Interested in a sprawling overview of the entire salsa movement? A collection that contains only the best of the best? We can't help but recommend the most lavish set we have ever released: Salsa, A Musical History is a four-CD box set that takes off with the roots of salsa in the early '60s and ends at the end of the millenniumm, when the salsa romántica fad was coming to an end and the funky salsa dura made a much needed comeback. Every single song is a classic in this box set, and the extensive liner notes provide track-by-track analysis. A treasure trove of essential salsa history. ...MORE >
Interested in a sprawling overview of the entire salsa movement? A collection that contains only the best of the best? We can't help but recommend the most lavish set we have ever released: Salsa, A Musical History is a four-CD box set that takes off with the roots of salsa in the early '60s and ends at the end of the millenniumm, when the salsa romántica fad was coming to an end and the funky salsa dura made a much needed comeback. Every single song is a classic in this box set, and the extensive liner notes provide track-by-track analysis. A treasure trove of essential salsa history.
Some people would say that salsa doesn't even exist. Tito Puente was one of them. The man who recorded over 100 albums of this strangely addictive saucy music would, in fact, make a comedy routine out of his denial. Over dinner and a couple of vodka shots a few months before he passed away, he looked at me with a grin on his face and repeated his infamous declaration of principles: "Salsa is what I eat my spaghetti with," he exclaimed with the timing of a professional comedian. And he laughed.
The Queen of Salsa herself, Celia Cruz had a more forgiving attitude. At an extravagant hotel suite in Los Angeles, accompanied by her beloved husband Pedro Knight, she let out a sigh before repeating her more pragmatic point of view:
"Salsa may not exist - but thanks to that little word, all of us have made a good living for the past few decades."
Master percussionist Ray Barretto was not as invested in the semantics of salsa. But he knew, just like any serious fan knows, that this music encapsulates the profound combination of joy and sadness that life is all about.
"I had so much fun," he told me once from his apartment in New York. And he added, with agony in his voice: "But it all went by so fast."
Can we blame people for sticking with a catchy word? Salsa is an umbrella term used to describe a collision of musical worlds. The main ingredient was Cuban - the clave infused, African-based song formats that flourished during the island's golden era of popular music: guaracha and bolero; rumba and son; mambo and cha cha cha.
But salsa would not be what it is without the ever important influence of the United States and Puerto Rico. The U.S. provided the brassy adrenaline of big band jazz, as well as the urban funk of soul and R&B.
Puerto Rico brought to the stew the distinct sonorities of its own folklore - the bomba and the plena. But it also added a unique sensibility, a tightly restrained swing, a velvety elegance that, in the end, makes all the difference in the world.
Enough with the definitions.
The collection that you hold in your hands spans the development of Afro-Caribbean music (roughly) from 1960 to the end of the 20th century. If you are not yet familiar with the majority of these recordings, proceed with caution. The intensity of these sounds is likely to take your breath away - and seriously challenge your views on what popular music is all about (if there are any classical music aficionados out there, I propose that La Sonora Ponceña's arrangements evoke the orchestral coloring of Maurice Ravel; and that the songs of Rubén Blades suggest the romantic poetry of Franz Schubert.)
A superficial listener would tell you that this is happy music, that it puts you in a good mood. I agree. If nothing else makes you dance, this stuff will.
But salsa is so much more than that.
The most complete of all Latin music genres, salsa delivers a poignant chronicle of the Latin American experience in all its beauty and endless contradictions. The songs on this collection are not only happy. They are also mournful, nostalgic, epic, rebellious, sensuous, angry, sweet, bitter, wistful and tough.
From Héctor Lavoe and Ray Barretto to Charlie Palmieri and Frankie Ruiz, some of the artists celebrated on this anthology are no longer with us. But many of them are still alive. And all of them remain, to a lesser or greater extent, sadly underappreciated.
Hopefully, the gems on this set will allow us to discover and cherish the singers and musicians who are still out there, keeping the spirit of salsa alive.
This collection is dedicated to their superb musicianship.
Because, think about it: what would the world be like without their soulful sounds?
A predecessor of the infamous Fania All Stars, the Alegre All Stars was a conglomeration of the label's virtuoso musicians - including such luminaries as Kako on timbales, Barry Rogers on trombone, and the underrated genius of Charlie Palmieri on keyboards and musical direction. Culled from the 1966 release Vol. 3 - Lost And Found, the rugged "Sonó Sonó" is the perfect introduction to this feast of Afro-Caribbean soundscapes. The tune features some amazing interplay between the brass instruments, but it is particularly memorable because of the raw vocalizing of Puerto Rican sonero Cheo Feliciano. Only a few years later, Feliciano would become one of the bona fide stars of the New York salsa explosion of the '70s. The Alegre All Stars sessions have a deliciously spontaneous feel to them - and they are treasured by salsa collectors to this day.
2/ Fania - Johnny Pacheco y su Nuevo Tumbao - Fania 1964 F-325
This 1964 remake of an old Cuban tune signifies the birth of Fania - the most important label in the history of tropical music. Culled from the LP Cañonazo, the inaugural release on Fania, founded by bandleader/flutist Johnny Pacheco and New York attorney Jerry Masucci. Pacheco had already released a number of albums on the Alegre label, but Cañonazo marked his momentous transition from the old fashioned elegance of the Cuban charanga format to a more dynamic conjunto with trumpets. Even though he was at the core of the salsa revolution, Pacheco has always been a traditionalist at heart - enamored with the smoky songs that he heard on Cuban radio when he was growing up in the Dominican Republic.
