When hardcore salsa fans hear the young New York band La Excelencia for the first time, they'll almost certainly be reminded of the classic acts of the '60s and '70s: Willie Colon, Dimension Latina, El Gran Combo. Fast, roughneck and in your face, La Excelencia's studio albums are driven by the same urgent brass, fierce vocals and streetwise lyrics of their predecessors.
Powered by old-fashioned methods and ideals, La Excelencia has attracted the label "steam salsa" from one critic—that is, they're taking an obsolete power source and retrofitting it for the modern age. Drummers and co-leaders José Vázquez-Cofresí and Julián Silva know exactly what '70s salsa meant (and still means) to ordinary folk in barrios across both Americas. "[Salsa] gave us Latinos a voice," they said in a 2009 interview.
Indeed, though all La Excelencia's songs are original, the content has honorable precedents in salsa history. Solidarity with the poor and disenfranchised? You can find it in Roberto Roena. Neighborhood's getting too dangerous? See Hector Lavoe. Salsa's black African roots? Check Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez, and so forth.
What's more, these guys understand salsa still lives on the dance floor. Their furious live performances have earned them street cred both in New York and among salseros worldwide. Purist nostalgia for classic "hard salsa" has gone global via indie DJs, salsa congresses and the Internet—despite the limp homogenization of commercial salsa.
"Salsa was our rebel music and it has become meaningless noise," La Excelencia has said.
Patterning themselves after the young Eddie Palmieri, who named his first band La Perfecta in 1962, these cocksure upstarts even had the hubris to dub themselves The Excellence. Sick of being told by the label to soften their sound and conform to market mediocrity, they went rogue, cutting ties with music industry business-as-usual when their first record deal soured. Silva and Vázquez-Cofresí founded the Handle With Care label. The debut CD, Salsa Con Conciencia, sent shockwaves through the salsa underground in 2006, allowing the band to tour internationally without major distribution. Buzz built mainly through word of mouth and social media. Its follow-up title, 2009's Mi Tumbao Social, playfully tags the drum (mi tumbao) as the original social networking medium.
Ironically, La Excelencia marketed their unconventional image as a rejection of image. On the cover of Latin Beat magazine, they took scissors to tuxedo jackets and black ties in favor of sports jerseys, b-boy hats, mohawks and tattooed bare arms. They even wrote a song poking fun at the iconic, men-in-matching-suits look that is often expected of Latin bands. Defiance and self-expression have become their hallmarks. In the beginning, salsa was a youth movement, energized by the rebelliousness of '70s pop culture; it's 2010, and La Excelencia wants a piece of that.
Still, as hard as they represent their New York roots and the city's salsa history, Vázquez-Cofresí and Silva are both outsiders. Silva, the group's main songwriter, was born in Cali, Colombia (where fast, streetcore salsa reigns) but moved to Baton Rouge, La., at age 5. Vázquez-Cofresí, a military brat of Puerto Rican descent, was born in Biloxi, Miss. The leaders of the hardest "salsa dura" band in New York, then, are only immigrants to the city. But salsa has always been immigrants' music, made by immigrants in the city of immigrants, par excellence. When salsa's flame faded at the center of the empire, somewhere on the periphery a campfire continued to burn brightly. Silva and Vázquez-Cofresí have taken the torch back home.
Hear La Excelencia in Durham Saturday, Oct. 16, at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio. Tickets are $25, with an open dance floor and some seating available. The concert celebrates the 10th anniversary of Salsa4U, going on all weekend with parties, dance workshops and performances by visiting dance pros. See salsaforu.com for information and tickets.
Also on Saturday, La Excelencia serves as the official after-party for Community Fiesta Latina at the Brumley Performing Arts Building in Durham Academy's Lower School. UNC's Latin performing ensemble, Charanga Carolina headlines. (Attendees of Fiesta Latina will receive a door discount at La Excelencia.) This celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month is free and the public is invited; food trucks will be vending Latin American treats, and the live music lineup includes harpist Pavelid Castañeda-Florez. Details are available at www.da.org/podium/default.aspx?t=4429.