Miami Maestro

Cuban band leader Roberto Torres rarely performs in Miami these days, but on a recent morning he is eager to reprise his personal hit parade for an audience of one. The venue: the office of his independent record label, Guajiro Records, located in a small warehouse in west Miami-Dade. The stage: the high-back leather chair behind Torres's desk.

Dressed in a silky print shirt and black slacks, Torres digs around in his desk drawer, emerges triumphantly with a tape, and pops it into the stereo system under a framed drawing of José Martí that is flanked by four gold records. He leans back in his chair as the Latin disco beat he calls "salsoul" fills the room.

"Sha-ba-da-ba-da-ba," Torres riffs to the chorus of "Cuentame Tu Historia," a Seventies fusion of Cuban son, barrio salsa, and ghetto soul that in its day enjoyed a brief rotation on local Latin radio. The tape rolls on and Torres's rich, emotive singing booms above his recorded voice on several romantic ballads and classic Cuban numbers. His gold pinkie ring flashes as he taps out the rhythm on the chair's armrests.

For an encore he selects his recording of "Cuando Tu Me Quieres," a bolero made famous by Cuban crooner Roberto Faz. As he sings along, Torres's head tilts back, his eyes close, and his arms wave expressively in the air. He has departed the office for the spotlight in some swanky nightclub of his imagination.

As he turns back to his desk at the end of the song, a dreamy look spreads across Torres's face. He picks up an LP from 1975, on which he appears on the cover wearing a white polyester suit, polka-dot shirt, shaggy hair, and long sideburns. His hairline is two decades higher now, and his pate glistens with perspiration. He calls to his wife, Marlen, an infectiously cheerful woman who sits in the next room tending to the company's accounting books. Torres asks her to turn up the air conditioning.

He languidly shuffles through a pile of LPs by Benny Moré, Oscar D'Leon, the Fania All-Stars, and then studies the baby-face picture of himself with New York's Orquesta Broadway on the cover of their 1968 record Pruebalo Mi Amor -- Try It Out, My Love. It includes a cha-cha-cha version of the 1967 Peter, Paul, and Mary hit "I Dig Rock and Roll Music."

More stacks of vinyl sit in a closet, where a dozen Latin-music awards line a shelf along with gifts from fans abroad: African sculpture and a pair of oversize castanets from the Canary Islands. Plaques from various Latin-music critics' associations and civic groups cover the office walls, naming Torres best salsa performer or folkloric music artist of past years, and citing his "outstanding contribution toward Hispanic culture." A proclamation signed by former Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez declares August 5, 1986, "Roberto Torres Day."

Buoyed by his accolades, surrounded by old photos and trophies, listening to the albums that have served as the soundtrack to his quest for the American dream, 59-year-old Torres can take comfort in his past. His office shrine helps to soften a harsh truth: Forty years after coming to this country and two decades after founding his record label, Torres himself is something of a musical relic, though a proudly stubborn one.

He cherishes his memories of being among those immigrants from Cuba and Puerto Rico who, in the Sixties and Seventies, jammed nightly in New York clubs and by day canvassed record stores with their latest releases in tow. "These days in this industry they're not looking for artists or singers; they're looking for beauty," Torres says with disdain. "If you're not pretty, you're a failure. Today there are two things you have to have to be an artist: Be good-looking and dance well, pretty and a good body and forget the rest. You could be mute; it doesn't matter. You can have a hit; you can be famous."

Most who know Torres's name still associate him with his 1981 radio hit "Caballo Viejo." (listen -- see end for more clips) The song, composed as a vallenato by Venezuelan songwriter Simon Diaz, was performed by Torres with a Cuban son flavor. (It was later rearranged and recorded by the Gipsy Kings as the megahit "Bamboleo.") But Torres, who moved to Miami in 1986 from New York, was not exactly a one-tune wonder. He was a founding member of Orquesta Broadway, the seminal New York charanga band, and went on to record more than twenty albums with his own band. As a producer and label owner, he has been committed to keeping authentic Cuban music alive, giving Cuban exile musicians a chance to record when they were otherwise ignored. The Guajiro catalogue is a treasure-trove for Latin-music buffs, and includes albums by trumpeter Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros, sonero Papaito, violinist Alfredo de la Fe, and the popular New York group Charanga de la 4. Torres himself was recording his own versions of classics by Benny Moré and other prerevolutionary idols long before Cuban nostalgia hit the international charts.

