Reggaeton bashing has emerged as a genre among those of us who, for the most part lovingly, chronicle Latin music. Hometown commentators in markets from Miami to Denver complain that reggaeton's popularity is squeezing salseros off the dancefloor.
I come not to player hate, but to reflect upon the hubbub as a longtime salsa devotee who feels the pressure of market forces. The economic turf war of the young and the inebriated vs. the sober and the coordinated is nothing new. Nowadays, it's also a demographic battle, and a culture war, as Mexican durangense takes on Dominican hip hop takes on Puerto Rican reggaeton, and so on and so forth. One thing has been clear since the '80s, though: Salsa is no longer king of the Latin hit parade, if "salsa" even means anything to anyone anymore. So what if commercial, romantic salsa was just using it as a vehicle to promote pretty voices attached to pretty faces--can it even do that anymore? And once that's over, then what? Latin pop power ballads? The answer appears to be yes and no. The Daddy Yankees, the Shakiras and the Enrique Iglesiases may be closing in on youthful market share, but just like it happened to Elvis, it's happening to salsa: immortality hounds it, even in the face of changing tastes and market insignificance. Salsa is dead; long live salsa!
This never seemed more true, here at the local level anyway, than at Bio Ritmo's recent shows over the holidays. At Montas' Christmas party and counting down to the big acorn drop at Raleigh's First Night, they showcased a year of new songs that bare incredible Puerto Rican soul. This band doesn't seem capable of writing a superficial lyric or simple-minded groove. Their 2004 Bio Ritmo album turned heads and announced their newfound momentum as a band reunited with singer, songwriter and co-founder Rei Alvarez.
But despite plenty of accolades in 2005, they didn't sit on their laurels. Bio Ritmo scrimped and saved to buy enough studio time to record three of their newest songs with legendary salsa engineer Jon Fausty. The preliminary results glitter and burn on the demo EP Salsa System: The Jon Fausty Sessions. Vocals glow hotter, instrumentals have added dynamic layers, and the alluringly catchy songs themselves are psychedelic treasures, like black pearls shimmering under disco lights.
"Madrugador," a salsa scorcher on a par with the great '70s hits of Charlie Palmieri and Marvin Santiago, goes boldly out of the gate as Alvarez talks to God and himself and his TV about his struggle to find his path. "I know that I'm not a perfect man," Alvarez sings, but he relates his own absolution to the work ethic of regular folks who get up every morning to pay the bills, support a family or perfect their craft.
"Orgullo" feels like a classic in real time that will one day stand next to the most memorable songs in the genre. "Caminando con orgullo"--moving forward with "pride," for lack of a better word in English, but more like dignity--sums up the attitude of the artist as warrior; carrying his head high in a culture war, yes, but just as importantly, in life's daily battles.
"Tu No Sabes," a guaguanco that timbalero Giustino Riccio co-wrote, has evolved into another one of his signature funky romps through generic time and space. With the tap now firmly in place, we can only hope Bio Ritmo's creative juices continue to flow freely in 2006.
What's that, you can't get enough salsa? Well, how about Spanish Harlem Orchestra, straight from El Barrio, in Durham this Thursday? This esteemed cover band from salsa's golden age brought Ruben Blades out of semi-retirement on their second album, Across 110th St. , which took the 2005 Salsa Grammy. Keyboardist Oscar Hernandez leads the supergroup of New York veterans, featuring the king of the salsa dura trombone, Jimmy Bosch. Solazo, the Floyd County band of South American folk rockers with a diverse bag of Latin style, opens. Show time is 8 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 26 at the Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St. in downtown Durham. Tickets are $30; visit www.carolinatheatre.org to buy online or call the box office at 560-3030.
If you are a big Solazo fan, catch them again while they are in town on Friday night, Jan. 27, when they will be headlining at Carmen's Cuban Café. Carmen's is located in the Factory Shops off Airport Road in Morrisville, off I-40 at Exit 284-B. Their phone number is 467-8080, but tickets will be available for $10 at the door only.
If you would rather spend two nights in a row with Spanish Harlem Orchestra, you can do that too for the price of a short road trip. SHO performs at the Jefferson Center in Roanoke, Va., on Friday, Jan. 27 (one night after the N.C. show). For a separate admission, frolic at the after-party with Bio Ritmo. Always a gracious venue for a weekend destination, get more info at www.jeffcenter.org.
Congratulations go to dance instructor Milton Cobo on his recent wedding.
The Cobo Brothers (Milton and James) host New York style mambo classes, socials and parties that have transformed the Latin landscape over the last several years. Their monthly Copa Night every second Saturday at George's Garage lures a sophisticated crowd the old-fashioned way: Their DJs play classic salsa and mambo in doses that serious dancers want to hear. Come stylish and come late--diners don't clear out until after 10, and the dancefloor heats up around 11. The next Copa Night comes up Saturday, Feb. 11. Cover for ladies and caballeros is $10; George's Garage is at 737 Ninth St. in Durham, phone 286-4131. Stay abreast of other mambo-related events at www.cobobrothers.com.
News for Latin Beat? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.