3/ Bochinchosa - Joe Cuba Sextet - Tico T-1133
A pioneering bandleader and percussionist Joe Cuba was one of the first musicians to consciously experiment with the fusion of Afro-Cuban dance formats and mainstream American genres like pop and R&B - thus helping to create the unique combination that would soon be known as salsa. An artist of exquisite taste, Cuba perfected a precise, economical groove based on the swinging power of a rhythm section with the addition of vibes. Having Cheo Feliciano as lead vocalist didn't hurt, either. "Bochinchosa" exemplifies the tightness of Cuba's ensemble, as well as the electrifying energy that it could generate in the span of a few minutes.
4/ Son Con Guaguancó - Celia Cruz - Tico T-1143
The '60s was a particularly fruitful time for powerhouse vocalist Celia Cruz. In the '50s, she had become a celebrated singer with La Sonora Matancera - the Cuban supergroup that perfected the art of the three minute-long tropi-pop anthem. Following the revolution, Cruz left her beloved Cuba and attempted to match her Matancera fame with a solo career. She recorded a slew of excellent albums with Tito Puente, none of which were commercially successful. Released in 1966, Son Con Guaguancó found her in top vocal shape, enjoying the empathetic backing of the Alegre All Stars.
5/ Azúcar - Eddie Palmieri - T-1122
The quintessential song of the salsa movement? Probably so. Eddie Palmieri had been performing this nine minute epic live at the Palladium before he recorded it in 1965 as the centerpiece of the classic Azúcar Pa'Ti album. Throughout the '60s, Palmieri's La Perfecta shook the status quo of tropical music with a lineup that included the roaring trombone riffs of Barry Rogers, the rock-solid timbales beats of Manny Oquendo, and Eddie's own piano solos - dissonant, funky, wonderfully rebellious and thoroughly unforgettable. "Azúcar" is a fantastic dancefloor stomper - but it is also much more than that. It is a symbol of the profound beauty and emotional depth to be found in the Afro-Caribbean genre.
A monumental artist, Tito Puente released over 100 albums covering the entire spectrum of tropical music. During the '50s, he shone playing fiery mambos, velvety boleros and ambitious percussion jams. Subsequent decades found him embracing the various fads of the moment - from bossa nova and boogaloo to psychedelia and straight ahead salsa - always with unfailing good taste. Taken from the excellent Carnaval En Harlem, this track illustrates the sympatico musical dialogue that flourished between Puente the bandleader and old school sonero Santitos Colón. Puente had a knack for choosing lead vocalists - his albums with La Lupe and Celia Cruz are the stuff of legend.
7/ Cabo E - Ricardo Ray / Bobby Cruz - Alegre 1967 A-8570
This wonderful jala jala track from 1968 takes us back to the beginnings of the artistic partnership that turned keyboardist Richie Ray and vocalist Bobby Cruz into one of salsa's most creative duos. In later years, Ray and Cruz would be known for their ambitious fusion of Afro-Caribbean roots with the virtuoso tendencies of classical music - and also for converting to Christianity and creating salsa with fiery swing and a deeply religious message. Back in the late '60s, however, the duo exploited the popularity of the boogaloo and jala jala fads, creating tasty singles that modernized tropical music by adding to it the refreshing influence of pop, funk and R&B.
8/ La Soledad - Ismael Rivera Con Cortijo - Tico 1967 T-1158
He may be revered as a Puerto Rican icon, but the late Ismael Rivera has yet to receive the recognition that he truly deserves as one of the geniuses of Afro-Caribbean music. Together with bandleader Rafael Cortijo, Maelo wrote a soulful chapter in the book of salsa - one that continues to surprise with its idiosyncratic qualities and poetic undertones. Cortijo was one of the genre's pioneers, cementing the sound of salsa and emphasizing the importance of Puerto Rican folk by adding touches of plena and bomba to the band's repertoire. Rivera's voice was a perfect match - somewhat limited in range, perhaps, but possessing an unending reservoir of warmth and imagination. "La Soledad" is from the classic 1967 LP Con Todos Los Hierros.
9/ Campanero - Willie Rosario y su Orquesta - Inca 1968 I-1012
Even though he did not demonstrate the progressive ambitions of fellow boricua bandleaders like Roberto Roena or Papo Lucca, timbalero Willie Rosario has spent the past 50 years representing the swinging ideals of no-frills Puerto Rican salsa. Rosario's taste in selecting a solid repertoire, excellent arrangers and flavorful vocalists has brought a touch of precise craftsmanship that defines every single album in his copious discography. Junior Toledo, Gilberto Santa Rosa and Tony Vega are just a few of the many soneros who performed with his orchestra. "Campanero" is from El Bravo De Siempre, Rosario's 1969 debut with the Inca label, which brought him the commercial recognition that he had been seeking during previous years. Decades of impeccable showmanship would follow.
