Los Angeles, California, from May 25 to 28, 2006
I have been extremely lucky to be able to attend six of the seven West Coast Salsa Congresses, and all of them have been profoundly gratifying. Thanks to Albert Torres –—salsa’s number one promoter— enormous effort, I have enjoyed some of the best music, by some of the best bands in the afrocaribbean realm.
This year has been no exception. This year the feeling has been more than gratifying; it goes above that – call it celestial, if you will. The music in this congress featured some of the performers that I have admired since I first began loving the drums. In a way, I can say that I have seasoned or musically aged with them. They did so as musicians and yours truly as a fan. That is what I felt being on the same stage with them, taking their pictures while they gave their very best. I especially felt that way with the Tito Puente Band and Típica 73. Seeing most of the same talents for three nights in a row, with different bands, and yet with different sounds, not only made me nostalgic for the New York from yesteryear, but also about the present state of salsa music and the caliber of the new generation of musicians. Could these young lions do what these old timers did in their prime time? I don’t think so. They – with few exceptions -- will read the charts, play their instruments, and do their thing, but they won’t have the passion, feeling and creativity. Maybe for this reason I feel that I have matured with these guys. I have seen and listened to the generational change in our music, and these are the names that I will remember, as I enjoyed their talents during this congress: Mario Rivera, John “Dandy” Rodríguez, Bobby Porcelli, Orestes Vilató, José Madera, Luis “Perico” Ortiz, Lewis Kahn, Adalberto Santiago, Reynaldo Jorge, Nicky Marrero, Alfredo de La Fe, Sonny Bravo, Camilo Azuquita, Tito Allen, Artie Webb…
But, in addition to the great music, there were other activities that occurred at salsa’s best party in the globe, which took place in Los Angeles, California, from May 25 to 28, 2006, at the world famous Hollywood Park and Casino. There were the workshops, with some of the best dancing instructors available, who catered to all the dancers that came from around the world.
Albert Torres –—salsa’s number one promoter
And then, of course, there were the dancing competitions, which attracted so many dancers, representing over fifty countries, and several cities from the United States. It is always amazing to see how the gigantic tent, in which the competitions take place, gets filled to capacity. Salsa dancing has its magic and these competitions are solid evidence of this. The approximately 14,300 salsa fans that attended this huge party are witnesses to this, too.
All the abovementioned events took place at the legendary Salsaland, a city that Albert Torres builds every year for the congress. This impressive metropolis includes two solid, gigantic, and majestic tents: one for the dancing competition and the other for the presentation of the salsa bands. In addition, there were several tents for other activities, such as retail of dancing gear, DVDs and CDs, restaurants, and for dancing practice.
Finally, and of significance, too, was the Musician’s Seminar, now going into its third successful year. It is from this seminar that some of the best students, as well as the instructors, are selected to perform the opening night of the congress, with the very exclusive and exciting Musician’s Seminar Band. This year, some of the instructors were Oscar Hernández (piano), Chino Núñez (timbales), Eddie Resto (bass), Mitch Frohman (Sax), Artie Webb (flute), Johnny Polanco (tres, cuatro), John Walsh (trumpet), Joey De León (congas), Ray de la Paz (vocals), and Willie Torres (vocals)
In the following paragraphs, I describe what I saw and lived during these four exciting nights of great music – by far, my favorite part of the congress.
Oscar Hernandez directing Musician's Seminar Band (MSB)
Thursday, May 25
(L) Oscar Hernandez directing Musician's Seminar Band and (R) Ray de la Paz, Carlos Cascante, Willie Torres con MSB
As it has been the tradition for the last two years, the first act to take the stage was the Musician’s Seminar Band, which is comprised of the best students that were enrolled in the musician’s seminar that took place the days preceding the main events. And what a show it was! The quality of this band definitely increases through time, and every year is better than the previous.
