Venezuelan Invasion

Guaco is salsa's best kept secret

Topping 110 degrees in the summertime, Maracaibo has the highest average temperature in the hemisphere. Indoors, however, the oil-rich industrial city in northwestern Venezuela is one of the coldest places on Earth. Matrons draped in furs overcompensate for the heat with air-conditioner settings that would chill a polar bear. This contrast between hot and cold might explain the sizzling cool of Guaco, the 22-piece dance ensemble first formed as a folklore troupe by a group of adolescents on a Maracaibo street corner more than 40 years ago.

Releasing 28 records over the past three decades, Guaco has become a national institution and earned the nickname "Venezuela's superband." A survey in 1998 by McDonald's Venezuelan operations even made the bizarre discovery that Guaco transmits the same values Ronald's food chain aspires to: "fun, family time, and quality service." If the Golden Arches found Guaco the perfect sound to sell their Venezuelan franchise, however, the salseros have been less successful in selling themselves outside their homeland. Only since the 1999 release of their disc Amazonas on the Miami-based Ashé Records has their ebullient salsa style become widely available in the United States.

The orchestra crowded the mammoth stage erected for the Toyota Super Festival at the Tamiami Fairgrounds this past December 3. Elbow to codo were four singers, three trumpets, a trombone, a tenor sax, bass, keyboards, electric guitar, a drum set, timbales, tumbadores, and bongos, as well as tamboras and the charrasca, two percussion instruments used to play gaita, the folkloric music of the Venezuelan plains. Band leader and vocalist Gustavo Aguado got off to an inaudible start, crooning into a faulty mike. Taking another microphone offered him by singer Luis Fernando Borjas, Aguado announced, "We're going to stop. There's no point if there's no sound." After much jiggling of cables and sound checking, the orchestra welled up again, this time with Aguado's deep bass thundering over the layered keyboards and bass of "La Turbelencia" ("The Turbulence"), a hit written for the 1998 career survey Como Era y Como Es (How It Was and How It Is). To the rhythm of the clave and the gaita, "The Turbulence" throws in a touch of old-school funk and new-world flamenco pop.

Compared with the standard sets of the better-known acts on the festival bill -- Celia Cruz, Grupo Niche, and El Gran Combo -- Guaco's arrangements are complex. Electric guitars snake around an elusive clave as the disparate percussive styles of the Caribbean and the Venezuelan interior interlock in an elaborate rhythmic scheme. The drumming is hot, but the overall effect is cool and controlled. The energy contrasts sharply to the all-out assault of timba; the flavor must be savored slowly. "The idea," explains Aguado, "is to maintain an equilibrium between the music for the feet and the music for the head."

At just about 60 years old, Aguado conveys the same enthusiasm today that he must have exuded in the early Sixties, when he and his sister and a group of their friends picked out gaita tunes on the streets of their native Maracaibo. Looking for a way to identify themselves for gigs at weddings and house parties, they chose the name of a bird said to augur bad luck that happened to be flying overhead during their discussion. That perverse stroke continues to characterize the experimental nature of Guaco's compositions. "We're just as likely to listen to the classics of Fania as we are to the Red Hot Chili Peppers," boasts Aguado. "I love James Brown. One of the younger guys might like Jamiroquai. We mix it all in there." The songs of the past decade also bear the traces of tropical acts from Los Van Van to Luis Enrique, who has played with the group in Venezuela, as have Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, and Gilberto Santa Rosa; but these influences are always distilled into Guaco's restructured gaita.

When the veteran Aguado leaves the stage to the younger vocalists, the three singers execute intricate footwork while keeping their upper bodies loose, almost still. "That's it!" laughs soloist and composer Jorge Luis Chacin backstage after the show. "It's all in the feet." The unassuming young man who penned many of Guaco's hits in the past decade is not quite ready to concede Guaco's equilibrium between feet and brain. "We're hoping for massification," he admits of their efforts in the past year to break into the United States and Europe. "But," he adds hopefully, "that doesn't mean diluting the music."

Maybe. Maybe not. Rachel Faro, president of Ashé Records, attributes Guaco's lack of distribution beyond the land of Bolivar so far to their innovative bent. "Puerto Ricans say they can't dance to it because of the rhythm of the gaita," she reports. "Also the music is too sophisticated. Apart from the founders, these are guys educated at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, or at Juilliard, or at conservatories in Venezuela." Faro further speculates that the Venezuelan public has higher expectations of popular music given the prevalence of orchestras throughout the nation. "Every little town has an orchestra," she points out. "The big cities have three or four."

Marcos Campos-Salas has another theory. Currently a Miami resident, Campos-Salas played keyboards and sax with Guaco from 1988 through 1995, as well as serving as musical director for live performances. (Trumpeter and arranger Juan Carlos Salas has long served as general musical director.) Campos -Salas chalks up Guaco's limited international exposure to "a problem of management; they need a representative who can really make them known." He suspects that the enormous success Guaco has enjoyed back home has kept them from pursuing greener pastures. "This is just my opinion," he says candidly, "but they need to make some sacrifices to get outside a little more. Even if there's not much money in it at first; you're paying for an apprenticeship. Sometimes Gustavo [Aguado] himself is a little too comfortable in Venezuela."

Apart from a one-day whirl of shows at the Lincoln Center and the Copacabana in New York City last year, Guaco's appearances in the neighborhood to their north have been limited. "It's always for the Venezuelan community," observes Aguado. The Toyota Super Festival was no exception, sponsored in part by the local community newspaper El Venezolano and the new Venezuelan-owned pan-American daily El Diario. Antonio Obregon, an event coordinator for El Venezolano, estimates that roughly 150,000 Venezuelans live in Florida, but he claims that the annual Venezuelan Independence Day celebration sponsored by his paper draws compatriots from as far away as North Carolina and even Minnesota. The turnout at the Toyota Super Festival on a chilly December afternoon, says Obregon, "was not what we had hoped."

With vast stretches of the Tamiami Fairgrounds as open and empty as the Venezuelan plains, the masses huddled before the main stage showed a decided preference for Guaco. The usual nationality roll call turned up few Cubans or Puerto Ricans, Celia Cruz and the Gran Combo notwithstanding. Instead grandmothers, teenagers, and middle-age men wearing hats and T-shirts emblazoned with "Venezuela" all noisily demanded an encore after Guaco filed offstage. The masters of ceremony attempted to distract the crowd with banter, but the chants of "Gua-co, Gua-co," drowned them out. Guaco came back, jamming with the combined familiarity and freshness of musicians who know one another well enough to risk taking the music to a territory they do not know. After that, neither the bright orange wig worn by Celia Cruz nor the prospect of the perfectly executed series of familiar standards by Grupo Niche and El Gran Combo could persuade a significant portion of the audience to brave the December chill.

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