10/ Tú Eres Mi Coco - Bobby Valentín - Fania 1967 F-335
An air of innocence defines this endearing gem from the 1967 album Bad Breath - the combination of tenor sax, trumpet and trombone is particularly elegant. A brilliant bandleader who began as a trumpet player and then switched to bass (el rey del bajo indeed), Valentín was the third artist recruited by the young Fania label following Johnny Pacheco and Larry Harlow. He would blossom as one of the company's most mercurial artists, playing with the Fania All Stars and releasing seminal albums such as Soy Boricua and Rey Del Bajo. In the mid-'70s, he moved to his native Puerto Rico and launched Bronco Records, his own label. He continues touring and recording to this day.
11/ Me Gusta El Son - Fania All Stars feat Monguito - Fania 1968 F-355
The series of double albums that the Fania All Stars recorded at the Red Garter, the Cheetah and the Yankee Stadium between 1968 and 1973 stand as the label's most epic achievement. This volcanic track from the first volume of the Red Garter set positions us right in the middle of the salsa explosion. Written by Johnny Pacheco and performed by Monguito, the tune includes a spidery piano solo by Eddie Palmieri, leading to a crescendo of voices and orchestra that epitomizes the addictive power of this music. The success of the Fania All Stars proved that the relationship between the company's dozens of iconic singers and instrumentalists was, more often than not, one of harmony, camaraderie and mutual respect.
If the venerable traditions of tropical music were represented by Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez, the arrival of Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe into the New York music scene of the late '60s was like a breath of fresh air-- favoring a new sound that was rough, edgy and unorthodox. Legend has it that it was the older musicians who nicknamed Willie as "El Malo" - a mocking reference to how bad his trombone playing was. But Colón flew with the moniker, presenting an ironic gangster image and recording a debut album brimming with energy and flavor. In the throaty vocalizing of Puerto Rican immigrant Héctor Lavoe, Colón found the creative partner that he needed in order to overthrow the old Afro-Caribbean establishment and change the world.
13/ Puro Teatro - La Lupe - Tico 1969 T-1192
One of the most tragic and misunderstood artists in the annals of this genre, La Lupe was the undisputed queen of Latin music from the late '60s to the early '70s - until Celia Cruz made her triumphant and definitive comeback with "Químbara." La Lupe's erratic behavior and over-the-top vocalizing distracted many from the virtues that mattered the most: the earth shattering beauty of her voice, her uncanny ability to emote extreme feelings, as well as her intelligence in choosing a pan-Latin repertoire that went far beyond her Cuban roots. She recorded with Mongo Santamaría and Tito Puente, but her happiest moments happened during her solo career. Written by Tite Curet Alonso and lushly arranged by Joe Cain, the gorgeous "Puro Teatro" is seeped in dark irony and intense melodrama.
14/ Mírame De Frente - Ray Barretto - Fania 1968 F-362
This tightly woven little gem from the Hard Hands album showcases the unstoppable swing that characterized Ray Barretto's orchestra - no matter who was playing with him at the time. A musician's musician, Barretto never allowed his conga chops to get in the way of the ensemble playing. "Mírame De Frente" includes Orestes Vilató on timbales, as well as a fiery lead vocal by Adalberto Santiago. At this time, Barretto was extremely prolific, and still under the spell of the Latin Soul and boogaloo movements. In only a few years, he would develop a more elaborate style of hardcore salsa, celebrating his Nuyorican roots while making the whole world dance.
15/ Vámonos Pa’l Monte - Eddie Palmieri - Tico 1971 T-1225
Another quintessential salsa moment - and, together with "Azúcar," the most important track in the Eddie Palmieri discography. Who can forget that moody beginning - the conga slaps, the monumental bass tumbao, the ominous organ line performed by older brother Charlie? The rhythm section shows admirable restraint, but when Ismael Quintana appears in full sonero mode, it feels like the apocalypse is but a few moments away. Following the youthful artistry of La Perfecta, Palmieri was finding his true voice as a '70s iconoclast - enamored with dissonance, open to elements from other genres, eager to express a virulent socio-political message of justice and equality. No one in Latin music has combined artistic ambition and sheer danceability with the recklessness of maestro Palmieri.
CD2 : The Golden Years Pt1
1/ Estrellas De Fania - Fania All Stars - Fania 1972 F-416
We are now smack in the middle of the New York salsa explosion. It began, some would say, with the historic performance by the Fania All Stars at the Cheetah Club on August 21, 1971. It was a Thursday night - nobody but Fania impresario Jerry Masucci thought that the gig would draw enough of a crowd. But it did. 4,000 people got in (doubling the venue's legal capacity) while dozens of others were left out in the street. "Estrellas de Fania" was the show's opening number that night, displaying the bonhomie that united master soneros such as Adalberto Santiago, Ismael Miranda, Pete 'El Conde' Rodríguez, Santitos Colón, and the inimitable Héctor Lavoe.
2/ Anacaona - Cheo Feliciano - Vaya 1971 V-5
Having performed with Joe Cuba and Eddie Palmieri, Cheo Feliciano succumbed to a heroin addiction that nearly claimed his life. Fortunately, Feliciano has always exhibited a remarkable fortitude of character. The singer retreated to his native Puerto Rico and managed to leave drugs behind him for good. He returned, triumphantly, with the help of songwriter Tite Curet Alonso and a 1971 LP that was simply titled Cheo and had no brass instruments in it - just a solid rhythm section and vibes. "Anacaona" was the opening track. In the story of a native Puerto Rican princess who was captured and raped by Spanish invaders, Feliciano found a vehicle that allowed him to express infinite amounts of rage - but also the sweet vindication of dignity and survival.