Chino Nuñez (timbales) with MSB
Under the experienced direction of salsa veteran pianist Oscar Hernández, this wonderful ensemble opened with the classic “Cuando te Vea,” re-popularized recently by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. In this tune, John Walsh delivered a fiery trumpet solo. The next song was “Como lo canto yo,” which was marvelously interpreted by Costa Rican singer Carlos Cascante. The chachacha “Pa’ Gozar” was next, followed by “Que le den Candela” and “Mama Guela.” In addition to Walsh and Hernández, some of the other instructors that provided support to the students were Chino Núñez (timbales), Artie Webb (flute), and singers Ray de La Paz and Willie Torres, from the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.
The New Swing Sextet
The next band sincerely took me by surprise. It really did, and I know that I was not the only one. When Albert Torres announced that the New Swing Sextet was participating in the congress, I thought that it was a mistake. After all, this group was popular in the late sixties and early seventies, and then faded out. However, Albert assured me that the band has been steadily playing, and that he saw them live recently in New York. He said that they really impressed him. But still…
(R)Cheo Medina (NSS, singer), and Varlos Cascante with Willie Torres (guest singers)
However, what was my surprise when these fellows took the stage! Man, was I wrong! The New Swing Sextet really jammed, with a powerful sound, guided by Jorge Rodríguez and his vibraphone. Rodríguez, by the way, happened to be the only member from the original group.
Jorge Rodriguez, leader, New Swing Sextet (NSS)
They splendidly opened their set with “De qué te quejas mi papá,” with great vocals by Cheo Medina, and where veteran flutist Artie Webb immediately joined the band. They followed with “Maria Cervantes,” an exquisite and classic instrumental tune. Next, they delivered another hit from the boogaloo years, “Bang Bang,” which brought back cheerful memories from some old-timers in the audience. But let me tell you: the sound was as fresh as ever. The fun continued with the exciting “Cachondea,” in which singers Willie Torres and Ray de La Paz (Spanish Harlem Orchestra), and Carlos Cascante (Expresión Latina) went onstage and joined the boys. The energy level was kept alive with “My Favorite Things,” ”Tú me rompiste bongo,” “I like it like that,” “Ariñañara” (where Torres and Cascante joined Cheo on the vocals), “The Continental,” “Vete Pa’alla,” and “Son Sabrosón.” The fiery performance by the New Swing Sextet ended appropriately with “La Rumba se acabó,” with Cheo and Willie Torres singing — one monster of a tune, with a powerful descarga. This, definitely, was the perfect act to open the congress!
The band was composed of Jorge Rodriguez (leader, vibes), Angel Justiniano (conga, vocal), Harry Justiniano (bass), Héctor Ortiz (timbales), Conal Fowkes (piano), Carlo López (bongo) and Cheo Medina (vocals).
Friday, May 26
Two words define this second night of the congress: energy and elegance.
Martin Padilla (vocals)
The energy was surely displayed by California’s dynamic Orquesta Tabaco y Ron, one of the favorites in the dancing circuit. This band truly reflects that, through their recordings and live presentations. So they were the perfect choice to represent local talent, as well as the opening act to the Tito Puente Orchestra.
The boys went right to the point with their successful “Te lo dije,” where singer extraordinaire Martin Padilla immediately marked his territory with his soneos. The band successfully featured material from their most recent CD, including “Tumbando Cabeza,” “Diablo,” “Herencia Rumbera,” “Avísale a mi Contrario” (sang by Braulio Barrera), “Parece Mentira,” “Vaso en Colores,” and “Guajira.”
Orquesta Tabaco y Ron
The members of the band were: Martin Padilla (vocals), Héctor Manuel Rivera (Musical Director, piano), Henry Cabrera (timbales), Geraldo Rivera (conga), Jaime Cubarrubia (bass), Tony Solis (trombone), Humberto Ruiz (trombone), Jonathan Bradley (trumpet), Steve Giraldo (trumpet), Braulio Barrera (bongo), and Jaime Caicedo (vocals).
