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A revved-up revival of classic salsa

March 24, 2003|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra brought its irresistible salsa revival show to the Conga Room on Friday, reminding us how thrilling this music can be, especially in the hands of committed New Yorkers.

This is a forceful, finely tuned ensemble of alumni from the great salsa bands of Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Willie Colon, Ruben Blades and others. Under the direction of pianist and arranger Oscar Hernandez, these seasoned sidemen have been spearheading the current resurgence of classic salsa from the 1960s and '70s.

Like their popular 2002 debut album, Friday's show stuck mostly to hard-driving standards such as Colon's "La Banda" and Barretto's "Vale Mas Un Guaguanco." To salsa die-hards who know all the words, these songs have the joyful, nostalgic appeal of Beatles tunes.

Plus, they make you get up and dance, with or without a partner. This merry band of baby boomers tapped into the good-natured, communal spirit characteristic of salsa at its timeless best. It swept up even the many young fans in the crowd who were not yet born when this music was popular.

Watching these crack musicians rev up their complex, precision polyrhythms and fire up five-part horn harmonies is as thrilling as riding a horse that suddenly breaks into a gallop. Somebody may have the reins, but the sinewy power is unpredictable.

Hernandez, who offered intricate though somewhat cerebral piano solos, allowed a swarm of local musicians on stage for a fiery finale of "Muneca," the Eddie Palmieri-Ismael Quintana hit. Even Hernandez's trio of excellent soneros (improvisational singers) ceded their microphones.

The near-anarchic, party-like climax gave fans a final lesson in classic salsa: Never leave before it's over.

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