3/ Dulce Con Dulce - Johnny Pacheco & Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez - Fania 1971 F-400
While most of his label mates were busy developing the edgy salsa sound of the future, Fania co-founder Johnny Pacheco took a more relaxing stance and looked at the past with nostalgia. It was in Cuba, Pacheco always believed, where the raw materials for this music were to be found. And whereas some of his records relied a bit too heavily on the glories of the past, one listen to "Dulce Con Dulce" will convince you once and forever that Pacheco's típico sound has a simmering swing of its very own. Culled from the 1971 LP Los Compadres - the one with the hilarious cover art that used a western motif to depict Pacheco and singer Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez as best friends and lifelong musical partners.
4/ Agúzate - Ricardo Ray & Bobby Cruz - Vaya 1971 V-1
Released in 1970, the Agúzate LP and its title track found the duo of Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz displaying the quintessential salsa sound that would define all of their classic productions of the decade. The duo's trademark elements are in full bloom here: the melodious combinations of trumpets, Ray's classically influenced piano, as well as a delightful tendency to deliver lengthy tropical epics with baroque arrangements. Three years later, both men would convert to Christianity. Interestingly, their music would lose none of its sensuous fire - the change was limited solely to the lyrical content of their compositions.
5/ La Revolución - Orquesta Harlow - Fania 1972 F-408
One of the main reasons why salsa transcended so clearly the parameters of so-called superficial "dance music" and became one of the most satisfying Latin genres was its ability to incorporate daring messages in its song narratives. As virtuoso keyboardist Larry Harlow was finding his unique groove with the help of young vocalist Ismael Miranda, the two men addressed the turbulent signs of the time by proclaiming their own revolution. Miranda would eventually launch a solo career, and Harlow would continue making great Afro-Cuban records. Sadly, the electricity of the early Orchestra Harlow efforts would never be matched again by either artist.
6/ Salsa y Sabor - Tito Puente - Tico 1972 T-1301
We picked this hot little number from the 1972 LP Para Los Rumberos - but in truth, we could have selected hundreds of other Tito Puente tracks that would be just as good. This observation underscores the fact that Puente continued releasing scores of superlative albums from the beginning of the salsa explosion, throughout its sad end in the hands of the '80s salsa romántica trend. Puente borrowed liberally from the sonic tendencies of the salsa explosion, but maintained an old fashioned touch that was very much his. "Salsa y Sabor" includes tremendous contributions by Charlie Palmieri on organ and Panamanian sonero Meñique on lead vocals (the coristas on this session were none other than Yayo El Indio and Santitos Colón.)
7/ Avísale A Mi Contrario - Roberto Roena - Fania 1973 F-443
Together with Papo Lucca's La Sonora Ponceña, bongosero Roberto Roena and his Apollo Sound represented the most progressive tendencies of Puerto Rican salsa - proving that the music that was made in the island was as exciting and adventurous as its New York counterpart. "Avísale A Mi Contrario" is culled from Roena's breakthrough fifth LP. Released in 1973, it included the mega-hit "Cui Cui" and the funk-meets-salsa gem "Que Se Sepa." Roena was originally a dancer, until bandleader Cortijo discovered him and taught him the basics of percussion. He would later became the official bongosero with the Fania All Stars.
8/ La Lotería - Andy Harlow - Vaya 1972 V-14
The late Jerry Masucci was widely questioned - hated, even - for his business dealings with Fania artists. To his credit, however, he allowed unprecedented creative freedom to his circle of singers and musicians, taking a gamble on a variety of projects without asking any questions. The debut album by flutist Andy Harlow was a clear case of artistic nepotism - the Harlow brand, Larry's production, Ismael Miranda's songs. Interestingly, "La Lotería" became one of the decade's biggest hits.
9/ Pa Bravo Yo – Justo Betancourt - Fania 1972 F-426
Written by Ismael Miranda, "Pa'Bravo Yo" showcased the macho, aggressive elements of hardcore Nuyorican salsa. Fittingly, it was the biggest solo hit by Justo Betancourt, Cuban sonero and former Sonora Matancera vocalist. Notice how the orchestra locks into a groove from the very beginning of the song and never lets up - exemplifying the addictive qualities of a good salsa track. Betancourt experienced acclaim both as a solo artist, and as the singer with bandleaders such as Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto and Johnny Pacheco.
10/ Así Se Compone Un Son – Ismael Miranda – Fania 1973 F-437
The self-penned song that opened Ismael Miranda's first solo record following his separation from Orchestra Harlow became a huge hit, paving the way for a career that still shows no signs of slowing down. Miranda's recipe for composing a solid son combines the Cuban touches that he learned by listening to Larry Harlow's record collection with the supple crooner's stuff that gave him the nickname of el niño bonito de la salsa (salsa's pretty boy.) Miranda's solo opus has stayed away from any revolutionary statements or innovations, but it is remarkably solid and consistent.