Tito Puente Orchestra
The closing and main act of the night was the elegant Tito Puente Orchestra, minus Tito Puente. And yes, before the band’s presentation, I was asking myself, “How can there be a Tito Puente Orchestra, without Puente himself?” Sure, it was announced with enough anticipation that the band was comprised of its original surviving members, which sort of guaranteed some degree of quality. And, as the previous night, I was wrong again! This night turned out to be awesome, elegant and classy!
Bobby Porcelli and Mario Rivera
Mitch Frohman, Bobby Porcelli and Mario Rivera
Under the direction of percussionist José Madera, the band shined like the old times. In addition to the original surviving members of Puente’s Orchestra, like Madera (timbales), Sonny Bravo (piano), Bobby Porcelli (alto sax), Mitch Frohman (sax), and John “Dandy” Rodríguez (bongo), the rest of the musicians were top guns, featuring Mario Rivera (sax), Kevin Bryan (trumpet), John Walsh (trumpet), Lewis Kahn (trombone), Reynaldo Jorge (trombone), George Delgado (conga), Jerry Madera (bass), Frankie Morales (vocals), and George Balmaseda (coro). Of course, the band would not be complete without the Puente link, in this case well represented by timbaleros Tito Puente Jr. and Ronny Puente. In addition, there was the one and only Alfredo de La Fe on violin.
Lewis Kahn, Alfredo de La Fe and John "Dandy" Rodríguez
This magnificent ensemble opened with the instrumental classic “Dancemania,” where the boys announced that they meant business, and that all salsa monga lovers and reggaetoneros should go home. Here, the band blew the house away with energetic moñas or brass jamming. They followed with the beautiful “Déjame Soñar,” which was originally sung by Tony Vega. This time, the vocals were appropriately in charge of Frankie Morales. The heat went on with a tune called “New Guaguancó,” showcasing a marvelous violin duel between Alfredo de La Fe and Lewis Kahn – both Fania All Stars --, that was surely one of the highlights of the evening. We were really lucky to witness this musical confrontation between these two giants of our music. Next, they performed “Bababatiri,” another Puente classic, in which Tito Puente Jr. took the helm at the timbales, and where we enjoyed a fiery battle of trombones, between Reynaldo Jorge and Lewis Kahn. Kahn really sweated his money that night! The chachacha “Cayuco” continued, slowing things down, and giving dancers a break. Morales returned next, singing “Juventud del Presente,” followed by the infectious “El Agua Limpia Todo,” a classic penned by Francisco Aguabella, featuring Ronald Puente on timbales. Ronald stayed for the next song, the bolero “Hoy miré tus ojos,” in which he played the vibes, with vocals by Morales, who also sang the following tune, the spicy and popular “Complicación.” Alfredo de La Fe went onstage again for “Ban Ban Quere.” As expected, the set adequately ended with the very popular “Oye Como Va,” featuring both Puente siblings and invited guest, bassist Eddie Resto. In addition, a Japanese lady, who was part of the Musician’s Seminar Band, was also invited to play the timbales. I guarantee you that she will never forget this evening.
Tito Puente Jr., Ronald Puente and Jose Madera
The music that we enjoyed this unforgettable night shall live forever. God bless the big bands and long life to them. The legacy of Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez and Machito lives on with these fabulous musicians.
Saturday, May 27
This is the night that I have been waiting for. Hell, this is the night that any true salsero has been waiting for. It is not everyday that you get to see the legendary Típica 73 performing. There has been – justifiably so -- high expectations for this engagement. This is one of the seminal bands in New York’s salsa history, and anytime that they reunite, is geared to be of historical proportions.
Roosevelt Cordova (vocals) and Johnny Polanco (leader, trombone) and Papo Rodriguez (timbales)
The evening began with the participation of Los Angeles’ unique Johnny Polanco y el Conjunto Amistad. Being Albert Torres’ adopted kids, it was the expected choice to open for Típica 73. And they never disappoint. These fellows play salsa dura at its best.
