The first Spanish Harlem all-star to mingle with the crowd was Joe de Jesus, standing in the hallway about 10 minutes before showtime, trombone and sheet music in hand. He has just moved back to New York after a 16-year stint in London, and in the '80s he played with Tito Puente's band. Then as now, it's tough times for salsa, as commercial tastes shift to merengue, hip hop, reggaeton and pop. "I don't know what we'd do without college radio," he said, which still plays an important role even in Nueva York and New Jersey, the incubators of American salsa.
The energy was surprisingly low-key when the orchestra took the stage; was it modesty, or had these middle-aged warriers lost some fire in the belly? Oscar Hernandez struck a tuning pitch at the keyboard with the decorum of a symphony concert master before he even spoke a word. The lack of razzmatazz might have been due to the sit-down crowd at the Piedmont Jazz Festival, and that the postage stamp parquet set aside for dancers receded into the very back of the ballroom. It might have been that the band hadn't slept much, having played to a hometown audience at the Copacabana the night before (although honestly, you couldn't hear the damage). One doesn't want to seem ungrateful for the sheer miracle of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra in a Greensboro ballroom, but some intangible was missing at Sunday night's performance. It might have been the sound balance, which favored the bass tones at the expense of crisply miked soloists that pop out in 3D. Being top virtuosos in the business, salseros de pura cepa, these guys did their job with love, and the mambo dancers twirled liked crazy, enraptured as congregants at high mass. Between sets, singers Rey de la Paz, Willie Torres and Marco Bermudes strolled around like the three tenors, kissing hands and signing autographs.
At the Tuesday night Latin Jazz All Stars show, Hernandez delivered virtually the same sound with a smaller band, and the leaner unit built more intensity on the heels of blistering solos from saxophonist Mitch Fromm and trumpeter Pete Nater. They finally reached peak altitude in their second set, with well-chosen covers like Hector Lavoe's late-'70s anthem "El Cantante" and boogaloo king Pete Rodriguez' "I Like it Like That." Some Bronx natives were doing circa 1966 boogaloo steps, proto-line dancing "before the electric slide," say Alphie and Kitty Harrigan of Greensboro. Outing themselves as Nuyorquinos, folks who had danced with Puente at the Palladium cut their vintage mambo steps on the rug right in front of the stage, sparking shouts of recognition from the band.
Sones de Mexico advertises their music as "100% synthesizer free." What you will hear are guitars with roadkill resonators (made from the natural housing of former armadillos), indigenous clay pipes, leg rattles, conch shells, gourds, cajon and the proverbial jawbone of an ass. Also shoe leather, in the clogging style known as zapateado. Don't forget violins, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, the ukelele-sized jarana and vihuela, the fat guitarron (mariachi bass), drumset, harpa and the human voice. Did I mention that these are just five musicians and a dancer?
What do you expect from a group of ethnomusicologists who formed a band on 18th Street in the heart of Chicago's Mexican district? To describe their show at the Carolina Theatre, one should mention the dancer's many costume changes, from Aztec headdress to china poblana, and Juan Dies' articulate explanations about the different regional styles and their indigenous, Spanish and (often underplayed) African roots. But what really moved the audience was more than authenticity and sheer spectacle. These guys may not have the star power of a fenomeno like Lila Downs, but they have a clear-eyed sense of mission and they play--up to five instruments each--with corazon.
Fandango on 18th Street, their latest record, captures the joy of the fandango, the traditional block party with singing and dancing. One song transforms Mexican huapango into a Celtic jig, a tribute to multicultural Chicago. Some of the music from Guerrero, Huasteco and Veracruz will be familiar since Los Lobos brought them mainstream on the coattails of their La Bamba Grammy success, with the folkloric album La Pistola y El Corazon. Fandango also includes novelty cover tributes to surf cowboy Buck Owens, the Afro-Caribbean music of Mexico's Atlantic coast, fatalistic boleros of love beyond the grave, and some good old beer barrel norteñas. Visualize polka dancing with your neighbor in Fletcher Hall, and you're half way there.
In live music this week, Braco, a West Coast-style Latin rock band drawing on members of West End Mambo, plays Top of the Hill this Thursday, May 19. Montas Lounge continues its month-long celebration of its fifth anniversary with Bio Ritmo Salsa Machine on Friday, May 20 and an appearance by legendary salsa singer Tito Gomez on Friday, May 27. This weekend at Artsplosure, Puerto Rican jazz flautist Nestor Torres plays in Moore Square on Saturday at 4:30, and Colombian flamenco guitarist Miguel Pico squares off Sunday at 12:30; another reminder to check out "Latin Jazz: La Combinacion Perfecta" at Exploris while you're in the neighborhood.