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A dizzying finale for L.A.'s salsa fanatics

May 27, 2003|Ernesto Lechner | Special to The Times

It's common knowledge among tropical music aficionados that bands need some warm-up time -- maybe a good 30 minutes of nonstop playing -- before they can reach that optimum level of instrumental combustion that salsa addicts thrive on.

But in Sunday night's grand finale to the four-day West Coast Salsa Congress at the Hollywood Park Casino, veteran salseros Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz began generating some serious sparks a scant few minutes into their opening song.

After singing the introductory chorus of the classic "Pancho Cristal," Cruz stepped aside, allowing pianist Ray to build a simmering, hypnotic line on the keyboards while the three-piece percussion section delivered an implacable groove dominated by dizzying timbales rolls.

It was the kind of moment that beautifully summed up the lasting appeal of the classic New York salsa sound -- its unpredictable character and relentless danceability.

This Nuyorican duet enjoyed an artistic and commercial peak during the '70s, recording a hefty number of hits for the trend-setting Fania label. On Sunday, oldies such as "Aguzate" and "Sonido Bestial" overflowed with swing, even though Cruz's weathered vocals are not quite what they used to be.

Ray's solos, on the other hand, were consistently riveting. Going beyond the usual Cuban-flavored tumbaos, they ventured into lounge territory, at times reminiscent of Lalo Schifrin's Latinized jazz improvisations.

Throughout the show, Ray and Cruz had no problem connecting with their appreciative audience. Only when they openly expressed their religious tendencies did they fail to generate a response. At one point, Ray asked his fans to chant "Cristo" whenever he asked "theseQuien vive?" (Who lives?) The perplexed-looking crowd did not oblige him.

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