Is salsa bankrupt?

That's why the superb show turned out by headliners and Sony artists Son by Four is both cause to rejoice and despair. While the singing of pop salsa has slid steadily away from the nasal Afro-Caribbean style to the full-throated R&B wail perfected by Marc Anthony and carried on by newcomers like Ceballos, the headlining quartet has conquered both the Billboard Latin and R&B charts by prying apart the Afro-Caribbean and African-American styles and then putting them together again in an innovative, deliberate combination, as in their smash "Puro Dolor" ("The Purest of Pain"). That's the good news.

The bad news is that Sony doesn't quite know quite what to do about it. "I'm 29 years old," complained R&B standout Angel Lopez in an interview here while the group was recording its English-language disc in Kendall. "I can't be in a boy band." But boy-band marketing is exactly the treatment the four young men in their mid to late twenties have received so far. The pairing of the quartet with 'N Sync at the Latin Grammys further eclipsed their genuine musicality. So far from being manufactured in a strip mall, the group originally was composed of brothers Javier and Jorge Montes with their cousin Pedro Quiles. Venerable Puerto Rican producer Omar Alfaro masterminded the addition of Lopez. More important than their consanguinity, however, is Son by Four's commitment to creating innovative music.

If salsa has a future, it is Son by Four -- but it could be that no one will ever know it. Just as Fania cultivated the funk and soul of its African-American neighbors, these young men from Puerto Rico wed James Brown ("Hit me one time," Lopez called to the four percussionists onstage) to Hector Lavoe; Prince to Paulito FG (Javier confesses that he is a timba fanatic); and Marvin Gaye to Victor Manuelle. As the firecracker fountains and glittery confetti erupting during their stage show made sparkling clear, however, these salseros are meant to be celebrities, not spokespeople for their community.

Son by Four: Don't let the 'N Sync look fool you, they sound good
Son by Four: Don't let the 'N Sync look fool you, they sound good
Son by Four: Don't let the 'N Sync look fool you, they sound good
Son by Four: Don't let the 'N Sync look fool you, they sound good

The climax of the Son by Four show came at a nonradio moment, when none of the young men were singing. Just like the good old days, when musicians had something to do onstage and bands served as something more than a backdrop, the brass came down off their perch against the curtain to stand front and center. Lopez held his mike to the bell of the trumpet played by Jorge Marcano, whose puffed-out Dizzy Gillespie cheeks blew a peel that flew straight to Heaven and then right back to the audience, which was transported from spectatorship to a moment of the purest communion. If only the labels would burn such moments on to disc.

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