"I can remember when Roberto Torres was a major star," says Carlos Suarez, the Latin-music buyer and manager of Esperanto Music on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road. "He has an excellent history, not only as a recording artist but as a producer. He's done everything in the record business, but he's forgotten. Before all these people got into Latin music, he was already here."

On a recent evening, wailing trumpets pierce the after-hours silence surrounding a dark stretch of warehouses near Miami International Airport. A group of men in jeans or shorts and T-shirts stand around a deserted loading dock, chatting in Spanish and downing bottles of Budweiser, trying to slake their thirst in the oppressive heat of a July night. With their red eyes and slack, weary faces, they look like truckers ending a day's run. But they have only just reported to work.

The warehouse is home to Concert Sound of Miami, a company that supplies audio equipment for live shows and street festivals. A high-ceilinged room just inside the front door is also available for rent as a rehearsal hall, and some members of Torres's band have already begun to assemble there, sitting on folding chairs under fluorescent lights.

Lazaro Gonzalez, a 51-year-old trumpeter who has played with Los Van Van, Adalberto Alvarez, and Pacho Alonso in Cuba, has gigged sporadically with Torres for ten years. The previous weekend he accepted a job playing merengue with a Colombian band at a wedding, and he's pleased that tonight he will actually get to play Cuban music. "But any job that pays is a good job," he concedes. Like Gonzalez, others here tonight are long-time local Latin sidemen who have played a circuit that typically includes stints with venerable Miami Latin bands led by Hansel and Raul, Willy Chirino, and Carlos Oliva. These days they take what they can get.

Other players in Torres's band have reported to rehearsal from their day jobs -- maraca and guiro player Tony Columbie owns a medical-supply company. Others teach. Trumpet player Lenny Timor, an auto mechanic, says he only plays with Torres if he has nothing more pressing (i.e., profitable) to do. "Making a living from your music is fantastic," says Timor. "But a lot of us can't." They certainly could not survive on what they make playing with Torres.

The band leader sits at the front of the room sorting through a folder of worn sheet music, which he distributes to the musicians as they file in. The band, thirteen men in all, hasn't assembled since their last job, a private party they played about a month ago. At tonight's rehearsal the group includes three trumpets, two trombones, an upright bass, congas, timbales, and flute. Keyboardist Carlos Infante directs the musicians with his left hand as he plays with his right.

Despite working together only sporadically, the musicians play with remarkable cohesion, their brassy sound providing the heart-thumping rush that only a big band can. They run through a set of Cuban classics and salsa standards that would appeal to a Miami audience.

Torres moved his family to South Florida to escape the Northern winters, and also because of Miami's increasing importance as a center for the Latin-music business. But when he arrived here in the mid-Eighties, he was surprised to find that the once-vibrant live-music scene was in decline. He cites a now-familiar reason for the downturn in music venues: Club owners have replaced live bands with DJs or small groups that cost less. "I talk to a club owner and tell him I have ten musicians at $100 each," explains Torres. "Then I have to make at least $200 myself. That's $1200. He comes back to me and tells me he's got a guy with a synthesizer who'll do it for $800."

Upon his arrival in Miami more than a decade ago, Torres organized a band and began appearing around town where he could, at nightclubs and public events like the Calle Ocho street festival. But he notes that the opportunities for Cuban orchestras have dwindled as more people from disparate Latin American nations have come to live in this city. "Miami isn't a cosmopolitan place," he observes. "The Dominicans go to the Dominican bars with merengue. The Puerto Ricans want merengue or salsa. If there's a Venezuelan festival, all the Venezuelans go there. The Colombians go to the Colombian festivals. And the Cubans do their thing; they go where there's money."

Like other Cuban band leaders in Miami, Torres has found it more profitable to play for private functions than in clubs, though he has also done consistently well touring abroad, and has frequently traveled to France, Germany, the Caribbean, and parts of Africa, particularly the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Senegal, where Cuban music is widely popular.