Johnny Polanco with his bones, Manny Silvera (bass) and Artie Webb (flute)
“Pa’ Colombia,” popularized some years ago by Oscar D’León, was the tune that Polanco chose to open his energetic set. He followed with “La Receta,” “Palo Pa’ Rumba,” “Oriente,” “El Callejero,” “Envenenao,” “Vine pa’ echar Candela,” “Chango ta veni,” and closed with the classic “Fuego en el ’23.” As usual, Polanco played non-stop salsa, and I’m eager to hear his upcoming CD, which will feature Israel “Cachao” López, Camilo Azuquita, Frankie Vázquez, and many others.
Polanco’s band was comprised of Johnny Polanco (trombone, tres, vibes), Art Webb (flute), Manny Silvera (bass), Papo Rodríguez (timbales), Anthony Gil (sax), Bill Lamb (trumpet), Joe Motter (trumpet), Steve Johnson (trombone), Erich Marbach (trombone), Fabian Otero (piano), Leo Perez (bongo), Eddie Ríos (conga), and newcomer Roosevelt Córdova, a great talent from Perú, on the vocals.
Sonny Bravo (piano, leader) and Jerry Madera (bass), George Delgado
A little after midnight, the musicians of Típica 73 began going onstage. Here they were, at last, ready to give us a blast from the past. The faces and names were familiar to some of us. Past members from all The Típica 73 reincarnations were present: Adalberto Santiago (vocals), Camilo Azuquita (vocals), Tito Allen (vocals), Sonny Bravo (piano, leader), Orestes Vilató (timbales), Nicky Marrero (timbales), John “Dandy” Rodriguez (bongo), Nelson González (tres), José Grajales (conga), Alfredo de La Fe (violin), Mario Rivera (sax, flute), and Leopoldo Pineda (trombone). In addition, and to reinforce the original member’s lineup, some great talents came on board for this grandiose presentation: John Walsh (trumpet), Jerry Madera (bass), George Delgado (congas), Mitch Frohman (sax), George Balmaseda (chorus), José Madera (chorus), and Kevin Bryan (trumpet). As you probably noticed, some musicians from the Tito Puente orchestra, who played the previous evening, were again part of the band: Sonny Bravo, John “Dandy” Rodríguez, Alfredo de La Fe, Mitch Frohman, John Walsh, José Madera, George Delgado, George Balmaseda, and Kevin Bryan.
Adalberto Santiago, Camilo Azuquita and Tito Allen
The legendary and quite powerful band played their tunes in historical order, according to the singer of each stage in the life of Tipica 73. The first vocalist, of course, had to be the experienced Adalberto Santiago, founding member of the ensemble. To my total surprise and delight, they started with Marcelino Guerra’s “Así no se quiere a Nadie,” my favorite from the band’s early years. He continued his set with hits like “Mañono,” “No Volveré,” and “Canuto.” Santiago’s last tune was the riveting “La Candela,” where Orestes Vilató delivered a masterful and mesmerizing solo of timbales. I had seen Orestes with Cachao some years ago, and his solo didn’t impress me. At that time, I thought that his best days were over. But, my God, this particular night he hit those timbales like the best that he is, at least in my book. I have been lucky to see many great timbaleros jamming throughout the years, but only two stick to mind: Jimmy Delgado with Ray Barretto in a past congress, and this one that I just witnessed from Vilató. Words do not suffice to describe what I lived and felt that moment. It will stay with me forever.
Orestes Vilató (timbales)
Tito Allen, one of the best singers from the Fania lot, and certainly one of the most underrated ones, followed Santiago’s steps. Although he is one of my favorite vocalists, I didn’t enjoy too much his years with Típica 73. I feel that he was never given great material to work with, as with his recordings with the Fania label itself. With him in the vocals, the band tried to keep the momentum created by “La Candela,” and played “Sonaremos el Tambo,” which featured a captivating conga solo by José Grajales, with the support on the timbales by Nicky Marrero, who replaced Vilató. Allen followed with “Pare Cochero,” and ended with “Guaguancó de los Violentos.”
