Say It Ain't So

Is Joe Arroyo losing it?

Security grew tense backstage at the tenth annual Colombian Independence Day Festival at Tamiami Park late last month. A record crowd squeezed into the fairgrounds in front of the main stage, spilling over into the fenced-off VIP section. Ordinary folks eager to get close to their idols added to the authorized throng of band members' friends and the chorus line of nubile groupies shaking their hips in the wings.

When Joe Arroyo, the 45-year-old singer elected “Artist of the Millennium” at the 1999 Carnival in Barranquilla, stepped out of his trailer, a family of starstruck fans, babies spilling from their arms, pushed pens and scraps of paper into his smiling face. His smile changed to concern only when a security chief panicked, pushing the salsero back into the trailer and then leaping over the fence to seek reinforcements. When Arroyo exited the trailer a second time, burly guards surrounded him, scattering the well-meaning autograph seekers in all directions.

The show of force seemed out of place in the midst of the congenial crowd of more than 45,000. For ten hours the festivalgoers happily partnered up for dancing, sang along to classic cumbias and vallenatos, and took turns holding up toddlers to give them a better view. In between each act, the masses complied with the insistence of DJs from the Colombian Spanish-language radio station Caracol (WSUA-AM 1260) that they chant the soccer standard “O-we, o-we, o-we, o-we” and participate in contests ranging from the best scream to the most unusual name.

Arroyo's set capped off a long day of performances that touched on nearly all of the myriad genres in Colombian music. Checo Acosta ended a series of cumbias with a tribute to Puerto Rican salsero Hector Lavoe. Folklore dancers hopped and kicked through the bambuco and the fandango. Veteran vallenato singer Pancho Zuleta battled his nephew, accordionist Ivan Zuleta, in a duel of improvised verse, where each paid homage to the beauty of Colombian women and joked about the effect they have on Colombian men. The Dominican-Yorkers in the hip-hop-merengue outfit Fulanito represented for the urban Colombian youth, who made their singles “Guallando” and “La Novela” big hits in both Bogotá and Santo Domingo. No act in Colombia, however, and perhaps no act in the United States covers the musical territory Joe Arroyo has packed into his quarter-century career.

Arroyo's biography smacks of myth. He began earning his keep with song from the tender age of ten. One of forty children fathered by his very busy dad (“My father had his life,” remarks the singer), Arroyo was one of only three children born into his mother's modest household. The precocious lad earned a scholarship as a soloist in a seminary chorus by day and made money for food and lodging singing at nightclubs and houses of ill repute by night. Swinging from sin to salvation prepared Arroyo to incorporate diverse genres into his grown-up repertoire and led him to invent his own eclectic rhythm, the “joe-son.”

“It's a rhythm that came from my band's own craziness,” he explains as he relaxes between gigs in the lobby of the Miami Park Plaza Hotel in Hialeah. “I started with the cumbia beat, then I went adding soca, zouk, and all the rest.” One of the dominant sounds on Colombia's Atlantic coast, the cumbia heard in Arroyo's version of the Cuban son comes as no surprise. The Cartagena native attributes the presence of soca, more commonly associated with Jamaica and Trinidad than with Colombia, and zouk, a genre popular in the French-speaking Caribbean and Africa, to the pan-Caribbean history of his hometown.

“I grew up in a very African community,” reveals Arroyo. “Cartagena is a city built by African slaves. There's a city nearby called Palenque, which was a city of escaped slaves. There the people still speak Kreyol. I grew up speaking African languages. Cartagena is a city in Colombia, but it is more Caribbean than Colombian. I think you could even say that blacks rule there.” One of his most beloved songs, “Rebellion,” commemorates the history of Palenque by telling the story of a seventeenth-century African who stood up to his master with the chorus, “Do not hit my black woman.”

The African consciousness that Arroyo grew up with made it natural for him to fall in with the contemporary musicians from that continent. He befriended West African musicians while touring Europe with his former band, Fruko y Sus Tesos; that lead to several trips to the region and a long working relationship with the Senegalese Lavas Sosek, who wrote Arroyo's zouk hit “Yamu Se.” What struck the Cartagenero most were the similarities between Dakar, the capital of Senegal where captive Africans were held before being shipped across the sea to the Americas, and Cartagena, where so many slaves were received. “[Africa] seemed so familiar,” he says.

Arroyo's latest CD demonstrates his dual pan-African and Colombian influences. Even the title does double duty. En Sol Mayor refers literally to a musical key, “in G major,” and symbolically to a pan-African aesthetic that takes inspiration from a far-reaching sun, “in the bigger sun.”

As an experiment in ethnomusicology, En Sol Mayor is fascinating. It includes strictly traditional Colombian tracks, such as the flute-adorned cumbia “The Turtle” and the accordion-powered vallenato “I Am Folklore.” “Happy with You” and “Goodbye, What's-her-name” are typical “joe-sons,” cumbia-driven hybrids of salsa and zouk, while “What's Up Buddy?” is standard Colombian boogaloo-influenced salsa. The Kreyol-titled “Panama Knocks Me Out” is a cross between soca and zouk, while “Rosa” is zouk straight up, with bouncing guitar arpeggios right out of the Republic of Congo. In “Rosa” Arroyo even adopts the staccato exclamations so common in African pop. Heading up this transatlantic survey is “I'll Know How to Forget,” a “Duke of Earl”-derived doo-wop version of soca-rengue, cut across at several points by a synthesized screech that sounds like a muskrat. The muskrat appears mysteriously on a few of the other tracks as well.

As entertainment, however, the disc is less captivating. For all the musical trailblazing here, Arroyo plays it safe with the vocals. The power of his delivery is what has won him title after title at Barranquilla's Carnival and the Cali Salsa Festivals, but his performance at Tamiami Park suggests why that power might be diminished in his latest recording. His head start as a child performer in Cartagena's nocturnal world seems to have caught up with him, and he looks a good decade or two older than his years, despite sporting a fabulous mohair tiger-print shirt. When he left the comfortable confines of the show opener, En Sol Mayor's “I'll Know How to Forget,” the celebrated veteran strained to deliver his anthem, “Rebellion.” Broken and off-key, his voice sounded as though this time his famed rebel might not have the strength to win the fight.

Mercifully security cut the show short, determined to clear the park promptly at the closing hour of 11:00 p.m. Arroyo did not give in easily. As he consulted with his musical director and bass player Oberth Lopez, he pounded the claves forcefully. “I was pretending I didn't hear [the police], so I could please the public with a couple more songs,” he explains in his Hialeah hotel two days later. He does not offer a word of explanation for his shaky chops, despite some tactful probing. Sore throat? He had been ill last year, forced to cancel the show, but felt fine this year, he reports. Stage fright? His live performances are always identical to his recording sessions, he insists. After the Independence Day show closed with a reprise of “Rebellion,” security rushed to whisk Arroyo back to his waiting limousine. The strongmen can protect him from his fans, perhaps, but can they protect his voice?

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