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POP MUSIC | Latin Pulse

Where's the Best Salsa? Think the Land of Coffee

April 04, 1999|ERNESTO LECHNER | Ernesto Lechner is a regular contributor to Calendar

A trick question for fans of Latin music: What is the locale responsible for producing the spiciest, most dance-friendly salsa records in the last decade?

Cuba? No. There's a deluge of product coming from the island, but while the country that started it all is still a creative force to reckon with, its musicians have been suffering from a severe identity crisis caused by their efforts to copy American rap and pop.

New York? Wrong again. The former mecca of salsa has spent the last decade trying to shake off the ghost of the bland style known as salsa romantica.

Puerto Rico? No, although the "other" island in Afro-Caribbean music comes a close second, having offered its share of exciting music during the '90s.

The correct--and perhaps surprising--answer: Colombia.

The '90s have seen outstanding efforts by the likes of Grupo Niche, the Latin Brothers and the awesome singer-songwriter Joe Arroyo. Of the bunch, only Niche has enjoyed massive commercial acceptance, with a series of hit singles such as "Gotas de Lluvia" and "Etnia." The remaining acts are very popular within Colombia but mostly unknown in the U.S., largely due to the scarce availability and weak promotion of their records.

There's now a new name that can be added to the list of stellar Colombian salsa acts: Sonora Carruseles, a band whose third record is one of the decade's best in the tropical field, and a serious contender for Latin album of the year.

"Al Son de los Cueros," released recently by Discos Fuentes and distributed in the U.S. by FTC, is a stunning collection. Most of its songs are old salsa hits, combined in medleys and performed with impeccable precision and a joyful effervescence that has become rare in the genre.

The record illustrates the main reason for Colombia's success in salsa: the country's ability to assimilate foreign influences and mix them with its own sensibilities. Local musicians found inspiration in Cuban beats and the New York style of production. Both elements were then enriched with the myriad of rhythms that are heard daily in the country, from the bouncy cumbia to the sweet vallenato and the joyful gaita.

"Al Son de los Cueros" succeeds on many levels largely because it is eclectic, effortlessly reviving genres of the past and switching between styles from different countries.

Thus, a nostalgic medley of boogaloos (a silly dance craze that swept tropical music in the '60s) is followed by the classic "El Pito," made famous by the Joe Cuba Sextet in New York. Then Carruseles takes a break from salsa with a series of swinging cumbias before covering the Sonora Matancera hit "Ave Maria Lola" and doing a medley paying tribute to Cuban composer Miguel Matamoros.

It is no accident that the party ends with "Que Bailen To's," a hit in the '70s for Oscar D'Leon's Dimension Latina. Carruseles' leader, Diego Gale, adheres to the Venezuelan singer's axiom about salsa: You can be as technically ambitious as you want, as long as you don't sacrifice the danceable energy of the tune.

That Joe Arroyo's latest collection, "Deja Que Te Cante," on Sony Latin, is also an excellent effort shouldn't surprise anyone who has followed his career. The prolific record maker always covers a variety of rhythms, from hard-core salsa to Caribbean son, merengue, cumbia, soca and even hints of reggae.

The standout here is the infectious "Blanco y Negro," a frank condemnation of the Spanish slave trade that manages to be tragic without a hint of self-righteousness. Once again, Arroyo has demonstrated salsa's uncanny ability to motivate both the feet and the mind.

Album Spotlight

*** Pablo Milanes, "Vengo Naciendo," Universal. It's time America got a chance to discover Milanes, even if he needed to write the theme song of a soap opera for it to happen. The song, "El Amor de Mi Vida," is the reason Universal has released this compilation by the revered Cuban singer-songwriter. Milanes' biggest gift is his ability to create tender poetry out of the simplest words. Even if you don't speak Spanish, his melodies alone are mesmerizing. The gorgeous horn arrangement of "A Mi Lado" and the crystalline mood of "Yolanda" alone guarantee Milanes' place of honor in Latin pop. Now would be a good time for a record company to release the works of Milanes' soul brother and fellow poet, Silvio Rodriguez.

** Rocio Durcal, "Para Toda la Vida," BMG. Where's Juan Gabriel when you really need him? Durcal's follow-up to her glorious collaboration with the Midas of Mexican pop, 1997's "Juntos Otra Vez," finds the Spanish singer (who plays the Universal Amphitheatre on June 11) sounding a little tired. Listening to composer and musical director Roberto Livi's pseudo-flamenco stylings and epic orchestral swirls, it's hard not to think that Durcal deserves better material. The record has that mixed-on-a-computer slickness, but as Gabriel has frequently shown, Latin pop is all about warmth and personality, not about booking time in state-of-the-art recording facilities.*

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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