Prodigal Son

Bogotá, 1998. It was another bummer of a Valentine's Day. In Colombia the lovers' holiday is known as the Day of Love and Friendship, and though it falls in October rather than February, the end result is likely to be as disappointing as Uncle Sam's celebration of the saint of sweet nothings. High expectations lead to broken hearts. In the first flush of infatuation, I bought tickets for my beau and myself to see a salsa concert featuring the legendary Puerto Rican showmen El Gran Combo and their compatriot Victor Manuelle, a popular upstart all the newspapers in the city insisted on calling the "voice of the youth."

More than any other public, Colombian fans have kept the fire of salsa burning by loyally turning out for classic acts while opening their wallets and ears to nurture fresh talent hailing from all points on the clave: from Ponce to Cali, from Havana to the Bronx. Nightclubs still play old-school favorites such as El Gran Combo's working-stiff standard "El Menu," and the pastries, roast pig, pigeon peas, and rum the song celebrates taste as fresh now as they did in the 1970s. Meanwhile the radio blasts unknowns who, like Manuelle, often splash big in Colombia before making a ripple anywhere else. Since his 1993 debut album, Manuelle has burned up the Colombian charts with a series of six CDs, the most recent of which, Inconfundible, currently has four hits lodged in the Andean nation's Top 10. Much of the youthful singer's popularity in this nation of salsa aficionados lies in his attempt to fuse the commercial imperatives of contemporary romantic salsa with the percussive power, complex arrangements, and virtuoso vocal improvisations characteristic of salsa's golden era.

On that Day of Love and Friendship, 80,000 people crammed together for a romantic evening in a soccer stadium. My so-called boyfriend stood me up. Alone amid the multitude, I watched crews clear away the little bit of history danced by the still spry Gran Combo and contemplated the current state of Caribbean soul. Was it just my melancholy mood, I wondered, or were the complaints of so many salsa-ologists true? Had the once rhythm-charged chronicle of life in the barrio come to nothing more than empty promises of romantic love splayed across uninspired musical arrangements destined only to clutter up Latin pop bins? Cutting short my bitter reverie, Victor Manuelle took the stage.

"Tell me things tonight that will hurt me," Manuelle began, solitary in the spotlight. The crowd roared with recognition at the opening lines of "Palabra y Pensamiento" ("Word and Thought"). "Do things to me tonight that will cause me harm," he continued, begging his lover to do him wrong so he can end a relationship gone boring. Stinging from my own betrayal, I thrilled at Manuelle's proposition of masochistic pleasure.

Then, in the pause between those histrionic lines, I heard something more: the spare echo of the conga that accompanies Ruben Blades's trademark tough guy down the mean streets of the "old barrio" in the opening verses of salsa's transnational anthem, "Pedro Navaja" ("Mack the Knife"). Tum-kataka-taka. Tum-kataka-taka. Here was the vibrant dialogue between voice and instruments lost when the hard edge of classic salsa gave way to dull lament and synthesized accompaniment during the long reign of salsa romantica.

"Understand me," Manuelle pleaded in the idiom of romance, but the piano responded with the percussive punctuation of a tumbao. "You know that once you were everything in my being," he lamented, and the trumpets peeled out into a prolongation of the rhythm of his words. "There's nothing left of this love," the chorus insisted, their nasal intonation sweet with the flavor of street-corner song. When the set chorus-verse section ended and the descarga began, Manuelle's virtuoso soneos kicked in. In the growing frenzy of call and response, the young sonero suddenly left the stage. He scrambled up a mechanized post meant to support a television camera and danced on a tiny platform that extended far out over the heads of the audience. From this precarious height, Manuelle's vocal improvisations soared, elevating the soap opera elements of contemporary salsa lyrics into the musical heavens inhabited by the legends of old.