11/ La Hija De Lola – Charlie Palmieri – Alegre A 7003
The exquisite discography of Eddie Palmieri's older brother is one of the undiscovered jewels in the Fania crown. Covered by myriad barrio orchestras, "La Hija de Lola" was the only mega-hit in Charlie's career - and it is a wonderful sample of the kind of sound that he favored during the '70s: a jazzy conjunto groove framing the old fashioned vocals of singer Vitín Avilés (a Tito Rodríguez fan.) Much like Eddie Palmieri, Charlie made music that was accessible, blessed with clever lyrics, and displayed his sophisticated knowledge of rhythm and harmony. The orchestral explosion following Charlie's organ solo is one of the most adrenaline-fueled moments in this collection.
12/ Nunca Contigo - Eddie Palmieri – Musical Productions 1990 MPPK-56253
During the mid-'70s, Eddie Palmieri continued doing what he knows best: experimenting. Released in 1975, The Sun of Latin Music flirted openly with the aesthetic of rock'n'roll - quoting The Beatles on "Una Rosa Española" and throwing an electric violin solo that sounded like Mahavishnu Orchestra on "Nada De Ti." He also introduced the voice of a young Puerto Rican crooner by the name of Lalo Rodríguez. Fittingly, this album would win a Grammy award in the newly established category of Latin music. And Palmieri was far from done releasing genre-defying albums: Unfinished Masterpiece, Lucumi, Macumba, Voodoo, and the infamous White Album (aka Eddie Palmieri, 1981) were still to come.
By the time Lo Mato (Si No Compra Este LP) was released in 1973, the relationship between Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe was already strained due to the singer's unpredictable behavior. Colón would soon stop touring with Lavoe, launching a new partnership with Rubén Blades while guiding Héctor as a producer on his excellent solo albums. Still, Lo Mato showcases the combination of Willie and Héctor at its best. A cautionary tale about a Puerto Rican street that should be avoided at all costs because it is infested with criminals, "Calle Luna Calle Sol" was one of the duo's greatest hits - the highlight of an album that also included "El Día De Suerte" and "Todo Tiene Su Final." Lavoe's throaty vocals sound soulful and mature, exhibiting his impeccable timing and wicked sense of humor. The sonics here are warm and rustic, evoking the rich texture of a vintage wine.
14/ Indestructible - Ray Barretto – Fania 1973 F-456
Following the recording of the seminal salsa albums The Message and Que Viva La Musica, Ray Barretto received the hardest blow of his career in 1972, when five of his musicians - including longtime singer Adalberto Santiago and timbalero Orestes Vilató - left his orchestra in order to form Típica 73. Barretto retreated into jazz territory with the LP The Other Road. A few months later, he would return with a new band and the album Indestructible - a message of strength and defiance. Boasting the powerful vocals of Tito Allen, the record's title track would become (in a clear display of poetic justice) one of Barretto's greatest hits.
Together with Johnny Pacheco, Celia Cruz recorded the right album at the right time in 1974. Celia & Johnny was an instant classic, an inspired record overflowing with hits that established Celia once and for all as the indisputable Queen of Salsa. "Químbara" was an obligatory part of the singer's live repertoire right up to her death in 2003. It also marked the phenomenon known as la matancerización de la salsa - Pacheco's loving return to the classic sound of Celia's '50s orchestra, Cuba's Sonora Matancera. The combination of the old Cuban beats with the vibrant New York sensibility of the '70s struck a powerful chord.
CD3 : The Golden Years Pt2
1/ La Cartera - Orchestra Harlow – Fania 1974 F-460
A huge fan of traditional Cuban music, Larry Harlow had a weakness for both the light sound of old fashioned charanga and the more aggressive conjunto groove. Harlow combined both on "La Cartera," a daring cover of a Cuban nugget by one of his favorite composers - Arsenio Rodríguez. Performed by Junior González, it was included in Salsa, one of the indispensable records of the '70s.
2/ Planté Bandera - Tommy Olivencia - Inca 1975 I-1042
Marvin Santiago, Lalo Rodríguez, Frankie Ruiz and Gilberto Santa Rosa are some of the soneros who performed with the venerable orchestra of Tommy Olivencia - an institution of Puerto Rican salsa. Olivencia, who passed away in 2006, favored a no-frills sound with plenty of swing. The title track of a superb 1975 album that was recorded in New York by producer Luis “Perico” Ortiz, "Planté Bandera" was written by Tite Curet Alonso and boasts the unforgettable vocal work of Chamaco Ramírez. One of the many salsa stars who fell prey to a deadly drug addiction, Ramírez passed away in 1983.
3/ Guararé - Ray Barretto - Fania 1975 F-486
For the recording of the 1975 masterpiece Barretto, the Nuyorican conguero assembled what was arguably the most intriguing lineup of his career: his lead vocalists were none other than former Sonora Ponceña member Tito Gómez and a young Rubén Blades. A few years before becoming a star salsero on his own right, Blades contributed the epic closing track "Canto Abacuá." In the '80s, Puerto Rico's Gómez (who passed away in 2007,) would enjoy renewed fame by recording with Grupo Niche - Jairo Varela's premier Colombian ensemble. The combination of Gómez's rugged soneos with Blades' troubadour sensibility made Barretto shine.