Nicky Marrero (timbales) and Nelson González (tres)
The next featured singer was Panamanian Camilo Azuquita, who began with “Tumba Tumbador.” But the energy really came back with Rudy Calzado’s spicy “La Botija de Abuelito,” featuring great work by Alfredo de La Fe and his magical violin. Azuquita concluded his participation with the classic “Xiomara,” where his daughter Janet joined him for some dancing together. His set was followed with “Descarga 73,” where Adalberto Santiago and Tito Allen returned onstage for the grand finale. And what a finale it was, with Orestes Vilató and Nicky Marrero on a battle of timbales, which I believe Orestes won easily. Nicky looked sluggish at times, and it didn’t help that he had a multi-drum set, compared with Vilató, who only had the standard two-drum set. Nevertheless, it was great to see these two master timbaleros together, in one stage. History at its best!
Sunday, May 28
Sunday was the last day of scheduled band performances, the highlight being the presentation of the Puerto Rican Masters, featuring Carlos Enrique Estremera Colón, known to salsa fans as Cano Estremera, and under the musical direction of salsa icon Luis “Perico” Ortiz.
Chino Espinoza y Los Dueños del Son
The evening began with Los Angeles’ own Chino Espinoza y Los Dueños del Son, who delivered an electrifying set, starting with “Pura Vida,” which happens to be the title of their recently released CD. Their performance also included “Mi Viejo,” “El Cuarto de Tula,” “Dale Duro,” “Héctor Lavoe Medley,” successfully closing with the classic “Xiomara.” This band definitely helped to spice things up for the next act, the powerful Puerto Rican Masters.
Los Dueños del Son were: Chino Espinoza (vocals), Walter Diaz (piano), Georgie Lopez (bass), Ramses Araya (from Editus, congas), César Espinoza (timbales), Héctor Víctor Varela (bongos), and a five-trombone lineup comprised of Humberto Ruiz, Kerry Loeschen, Ben McKintosh, Nat McKintosh, and John Hein.
Adalberto Santiago, Luis "Perico" Ortiz, Reynaldo Jorge, Lewis Kahn and John "Dandy" Rodriguez
When the Puerto Rican Masters (PRM) arrived to the stage, I quickly realized that this was a different version of the popular band; it was their Newyorican version -- a wise move by Albert Torres, who used some of the musicians from the previous days and bands, and formed his own PRM, resulting in a powerful, experienced group of musicians: The Newyorican Masters. Check this privileged group out: Luis “Perico” Ortiz (leader, trumpet), Lewis Kahn (trombone), Reynaldo Jorge (trombone), Bobby Porcelli (sax), Mitch Frohman (sax), George Delgado (conga), Jim Rotondi (excellent pianist from Los Angeles), José Madera (timbales), John “Dandy” Rodríguez (bongo), Jerry Madera (bass), Kevin Bryan (trumpet), John Walsh (trumpet), Cano Estremera (vocals), Adalberto Santiago (vocals), and Frankie Morales (vocals).
Cano Estremara and Frankie Morales
“La Boda de ella,” which Cano sang when he was a vocalist with the Bobby Valentin Orchestra years ago, and not a favorite of yours truly, started the set. He continued with “El Negrito de la Ciudad,” making the public very happy. Estremera, who has an enormous amount of charisma and talent, made use on occasion of his profanity-charged soneos, which one has to be very attentive to catch up. It was fun to me to watch Reynaldo Jorge laughing every time that Cano used his very especial way of singing and his particular use of the Spanish language. Cano then proceeded to sing “Al son de la lata,” my least favorite tune of the late Marvin Santiago repertoire, where Alfredo de la Fe went onstage and went mano a mano with his violin against Perico’s delightful trumpet. Things slowed down with a medley of Rolando La Serie boleros, which surprised me; it’s rare at these shows for the bands to play boleros or ballads. Estremera finished his explosive and crowd-pleasing participation with the popular “Cúcala.”
