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Solazo, New York Tango Quartet, and the day the salsa died


With their long, rock star hair, and earthy tropical threads, you might not know at first glance if Solazo's three frontmen are sensitive world fusion guys, or hard rockers. The answer is both--if they have it their way. Pepe Aranda, Kike Rodriguez, and Miguel Benitez have been singing together--in Solazo, their world fusion band, or Barro, their Latin rock project--for well over 20 years. Their experience and comfort with each other shows in their range of tonal dynamics, wonderful instrumental abilities, and three-part vocal harmonies that fit like a favorite pair of jeans.

The Virginia visitors played Fearington's Barn a week ago Friday, at the gracious behest of the Chatham County Arts Council. Joining Solazo's fusion of South American and Caribbean influences was Beverly Botsford, an expert drummer who lives here in Chapel Hill, when she is not out of town touring with Nnenna Freelon's jazz ensemble.

Pepe provides Solazo's centrifugal force, with his baby-smooth voice sometimes scatting or soaring into samba/bossa nova colors, and his wicked tres playing that makes Solazo's Cuban country music sizzle. Miguel plays bass and, occasionally, performs seldom-seen Argentine folkloric specialities like malambo. Kike kicks it on guitar and trades off the lead vocals on some of their melodic 4/4 rock numbers. Keeping it all in the family, Pepe's son and stepson play timbales and percussion. Botsford, deeply schooled in Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian grooves, lent her powerful rhythmic voice to this lineup on congas and chekere.

Solazo knew how to please the evening's free-spirited dancers with some killer medleys of Afro-Cuban son classics like "El Cuarto de "Tula," Maria Cristina" and "Son de la Loma. "One of the biggest hits, near the end of the show, was Solazo's song "Quiero Agua" ("I Want Water")--so convincing, apparently, that Chatham County Arts Council's solicitous hosts placed pitchers of ice water on the stage, half in on the gag, and half as homage to the evening's hardworking musicians.

Stay tuned for Solazo's next visit to the Triangle this fall, on Oct. 4, when they will perform at the Carrboro ArtsCenter.

New York Tango Quartet
The Century Center has got to be one of the Triangle's most congenial live venues for ballroom dance. With its parquet floor, warm acoustics, and smalltown auditorium feel, it's like a hipper, updated version of the prom or church social. The Town of Carrboro pitched in with Tangophilia to throw a tango milonga there two Saturdays back, featuring the renowned New York Tango Quartet. The live music event attracted an intergenerational crowd of tangueros, most dressed to kill, with women in T-strap pumps and elegantly revealing dresses showing off their gams with tango's sexy dips and leg kicks.

A taste of Argentinian cuisine came free with the price of admission, in the form of homemade empanadas from the kitchen of Tangophilia dance instructors Gulden Ozen and Jason Laughlin. The weekend featured classes with visiting instructor Victor Crichton, based in Tampa, and a musicality workshop for dancers with the quartet's bassist and co-director, Pablo Aslan.

Understanding the music of tango is very important for dancers, explains Crichton, "because every orchestra plays with their own feeling. In ballroom dancing, every song has about the same beats per measure. But in Argentine tango, every song is a new experience."

The quartet's violinist, Jacqui Carrasco, who also teaches music at Winston-Salem's Wake Forest University, says she learned to dance tango before she learned how to play it on the violin. "I heard an [Astor] Piazzola song and I thought, 'I have to play this music!' But I had a teacher who said, 'before you can play, you must dance.'" After some exhibition tango by the professional instructors, dancing took a backseat as the quartet played one of Piazzola's more somber works by request.

Bandoneon, the accordion-like instrument that gives tango its characteristic pulse, is extraordinarily difficult to play. Not only are the push-buttons on each end laid out in a pattern as arbitrary as a typewriter keyboard, but each button also sounds a different note, depending on whether the instrument is being squeezed in or out. David Alsina, the quartet's very in-demand bandoneonista and one of few in North America, played standing up with one leg propped on a chair, his instrument resting across one knee.

Pablo Aslan also leads the group Avantango, and plans to release their new CD this coming winter; details at their website For more information on tango events and classes locally, see , or the non-profit tango club,

The day the salsa died
Coming on the heels of the recent deaths of Celia Cruz and Compay Segundo, the salsa world got more sad news last Tuesday with the death of Catalino "Tite" Curet Alonso. Born in Guayamo, Puerto Rico, Curet Alonso was one of the greatest composers of the classic salsa era, beginning with his 1968 breakthrough hit "La Tirana," sung by flamboyant Cuban singer La Lupe.

Tite Curet Alonso's songwriting was so powerful, it's hard to imagine this style and sound we call "salsa" existing at all without him. Out of the 2000-plus songs he wrote, dozens were hits and remain standards of the repertoire. His music also made careers and became trademark songs for artists such as Cheo Feliciano, Hector Lavoe, Pete 'El Conde' Rodriguez, Ruben Blades and Ismael Rivera. Curet wrote about slavery and resistance, black pride, Pan-Latin-American unity, and always remained a man of the people.

His Afrocentric values expressed something central to the '70s salsa movement and brought him especially close to the hearts of black soneros. Consider Pete 'El Conde' Rodriguez, improvising on the African roots of rumba ("si no hubieran Negros, no hubiera guaguanc"--without blacks, there would be no guanguanc) on Curet Alonso's "Primoroso Cantar."

Celia Cruz sang his song "Isadora" (Dunccan), which celebrated freedom of movement as a metaphor for liberation. Just a few weeks ago, on the much-mourned loss of Celia Cruz, every headline in Miami carried this familiar phrase, with a twist: "Descanse en libertad"--rest in freedom. Those outside Miami might have missed the reference to the Torre de Libertad, a symbol for anti-Castro Cuban exiles, where Celia lay in state. It was Cruz' last ironic gesture of disdain for Castro, who had prevented her from returning to Cuba in 1962 to attend her own mother's funeral--something the singer never forgot, and never forgave.

Cuba honored the recent passing of Compay Segundo (and rightly so), but slighted Cruz in comparison with a mere paragraph or two obituary in Granma. Cruz has been nearly excised from the official history (her music is banned in all government owned media), and therefore she is never mentioned by Cuban artists in songs that list the usual litany of Cuba's great singers and musicians, but news reports hint that the people of Cuba remember, and perhaps secretly play her records. The "Queen of Salsa" may have been her title in exile, when Latin New York became her realm, but it is important to remember that that Celia was a reinvention. From the '50s well into the '60s, when she sang with La Sonora Matancera, her nickname was "La Guarachera de Cuba"--Cuba's best singer of guarachas, a big band dance form which suited her fast-paced verbal improvisations and piercingly precise contralto voice.

Salsa stands for liberation in more than one sense. Back in the '50s, when Tito Puente reigned, mambo halls like the Palladium Ballroom were some of the most integrated places in New York. Anywhere, anytime, one can still find freedom on the dance floor today: freedom from toil, stress and woes, from differences in social or legal or economic status that more commonly separate than unite. Tite Curet's songs decry the hypocrisy of wealth, and celebrate the slave's resistance to oppression, the dancer's harmony of body and brain, the beauty of black faces, and the deep Africanness of Caribbean culture. Cruz, in addition to giving us the unique gift of her voice, reminded us to always take the sugar (azucar!) in life's sometimes bitter brew. The rumba will not sound the same without them. EndBlock

News for the Latin Beat? E-mail Sylvia Pfeif- fenberger at

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