Together with "El Cantante," "Periódico de Ayer" demonstrates why Héctor Lavoe was the most transcendental vocalist in the history of this music. Written by Tite Curet Alonso and produced by Willie Colón with the visionary addition of a string ensemble, this timeless anthem from the 1976 LP De Ti Depende has everything you could expect from an Afro-Caribbean tune - and then some. The strings are mournful and majestic. Héctor's performance is filled with warmth and the kind of emotional pathos that separates a good singer from an immortal legend. You can dance to "Periódico De Ayer" if you want - it has plenty of swing in it, of course - but this seven-minute masterpiece is so gorgeous that it takes your breath away, no matter how many times you listen to it.
5/ Sonaremos El Tambor - Típica'73 - Inca 1976 I-1051
A mysterioso piano intro gives way to a simmering jam by Típica 73 - one of the most revered tropical bands to come out of New York. From the 1976 album Rumba Caliente, with Tito Allen as lead vocalist and Alfredo De La Fe on violin, Típica 73 was the first New York band that dared to go back to the roots of Afro-Caribbean music by recording an album in Cuba. The musicians paid a dear price for this artistic decision, since they were blacklisted by radio stations and club owners upon their return to the U.S. - a situation that led to the eventual breakup of the band.
6/ Catalina La O – Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez - Fania 1976 F-489
During the '70s, most lead singers were quick to abandon the salsa orchestras that made them famous for the questionable benefits of a solo career. Most splits were acrimonious - which was definitely not the case with Puerto Rican sonero Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez and his compadre Johnny Pacheco. The two men continued recording together throughout the decades - and Pacheco was always supportive of El Conde's solo efforts. With its rootsy típico sound, "Catalina La O" could, in fact, belong to a Pacheco album in style and spirit.
7/ Mi Desengaño – Roberto Roena -International 1976 INT-907
An irresistible tune by a Puerto Rican bandleader at the absolute peak of his career, "Mi Desengaño" shows the extent of Roberto Roena's stylistic innovations. Yes, he was criticized for his lack of academic training. But he silenced his detractors with his artistic openness and omnivorous musical taste, by mixing traditional salsa with elements of funk, rock'n'roll and most importantly, Brazilian music. In this song, the carefully orchestrated collision of Afro-Cuban rhythm and a supple samba interlude is just gorgeous.
8/ Boranda -Sonora Ponceña - Inca 1977 I-1054
Conquista Musical (1976) and El Gigante Del Sur (1977) are probably the most important albums in the lengthy discography of Papo Lucca's Sonora Ponceña. This is progressive salsa of the highest order, taking the genre into unsuspected levels of poetry and imagination. The opening track of El Gigante, "Boranda" is an epic adaptation of a sweet Brazilian tune, turned into an apocalyptic message of ecological disaster. Everything about this seven minute-long workout is spot on: the rugged voice of Luigi Texidor; the vocal scatting of bandleader Papo Lucca; and of course, an electric piano solo for the ages that takes us into a swirling climax of salsa bliss.
Until the late '70s, salsa had all the elements to qualify as a transcendental music genre - except for one: it was still missing the intellectual prowess of a lyricist who could act as a poet and philosopher at the same time. The appearance of Rubén Blades with the albums Metiendo Mano, Siembra and Maestra Vida quickly filled this void. "Plástico" was the opening track of Siembra, which for a long time was the best selling album in the history of salsa. The dazzling production concepts of Willie Colón helped, of course, as well as the unique vocal qualities of Rubén, and his melodic genius. But it was the lyrics of songs like this one, "Pedro Navaja" and "Tiburón" that changed Latin music forever, evoking the sensitivity of literary giants like Silvio Rodríguez and Joan Manuel Serrat. Finally, can you listen to that disco intro and not marvel at Rubén's satirical edge?
10/ Me Tienes Loco - Ismael Rivera - Tico 1980 T-1437
A salsa outsider would probably consider this to be a somewhat plain Afro-Caribbean song. Such was the elusive artistry of Ismael Rivera. If you are not yet aware of Maelo's understated magic, listen carefully and you will discover an entirely new definition of what swing is all about. The man's soulful persona and humble origins can be heard in every single syllable, every subtle inflection of his voice. From Maelo, released in 1980. Sadly, it was to be his last album.
11/ Canción De Las Canciones - Roberto Roena - Fania 1980 F-557
By the time that he released Que Suerte He Tenido De Nacer in 1980, Roberto Roena's sonic confections had become increasingly sophisticated. The beats were now velvety and supple more often than not - the brass perfected a seductive combination of trumpets, flute and saxophone. Some of the songs, in fact, have the same silky feeling to them that would define the entire salsa romántica sub-genre during the '80s. Instinctively, Roena had anticipated this trend by abandoning the hardcore spirit of salsa's heyday in favor of a more global sound.
Don't let the histrionic string arrangement scare you. As an artist, Willie Colón was a man of extremes - and when he decided to go into salsa romántica mode for the 1981 LP Fantasmas, the results were decidedly over the top. Willie's warm delivery and spoken word interludes get to the heart of the romántica aesthetic. Unfortunately, this particular trend did not age as well as the hard salsa of the past. But this self-penned tune still swings, and the operatic finale, with its space-rock effects, is hard to forget.
