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Pouring On the Salsa

Singer Herman Olivera wows crowds, but needs his day job to make ends meet.

October 06, 2000|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One Saturday last month, salsa singer Herman Olivera performed at New York's Madison Square Garden as the lead vocalist with legendary bandleader Eddie Palmieri. Two days later, Olivera was back at his job as a clerk, helping out customers in the telecommunications firm where he works during the day.

"Sometimes people come into the office and stay there, just looking at me," he said recently. "Then they'll ask me: 'Do you have a brother who sings?' "

The story illustrates the sorry financial landscape of the salsa scene as some of its most famous performers scramble to make a decent living out of their musical talent.

"I've always worked and sung at the same time," Olivera said. "That's the reality of this business. Besides, my job keeps me humble. And my boss lets me take off whenever I need to go on tour."

Angelenos with an appetite for spicy Afro-Cuban music should thank Olivera's flexible boss. The singer will perform tonight at the Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City, backed by Johnny Polanco's local salsa orchestra. He also appears Saturday with Eddie Palmer at the Hollywood Bowl.

The 41-year-old Olivera has been singing since age 12. In 1979, he was hired as the main vocalist with percussionist Manny Oquendo and his group, Libre, a seminal outfit in the history of Afro-Cuban music.

"We played seven nights a week, sometimes doing two gigs on the same evening," Olivera said. "But then, salsa changed. It became watered down and commercial, and the gigs with Libre became less and less frequent."

Olivera became a freelancer, performing with select quality artists, such as Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barretto and the Machito orchestra.

In 1993, he recorded a solo album. But fame did not really knock on his door until he was chosen as the lead vocalist for a 1998 Palmieri record, "El Rumbero del Piano."

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An eccentric keyboardist with rigorous academic training, Palmieri is arguably the most innovative and brilliant composer in the field of Latin tropical music. His fiery compositions routinely combine dance-friendly elements with relentless experimentation.

"Live, Palmieri is like an atomic bomb," Olivera said. "When he begins to accelerate the rhythm, getting ready for the climax of a tune, I look at the audience and see that everybody is in a state of trance."

With Palmieri, Olivera has been able to travel throughout the world. But he still enjoys the occasional solo spotlight.

"I'm going to perform a few tributes to some notable salsa artists, as well as my own material, which is very danceable," he said. "I always prefer the more 'rootsy' style of salsa, because that's the one that's easier to move to."

BE THERE

Herman Olivera with Johnny Polanco and his orchestra perform tonight at 10 at Sportsmen's Lodge, 4234 Coldwater Canyon Blvd., Studio City. $20. Call (310) 450 8770.

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