rhythmic crescendo that builds up to an explosive chorus and forces you to get up and dance.

"There's a lot of recycling going on," Mangual admits. "The new Jimmy Bosch album may have original compositions, but most of them are based on old numbers from the '70s. I respect the new bands like Colombia's Sonora Carruseles, though. At least they're trying to keep the old spirit alive."

The new album by powerhouse D'Leon is a good example of this tendency. His first release as part of a new deal with Sony, the collection is titled "Asi Soy" -- "This Is The Way I Am."

It signifies a comeback of sorts for the singer because it returns to the formula he exploited with huge success during the '80s: exuberant singing, a strong Cuban influence on the arrangements and the inclusion of soulful boleros (at which he is particularly adept) to create a punchy contrast with the fast-paced numbers.

"Artists like the Spanish Harlem Orchestra and the Buena Vista Social Club appeal to our need for nostalgia and retro inclinations," Polin says. "It also happens to be great music, but that's tangential."

Tangential or not, salsa will continue to blossom as long as new generations of listeners fall under its spell.

"I don't have enough hours in the day to honor all of the requests I get," says Torres, whose 2005 agenda includes organizing salsa congresses in Australia, Bulgaria, Japan and a dozen other countries.

"If something is dying, then why does it keep growing every day?"

"Is salsa dead? Depends on who you ask," Polin says. "I can say it is, but so what? So is jazz, good food, good theater. That doesn't mean it's not worth seeking out."

Want to try some salsa? Here are 8 albums to get you started...

Eddie Palmieri: Azucar Pa'Ti (1965, Tico)

A visionary keyboardist, Palmieri has done it all: old-fashioned salsa, thorny Latin jazz, dissonant experimentation. His grooves are devastatingly intense. His choice of singers, impeccable. This one includes "Azucar," one of the quintessential Afro-Caribbean anthems of all time. Sticky indeed.

Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco: Celia & Johnny (1974, Vaya)

From the poppy sounds of Cuba's Sonora Matancera and a stint with bandleader Tito Puente, Cruz graduated into the school of hard salsa on this exuberant date with Dominican flutist Pacheco. The tribal "Quimbara" says it all: pure, joyous Afro-Cuban fever.

Hector Lavoe: De Ti Depende (Fania, 1976)

The singer of all singers, Lavoe died of AIDS in 1993 at age 46. He left behind a legacy of stunning albums recorded for the Fania label -- the heart and soul of the entire salsa movement. Produced by his best friend, Willie Colon, "De Ti Depende" includes "Periodico De Ayer," an epic tune marked by Lavoe's rootsy interpretation, Tite Curet Alonso's bitter lyrics and the fusion of a tropical combo with a classically trained string ensemble -- yet another one of Colon's brilliant innovations.

Ruben Blades: Siembra (Fania, 1978)

From the disco-salsa pastiche of "Plastico" to the anthemic "Pedro Navaja," this is the album that showcased Blades as a socially conscious, darkly humorous singer/songwriter for the ages. The savvy production work of trombonist Willie Colon adds a visceral feel to the procedures that would be absent from subsequent Blades albums.

Oscar D'Leon: 15 Exitos (Top Hits, 1996)

A superb compilation from the Venezuelan sonero, including the immortal single "Lloraras" performed with his '70s group, La Dimension Latina. This is rustic, no-frills salsa, heavy on the nasal choruses and trombone riffs. Those jazzy piano solos are courtesy of D'Leon's former keyboardist, the incomparable Enrique "Culebra" Iriarte.

Grupo Niche: A Golpe De Folklore (PPM, 1999)

Vilified by purists, this Colombian group has been churning out hit singles for the last 20 years under the leadership of prolific songwriter and producer Jairo Varela. A lesser known but remarkably funky session, "Folklore" was recorded just before singers Willy Garcia and Javier Vasquez jumped ship and formed their own combo, the successful Son De Cali.

Joe Arroyo: El Baile Del Siglo (Discos Fuentes, 1999)

Only a two-disc set of hits can do justice to this chocolaty-voiced Colombian singer and an extensive career that includes stints with groups Fruko y sus Tesos, the Latin Brothers and his own outfit La Verdad. Arroyo, who began performing at age 10 in the brothels of his native Cartagena, favors a mix of Cuban rhythms, Colombian folk and Caribbean stylings such as calypso and compas. The result? His own genre, the bouncy joe-son.

El Gran Combo: 40 Aniversario (BMG Latin, 2002)

Puerto Rico's salsa institution celebrates 40 years of uninterrupted activity on this sprawling two-disc set with plenty of medleys and a couple of illustrious guest vocalists. This is highly danceable stuff, of course, but it also exhibits the frothy elegance that defines most Puerto Rican salsa.

-- Ernesto Lechner

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