At the rehearsal Torres remains in his chair as he sings into a microphone, monitoring the musicians with a steely gaze as they play and nodding his approval. Interrupted only by the occasional ringing cell phone, the band in quick succession runs through several son numbers, a salsa song popularized by Oscar D'Leon, and a ballad. The poorly air-conditioned room is sweltering, causing the musicians' cheeks to glow as red as their eyes. Torres chugs an iced tea and clears his throat. Although he's perspiring heavily, he is so absorbed by the music that he barely seems to notice the heat. He shares a joke with the musicians, laughing as he calls out the next number.

Torres began singing in the Catholic church choir in his native Güines, a city in Havana province. He joined his first dance orchestra as a singer in 1956, when he was sixteen years old, and was soon recruited by a popular big band called Swing Casino. Torres then headed for the capital, where he got a job as a vocalist with Conjunto Universal, performing every Sunday on a radio program sponsored by Coca-Cola.

While he pursued his singing career, the young Torres enrolled at the University of Havana in 1958, intending to study medicine. But classes were suspended during a political struggle over control of the university after Castro's victory in January 1959. As he waited for the school to reopen, Torres and eight of his school chums obtained exit visas and left for a vacation in the United States. They arrived in Miami in late June 1959. "In Cuba everyone talked so much about Miami Beach," Torres recalls. "But we got here, looked around, and said, 'What a hick town this is.'"

The friends traveled to Tampa, where they stood on the steps of the Ybor City cigar factory where José Martí had rallied immigrant laborers in 1893, before the Spanish-American War. Satisfied they had seen all there was to see in Florida, Torres and his friends went on to New York. All but one of them stayed.

Torres landed a job as dishwasher at a country-club restaurant in suburban New Rochelle. Eventually he began singing at the restaurant. That led to jobs with several area big bands that played the Catskills resort circuit. By the mid-Sixties he was living on Broadway and 136th Street in Manhattan. A childhood friend from Güines, flautist Eddie Zervigon, was living with his two brothers on the first floor of a brownstone a few blocks away. Torres soon moved into the same building and he and Zervigon began talking about putting together a band.

The sound that would become known as salsa was developing in Manhattan clubs such as the Palladium Ballroom, which showcased popular bands featuring Puerto Rican and Cuban players: Ray Barretto, Johnny Pacheco, Charlie Palmieri, José Antonio Fajardo, and others. Like the brothers in Oscar Hijuelos's The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Zervigon and Torres wanted to form a group that performed popular Cuban ballroom music. Modeling themselves after the famed Cuban ensemble Orquesta Aragon, the exiles wore matching suits and danced choreographed steps while they played cha-cha-cha. Torres wanted to call the band El Conjunto de Güines in honor of their hometown, but at the suggestion of a promoter they settled on Orquesta Broadway.

The group had a successful debut at the Palladium, where they played on the same bill as Tito Puente. Soon they were on tour in Venezuela. About a year later, Torres squabbled with Zervigon over money, and the singer went out on his own, recording a 1972 solo album on Mericana Records, a Latin label owned by a New York company called Caytronics. Torres had a hit with his song "El Caminante," but he didn't just want to perform. He was eager to get into the record business and asked owners Joe and Stan Cayre for a job in their warehouse. He later worked with younger brother Ken Cayre on an innovative crossover imprint, Salsoul, that went on to release a string of Latin-tinged disco hits in the Seventies.

Torres founded his own company, Guajiro Records, in 1979. That same year, with partners Sergio Bofill and Adriano Garcia, he created a subsidiary label called SAR and began recruiting Latin artists living in New York. "We were turning out two or three albums a week," recalls recording engineer Jon Fausty, who was the house engineer for the famed salsa label Fania before going to work with Torres. "Roberto had a great production technique," Fausty says. "He was brilliant in the studio." The music Torres produced was a departure from the hard-hitting salsa of the day. SAR/Guajiro albums were more attuned to the swaying rhythms and crooning singers of Cuba's prerevolutionary popular music. "There wasn't really a name for what we did," says Fausty. "We just called it Roberto's sound."

Shelves packed with boxes of CDs wrapped in brown paper take up the first floor of the Guajiro Records warehouse, where Torres is looking over a new shipment from Americ Disc USA, a Miami CD manufacturer.

The label's latest release is the solo debut of Gloria Estefan percussionist Edwin Bonilla, who has played on a number of Torres's own albums. Edwin y Su Son cost less than $3000 to produce, a minuscule budget for any album. Bonilla cut corners by playing most of the instruments himself and recording all the songs over one weekend, creating a solid Latin dance record with the raw instrumental energy common to classic New York salsa and contemporary Cuban music, two currently popular genres.

