The Morning After

With the salsa market saturated in the Seventies by the ever-multiplying Fania All-Stars and their imitators in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Colombia, and the Bronx, "romantic" or "erotic" salsa emerged in the mid-Eighties to stimulate exhausted fans. Gone was mean street talk of prostitutes and prison raps improvised over pounding percussion. Instead a slower rhythm seduced the airwaves, with lyrics of love and softcore lust teasing listeners for nearly a decade. Then fickle salsa fans lost that loving feeling and began looking around for fresh rhythms. Now in their late thirties and early forties, salsa's spurned Romeos have adapted to the times.

One of the first hits of the erotic wave was Eddie Santiago's "Tu Me Quemas" ("You Burn Me"), a single so revolutionary it was rushed into release in Puerto Rico in October 1986. "We left the recording studio with the song in my hand and went directly to the radio station," recalls Santiago in a recent interview. "The song was a home run. The album and cover were quickly made in a weekend because it was the demo, and it was not a disc at all."

Then in his early twenties, Santiago struck out on his own after two years with the Conjunto Chaney, where he noticed his gentle vocal style drew an enthusiastic female following. "Before I started in Chaney, I was fired from a group because the way I sang was really soft and not aggressive like the typical salseros," he explains, "and at that moment that was the style that people wanted." The negative comments of fellow musicians did not deter the young Santiago. "I had faith," he says. Influenced not only by salsa but by rock, pop, and ballad as well, Santiago established a unique style. When he signed his first contract as a soloist in 1986 with TH Rodven, he resisted the label's effort to convince him to replicate Chaney's typical salsa approach. "I was clear that I had left Chaney," says the salsero. "I wanted to establish my own signature."

Santiago's innovations made an impact on another 24-year-old Puerto Rican also striking out on his own. Growing up singing salsa professionally as a child, Gilberto Santa Rosa was just saying goodbye to Willie Rosario's orchestra after a six-year stint to try his luck as a soloist. "Eddie and I went out on the market at the same time," he recalls. "I remember, because at the time my album was on the radio for two weeks, it seemed like Eddie controlled the planet. My disc was there defending itself, but “Tu Me Quemas' conquered the whole country." Earning the moniker El Caballero de la Salsa (Salsa's Gentleman), Santa Rosa adopted Santiago's gentle delivery but toned down the overt sexual lyrics of salsa erotica. While Santiago and others sang of wet sheets and bare skin, Santa Rosa delivered flowers, chocolates, and serenades.

Overwhelming demand for this relationship-based salsa changed the shape of the salsa band, leading a number of singers to leave well-known orchestras and flood the market as solo artists, most notably David Pabon with "Aquel Viejo Motel" ("That Old Motel") and Lalo Rodriguez with "Ven Devorame Otra Vez" ("Come Devour Me Again"). Luis Enrique transformed not only the music but the image of the salsero, putting a handsome face and dandy wardrobe on the new salsa brand.

Looking back Santa Rosa admits it was not easy for him to join the movement because the themes did not inspire him, though he says figures like Santiago, Rodriguez, and Enrique introduced a new diversity. More important, he notes, is the legacy of solo singing. "We unintentionally created the “era of singers,'" he says, "and from '85 or '86 until today, the singer has essentially become the principle figure. We were the bridge generation between the traditional salsa singers and the new ones."

After romantic salsa lost its charm and the erotic climax subsided, the contemporary Cuban salsa style known as timba impregnated New York salsa, thanks to producer Sergio George and his work with stars such as Jerry Rivera, Mark Anthony, and La India. More recently Luis Enrique has thrown himself headlong into the Cuban style, recording his 2000 Evolución with musicians recently immigrated from the island and setting his early romantic hits to new timba-charged arrangements for live shows.

Santiago and Santa Rosa have resisted the return to a more aggressive salsa, opting to conserve the musical identity each has defined over the course of his career. In Santiago's recently released Ahora (Now), the suave singer carries on erotic themes while taking advantage of current recording technology to literally fine-tune his silky delivery. By contrast Santa Rosa is as romantic as ever on Intenso (Intense) but boasts more complicated instrumentation than was typical of the romantic period to back up the accomplished delivery that earned the Gentleman a Latin Grammy nomination for best salsa record this past week. Santa Rosa jokes, "Some of us who became known through this new movement are still on the scene and causing trouble."

Translated by Celeste Fraser Delgado