This is salsa the way God made it. Onstage, Orquesta GarDel makes salsa dura: a locomotive of energy on steel rails with endless momentum and irresistible motion. The tumbao bass line dances a funky pas de deux around ecstatic piano montunos, or syncopated vamps. Two men share a microphone. They're here only to sing, a luxury in today's Latin jazz economy. The lead sonero improvises his verses as if he were a reporter and this party were breaking news. There's no skimping on saxes, trumpets hitting high notes, or scathing trombone moñas reminiscent of the late Barry Rogers. Timbales provide lightning to the conga's thunder, and a gritty tres guitar is the Cuban flavor packet. A full rhythm section—bongo and bell, maraca and guiro—booms.
It's after midnight at the Shakori Hills GrassRoots Music Festival, and the 15-piece Orquesta GarDel is owning "Borranda," a song about rain that never arrives. Even though it's pouring on this April night, the plywood dance floor teems. Few of the salsa scene regulars—women in high heels and men in white Capezios—have trekked all the way to Silk Hope, a stop-sign town 30 miles southwest of Chapel Hill. Rustic bohemians execute salsa moves in wellies and Birkenstocks, cowboy hats and Guatemalan embroidery.
"You can feel the music on your skin," one Cary fan opines.
Bands have been playing Latin music to Triangle audiences for nigh on three decades. But Orquesta GarDel is different: This is the best and biggest Latin band working in the Triangle at the moment and arguably in the last 15 years. A combo of seasoned Latin musicians and Anglo music students trained in Latin styles, GarDel is a salsa supergroup, representing a crossroads where one strain of Triangle life meets several others, a microcosm of the long, rich history of salsa in our area. But, most of all, Orquesta GarDel is a beacon of exciting things to come.
"There are a lot of salsa bands around here that are constants right now," says Eric Hirsh, pianist, co-leader and arranger for Orquesta GarDel. "We're trying not to go the route of all the salsa bands before us."
Hirsh isn't talking smack. He and co-leader, arranger and trombonist Andy Kleindienst want to take salsa in the Triangle to the next level. Kleindienst, a Durham native, and Hirsh, a St. Louis native who moved here as a teenager, both graduated from UNC in 2006 with music degrees. They were among the first veterans of a student performance group called Charanga Carolina. Started by UNC assistant professor David Garcia, a charanga is a string-based Latin orchestra that is rare at American universities.
"The story of this band's genesis still is and always will be David Garcia for single-handedly bringing Cuban music to UNC," Hirsh says.
Garcia, an L.A. native of Ecuadorian descent, came to UNC as an assistant professor in ethnomusicology in 2003 and quickly began the Charanga Carolina as a ragtag jam session. One year later, it was an official UNC ensemble offering a course credit. For a while, the Charanga grew like a roadside dandelion, rangey and unobserved. As Hirsh remembers, the band had no gigs, and it took four months to learn three songs. To breathe life into the music, Garcia made a crucial decision: He invited working Latin musicians from the Triangle to sit in.
This intersection still fuels the Charanga. Nelson Delgado and Pako Santiago, veterans of Carnavalito and other salsa bands, joined. The band picked up gigs, and Orquesta GarDel was formed as a summer-only version of the Charanga that played festivals like Fiesta del Pueblo and Festival Ritmo Latino. In 2007, Garcia, busy finishing his monograph on Cuban tresero Arsenio Rodriguez, decided to relinquish his reins to Hirsh and Kleindienst.
"It was a very 'Yes, I can' kind of moment for both of us," recalls Hirsh. "A real cool passing of the baton."
Like the Charanga, GarDel thrives on the blend of the academic musicians and Latinos who have been making this music for decades. Simply put, the band wouldn't work if it were only college kids who learned salsa in a laboratory. "It's not the same as coming from the street and the working music world and growing up with the culture," Hirsh says. "The rhythmic soul of our band is driven by the Latin contingent."
That soul includes Julio Correa, a bald percussion heavyweight from Puerto Rico who has played intermittently with numerous Latin bands in Fayetteville and Raleigh since 1995.
