By Jacob Katel
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Even after all these years, Puerto Rican salsero/crooner Gilberto Santa Rosa still finds himself fighting off a bevy of critics.
Okay, so those extra pounds around Santa Rosa's midsection may not be ideal for the always popular magazine photo shoots or steamy CD covers. That weight hasn't proven to be beneficial when it's showtime, either, as his onstage moves during concerts consist of a handful of steps that always come across as overly rehearsed. He's not a very good dancer.
A lack of vocal range -- he often struggles to the point of straining to hit high notes -- has kept Santa Rosa from being classified as a great performer. But it's hard to argue with the trajectory of a popular artist who has, over the past three decades, made fifteen albums for Sony Discos; sold millions of records throughout Latin America and Latino communities in the U.S.; received a 2004 nomination for his latest effort, Auténtico, as Best Salsa/Merengue Album; and secured godlike status in his native Puerto Rico. Besides, it's all his other traits when he disappears behind the curtains -- sincere, humble, and devoted to his craft -- that have helped "El Caballero de la Salsa" ("Salsa's Gentleman") become such a revered figure.
So, like it or not, Santa Rosa doesn't feel he needs to prove anything to anybody.
"I've always been a hard worker and tried in vain to carry out the passion I feel for my job to my audience," says Santa Rosa, who remains calm and focused throughout the interview. "I still learn something every day."
One of the most established international salsa singers of his generation, the 44-year-old Santa Rosa has reached the top of his profession by adding new formulas to the authentic rhythms of the genre. He includes the traditions of other Latin American countries; for example, "Esta Parte de Mi" ("This Side of Mine") incorporates an accordion, a sound that Colombians, Panamanians, and even Dominicans can identify with. He has stayed afloat through two glorified time periods in salsa history, the politicized "Nuyorican" movement in the Seventies and the "romantic" salsa scene of today, exhibiting the kind of diversity that could find him belting out a son such as "Botaron la Pelota" ("They Let Go of the Ball") or a traditional salsa such as "A la Concencia" ("Conscience"), all the while keeping the old in tune with the new.
Santa Rosa's formal musical education is limited. Still, at twelve years old he got a chance to sing on a 1975 Christmas special for a television station. A year later he joined good friend Pedro Morales Cortijo, better known as Don Perignon, to start La Evolucion 65, an a cappella duo that played a repertoire of original songs.
When he was age seventeen, Santa Rosa got a major break when Tommy Olivencia offered him a spot in La Primerísima as a backup singer. Santa Rosa made the most of his appearances and often filled in for lead voice Simon Madera, whose personal problems led him to occasionally skip out on scheduled performances. In May of 1981, legendary percussionist and bandleader Willie Rosario called on him to join fellow crooners Bobby Concepcion and Tony Vega in Willie Rosario y su Orquesta. Santa Rosa, who was then a freshman at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan, gained instant recognition as the lead voice on hits such as "Lluvia" ("Rain") and "Botaron la Pelota."
Santa Rosa left Rosario's band in 1986 at the age of 24. He kicked off his solo act with Combo Records and made three albums, including Amor y Salsa (Love and Salsa) in 1990. Several months later he signed a deal with Sony Discos, recording Punto de Vista (Point of View) in 1991. The lyrics in his music brought a romanticism to salsa that hadn't been heard since his idols Cheo Feliciano and Tito Rodriguez were recording in the Sixties and Seventies.
Last August Santa Rosa issued his latest album, Auténtico(Authentic). It peaked at number 3 on the Billboard Latin album charts and sold so well that it entered the mainstream album charts at number 195. While it includes plenty of the guarachas, sons, and ballads on which he built his reputation, he also experiments with samba, reggaeton, and a touch of hip-hop. "Lo Que Arrasó" ("What Destroyed"), an up-tempo guaracha, mixes samba with Peruvian drumbeats, a far cry from the usually straightforward approach of his material. "I've always said that in this business you have to grow with the times, and I really feel I've done that here," he says. "Auténtico represents a little of everything that Gilberto Santa Rosa is as a musician."
Meanwhile cuts such as "Y Si No Te Vuelvo a Ver" ("And If I Don't See You Again") hint at the problems surrounding Santa Rosa's marriage, which reportedly ended after twenty years last year, shortly before Auténtico's release, amid accusations of his infidelity. "I can't let this lonely feeling grow and want to forget that you left, but my heart won't allow it," he sings. "If I don't see you again, I'll be a lot happier ... yeah right."