By David Rolland
By David Von Bader
By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
By Laurie Charles
Bogotá, 1998. It was another bummer of a Valentine's Day. In Colombia the lovers' holiday is known as the Day of Love and Friendship, and though it falls in October rather than February, the end result is likely to be as disappointing as Uncle Sam's celebration of the saint of sweet nothings. High expectations lead to broken hearts. In the first flush of infatuation, I bought tickets for my beau and myself to see a salsa concert featuring the legendary Puerto Rican showmen El Gran Combo and their compatriot Victor Manuelle, a popular upstart all the newspapers in the city insisted on calling the "voice of the youth."
More than any other public, Colombian fans have kept the fire of salsa burning by loyally turning out for classic acts while opening their wallets and ears to nurture fresh talent hailing from all points on the clave: from Ponce to Cali, from Havana to the Bronx. Nightclubs still play old-school favorites such as El Gran Combo's working-stiff standard "El Menu," and the pastries, roast pig, pigeon peas, and rum the song celebrates taste as fresh now as they did in the 1970s. Meanwhile the radio blasts unknowns who, like Manuelle, often splash big in Colombia before making a ripple anywhere else. Since his 1993 debut album, Manuelle has burned up the Colombian charts with a series of six CDs, the most recent of which, Inconfundible, currently has four hits lodged in the Andean nation's Top 10. Much of the youthful singer's popularity in this nation of salsa aficionados lies in his attempt to fuse the commercial imperatives of contemporary romantic salsa with the percussive power, complex arrangements, and virtuoso vocal improvisations characteristic of salsa's golden era.
On that Day of Love and Friendship, 80,000 people crammed together for a romantic evening in a soccer stadium. My so-called boyfriend stood me up. Alone amid the multitude, I watched crews clear away the little bit of history danced by the still spry Gran Combo and contemplated the current state of Caribbean soul. Was it just my melancholy mood, I wondered, or were the complaints of so many salsa-ologists true? Had the once rhythm-charged chronicle of life in the barrio come to nothing more than empty promises of romantic love splayed across uninspired musical arrangements destined only to clutter up Latin pop bins? Cutting short my bitter reverie, Victor Manuelle took the stage.
"Tell me things tonight that will hurt me," Manuelle began, solitary in the spotlight. The crowd roared with recognition at the opening lines of "Palabra y Pensamiento" ("Word and Thought"). "Do things to me tonight that will cause me harm," he continued, begging his lover to do him wrong so he can end a relationship gone boring. Stinging from my own betrayal, I thrilled at Manuelle's proposition of masochistic pleasure.
Then, in the pause between those histrionic lines, I heard something more: the spare echo of the conga that accompanies Ruben Blades's trademark tough guy down the mean streets of the "old barrio" in the opening verses of salsa's transnational anthem, "Pedro Navaja" ("Mack the Knife"). Tum-kataka-taka. Tum-kataka-taka. Here was the vibrant dialogue between voice and instruments lost when the hard edge of classic salsa gave way to dull lament and synthesized accompaniment during the long reign of salsa romantica.
"Understand me," Manuelle pleaded in the idiom of romance, but the piano responded with the percussive punctuation of a tumbao. "You know that once you were everything in my being," he lamented, and the trumpets peeled out into a prolongation of the rhythm of his words. "There's nothing left of this love," the chorus insisted, their nasal intonation sweet with the flavor of street-corner song. When the set chorus-verse section ended and the descarga began, Manuelle's virtuoso soneos kicked in. In the growing frenzy of call and response, the young sonero suddenly left the stage. He scrambled up a mechanized post meant to support a television camera and danced on a tiny platform that extended far out over the heads of the audience. From this precarious height, Manuelle's vocal improvisations soared, elevating the soap opera elements of contemporary salsa lyrics into the musical heavens inhabited by the legends of old.
"No, there was no choreographer," confesses the daredevil singer of his aerial high jinks as I drag him down memory lane with me on a recent afternoon in a CocoWalk café. "I saw that post and made the most of it," he says with a laugh. "Later on I realized it was probably pretty dangerous."
Avoiding the tightly scripted stage shows of many contemporary Latin acts, Manuelle aspires to the spontaneous communion with the audience seen in the landmark concert films produced by the New York-based Fania Records, Nuestra Cosa (Our Latin Thing, from 1973) and Salsa (1974). As the credits state, these films feature "the Latin people of New York" in starring roles alongside the first salsa greats, among them El Gran Combo, Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe, and Willie Colon. Performing as an ensemble, the Fania All-Stars demanded ritual, not spectacle.
Manuelle participated in the rites of salsa from earliest childhood, growing up in the small Puerto Rican town of Isabela in a house filled with the early records. "My father was a Fania fanatic," he recalls. During his youth Manuelle sang in a salsa outfit with his cousin. In the high school band he played trumpet, like his idol Colon. By age seventeen he had begun to sing professionally, taking up the chorus with legends such as Ismael Rivera and Cheo Feliciano.