Few people have invested more in the business of salsa than Ralph Mercado. The 59-year-old CEO of RMM Records was in the game before the genre even had a name, representing originators in the early Seventies such as Eddie Palmieri and Ray Barretto. In the universe of Fania Records, whose founder Jerry Masucci popularized the word salsa as a marketing term, Mercado was a prime mover: promoting shows, managing acts, and plunking down much-needed cash. After Fania foundered Mercado established his own label in 1987. RMM Records fueled the fire of long-burning stars Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and Oscar D'Leon while sparking the careers of newer Nuyorican luminaries Marc Anthony and La India. For a brief flash, RMM even signed Cuban island estrellas Issac Delgado and Paulito FG.
Earlier this month both Mercado and RMM filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the face of a $7.7-million judgment awarded songwriter Glenn Moroig. The songwriter alleged copyright infringement and, referring to legislation that applies in the free associated state of Puerto Rico but not on the U.S. mainland, staked a moral rights claim for the alteration of one of his songs by Cheo Feliciano in a documentary film produced in 1996 by RMM Filmworks, Yo Soy ... Del Son a la Salsa (I Am ... From Son to Salsa). According to Mercado's lawyer, Bruce Caplan, a reduction if not a reversal of the ruling is anticipated under U.S. federal law. In the meantime the day-to-day business of RMM continues. While the bankruptcy may well be a quibble on the label's ledgers, it is symbolic of a deeper crisis in salsa as a genre.
Salsa was born, and may perhaps die, by celluloid. The 1973 Nuestra Cosa (Our Latin Thing) introduced the Fania All-Stars in a concert film at the Cheetah nightclub. Then 1974's Salsa confirmed the genre's name and the Fania stable's superstar status with a sold-out show at Yankee Stadium. The early Fania films crackle with the electricity of the new. The kids tapping out clave on tin cans in the back alleys and vacant lots of Nuestra Cosa's New York City are building a brave new Latin world from the refuse of the United States' manifest destiny. The archival footage of Desi Arnaz crooning "Babalu" for an amused Anglo crowd in Salsa is dismissed by sneering narrator Jerry Rivers (yes, Geraldo Rivera before Spanish was hip) as nothing more than a Latin minstrel show that would be run out of town forever by the Seventies' race savior salseros. The 1996 RMM documentary has a more reverent feel, tracing the trajectory the title promises from the origins of salsa in Cuban son through the glory days of Fania, to a sampling of where the sound has ended up: from the romantic R&B-inflected strains of New York's Marc Anthony to the frenetic instrumental high jinks of Havana's Los Van Van. Where Nuestra Cosa was a call to action, Yo Soy ... Del Son a la Salsa is a museum piece, preserving a movement that already has happened.
Long before the advent of MTV, the images of the All-Stars jamming onstage sold enough records for a minority ethnic and largely immigrant group to create an independent music industry of its own. Over the next quarter century, the majors caught on to the selling power of Latin music; as fast as RMM could birth new stars, Sony and others would woo them away. By 1996 Latinos no longer were a community building their own barrios in the belly of the beast. Instead they had become another demographic whose tropically accented desires the marketing departments of the majors would try to tap. Compared to the hemorrhage of RMM's platinum-selling acts, bankruptcy may not even be the heaviest blow sustained by the independent label.
Indeed bankruptcy has done little to deter RMM's promotion of new talent. Last week's Salsa Festival 2000 at the James L. Knight Center opened with a mini-RMM showcase, featuring Cuban-born, Miami-based Vanessa (one name only please; no need to get people riled with the last name of her controversial daddy, Juan Formell, leader of Los Van Van) and Puerto Rican-Colombian hybrid Kevin Ceballos. "I wanted to do a show that would always open the door to new talent," says George Ferro, the Salsa Festival 2000 promoter who counts Ralph Mercado as his "best friend." Ferro compares the duet performed by the pair at the festival and on Ceballos's debut CD with Marc Anthony and La India's now classic "Vivir Lo Nuestro" ("To Live Our Own Thing") recorded for RMM. There's the rub. Vanessa has a tremendous vocal talent that has benefited greatly from her father's exacting standards, however troublesome his political connections. Likewise Ceballos grew up in a musical family, singing from age three at his father's Seventh Day Adventist Church, followed by formal training in high school and college and a long apprenticeship as a back-up vocalist for nearly every big-name New York salsero. Precisely because the two have so much talent, the déjà écoute quality of their performance suggests that salsa, for the moment, is at a standstill. After more than a decade of the romantic salsa that supplanted the Fania style, even the name of Ceballo's current hit, "Mi Primer Amor" ("My First Love"), smacks of places we've been many, many times before.
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That's why the superb show turned out by headliners and Sony artists Son by Four is both cause to rejoice and despair. While the singing of pop salsa has slid steadily away from the nasal Afro-Caribbean style to the full-throated R&B wail perfected by Marc Anthony and carried on by newcomers like Ceballos, the headlining quartet has conquered both the Billboard Latin and R&B charts by prying apart the Afro-Caribbean and African-American styles and then putting them together again in an innovative, deliberate combination, as in their smash "Puro Dolor" ("The Purest of Pain"). That's the good news.
The bad news is that Sony doesn't quite know quite what to do about it. "I'm 29 years old," complained R&B standout Angel Lopez in an interview here while the group was recording its English-language disc in Kendall. "I can't be in a boy band." But boy-band marketing is exactly the treatment the four young men in their mid to late twenties have received so far. The pairing of the quartet with 'N Sync at the Latin Grammys further eclipsed their genuine musicality. So far from being manufactured in a strip mall, the group originally was composed of brothers Javier and Jorge Montes with their cousin Pedro Quiles. Venerable Puerto Rican producer Omar Alfaro masterminded the addition of Lopez. More important than their consanguinity, however, is Son by Four's commitment to creating innovative music.
If salsa has a future, it is Son by Four -- but it could be that no one will ever know it. Just as Fania cultivated the funk and soul of its African-American neighbors, these young men from Puerto Rico wed James Brown ("Hit me one time," Lopez called to the four percussionists onstage) to Hector Lavoe; Prince to Paulito FG (Javier confesses that he is a timba fanatic); and Marvin Gaye to Victor Manuelle. As the firecracker fountains and glittery confetti erupting during their stage show made sparkling clear, however, these salseros are meant to be celebrities, not spokespeople for their community.
The climax of the Son by Four show came at a nonradio moment, when none of the young men were singing. Just like the good old days, when musicians had something to do onstage and bands served as something more than a backdrop, the brass came down off their perch against the curtain to stand front and center. Lopez held his mike to the bell of the trumpet played by Jorge Marcano, whose puffed-out Dizzy Gillespie cheeks blew a peel that flew straight to Heaven and then right back to the audience, which was transported from spectatorship to a moment of the purest communion. If only the labels would burn such moments on to disc.