"No, there was no choreographer," confesses the daredevil singer of his aerial high jinks as I drag him down memory lane with me on a recent afternoon in a CocoWalk café. "I saw that post and made the most of it," he says with a laugh. "Later on I realized it was probably pretty dangerous."

Avoiding the tightly scripted stage shows of many contemporary Latin acts, Manuelle aspires to the spontaneous communion with the audience seen in the landmark concert films produced by the New York-based Fania Records, Nuestra Cosa (Our Latin Thing, from 1973) and Salsa (1974). As the credits state, these films feature "the Latin people of New York" in starring roles alongside the first salsa greats, among them El Gran Combo, Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe, and Willie Colon. Performing as an ensemble, the Fania All-Stars demanded ritual, not spectacle.

Manuelle participated in the rites of salsa from earliest childhood, growing up in the small Puerto Rican town of Isabela in a house filled with the early records. "My father was a Fania fanatic," he recalls. During his youth Manuelle sang in a salsa outfit with his cousin. In the high school band he played trumpet, like his idol Colon. By age seventeen he had begun to sing professionally, taking up the chorus with legends such as Ismael Rivera and Cheo Feliciano.

Roughly the same age as the social phenomena of salsa, Manuelle's own style has developed along the same lines as the music itself. Reflecting on his persistent persona as the tragic victim of love, the eternal All-Stars fan tells how he grew from a hard salsa kid to a hard-knocks lover. "The first salseros used to sing about people in the street and social problems. The genre used to be a lot more machista," he explains. "Nowadays women are the ones who buy the music, so the lyrics reflect what women want to hear."

Dressed for a Univision promo shoot in a smart black sweater, Manuelle seems to have been groomed to reflect what women want to see as well. He sports braces that will eventually eliminate any possible imperfections in his jaunty smile. His frequently downcast eyes smolder like the obscure orbs of a lounge singer in a smoky bar.

"Women like to think they make men suffer," he observes. "At the same time, when women sing my songs at home, I think they turn the words around and invert the roles. They're singing to the men who cheat on them and leave them all alone." In wholehearted agreement I recount the callous mistreatment that brought me to his Valentine's show in Bogotá all by my lonesome. "You came to exactly the wrong place," the singer says with a laugh. "All my songs are about the suffering of love." Manuelle's penchant for exploring the dark side of commercially mandated passions often comes close to a mockery of romance. "I don't like sweet songs," he says, using the English word to convey just how foreign sappy sentiment feels. "As an interpreter the drama gives you more to do. Pain and suffering let you take this romantic salsa to another level."

Like the hopeful groom in an arranged marriage, Manuelle makes the most of the material at hand. "Salsa might perhaps be living one of its best moments right now," he says gamely. "You might even say it has the same rhythm now as did classic salsa, but it's more romantic and more danceable."

Be that as it may, Manuelle continues to dally with his first love. Even though today's star may have eclipsed his idols in record scales and concert draw, he remains faithful to the Fania legacy in his own way. For an upcoming show in Miami, promoters once again proclaim Manuelle the voice of "youth" and present Willie Colon, the Puerto Rican powerhouse who set the aggressive brass standard of classic salsa, as the voice of "experience."

Sharing the stage with Colon, Manuelle steps into the very big shoes of Hector Lavoe, the late, great Fania star who recorded with the trumpeter masterworks such as "El Día de Mi Suerte" ("My Lucky Day") and "Calle Luna, Calle Sol" ("Moon Street, Sun Street"). Manuelle presages this bid for succession on his 1996 self-titled CD, where among the lady-pleasing hits he squeezes in a noncommercial, high-octane guanguancó that pays homage to Lavoe as the "singer of singers." Here Manuelle takes his place in the salsa pantheon by identifying the traits that make him worthy: "They say if you have the drum in your soul and the flavor of the street in your voice, you will be a great sonero." The much-touted voice of youth asserts his own credentials with the chorus and title of the song -- "Ahora me Toca a Mí" ("Now It's My Turn").

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Celeste Fraser Delgado