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."
Understandably Santa Rosa has kept quiet on the subject. "I fall in love with my life more and more each day," he says when quizzed about his current, sentimental state of mind. "I have everything a man could want, and then some. There's nothing to complain about, to be perfectly honest with you."
Some critics, especially the print media, claim that Santa Rosa's way with words and his ability to say exactly what a woman wants to hear, rather than his vocal talents, are responsible for his considerable success -- thanks to self-explanatory favorites such as "Perdóname" ("Forgive Me") and "Vivir Sin Ella" ("Living Without Her"). But he doesn't feel his space is threatened by any of the new salseros on the block.
In fact he's gone out of his way to lend a helping hand. It was Santa Rosa who invited a young kid to sing with him during a high school graduation party in Isabella, Puerto Rico fifteen years ago. But rather than freeze up in stage fright, the kid showed the poise of an old pro, trading soneos (improvisational lyrics) with Santa Rosa.
The encounter left such an impression that several days later Santa Rosa called Don Perignon, who was starting up his own band and had room for another vocalist, to recommend the kid. Santa Rosa set up a meeting with Perignon and the kid, who was sent to the recording studio without an audition.
In 1993, Santa Rosa produced Justo a Tiempo (At the Right Time), the kid's first record. Today that prodigy runs neck-and-neck with Santa Rosa and is routinely mentioned as one of the top-tier soneros in recent memory. His name: Victor Manuelle.
"I'm not going to be one of those guys who is going to sit around feeling sorry for himself when the applause finally ceases," says Santa Rosa. "I view this as a journey, and no matter how much I would like to keep it going, the day is going to come when it all ends. But I can rest easy at night knowing that I've given a lot of people what they've wanted to hear and worked extremely hard doing it."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.