Dancers were ready, but not waiting for Bio Ritmo by the time they took the stage near 11:30 p.m. Friday night in Carrboro. Local mambo royalty were already spinning to the band's pre-show tape at the Cat's Cradle--not usually known as a ballroom--as the Richmond-based salseros unpacked their instruments.This is not your father's Bio Ritmo--the band has evolved at each stage of its three album history--and yet, their sound is more retro than ever. This is all to the good for fans of '60s and '70s salsa dura, boogaloo and cha cha cha. Divebombing the faithful all night with irrestible dance grooves, Bio Ritmo played Puerto Rican hits of Marvin Santiago and Bobby Valentin, and debuted new material slated for their upcoming fourth album due out this spring.
"I think this is the happiest we've ever been," says conguero Gabo Tomasini, a 10-year veteran with the band. "We're all moving together in the same musical direction," which for Bio Ritmo means recreating the spontaneity and rich tapestry of influences that put salsa and Nuyorican soul on the map 30 or 40 years ago. Rather than what commercial salsa has become--reductive and strictly formulaic--they are part of a movement to re-open Pandora's box, and let bomba, abakua, samba and other Afro-Latin rhythms back out into the mix.
Bio Ritmo's current nine-member lineup seems indestructible, in the words of Ray Barretto, making for creative continuity as well as fresh infusions of sangre nueva. Marlysse Simmons, the newest member, with a lush and intelligent keyboard style, transits from her home in Washington, D.C., so she can rehearse and tour with Bio Ritmo. "This band is much better than any band in D.C.," Simmons explains. "They do only covers, we do original songs." Among the soon-to-be-released originals heard at the Cradle Friday night were the salsa tune "El Monte," and a lovingly laid out bolero called "Rayito," showing off lead singer Rei Alvarez's real love for the old school sonero style. The menu was old school too, heavy on the salsa dura, with an instrumental Latin soul jam that let the ensemble really cook, and a cha cha cha, "Lola" (penned by Alvarez) from the band's first album Que Siga La Musica, that gave dancers a new swing.
Visuals seemed to be deceiving at one point, when real smoke was rising out of the horn section during a particularly hot descarga. It turns out trumpeter Tim Lett, burning his candle at both ends, had a cigarette clutched between two fingers as he tried to catch drags between coros. Two years ago, Bio Ritmo raided him along with Bob Miller (trumpet) and Jon Sullivan (bass) from a Richmond rock brass outfit called Sau. "It was like Herb Alpert meets Slayer," characterizes Sullivan, sporting a British Invasion haircut, shades and fake fur.
The edginess and energy of its younger members serve Bio Ritmo well, which Alvarez claims started out as a "punk salsa" experiment in the early '90s.
"It was a little rough, but the energy was there," adds mighty, mighty timbalero Giustino Riccio, the band's rhythmic anchor. "This is the official clave sheriff," says Alvarez affectionately, pointing to Riccio, who shrugs off the title while bandmates break into chants of "I Shot The Sheriff."
"When I heard the music [growing up in Jersey City], it was an instant love affair," says Riccio, a formidable presence with shaved head, goatee and a neckful of silver amulets. While Latin music fans may share his tendency to talk about "the music" as if none other existed, Riccio and fellow band members have played everything from classical to reggae. "I've always been a big salsa freak," he adds. "I've played hardcore, all different styles. ... I've always come back to this." The horn section, filled out by trombonists Toby Whitaker and Stefan Demetriades, have some roots in jazz, and Alvarez got his start playing bongos in a reggae band. Tomasini, who at one point took a two-year hiatus to study classical music in Puerto Rico, says that as instruments were added, what started out as a drum jam "eventually turned into a full-fledged salsa band."
"We're doing the same stuff now as we did then, only now we're better musicians, and the arrangements are better," says Tomasini of Bio Ritmo's trajectory. "It took us 12 years to be able to do what we always thought we wanted to do."
"We're having a lot of fun," adds Lett, "and the new CD is coming out next month." No title yet, but look for information about the self-release on their Web site (bioritmo.com). Montas Lounge already has a gig lined up with the freshly re-minted salseros for May 2, when they return to the Triangle to play Montas' third anniversary party. Don't miss your chance to see this super-hot dance band on the rise.