Bonilla, who is 36 years old and has recently toured with Nestor Torres and Israel "Cachao" Lopez, had recorded a demo two years ago but hadn't found a label. "I played it for Roberto and he said, 'Let's do it,'" recounts Bonilla. "He just went ahead and gave me the money."

Torres has already shipped 5000 copies of Edwin y Su Son to Latin America and Europe, and songs from the album are being aired on local community station WDNA-FM (88.9). But he is not optimistic about play on Miami's commercial radio. "You get to the station with the new release and the least they could do is listen to it to hear what it is," grouses Torres, who has spent the week making the rounds of local Spanish-language radio stations with the album. "But they don't put it on. They just say, 'Very good, very good. I'll see what I can do.' The minute you leave they probably toss it in the garbage. If you don't have a multinational company behind you, they're deaf to your music. Do you know the amount of talent in this city who aren't getting any opportunity on the radio?"

Despite his frustration with radio programmers, Torres's productions have a solid following among Latin-music aficionados. "Guajiro is one of the most consistent labels around," says New York Times music critic Peter Watrous, who calls Torres's company "the Cuban equivalent" of the famed jazz label Blue Note.

"Guajiro is one of the best Cuban catalogues of all time," agrees Carlos Suarez of Esperanto Music, who reports consistent if minimal sales of all albums produced by Torres, particularly to foreigners who visit the store. "It's an excellent label but nobody has really paid attention to it all these years."

Despite his constant struggle, Torres says he sells about a million records per year, which is enough to support his family comfortably (he drives a late-model Mercedes). Most of the records are shipped outside the United States to Latin American countries and Europe, but also to Africa.

The company, literally a mom-and-pop operation, couldn't have lower overhead. Torres, his wife Marlen, and her father are Guajiro's only employees. They spend little on packaging and marketing, and as a result they can sell their CDs to distributors and record stores for a few dollars less than other labels. "A lot of our customers are poor people, so we have to make sure the CDs are affordable," Marlen says, noting that many are elderly Latin Americans.

"My market is people who like to dance to Cuban music -- the original kind, not what they're doing now," Torres asserts. "It's music that will never die. I make it simple so people can understand it. It's not for sitting in the corner and listening. My music is for dancing."

On a recent Saturday night, the annual gathering of the Municipality of Güines in Exile is in progress at the Radisson Deauville Resort on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Several hundred people in fancy evening clothes sit at tables in the Napoleon ballroom, talking loudly. As they do each year, the former residents of Güines, their children and grandchildren, are catching up. They have come from all over the United States, even as far as Europe, to honor their roots. Waves of laughter erupt around the room as tablemates recount bits of small-town gossip from half a century ago.

Looking smart in his tuxedo, Roberto Torres sits with his wife Marlen, radiant in a white gown, and their 21-year-old daughter Yvette, who works at Ocean Bank. On a large stage at the front of the room a woman with a stiff cloud of dyed-blond hair is belting out a bolero accompanied by taped music. Torres glances at his watch, then gets up and goes out to the lobby to look for his band.

About fifteen minutes later the musicians, who tonight are bright-eyed, freshly shaven, and dressed in dark suits, have gathered in the ballroom at the side of the stage. An elderly former official of Güines is at the microphone, extolling Torres's "internationally distinguished career as an interpreter of Cuban music and the music of the entire Latin American continent."

The band leader is this year's Güines exile man of the year. He steps onstage to receive a large plaque from the master of ceremonies, looking as pleased as if he were accepting a Grammy Award. The musicians take their places. As the band begins to play, couples immediately rush to the dance floor. Torres's voice is clear and resonant, his smile broad. Flanked by two back-up vocalists, he dances in place, dipping and turning to the beat.

When the song ends, a stooped old man who has been with dancing with his wife cups his hands. " Azucar!" he shouts.

Torres grins. He greets the audience, then gives a nod to the musicians. "Here's one all of you out there will remember," he says, and begins to sing.

Click underlined tracks to hear Real Audio sound samples

(You need Real Audio player to hear sound files.)


From "Caballo Viejo"

From "Echale Salsita"


From "Las Islas del Sabor"

From "Consulta en Guanabacoa"

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