Playlist: From the Salsa Underground
Curated by Pablo Yglesias (a.k.a. DJ Bongohead) September 20, 2017
Playlist: From the Salsa Underground
Artist and DJ Pablo Yglesias (a.k.a. DJ Bongohead) is one of the founding members of the creative team behind the free Latin dance series ¡VAYA! 63 at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium. To get us ready for the 2017–18 season, which opens on September 22 with Charanga America, he dug through his record collection to pull 10 salsa dura gems for your listening and dancing pleasure.
A skillful DJ keeps a curated "crate" (actual or virtual) of music filled with special sonic ingredients designed to fulfill, sustain, enrich, and carry community through the collective ritual known as dance. The DJ knows just what tracks will get the party started, keep the people out on the floor, and bring them collectively to the highest plane of universal cosmic connection that borders on the spiritual. While every set has to contain plenty of favorites and known classics, as well as the hits of today, what marks a selector as more than merely a run-of-the-mill commercial jock is if they also have a secret arsenal of underground and deep cuts in their collection. This is as true in the world of Latin music as it is in any other genre. And it is not usually a problem since most salsa DJs are also heavy collectors. Plus, in today's hyper-connected digital world, finding obscure or rare salsa tracks online is a lot easier than it used to back back in the day.
Below are my top ten recommended (and perhaps lesser known) salsa dura tunes from my record box. Five tracks are from contemporary underground salsa bands, and five are old-school deep cuts from the golden era of Latin music. Since all are killer tracks (and it was hard to boil it down to just ten), they're organized not in order or merit but simply in alphabetical order by artist, with the first five being the classic period, because to understand and appreciate today's progressive, underground salsa, you need to know about those deep OG jams that paved the way.
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"Ha Llegado El Momento" by Brooklyn Sounds
From Libre/Free (Salsa Records, 1971)
With its foreboding Gotham intro, strident trombone section, pumped up pile-driver rhythm section, and extended play time, this raw "garage salsa" track from the wilds of early 1970s Brooklyn will give the dancers the workout and plenty of space to try their special moves. Once obscure but now pretty well known to most discerning salsa DJs, it's always a treat to witness dancers discovering this gem for the first time.
"Improvisando" by Fruko y sus Tesos
From Tesura (Discos Fuentes, 1970)
Bassist and timbalero Julio Ernesto "Fruko" Estrada and his band of misfits known as "Los Tesos" (the "know-it-alls") burst on the scene in Medellín, Colombia, in the early '70s, creating a controversy in the mountain city where tango and bambuco had been king. With Discos Fuentes's backing, they started a tropical revolution in their home country by imitating the raw urban sound and bad-boy stance of Nuyorican salsa. Pretty soon the jocular Fruko came into his own with many well-loved (and seriously hard) anthems like "El Preso." This dark, uncompromising gem predates that later success, and is a Fruko original from his obscure debut album Tesura, once a highly sought-after collector's item and now reissued by Madrid's Vampi Soul label. Note the only slightly tongue-in-cheek emulation of Big Apple gangsta bling (à la Willie "El Malo" Colón) on the cover.
"Dejame Un Lado" by Wayne Gorbea y su Conjunto Salsa
From La Salsa Del Conjunto Salsa Con Wayne Gorbea (Disco International, 1978)
The Bronx has been one of the most important proving grounds for Nuyorican Latin music from the mambo era to today. This heavy '70s guaguancó track from native son and piano maestro Wayne Gorbea (may he rest in peace) is a killer example of why this band's recordings are serious collector's items and used as secret weapons in the experienced salsa DJ's bag of tricks. El que sabe, sabe.
"Quinto Mayor" by Linda Leida
From Aquí Está Linda (TR Records, 1977)
With all the emphasis on the macho aspects of salsa music-making, it's important to recognize and play Latin tunes featuring female performers. Though Celia Cruz, La Lupe, and La India are quite well known and respected "salsa divas," there are plenty of other women singers and musicians deserving of recognition, and there are many great tunes to recommend, this being one of the hardest. Afro-Cuban songstress Linda Leida got her start in La Sonora Matancera but came into her own after immigrating to New York and signing with Tito Rodriguez's label TR after a stint with Willie Rosario. Leida brought that essential Cuban flavor to the Nuyorican style and the result is nothing short of stunning. Tragically, she was murdered in 1986.
"El Verdadero Son" by Javier Vázquez y su Salsa
From Juega Javier (Teca Records, 1970)
Highly influential on Colombian salsa dura and beloved to those in the know stateside, the Cuban pianist, arranger, and composer Javier Vázquez may very well be the least recognized behind-the-scenes guy in the field. Tracing his lineage from his father, who was one of the founding members of the seminal La Sonora Matancera, Vázquez proceeded to perform, record, and arrange many modern progressive salsa tunes in his adopted New York, working primarily with the Tico label (a subsidiary of Fania Records). This super hard son montuno track is from a little earlier in his career and showcases his incredible skill at the piano as well as the gutsy vocals of "Welfo" Gutiérrez.
