Last year, the Triangle's largest salsa orchestra, Orquesta GarDel, encountered a crossroads: produce their first CD, or else be consigned to history as another functional regional salsa band that never left a permanent mark. With this week's release of its debut EP, GarDel finally crosses over. Lo Que Tú Querías—aka "What You Wanted"—is a shot in the arm for local salsa, composed of four timely, personal songs that well up with hot dance energy and impeccable Latin flavor.
The EP is a musical hallmark, too; it contains the first original timba (contemporary Cuban salsa) written and recorded in North Carolina. Timba's dark harmonies, tricky breaks and evolved piano and horn lines are the dance-crazy stuff that now rules Havana's streets. Opener "Para El Mundo Entero," originally composed for the Shakori Hills Festival, adds retooled lyrics and a soulful vocal invocation by saxophonist Tim Smith. The title track closer is a standout; opening tender, it explodes into hip-gyrating timba breakdowns, with coros that borrow more than a spoonful of sugar from their Cuban antecedents.
Between those timba bookends, GarDel stacks two songs where music is medicine for pain, originals about daily life that speak to the Nuyorican tradition of salsa dura. "Esta Situación," featuring vocalist Jaime Roman, is a seemingly upbeat tune that tackles the frustrations and hardships of the recession. The other, "Gracias Te Doy," features vocalist Nelson Delgado coming to terms with the death of his mother in 2010. This cha-cha-chá surges with emotion as pianist/ composer Eric Hirsh pushes the rhythm hard, suggesting his work with hip-hop band The Beast.
Lo Que Tú Querías is a tapas-size dish heaped with homemade salsa that should appease appetites hungry for a high quality, first-rate studio recording of original Latin music made in North Carolina. If this momentum carries, it could be only the beginning for Orquesta GarDel.