Ernesto Lechner talks Salsa Explosion

Ernesto Lechner

Salsa Explosion: The New York Salsa Revolution 1969  1979 Fania Strut

Salsa Explosion: The New York Salsa Revolution (1969 – 1979) [Fania/Strut]

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.

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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.

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