Artist Oscar D'Leon performs at the 14th annual International Salsa… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)
For the last 14 years, local concert promoter Albert Torres has been something of a local hero for salsa aficionados in Los Angeles. Torres, who spends most of the year traveling around the world hosting salsa festivals, regards his annual L.A. Congress as a labor of love.
"It's my baby," Torres said proudly on Friday, his face reflecting the deep blue lights of the ballroom at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown L.A. Behind him, thousands of couples celebrated the second evening of the four-day event, dancing to the beat of "Anacaona" — a jazzy salsa classic from 1971 — awaiting an appearance by Venezuela salsa legend Oscar D'León.
Torres has nurtured the four-day salsa congress obsessively, organizing extravagant concerts of Afro-Caribbean splendor — and more often than not losing money in the process. Last year, however, he had a breakthrough. By incorporating Puerto Rican tropical star Víctor Manuelle into the event, he effectively bridged the world of hard-core salsa and Latin pop, turning the congress into a viable financial proposition.
This weekend, he's followed the same model. The 14th edition combines two of salsa's transcendental artists — D'León and El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico — with the chart-topping sounds of Nicaraguan salsa-pop crooner Luis Enrique.
Even though D'León's show Friday was marred by sound problems, the 68-year-old singer's performance boasted the same addictive elements that have made him one of the most compelling concert attractions in Latin music.
D'León tackles the concept of a salsa orchestra as a relentless machine of Afro-Caribbean funk — the generator of a rock-solid groove that goes on and on until the curtain falls. His hunger for adrenaline-fueled hip-shaking is also apparent in his dance moves — he continues to gyrate wildly during his concerts even after suffering heart attacks in 2003 and 2009. D'León routinely invites fans to join him onstage, improvising dance steps with them as his 13-piece orchestra looks on in amusement.
In the early '70s, the music that we know today as salsa came of age in New York by combining classic Cuban dance formats with jazz, Latin folk, American R&B and a touch of psychedelia.
A former taxi driver and self-taught upright bass player, D'León followed these developments from his native Caracas as a member of the trombone-heavy combo La Dimensión Latina. He went solo in the '80s and became a global icon thanks to his knack for writing catchy hits ("Llorarás," "Detalles") and the rare ability to revisit standards from the Cuban repertoire and make them more electrifying ("Calculadora," "Mata Siguaraya").
At the Westin Bonaventure, D'León unleashed a battery of hits on a delighted audience, taking full advantage of the sonic palette provided by his longtime band. Backup singer Arnedo Silva added wonderfully nasal vocals to the choruses. The seven-piece brass section, with the addition of Los Angeles-based sax player Robert Incelli, featured compelling interplay between trumpets and trombones and created explosive climaxes. And the inclusion of trap drums resulted in a fuller sound, complementing the sharpness of the congas, bongó and cowbell.
D'León is first and foremost a fan of quality tropical music. This has become more apparent in recent years as he continues to remove major hits from his set list (both "Siéntate Ahí" and "Sandunguera" were painfully absent Friday) in favor of tributes to salsa giants who are no longer with us.
He added rhythmic urgency to Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va" and duplicated that simmering intensity for the Afro anthem "Rebelión" by Colombia's Joe Arroyo, who died last year. Showing his devotion to salsa queen Celia Cruz, D'León performed no fewer than five of her hits, including a sweetly layered "Melao de Caña" and a raucous "Químbara."
The 21/2-hour-long performance was made more vibrant because the band didn't pause between songs. One number led to another, either through seamless transitions or staccato percussion breaks.
Salsa wasn't the only item on the menu, either. Some of the set's strongest moments included Colombian cumbia ("Cumbia Cienaguera"), Dominican merengue ("Juanita Morel," lovely in the utter simplicity of its textures) and Venezuelan calypso (a majestic "Guayana Es").
Once D'León and his band left the stage at 2:30 a.m., congress attendees could find solace knowing that two extra days of salsa still lay ahead. Looking at the larger picture, however, it was impossible not to feel a bit melancholy.
D'León will be 70 next year. El Gran Combo — Sunday's guest band at the congress — is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Other genre stars, from Eddie Palmieri and Willie Colón to Rubén Blades and La Sonora Ponceña, belong to the same generation of veterans.
Even though there are favorable reports of promising new bands emerging from Colombia and Venezuela, Latin music has still to find a young Afro-Caribbean artist with the kind of explosive potential that D'León was showing at the onset of his career.
These may be the last great days of salsa as we know it.