13/ Siempre Será - Lebrón Brothers - Cotique 1982 C-1106
The Lebrón Brothers were the ultimate barrio orchestra, a family affair that delivered a solid discography of hits and down-to-earth salsa. This cut from the 1982 album Criollo is a good example of the group's consistent level of excellence and tropical bravado.
14/ La Fama - Héctor Lavoe - Fania 1986 F-634
Leave it to Héctor Lavoe to write a poignant song about the dangerous contradictions of fame. Would it be unfair to blame the New York salsa explosion of the '70s for swallowing this great singer alive and creating the tragic archetype that he became? Probably not. Lavoe died of complications resulting from the AIDS virus in 1993. He was only 46. Even though his last few albums are uneven, no collection of tropical music is complete with the addition of his entire opus.
CD4 : Salsa Moderna
1/ Yo No Soy Juguete - Ismael Miranda – Fania 1986 F-641
Una Nueva Vision
Many of the artists who blossomed during the salsa explosion of the '70s had a difficult time adjusting to the realities of the following decades. This was not the case with Ismael Miranda. In the heyday of his popularity, el niño bonito had already retreated to Puerto Rico, where he surrounded himself with a solid team of professionals and proceeded to take control of his solo career. Without sacrificing the unique qualities of his style, Miranda rode the salsa romántica wave and continued selling records as tropical music returned to a harder sound in the new millennium. This is the opening track from the 1985 release Una Nueva Visión.
2/ Me Voy Pa' Morón – Fania All Stars – Fania 1986 F-640
Viva La Charanga
The later studio releases by the Fania All Stars were uneven affairs. That said, there was a rustic, unpretentious charm to Viva La Charanga and its surprising celebration of the old fashioned Cuban format that made Orquesta Aragón famous. It was customary for Héctor Lavoe to present the most compelling tracks in the collective's albums - his raucous interpretation of the Cuban oldie "Me Voy Pa' Morón" is no exception.
3/ Sola Vaya - Sonora Ponceña – Inca 1987 I-1083
Back To Work
This 1987 cut from the Back To Work LP occupies a special place in this disc of modern salsa. It demonstrates that Sonora Ponceña continues to be one of the most vital and inventive tropical orchestras to be found anywhere, anytime. The credit goes to the (relatively) underrated genius of bandleader Papo Lucca, whose velvety piano solos bring Latin music close to Bill Evans territory. La Ponceña never made a bad record, and Lucca is seemingly inexhaustible when it comes to dreaming up refreshing new concepts.
4/ Ritmo En El Corazón - Celia Cruz / Ray Barretto – Fania 1988 F-651
Ritmo En El Corazón
The recipient of a Grammy award in 1990, Ritmo En El Corazón was recorded during the very last days of the Fania heyday - it is, in fact, one of the last albums that shines with the same kind of majestic feeling that defines the label's classic sessions. By the late '80s, Celia Cruz was getting ready to embark on the next phase of her career, favoring a poppier sound and experimenting with new formats. Barretto was also in transition. He would eventually abandon the world of salsa and devote himself to Latin jazz. This electrifying track delivers a swan song of sorts to the tropical glories of the past.
5/ Ven Devórame Otra Vez - Lalo Rodríguez – Top Hits TH-2582
Un Nuevo Despertar
When Lalo Rodríguez sang the immortal words "he mojado mis sábanas blancas recordándote," it was quite evident that something had changed in the landscape of Afro-Caribbean music. No genre can remain unchanged, and the hardcore brand of salsa that reigned supreme from the late '60s to the early '80s experienced a decline in popularity, confronted as it was with Dominican merengue and the advent of syrupy Latin pop. And yet, the tepid brand of salsa romántica - a combination of watered-down tropical formats with pop - elevated salsa to unsuspected levels of popularity. The (mercifully) short lived sub-genre of salsa erótica found its biggest hit in this one-of-a-kind narrative. Detractors called it salsa monga (flaccid salsa) and waited patiently for its demise.
6/ La Cura - Frankie Ruiz – Top Hits TH-2368
Nacimiento Y Recuerdos
Not all was lost in tropical music during the '80s. The romántica movement gave birth to a number of performers who combined the trend of the moment with the harder edge of traditional salsa. Frankie Ruiz was perhaps the most authentic sonero of his generation. Even though he flirted with a more accessible sound, Ruiz boasted the impeccable timing and relentless swing of vintage Puerto Rican salsa. He performed with La Solución and Tommy Olivencia before reaching his artistic peak as a solo artist. Sadly, Ruiz succumbed in 1998 to a long standing addiction to drugs and alcohol. He was 40 years old, and will forever be remembered as one of salsa' most explosive vocalists.
7/ Detalles - Oscar D'León – Top Hits TH-2855
The New York salsa movement of the '60s and '70s had a profound effect on the development of popular music in Colombia, Peru and Venezuela - resulting in the creation of exciting local outfits who added their own flavor to the genre. The most important Afro-Caribbean artist ever to emerge from Venezuela, Oscar D'León is a bass player, composer and brilliant sonero with an undying passion for the roots of Cuban music. D'León covered classic nuggets of tropical music like Orquesta Aragón's "Calculadora" and Sonora Matancera's "Melao De Caña" with such bravado, that his versions became more popular than the original recordings. Written by the singer himself, "Detalles" is typical of D'León's buoyant energy and unbelievable swing.
