By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
The last thing Luis Goecoechea planned to do was play in another Latin band. Never mind that he heard nothing but the likes of Orquesta Aragon, Machito, and Chico O'Farrill when he was growing up. "My father would put on his records and say, I want to hear you sing the second trumpet part,'" the bass player remembers. "I listened to the greatest music when I was a kid."
Never mind that when he was twelve and thirteen, Goecoechea used to go to every Fania All-Star concert in New York City during salsa's golden age in the early Seventies; he was tall for his age, wore a glue-on moustache his father bought him, and showed a fake ID that belonged to his cousin to the bouncers at the Cheetah. "Back then there was no singer-star guy," he says. "Every orchestra had its own distinctive sound." He recites the names reverently: "Larry Harlow, Eddy Guagua, Eddie Palmieri. There was no pretty boy up front. There were stars, but the stars deserved to be stars."
It didn't even matter that he used to sign out a bass from high school and sneak out in the middle of the night to play gigs while his folks thought he was still too young. Or that when he was a little older and living in Miami, he would go on to play with Willie Chirino and Hansel y Raul and his favorite viejos in Conjunto Universal, once the city's most popular big band. "That was a really great time to be here," he says wistfully. Even the dancers were colorful: "Guys would wear six-inch heels with fish swimming around in them."
"We grew up the same way, with our parents being musicians," adds Johnny Aguilo, Goecoechea's bandmate in the local son outfit Conjunto Progreso. Goecoechea can trace his immediate bloodline to players with Xavier Cugat, Noro Morales, Tito Puente, Charly and Eddie Palmieri, and Tito Rodriguez. His dad sat in as a percussionist with jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and recorded with Aretha Franklin. Aguilo's forebears graced such legendary Havana outfits as Conjunto Casa Blanca and the Lecuona Cuban Boys. "People like Los Papines, Celia Cruz came through our house," he remembers. "I came [to the United States] in 1967 and we went straight to New York until 1975. All that time I got to see Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe."
"Those were real musicians that were able to stretch," Goecoechea interrupts. "Now they just want the singer to sing for three minutes. It's a package. You put the singer on the box and the bands all sound the same."
So Goecoechea got out of the music business. Aguilo, along with Conjunto Progreso co-founder Jose Elias, spent years trying to coax him back into the biz.
What finally changed his mind?
"Conjunto Progreso has broken down all that crap," says the prodigal bass man. "Let's just play the music the way it's meant to be played."
That was the idea. When Aguilo got a call offering a gig for an authentic son outfit, he jumped at the chance, even though he didn't actually have a band. He called Elias, a guitar player with jazz ensemble Mantra who he knew had taken up the Cuban string-instrument known as the tres, and taken it up well. Since then, Progreso has gone through a series of changes and now boasts four generations of players, including a guest appearance this weekend by Luis Mirando, who played congas with Machito; the seasoned brothers Rolando and Idialberto Perez on lead vocals and congas; Aguilo and Goecoechea, who cut their teeth on Seventies salsa; and Elias, representing the latest generation to turn to son.
"Son to me is so infectious," says Elias of his attraction to the old-time sound. "We're going back and doing something traditional in as traditional a way as possible. The music is not processed like a lot of salsa, with electronic effects and a high level of production. We don't even have a piano. We're just like peasants, playing tres and guitar and talking to the heart. We're keeping a tradition alive."