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Roughly the same age as the social phenomena of salsa, Manuelle's own style has developed along the same lines as the music itself. Reflecting on his persistent persona as the tragic victim of love, the eternal All-Stars fan tells how he grew from a hard salsa kid to a hard-knocks lover. "The first salseros used to sing about people in the street and social problems. The genre used to be a lot more machista," he explains. "Nowadays women are the ones who buy the music, so the lyrics reflect what women want to hear."
Dressed for a Univision promo shoot in a smart black sweater, Manuelle seems to have been groomed to reflect what women want to see as well. He sports braces that will eventually eliminate any possible imperfections in his jaunty smile. His frequently downcast eyes smolder like the obscure orbs of a lounge singer in a smoky bar.
"Women like to think they make men suffer," he observes. "At the same time, when women sing my songs at home, I think they turn the words around and invert the roles. They're singing to the men who cheat on them and leave them all alone." In wholehearted agreement I recount the callous mistreatment that brought me to his Valentine's show in Bogotá all by my lonesome. "You came to exactly the wrong place," the singer says with a laugh. "All my songs are about the suffering of love." Manuelle's penchant for exploring the dark side of commercially mandated passions often comes close to a mockery of romance. "I don't like sweet songs," he says, using the English word to convey just how foreign sappy sentiment feels. "As an interpreter the drama gives you more to do. Pain and suffering let you take this romantic salsa to another level."
Like the hopeful groom in an arranged marriage, Manuelle makes the most of the material at hand. "Salsa might perhaps be living one of its best moments right now," he says gamely. "You might even say it has the same rhythm now as did classic salsa, but it's more romantic and more danceable."
Be that as it may, Manuelle continues to dally with his first love. Even though today's star may have eclipsed his idols in record scales and concert draw, he remains faithful to the Fania legacy in his own way. For an upcoming show in Miami, promoters once again proclaim Manuelle the voice of "youth" and present Willie Colon, the Puerto Rican powerhouse who set the aggressive brass standard of classic salsa, as the voice of "experience."
Sharing the stage with Colon, Manuelle steps into the very big shoes of Hector Lavoe, the late, great Fania star who recorded with the trumpeter masterworks such as "El Día de Mi Suerte" ("My Lucky Day") and "Calle Luna, Calle Sol" ("Moon Street, Sun Street"). Manuelle presages this bid for succession on his 1996 self-titled CD, where among the lady-pleasing hits he squeezes in a noncommercial, high-octane guanguancó that pays homage to Lavoe as the "singer of singers." Here Manuelle takes his place in the salsa pantheon by identifying the traits that make him worthy: "They say if you have the drum in your soul and the flavor of the street in your voice, you will be a great sonero." The much-touted voice of youth asserts his own credentials with the chorus and title of the song -- "Ahora me Toca a Mí" ("Now It's My Turn").