Even though I've spent the past 15 years working as a journalist specializing in Afro-Caribbean music, I didn't grow up around salsa. I was born in Buenos Aires, and spent my childhood in a household that was quite boring when it came to music: my parents played tons of classical records. Their collection boasted one, solitary bossa nova LP.
Discovering salsa was one of the best things that happened to me after moving to Los Angeles. I was still a newly arrived immigrant with a student visa when, in the parking lot of a movie theater, I met the woman who would later become my wife. She was from El Salvador, and a tropical music aficionado. On our first date, she gave me an Eddie Palmieri cassette. A couple of months later, she invited me to a seedy club in downtown LA to experience my first salsa concert. It was Tito Gómez, launching his solo career, performing Grupo Niche hits.
Both experiences – the Palmieri tape and the concert – changed my life forever. I couldn't believe that I had managed to exist for 22 years without this music. It was exciting and sensuous and sophisticated, but there was also something about it that resonated deeply, a combination of intense joy and deep sorrow, a nostalgic sensibility that felt strangely familiar. I was, after all, a Latin American immigrant. And salsa may just be the most Latin genre of all.
At that point, I decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in close relationship to this music. I felt an irrepressible desire to dance to its beat, collect the records, learn its history, meet its creators – become one with it.
I never looked back.
Héctor Lavoe, “El Todopoderoso”
From the very beginning, I realized that there was something special about Fania. It was the label that had all the great salsa albums. There was a certain indelible mystique to it.
After giving me that Eddie Palmieri tape, my girlfriend kept talking about a certain Héctor Lavoe. We went together to an obscure, specialty record store in the Valley, and I bought a four-disc Lavoe box set. We drove back home, and as soon as I heard the first bars of “El Cantante,” I was stunned. This was transcendental stuff, as momentous as the records by The Beatles and Pink Floyd that I had idolized as a teenager. I sat down, sat down in the middle of the room and absorbed the sounds – Willie Colón's lush arrangement, the tight swing of the orchestra, Héctor's smoky voice. There was darkness and suffering to his music. Clearly, this was much more than just dance-friendly stuff. It was seeped in stark contrasts.
I always thought that the lyrics of “El Todopoderoso” were incredibly daring – this guy singing about the passion of Jesus with an immediacy and a sense of compassion that gave you goosebumps.
The first feature story I ever wrote in English was an interview with Willie Colón, talking about Héctor and their collaboration. My first concert review for the LA Times also involved Willie Colón – an amazing show at the House of Blues.
Tito Puente & Azuquita, “Guaguancó Arsenio” and Tito Puente & Celia Cruz, “Pachito Eché”
Something that set Tito apart from everyone else was how incredibly eclectic he was. In the '50s, he reigned supreme with a grand repertoire of mambos and cha cha chas. But he also recorded bossa nova in the '60s, funk in the '70s, straight-ahead salsa in the '80s. He hated the term “salsa,” and would always joke – with the timing of a professional comedian – about “salsa being what he puts in his spaghetti.”
I had a feeling that Tito was not particularly crazy about doing interviews. For years, I hoped for a meeting that could go beyond the usual Q&A. Fortunately, a label executive was kind enough to arrange a dinner with Tito, the evening before the Latin Grammy awards. Tito was in a great mood. We had vodka, and delicious food. He started giving me prefabricated answers from previous interviews – but eventually, he forgot that the tape recorder was running. The interview became a conversation, with great anecdotes and his wonderful sense of humor. “You've got enough stuff there for a book,” he scolded me when dinner was over.
Sadly, Tito passed away a few months later. He was 77. This came as a huge shock to me, because after meeting him, I had the impression that he would carry on, living and performing for many years to come.
La Sonora Ponceña, “Bomba Carambomba”
I have a weakness for La Sonora Ponceña. On a personal level, La Ponceña is probably my favorite salsa orchestra of all. I listen to them constantly, and have seen them in concert several times. When a band means so much to you, sometimes you wish that you could actually speak to them – explain in detail why and how their music has changed your life.
I actually had the privilege of meeting Ponceña bandleader Papo Lucca. Papo is a musical genius. I've always thought of him as the Latin equivalent of Bill Evans. La Ponceña is criminally underrated, I think. Yes, they're popular, and people dance to their hits. But no one has really given them credit for the staggering sophistication of what they do. They'll be playing a salsa chorus, all fever and funk, and then Papo will play a solo that's like a spoonful of crème brulée – elegant and light, like velvet. I find the juxtaposition between the visceral Afro-Caribbean swing and the jazzy solos one of the most fascinating contrasts that I've ever encountered.
A couple of years ago, I managed to visit the backstage area before a Ponceña show. Papo was gracious enough to spend some time talking with me. The first thing I did was ask him about Bill Evans – and he told me that Evans had indeed been a major influence. So I went ahead and told Papo everything I believed about his band. That it was legendary, of course, but still vastly underrated. That Papo could, in a better world, enjoy the international reputation of a Miles Davis, or a Dizzy Gillespie. Papo just looked at me with a sweet smile on his face, and thanked me for my words. It was one of my happiest moments as a music writer.
Ray Barretto, “El Nuevo Barretto”
Barretto was always searching for new sounds. He experimented in a variety of formats, and never made a bad record: from Latin soul to salsa, to straight-ahead jazz and Latin jazz. Unlike other percussionists, he never allowed the congas to become the center of attention. I don't think I've ever heard a single obtrusive solo from Barretto.
A couple of years before he died, he came to Los Angeles for a rare performance of his '70s material at a salsa congress. His set started at about three in the morning – but he was on fire. I was in awe when I had the opportunity to interview him, and I remember clearly that he complained about the brevity of his career. He said something like: “I guess I've already enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame.” I told him that he was a legend, that he had enjoyed an amazing career, spanning several decades. “Yeah, but it all went by so fast,” he replied in a melancholy tone. That moment really stuck with me – the fact that such a musical giant felt the burning desire to keep going and create some more.