A Pioneer Gets His Props

Elsten "Fulano" Torres flashed an impetuous grin last month as he gazed at the crowd grooving to his galactic Latin pop at Little Havana's Kimbaracumbara nightclub. He and his band were delivering a funkified version of "Dando vueltas" ("Going in Circles"), with Torres supplying the playful refrain: "I may be going in circles, but I know where I'm going." The song, which describes an artist's decision to choose creative fulfillment over job security, seemed to capture the spirit of his own suddenly triumphant music career.

The Miami-based singer-songwriter has come a long way in the past decade. Many in the audience, in fact, were fans of Torres from his previous band, Fulano de Tal, which helped pioneer Miami's rock en español movement, along with popular outfits such as La Secta AllStar, Volumen Cero, and the recently retired Bacilos.

On this February evening, though, his supporters had gathered to offer Torres a rousing sendoff. He was on his way to the Grammys, in the hopes his self-released bilingual album, Individual, would nab the award for best Latin pop album.

As it turned out, Torres lost to a couple of big names, Guatemala's Ricardo Arjona and Mexico's Julieta Venegas, who shared the award. But that didn't stop him from maintaining a buoyant attitude afterward. "Getting this far and seeing my name and my album up there was a great feeling and an honor," Torres says, adding, "the fact that my indie album was recognized among all these artists who were signed to major labels was an accomplishment of its own."

After years of bum record deals and band breakups, Torres has learned to celebrate whatever good fortune comes his way. He moved to Miami from New York in 1994 and formed a band called Fulano de Tal with a group of recent college grads. Fulano wrote songs with Spanish lyrics, but the band's sound was an amalgam of British alternative rock, New Wave, and Caribbean rhythms.

The band's hit single, "Revolution," recorded on the now-defunct indie label Radio Vox, led to a deal with BMG. In 1997, they released the LP Normal. Rock en español was hugely popular in places like Argentina and Mexico. But it was virtually unheard of in the United States. Fulano de Tal was, in fact, the first U.S.-based rock en español band to be signed to a major label.

"We were working an indie type of product with a major label, and we realized we had to do a lot of our own footwork," Torres explains. BMG, for instance, paid for Fulano de Tal to tour the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico. But the label served mainly as a distributor, failing to promote the band in the cities where it played.

Before long, Fulano de Tal had inked a separate deal to write a jingle for Pepsi's Generation Next campaign, and decided to return to Radio Vox, figuring it would have more creative freedom. The band's sophomore effort, Etc. (1999), did receive some airplay on Spanish-language radio in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, but that wasn't enough to keep the band together when bigger stars came calling. In 2000, guitarist Adam Zimmon and percussionist Brendan Buckley were recruited to play backup for the pop star Shakira.

"Obviously I was disappointed, but I understood their position," Torres says. "We had a great sound and great chemistry as a band. Who knows what would have happened if we would have stayed together?"

What is known is that Fulano de Tal opened doors for its peers to be taken seriously by major labels. Bacilos, for example, signed with Warner Music Latina in 2000 and went on to win a Grammy for best Latin pop album, while La Secta AllStar won the backing of Universal Latino, and scored a major hit with its 2005 album Consejo.

Torres didn't spend too long dwelling on what might have been, though. Instead he took a fruitful detour into songwriting for other artists on the Warner/Chappell Music label. Obie Bermudez's recording of Torres's song "Todo el año" ("All Year") received a Latin Grammy nomination for best song of the year, and had a five-week run as the number one song on the Latin Billboard charts. Torres was also the composer behind such hits as "Caramelo" (Alejandra Guzman), "Tanto" and "Tatuaje" (J.D. Natasha), and "Por una mujer" (Luis Fonsi). To top it all off, Julio Iglesias, Jr.'s 2004 recording of Torres's song "Los demás" ("The Others") reached the Latin Billboard's top 10 and was honored by BMI as "one of the 50 most performed songs on Spanish radio."

Composing paid Torres's bills and gained him some notoriety. It also helped him experiment with his own sound, which he describes as "an eclectic mix of a Cuban kid growing up in New York listening to The Beatles but hearing Beny Moré in the background."

By 2005, Torres had a catalogue of 50 new songs and was itching to get back in front of the mike himself, so he pieced together an informal band and started performing monthly at Little Havana's Hoy Como Ayer nightclub to test out his tunes. Buckley, on break from his duties with Shakira that summer, liked what he heard, so he jumped into the studio to help Torres co-produce a solo album. The pair chose a dozen compositions for what would become the multifaceted Individual, with Zimmon and Buckley returning to perform on the recordings.

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.)

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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Julienne Gage is a Miami-based anthropologist and journalist who has worked as a reporter and as a civil rights and international aid communications specialist in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. Her fieldwork has exposed her to many forms of cultural expression, and during her master’s in anthropology, she studied at Cuba’s Center for the Investigation and Development of Cuban Music.
Contact: Julienne Gage