June 11, 2007


The demise of salsa has been greatly exaggerated (JORDAN LEVIN, 6/01/07, Miami Herald)

Down in the crowd, 46-year-old Manny Rosales is dancing with 9-month-old grandson Aramis, both their round faces beaming with delight. ''Reggaeton is nice,'' says Rosales. ``But salsa is the music of Hispanics.''

''It's your roots, it's where you come from,'' says Aramis' mother, Arlene Lollazao, 26. ``Salsa is something in your blood.''

Recent conventional wisdom had held that salsa's time had passed, its vitality sapped by commercial formula, its popularity usurped by other Caribbean styles, and, most recently, its street cred and younger audiences stolen by reggaeton.

But the classic Latin dance music is proving surprisingly resilient.

In New York, the genre's birthplace, classic salsa has been making a comeback with increasingly popular salsa nights at several clubs and a cadre of fine musicians sworn to old school musical values, led by the Grammy winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra. [...]

The cultural bottom is where salsa started in the 1970s, as Latino musicians from poor New York neighborhoods mixed Cuban dance rhythms and big band orchestration with American urban energy and musical styles.

Artists like Willie Colon, Ruben Blades, Hector Lavoe and a host of other musicians on the independent Fania label invented supremely danceable music that spoke to a new American Latino subculture. And since so many of its musicians were New York Puerto Ricans, it also became a much loved style on their home island.

But the 1980s saw the rise of what was dubbed ''salsa romantica,'' where the experimentation, street stories and sharp musicianship of the original innovators gave way to pretty boy frontmen singing formulaic, radio-friendly romantic songs. In the mid- to late 1990s, salsa came back with a new generation of young, powerful singers, notably Marc Anthony and Victor Manuelle, and a vibrant club dance scene. That, too, lost its energy and settled into formula and imitators, making way for the rise of bachata, and, most recently, reggaeton.

So when Spanish Harlem Orchestra, with veteran session musicians playing classic, old school salsa, beat out longtime commercial stars Anthony, Manuelle and Santa Rosa in 2004 to win the Grammy for Best Salsa Album, it stunned the Latin music world. There are raves for their recently released third CD, United We Swing, with mostly original songs boasting classic salsa style, ferocious musicianship, sophisticated arrangements and exuberant danceability.

''We came along at the right time,'' says Omar Hernandez, the group's musical director and founder. ``The music had kind of lost its way for the last 15 years. People forgot about the essence of this music.

``It became formulaic, and the industry was driven by the commercial aspect. They wanted everybody to sound the same. That's a shame because our music is a lot more than that -- the development of New York City at the time [salsa was created] was unique, it lent itself to the way the music and culture developed that we took for granted. We realize now it was a special time.''

Spanish Harlem Orchestra's recreation of music from that special time is wowing audiences from Prague to Memphis -- it will play Miami's Gusman Center for the Performing Arts Sept. 22. Its audiences are largely either non-Latinos or older Hispanics longing for the salsa of their youth.

Although salsa's longevity has helped make it popular worldwide -- there are major artists from Colombia and Venezuela, salsa dance scenes in Los Angeles, Europe and Asia -- the musical culture of the '70s that gave rise to salsa has changed.

The economics and restrictions of today's commercial music world are unfriendly to a style that requires lots of musicians and thrives on unpredictable, live, dance-driven energy. The very things that make the genre great also make it difficult for it to reach the mainstream in its most genuine form.

And for music that was radically experimental when it was created, salsa today has become fairly conservative: If it's not structured a certain way, with certain elements, purists don't consider it salsa.

Courtesy of the folks at IODA Promonet, we can offer you a download of the tune Sacala Bailar from the new album.

United We Swing

Download "Sacala Bailar" (mp3)
from "United We Swing"
by Spanish Harlem Orchestra
Six Degrees Travel Series

More On This Album

-BAND SITE: Spanish Harlem Orchestra
-MYSPACE: Spanish Harlem Orchestra

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 11, 2007 12:00 AM

Good, but not great. For that you need Tito Puente and the mambo!

Posted by: erp at June 11, 2007 6:57 AM