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Pop Music Review

Villegas Is Also Helping to Keep Hard Salsa Vibrantly Alive

February 06, 2001|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A couple of weeks ago, New York bandleader Wayne Gorbea delighted Southland tropical music aficionados at the Sportsmen's Lodge, demonstrating that the '70s style known as hard salsa is still alive and kicking--if not commercially, at least in artistic terms.

On Saturday at the Conga Room, Brooklyn-based timbalero Willie Villegas and his seven-piece ensemble Entre Amigos reinforced Gorbea's statement with two crackling sets of unadulterated hard salsa.

The two bandleaders have a lot in common. They rightly regard themselves as the crusaders of an almost forgotten style. They release their music independently and make an adequate living catering to Afro-Cuban connoisseurs. And because their livelihood depends on concert engagements, they insist that their groups reach an enviable level of tightness and communication.

At the core of the New York school of salsa is the prolific discography of Fania, the label responsible for seminal albums by the likes of Ruben Blades, Johnny Pacheco, Hector Lavoe and countless others. Listen to the Fania masterworks, and you're listening to the apex of the tropical genre.

Whereas Gorbea expresses his admiration for Fania through the aggressive arrangements and urban feel of his music, Villegas does it through the material itself. His repertoire Saturday (the second of his two nights at the Conga) included not one but two Cheo Feliciano classics ("El Raton" and "Anacaona") as well as the Lavoe anthem "El Cantante." Singer Alfredo "Male" Torres delivered memorable renditions of these challenging standards.

Casual salsa fans might not be able to make the distinction between old and new styles. But the difference was palpable at the Conga, where the capacity crowd reacted with feverish enthusiasm to Villegas' rhythmic intensity. Soon enough, the club's go-go dancers climbed onstage, teasing the musicians with their playful moves and turning the concert into a joyous, sensuous affair.

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