Cano Estremera, Luis "Perico" Ortiz and Alfredo de La Fe
Luis "Perico" Ortiz, Cano Estremara and Adalberto Santiago
An excellent rendition of Tito Puente’s “El Rey del Timbal,” where José Madera delivered a rare, academic, and old-school timbales solo, served as intermission before Fania-All Star Adalberto Santiago went onstage. Santiago went right to the point with “Nadie se salva de la rumba,” which he recorded years ago with the late Celia Cruz and the also recently departed Ray Barretto. Here, George Delgado scorched his congas real good. Adalberto continued with his rendition of “Fuego a la Jicotea,” one of Marvin Santiago’s most popular songs, showcasing a powerful trombone jam (moña) by Fania All-Stars veterans Reynaldo Jorge and Lewis Kahn. Santiago concluded his set with “Quítate la Máscara,” his unforgettable hit with Ray Barretto. He was joined by Alfredo de La Fe and a young Japanese lady who was given the opportunity to do a solo of timbales. The energy generated with this tune, heated up the stage for Cano Estremera, who returned for the conclusion of this very special presentation, where the band played a comparsa, and the brass jammed full blast.
And the comparsa was a great, exciting and happy way to close the 8th Annual West Coast Salsa Congress. At this point, most of us were very tired of these four days of the best that salsa music has to offer, thanks to the effort of promoter extraordinaire Albert Torres.
I have to conclude this congress felt strange and special at the same time. As I mentioned before, of the four major acts that played in the congress, three had many musicians in common – great musicians, I shall say; it was a privilege seeing them. With such arrangement of personnel, you might expect almost the same or similar sound each night. But that was not the case. During the Puerto Rican Masters show, Alfredito de La Fe approached me, and said, “Isn’t this great? You have basically the same musicians every night, yet each band has its own sound.” And he was right: Tito Puente Orchestra had that classical sound and Tipica 73 also had its own personality. Same can be said about the Puerto Rican Masters, which really has a standard sound, used by most bands these days. The result, I must say, was very satisfying.
As for Albert, I remember the night that he told me, close to my ears, “Am I making your dreams come true?” Well, I have to say that he made my dreams – salsa speaking – come true a long time ago. We, in Los Angeles, have seen every band of significance in recent years thanks to him. Nobody else would have been capable of doing so. So, right now, every moment is a bonus. What else is there? Well, maybe if we could see the Lebrón Brothers or Raphy Leavitt y La Selecta… Every salsero should see Sammy Marrero singing in his lifetime.
So, that’s it for now. Next year I’m told that la Sonora Ponceña is one of the acts in consideration. I’m also told that the event is going to be held in a smaller venue, the attendance being limited to only 2,500 persons. This means that, if you are reading this, and are planning to attend, you have an early warning. Until then, we shall patiently wait, always keeping in mind that, whatever Albert brings in the future, is definitely a class act. Take my word on that.
The Security A Team
My gratitude to Albert Torres for letting us participate in this congress. His success is our success. I am also grateful to Cynthia Semon, publicist extraordinaire, for always being the best. Thank you to Albert Torres’ Productions staff, for all they do: Fernando “El Samurai” Barrera, David Burke (Big Boy # 1), Brian Phillipe (Big Boy # 2), Juan Manuel Sánchez, José Mendoza, Carlos Miranda, and Maritza Ingar. Gracias mil to Bruce “Chuck” Brewer and Carlos Velázquez for being the best team in the planet, and Israel Sánchez-Coll, for making this piece look good for Herencia Latina.
Edition September 2006