"Guaguancó" by Avenida B
From El Viaje (Chulo Records, 2016)
Avenida B is an amazing contemporary salsa dura orchestra led by sonero and multi-instrumentalist David Frankel, whose father had a Latin band based on the Lower East Side of New York City back in the day. Frankel's aesthetic definitely harks back to that strident Nuyorican trombone-led sound of yesteryear. The lyrics tell of Frankel's love of old-school salsa and how he is a collector ("melómano") as well as a performer in that idiom. But the tune manages to avoid being merely a tribute, as it transcends emulation through its infectious spirit, sheer sonic power, and virtuosity.
"La Vía" by Bio Ritmo
From Puerta Del Sur (Vampi Soul, 2014)
Rei Alvarez, Bio Ritmo's sonero and principal lyricist, sings in this philosophical tune that one's path in life can't always be planned, and sometimes it just falls in front of you, perhaps in the end we'll create our own fortune, if we learn how to cultivate and build with what life brings us.
Richmond, Virginia's progressive salsa orchestra Bio Ritmo is a case in point for arguing that in order for a genre as conservative as mainstream salsa to progress and remain interesting and relevant today, there has to be some innovation and risk-taking, which is exactly what Bio Ritmo does so well. They have caught some flack for it over the more than 20 years they have been on the scene playing original and multifaceted yet highly danceable Latin music. Despite what some pop-salsa fanatics may say to the contrary, just put a monster cut like this on the turntables and watch Bio Ritmo blow the critics out of the water.
"Timbalaye" by Los Hacheros
From Bambulaye (Chulo Records, 2016)
Led by Renaissance man Jacob Plasse, Los Hacheros blend a couple of different classic Latin dance modes into a unique and versatile contemporary-sounding whole. Take the hard "conjunto" (small group) sound of the great, blind tresero Arsenio Rodríguez, throw in an equal measure of the graceful and sophisticated charanga lineup of flute and violin made popular in Cuba in the 1950s and New York in the following decades, and add the extra brash Nuyorican trombone-dominated format that came into prominence in the 1970s plus a dash of the jazzy descarga genre pioneered by Cuban bassist Cachao, and you have an idea of why Los Hacheros has "La Combinación Perfecta" in the opinion of many hip salsa fans the world over. This opus from the band's most recent effort always brings the dancers to a climactic frenzy, inspired in no small part by the soaring vocals of Puerto Rican sonero Héctor "Papote" Jiménez.
"La Mano Del Rumbero" by Ola Fresca
From Elixir (Pipiki Records/Peace & Rhythm, 2015)
With a bright, upbeat sound that combines the best of Cuban, Nuyorican, and international salsa styles, Ola Fresca is the brainchild of award-winning Cuban-American vocalist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Jose Conde. Conde and his band of ace Brooklyn-based musicians always get people dancing to their highly original and thought-provoking music, bringing to the dance floor a refreshing sonic elixir for the mind and soul as well as the body. This tune never fails to move the crowd, though they may not be familiar with it, because it joyfully and confidently compresses almost the entire spectrum of the Afro-Antillean Latin dance experience into a compact tribute to the tambor (drum), highlighting the simple but profound connection between the cuero (skin) of the instrument and the skin of la mano del rumbero (the hand of the rumba drummer).
"Saco e Trampa" by Orquesta El Macabeo
From La Maldición Del Timbal (Discos De Hoy/Peace & Rhythm, 2016)
Another progressive and original underground group that catches criticism from some conservative quarters is Puerto Rico's "salsa rockeros" Orquesta El Macabeo. It's not that they bring rock into their music (though they were rockers, rappers, or ska musicians in their younger days), it's that they play their unique and cheeky tunes with the brute force of heavy metal or garage rock, and with the DIY/irreverent attitude more of punk rockers than your typical polished salseros from the island, like Gilberto Santa Rosa or El Gran Combo. Sporting album cover art from Joe Petagno, who's well known in metal circles for his horror and fantasy imagery, the music manages to be thought provoking at the same time as being highly danceable, reflecting the reality of Puerto Rico's youth while paying tribute to the great bands and composers of the past.
About the Curator
Pablo Yglesias is a Cuban-American artist specializing in music. He is a graphic designer, journalist, exhibit curator, film consultant, and music producer also known as DJ Bongohead. Yglesias is the author of Cocinando: 50 Years of Latin Album Cover Art (Princeton Architectural Press, 2005) and has written for several music magazines. Yglesias has also worked as a designer, journalist and/or producer on many music reissues for Capitol Blue Note, Fania/Código, and Vampi Soul Records, among others. He has curated his own exhibitions on the graphics of Latin music and consulted on exhibitions about the Latin music industry for Experience Music Project, The Smithsonian, and The Museum of the City of New York. For the last 3 years Yglesias has been a part of the creative team behind the free Latin dance series ¡VAYA! 63 at Lincoln Center's David Rubenstein Atrium, providing visuals during performances (slideshows of album cover art, musician photos, and more), as well as occasional DJ and band booking consultation services. In 2015 he co-founded the vinyl-only record label Peace & Rhythm.