8/ Mi Primera Rumba - India / Eddie Palmieri – Soho S-80864
Llegó La India Via Eddie Palmieri
Puerto Rican vocalist La India (Linda Viera Caballero) was only 22 years old when Eddie Palmieri took her under his wing and produced the first - and best - album of her career. La India's instantly recognizable vocal qualities, and the complete abandon with which she performs even the most pedestrian of Afro-Cuban compositions made her one of the most exciting new appearances in '90s salsa. A volcanic concert performer, she shines here, framed by Palmieri's aggressive arrangement.
9/ No Vale La Pena - Johnny Rivera / Ray Sepúlveda – Ralph Mercado Martinez RMM-81126
An endearing time capsule of '90s salsa, this duet between soneros Johnny Rivera and Ray Sepúlveda has become a tropical staple that continues attracting couples to the dancefloor in the new millennium. In 1993, salsa promoter Ralph Mercado and his RMM label brought together the last classic assembly of an all-star collective - never again would a show and/or recording bring together so many seminal musicians from the old and new generations combined. Some of the pairings were particularly inspired (Celia Cruz and Oscar D'León performing a flowery duet singing praise to each other.) "No Vale La Pena" showcases the nimble arrangement and tasty piano lines that are the trademark of notable producer/musical director Sergio George.
10/ Vivir Lo Nuestro - Marc Anthony / La India – Ralph Mercado Martinez RMM-81126
Dicen Que Soy
Before the crossover success of "I Need To Know" and the marriage to J-Lo, Marc Anthony experienced his first taste of success through this smoldering romántica duet with La India. Mixing the sheer melodrama of over-the-top Latin balladry with a sly salsa arrangement, "Vivir Lo Nuestro" has passion to spare.
11/ Nadie Como Ella - Marc Anthony – Ralph Mercado Martinez RMM-81582
Todo A Su Tiempo
The urgent crooning of Marc Anthony is not for all tastes - but this Nuyorican's contributions to tropical music should not be underestimated. Emerging timidly as a promising figure in the roster of salsa powerhouse label RMM during the early '90s, Marc Anthony eventually became the genre's most widely popular singer. To his credit, he has developed parallel careers in both tropical music and mainstream pop, being careful not to dilute the power of his salsa tracks. A fan of Rubén Blades and Héctor Lavoe (whom he personified in the controversial movie El Cantante,) Anthony has a keen understanding of authentic Afro-Caribbean dynamics - he is a real sonero. "Nadie Como Ella" is one of the rootsiest salsa cuts he has ever recorded.
12/ Prefiero Ser Rumbero - Puerto Rican All Stars / Víctor Manuelle – Ralph Mercado Martinez RMM-81667
The quintessential salsero from the new millennium, Víctor Manuelle has learned from both salsa dura and salsa romántica - combining both to his artistic and commercial advantage. A music connoisseur who began his career as a singer with Don Perignon's prestigious La Puertorriqueña Orchestra, Manuelle has invited Eddie Palmieri to record with him, and strives to maintain a hard swing in his music. At the same time, he consciously flirts with pop so as to attract a younger generation of Latinos to the music that he loves so much. This breathless tune recorded with the excellent Puerto Rican All Stars combo showcases Manuelle at his best.
13/ A La Hora Que Me Llamen Voy - José Alberto “El Canario” – Ralph Mercado Martinez RMM-83008
Born in the Dominican Republic, José Alberto “El Canario” gained fame as the lead vocalist with New York's Típica 73. His potent vocal qualities and rapid fire soneos guaranteed a certain authenticity of purpose that marked his solo career - which began during the romántica era. El Canario's extensive discography is reliable to a fault, and his live performances provide an example of impeccable showmanship. Released in 1995, "A La Hora Que Me Llamen" is one of his most attractive hits.
14/ Aquí El Que Baila Gana - Fania All Stars – Fania 1997 F-711
The last studio effort by the Fania All Stars was a misguided attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Cuban salsa - also known as timba - in the late '90s. Infatuated with the funky sound of the excellent Cuban group Los Van Van, Fania impresario Jerry Masucci convinced a doubtful Johnny Pacheco to act as musical director on an album of covers. Even though it included stars of the caliber of Celia Cruz, Adalberto Santiago and Larry Harlow, the end result sounds disjointed and somewhat confused. Still, there are elements to enjoy here - the throaty soneos of Andy Montañez and the brief piano flourishes of Papo Lucca.
15/ Por Mujeres Como Tú - Tito Rojas – Musical Productions MP-56250
Alegrias Y Penas
Known affectionately as El Gallo (the rooster), boricua singer Tito Rojas began his career performing with Justo Betancourt's Borincuba and with successful group Puerto Rican Power. He went solo in 1990 and quickly became a salsa institution thanks to a careful choice of repertoire and the idiosyncratic qualities of his raspy voice. Notice how this tune begins with a romantic nod to Mexican ranchera, only to pick up speed and take us back to the comforting swing of traditional salsa.
The world of Afro-Caribbean music is a rich tapestry overflowing with shades, colors and textures. Believe it or not, this box set is only the tip of the iceberg. Discovering tropical gems from the past, present and future is one of life's greatest pleasures. We hope you enjoy the journey.