Miami Maestro

Roberto Torres is the leader of the band, the singer of the songs, and the keeper of the Cuban musical flame

Cuban band leader Roberto Torres rarely performs in Miami these days, but on a recent morning he is eager to reprise his personal hit parade for an audience of one. The venue: the office of his independent record label, Guajiro Records, located in a small warehouse in west Miami-Dade. The stage: the high-back leather chair behind Torres's desk.

Dressed in a silky print shirt and black slacks, Torres digs around in his desk drawer, emerges triumphantly with a tape, and pops it into the stereo system under a framed drawing of José Martí that is flanked by four gold records. He leans back in his chair as the Latin disco beat he calls "salsoul" fills the room.

"Sha-ba-da-ba-da-ba," Torres riffs to the chorus of "Cuentame Tu Historia," a Seventies fusion of Cuban son, barrio salsa, and ghetto soul that in its day enjoyed a brief rotation on local Latin radio. The tape rolls on and Torres's rich, emotive singing booms above his recorded voice on several romantic ballads and classic Cuban numbers. His gold pinkie ring flashes as he taps out the rhythm on the chair's armrests.

Torres's office is a shrine to his past achievements
Torres's office is a shrine to his past achievements

For an encore he selects his recording of "Cuando Tu Me Quieres," a bolero made famous by Cuban crooner Roberto Faz. As he sings along, Torres's head tilts back, his eyes close, and his arms wave expressively in the air. He has departed the office for the spotlight in some swanky nightclub of his imagination.

As he turns back to his desk at the end of the song, a dreamy look spreads across Torres's face. He picks up an LP from 1975, on which he appears on the cover wearing a white polyester suit, polka-dot shirt, shaggy hair, and long sideburns. His hairline is two decades higher now, and his pate glistens with perspiration. He calls to his wife, Marlen, an infectiously cheerful woman who sits in the next room tending to the company's accounting books. Torres asks her to turn up the air conditioning.

He languidly shuffles through a pile of LPs by Benny Moré, Oscar D'Leon, the Fania All-Stars, and then studies the baby-face picture of himself with New York's Orquesta Broadway on the cover of their 1968 record Pruebalo Mi Amor -- Try It Out, My Love. It includes a cha-cha-cha version of the 1967 Peter, Paul, and Mary hit "I Dig Rock and Roll Music."

More stacks of vinyl sit in a closet, where a dozen Latin-music awards line a shelf along with gifts from fans abroad: African sculpture and a pair of oversize castanets from the Canary Islands. Plaques from various Latin-music critics' associations and civic groups cover the office walls, naming Torres best salsa performer or folkloric music artist of past years, and citing his "outstanding contribution toward Hispanic culture." A proclamation signed by former Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez declares August 5, 1986, "Roberto Torres Day."

Buoyed by his accolades, surrounded by old photos and trophies, listening to the albums that have served as the soundtrack to his quest for the American dream, 59-year-old Torres can take comfort in his past. His office shrine helps to soften a harsh truth: Forty years after coming to this country and two decades after founding his record label, Torres himself is something of a musical relic, though a proudly stubborn one.

He cherishes his memories of being among those immigrants from Cuba and Puerto Rico who, in the Sixties and Seventies, jammed nightly in New York clubs and by day canvassed record stores with their latest releases in tow. "These days in this industry they're not looking for artists or singers; they're looking for beauty," Torres says with disdain. "If you're not pretty, you're a failure. Today there are two things you have to have to be an artist: Be good-looking and dance well, pretty and a good body and forget the rest. You could be mute; it doesn't matter. You can have a hit; you can be famous."

Most who know Torres's name still associate him with his 1981 radio hit "Caballo Viejo." (listen -- see end for more clips) The song, composed as a vallenato by Venezuelan songwriter Simon Diaz, was performed by Torres with a Cuban son flavor. (It was later rearranged and recorded by the Gipsy Kings as the megahit "Bamboleo.") But Torres, who moved to Miami in 1986 from New York, was not exactly a one-tune wonder. He was a founding member of Orquesta Broadway, the seminal New York charanga band, and went on to record more than twenty albums with his own band. As a producer and label owner, he has been committed to keeping authentic Cuban music alive, giving Cuban exile musicians a chance to record when they were otherwise ignored. The Guajiro catalogue is a treasure-trove for Latin-music buffs, and includes albums by trumpeter Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros, sonero Papaito, violinist Alfredo de la Fe, and the popular New York group Charanga de la 4. Torres himself was recording his own versions of classics by Benny Moré and other prerevolutionary idols long before Cuban nostalgia hit the international charts.

"I can remember when Roberto Torres was a major star," says Carlos Suarez, the Latin-music buyer and manager of Esperanto Music on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road. "He has an excellent history, not only as a recording artist but as a producer. He's done everything in the record business, but he's forgotten. Before all these people got into Latin music, he was already here."

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