Bio Ritmo doesn't look like a traditional salsa band: A mix of Anglos and Latinos, the members don't wear uniforms on stage. Instead, they dress with individual style, from punk and working-class to velvet-and-polyester vintage-clad dandies.
Its Latin rhythmic framework remains essentially unchanged from that of Tito Puente, Bobby Valentin and Rafael Cortijo, the heroes they emulate. But Bio Ritmo doesn't sound like a traditional salsa band either. Horns and percussion may blaze, and piano and bass may play familiar salsa patterns, but quirky sequencer sounds percolate out from somewhere.
Eschewing well-worn standards, Bio Ritmo plays its own music almost exclusively. When the band does play a cover—adding a funky, Afrobeat coda to an obscure Fania classic, for instance—even a well-educated salsa fan might be excused for thinking that it's a Bio Ritmo original. It's not just salsa, either; bomba, plena, samba, boogaloo, television anthems and Middle Eastern sonorities find their way into these compositions, giving these tunes a creative energy reminiscent of the classic salsa era.
"It's our version of the aesthetic that inspires us, that whole '60s and '70s world. We're giving a fresh interpretation," says Bio Ritmo's sonero, lyricist and album artist Rei Alvarez. Onstage, he's the bald singer, rasping the güiro in his hand and delivering lyrics closer to soul-bearing Bacchanalia than the usual party clichés. He throws conspiring looks around the stage at the nine-piece. "It's not a tribute. It's just picking up the baton, hopefully, and running with it for awhile."
But being different has often meant meeting resistance from the Latin music establishment. For hardcore salsa dancers, Bio Ritmo doesn't follow the usual cover format. For Latin alternative audiences, it sounds too much like traditional dance music.
As Alvarez explains, "We've always felt like misfits."
Those who wind up being fans have one thing in common: They're open-minded listeners.
With the 2011 release of La Verdad, the band's sixth full-length album in its 20-year history, Bio Ritmo may have finally come into its own. Global press for La Verdad glows, from niche music blogs to major media outlets. Having weathered its share of ups and downs, the band is taking this newfound level of recognition in stride.
"I just feel like it's our best thing that we've done. It's the most 'us,'" elaborates Alvarez. "And at the same time it's being recognized with a lot of support and great reviews. It's a good moment in the journey of the craft."
The journey began in an unlikely place, as salsa bands go: Richmond, Va. Gathered for an impromtu drum jam to play behind IMAX films, a few of the band's members quickly got serious about their Puerto Rican roots and homeschooled the group in salsa basics. The band's name (pronounced "Bio" in English and "Ritmo" in Spanish) was a whimsical choice back in 1991, a goofy homage to the '70s pop science known as biorhythms. Over the course of the next decade, however, the band endured changes in leadership and musical direction, and the sound and fortunes oscillated like the sine-wave patterns that inspired the name.
Bio Ritmo released its first original singles on vinyl in the mid '90s, including one on Merge Records. The full-length debut, 1996's Que Siga La Música!, set the blueprint for the Bio Ritmo sound in many ways—hard, nasal, edgy, experimental, clearly reaching for the spirit of salsa's heyday, yet with a totally out-of-the-box sensibility. What's more, from the start, Bio Ritmo explored an almost naïve sense of possibility, especially for a group of Latinos and non-Latinos who had come together inauspiciously in a town not known for its salsa cred.
Alvarez left the band after that CD, marking the first big break in aesthetic direction. For the next five years, a new bandleader, Rene Herrera, continued to stoke Bio Ritmo's popularity and its touring capacity. The band even came to feel like a Triangle staple, playing regularly at venues like Cat's Cradle. Herrera also shifted the style toward romantic salsa standards and a bilingual, Miami-style Cuban sound. The band prospered, with videos on MTV and a major-label deal.
Around 2001, the biorhythms cycled back around, and Alvarez returned to the group. Puerto Rican-born and raised in the city of Ponce, he took over main vocal, art and songwriting duties, and the group reconstituted according to its earlier mission: making hardcore, original salsa in the Nuyorican style. In 2003, this new iteration announced Bio Ritmo's rebirth with the self-titled "green" album. A newcomer at that time, keyboardist Marlysse Simmons proved key to Ritmo's next (and current) incarnation, with her vintage synths and Farfisa organ. These now-esoteric variants were favored by classic-era salsa pianists such as Charlie Palmieri and Papo Lucca.
With fresh momentum, Bio Ritmo contracted legendary Fania Records engineer Jon Fausty to produce the next gem of an EP, 2006's Salsa System. Those sessions were like "salsa bootcamp," Alvarez often repeats. Critique from a veteran insider led to technical readjustments but also increased confidence in the band's own vision.
La Verdad, or "The Truth," is the logical culmination of the journey so far. Like a chunky stew packed with root vegetables, the album flows from clean, unassailable dance grooves to heaviest Latin soul, sparked with dynamic and introspective soloing and plenty of Bio Ritmo's signature quirks. Released on 12" vinyl LP, digital download and CD, the album is garnering worldwide attention, featured notably on PRI's The World "Global Hit" segment, National Geographic, The Washington Post, Wax Poetics and PopMatters.com, who called it "one of the most life-affirming albums of the year."
"As far as recognition from outside sources, it's been a good moment," Simmons says. "But that obviously hasn't been something that we've relied on through the years. Knowing that more people are being exposed to it, that's great. Hopefully more people will get a hold of it."
That is already happening, thanks to another Bio Ritmo cycle: Band alumnus Jim Thompson, a founding member who came up with the band's quirky name, released La Verdad on his own Brooklyn-based record label, Electric Cowbell. The imprint's exclusive widespread distribution network has paid dividends, helping Bio Ritmo make the quantum leap above the thicket of self-produced albums. What's more, Electric Cowbell's emphasis on vinyl turned out to be a marketing coup. The 12" LP opened the door for the Wax Poetics feature, and a 45-RPM single from the album has become a hot collector's item in, of all places, Colombia.
"We have a following in Colombia now because we sent a bunch of 45s down there," Simmons says. "Cali is the capital of salsa. They are obsessed with vinyl. South America is notorious for bootlegging; CDs are very, very hard to make any money off of. So the store owner was excited because you can't replicate 45s."
Touring has been escalating, too, a strange phenomenon for a band that's been playing for two decades. Bio Ritmo's picked up some major gigs in recent years—opening for Sonora Ponceña in Central Park and, this past August, earning a plum spot at the Festival Toros y Salsa in Dax, France. The band is hoping to use that experience as a springboard to tour Europe this summer. In fact, Bio Ritmo has to be more selective these days. Though about two-thirds of the group remain in Richmond, others commute from New Jersey and D.C.
"We've put our foot down. We aren't able to play any gigs that don't pay us anymore," Simmons says. But it's not only the size of the show that matters. "There's been tons of gigs in between that were not as notable but were nights when we've just enjoyed the crowd, even if there's very few people; those gigs have been great. When it happens, it happens."
After all this time, there's no rush. "It's a big trip," concludes Alvarez. "And we're just at a good point of it. It will be nice to look back and say that we had a good run in this big baton race."