Conguero José Sanchez (of West End Mambo) rarely misses GarDel rehearsals, even though he lives in Winston-Salem. Like Delgado and Santiago, trumpeter Alberto Carrasquillo is a Carnavalito alum and recently started his own band, The Latin Project. Back-up singer and percussionist Ramón Ortiz, the newest addition to the Triangle's Latin music scene, moved here with his wife last year from Montreal, where he toured with high-powered Dominican and Cuban acts. And, when his academic calendar permits, their musical godfather and tresero Garcia sits in.
Most of GarDel's rhythm section has a tight-knit, group-speak approach to percussion. Delgado, for instance, isn't just a vocalist, but also a well-known drummer. In rehearsals, he can coach the band on tricky rhythm breaks in an esperanto of onomatopoetic catchphrases ("Tra cu pla! Trucutu...") that has been intuitively grasped and passed down among Latin musicians.
Timbalero Brevan Hampden, an N.C. Central student, is an honorary Latino, says Hirsh. He comes by these rhythms naturally. His family is full of professional drummers, and he spent a few years in Miami, immersing himself in the city's timba scene.
"While they're doing their thing on stage, they will sometimes get the urge to call out to each other a [drum] break. 'Ba dap bap, brrrr ka ka!'" says Kleindienst, marveling at the inner workings of the rhythm section. "And they'll know, that's not a random break, it's from such and such a band and such and such a year. They all know the vocabulary."
Orquesta GarDel also pushes musical limits. Delgado, for instance, has always sung, but this is his first time as featured soloist, covering demanding tunes by dextrous verbal poets like Rubén Blades and Gilberto Santa Rosa. It can be like stepping onto a ledge at times. But Delgado, a Puerto Rican who worked in the New Jersey music scene on his way to a chemistry career, says the faith shown in him by his bandmates has been validating.
"I feel inadequate, but they think I can do it," he confesses with a laugh at a recent rehearsal. "It's pushing me, and making me a lot better. I rely on these guys to build my limits, and say, 'OK, he can do that.' Because I don't even know."
Hirsh says mastering top-notch charts of salsa standards is the band's priority now, but adding original salsa tunes is the next step. And, beyond '70s and '80s salsa dura, the band wants to expand into Cuban timba territory: bands like Irakere, Los Van Van, NG La Banda and Charanga Habanera.
"We're moving forward in time and looking for edgier stuff," Hirsh says. "I do not want to be a band that plays the same show every night. You think about Ellington or Count Basie on the road in the train. To keep those bands alive he had to write every waking moment of his life."
"There's really no other band like them. Just look at the energy," says salsa instructor Stephanie Winston, pointing to dozens of dancers braving uneven tarmac to dance amid haybales at a recent Orquesta GarDel gig in Saxapahaw. She and her husband, Eduardo, teach Cuban dance styles at their Durham studio, Paso A Paso. Hirsh and Hampden study there. "We rave about this band, their passion, their uniqueness," Winston says.
Hirsh hopes that, one day, people can rave about their longevity, too. The ultimate goal of Orquesta GarDel, he says, is to build a band that outlives its members. The May concert in Saxapahaw, for instance, was Correa's swan song with GarDel—at least for a while, anyway. An Army paratrooper, Correa left for his first deployment to Iraq the day after Memorial Day.
"That's very real, when you realize one of your band members is leaving and may or may not come back," Hirsh says. "Our main concern is not for the band, we'll survive, but for Julio and his family."
But this may not be the last time someone leaves the band, which—for Hirsh and Kleindienst—is less about serving the musicians than serving the music. "We're on our own musical careers, and we might move on, but this is an amazing chapter in the story," he says. "North Carolina and the Southeast need a long-lasting viable salsa band, instead of a 'This was a great two years for Raleigh' kind of a thing."
If GarDel's commitment to quality and innovation has upped the ante, putting other salsa bands on notice, the effects should be good for local Latin music. Friendly competition has always played a part in any music scene that reached an arguable pinnacle, like the infamous bandstand battles at the Palladium and mambo palaces of old.
So let the games begin, and may those primordial fires in the belly never burn out: Damas y Caballeros, we who are about to dance salute you.
Orquesta GarDel performs at the Durham Latino Festival Saturday, June 14. The festival runs from 3-8 p.m. Admission is free. For more, see this week's Latin Beat.