A Pioneer Gets His Props

A decade after he helped introduce America to rock en español, Elsten "Fulano" Torres hits it big

The album is a mix of old Fulano de Tal-style rock and the lighter pop Torres came to appreciate while writing for mainstream Latin artists. "It still has a bit of edginess, but it's more about getting a songwriter message across," Torres explains. "I used to be very cautious about being too poppy or too commercial. I'm definitely less snobby than I used to be because there's good music in any genre."

That said, Torres says Latin commercial radio could stand to be "shaken up a bit," and he thinks independent artists are the ones who should do it, precisely because no one's telling them what to do.

On Individual, he has figured out how to rock the airwaves without throwing commercial wisdom overboard. The upbeat rock number "When Summer Comes" runs in the vein of alternative pop artist Michael Penn: not too hard, but not too sappy. "La noche entera" ("All Night Long") mines the softer side of Latin pop, with Maria "Solar" Martinez's back-up vocals seconding Torres as he bemoans the inevitable monotony of coupledom. Torres uses whimsical ragtime blues to express a romance that withstands those dry periods on "I Will Always Have This Love." That one is appropriately dedicated to his wife Beatriz "Bozenka" Arencibia, the 2000 Miss America of Belly Dance. Her choreography rounded out the visuals on Torres's "Dando vueltas" video, which is due for release later this month. (The video playfully portrays Torres as a mariachi player one moment, and a white-tuxedoed prom king the next, as Bozenka and a troupe of about 30 belly dancers gyrate around him.)


Fulano performs at 10:00 p.m. on Friday, March 2, at Kimbaracumbara, 1644 SW 8th St, Miami. Call 305-642-8822 for more information.

Individual is clearly Torres's brainchild, but he often sounds more comfortable lavishing praise on his collaborators than touting his own efforts. He credits Zimmon — and his stint as a guitarist for the Spam All-Stars — with funking up his sound. Keyboardist Peter Wallace, he says, offers a melodic versatility that spans influences from Chopin to Ray Charles. Bass player Ricardo Martinez contributes a solid knowledge of pop rock. And so on. "I try not to overstep their creative process because ultimately (their contributions) make for a better song," Torres says.

His bandmates echo the praise. "He's always written these really unique pop songs and he's never been able to compromise, even when he was writing for other people, so for a long time his struggle was for being himself," Zimmon says. "It's great to see people recognize him for being a great songwriter, 'cause I always knew it."

Torres says he's open to signing a deal with another major label, but only one that offers a clear vision for his career. Mostly he's hopeful that his own success as an independent artist will inspire others to find mainstream commercial success without feeling pressured to sell out their own voices.

Torres's Grammy nomination is "a representation of all that is independent," says Sacha Nairobi, an independent Venezuelan singer-songwriter and colleague of Torres. "It means that we're all going to get there; we're all going to win — all of us who are unknown, all of us who are working hard, all of us who aren't yet selling."

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