A lot of people are too intimidated to listen to salsa with a critical ear. Some of them are worried that they should be dancing instead; this is maybe true, but the idea could also apply to just about any musical genre. Others are concerned that they might not understand the vocabulary or the beat or the salsa tradition well enough to be able to have a credible opinion. This point of view also very over-worshipful of “the salsa tradition”, because “salsa” itself only really came about in the 1970s to describe an Americanized version of Cuban jazz and dance music. So it’s okay to listen to actually pay attention to salsa on an intellectual level, as well as just letting it shake your ass. It’s also completely okay to like U.S. salsa bands, especially those outside New York City, rather than just sniff at them and call them inauthentic.
So let’s talk about Bio Ritmo, a durable and ambitious salsa collective based in Richmond, Virginia. They have been around for two decades now, flying under the radar on a mass-market scale but well familiar to fans of tropical dance music since their first EP release in 1995. This collection features 13 tracks, roughly in reverse chronological order. What it proves is that Bio Ritmo is a pretty damn good salsa band, and always has been. Their first two singles, both released in 1996, are both included here, and show the modus operandi: hit a groove and keep it there, then pile on the fun effects. “El Piragüero” lets singer Rei Alvarez show off his nimble tenor in fine call-and-response style with the rest of the band. “Asia Minor” finds a chunky rhythm, rides it for 90 seconds, then gives the track over to Marlysse Simmons, who then proceeds to play one of the spookiest and avant-gardist piano solos that one could ever hope to hear on the dance floor.
Bio Ritmo – or their PR people – are eager to put themselves out there as a very forward-thinking salsa group, one that is not afraid to mix in new sounds and ideas. This is not entirely hype. “Tu No Sabes” contains not just some disarmingly indie-sounding chimey sounds throughout, but also lets Bob Miller take his trumpet solo into Spanish-like-from-Spain territory. “Lisandra” has so many keyboard textures (including soft-rock electric piano, disco synth laser sounds, and high theremin-sounding lines) that listeners are not truly ready for the secondary groove, a total Stevie Wonder-in-the-1970s jam, which kicks in halfway through.
Which is not to say Bio Ritmo is a gimmick band. They can slow it down and deliver one of those Fania sorts of ballads whenever they want to. “Lola’s Dilemma” proves this by creeping glacially along for as long as it wants, before suddenly breaking down so that J.C. Kuhl can throw in a lyrical saxophone solo. And “La Verdad” – the title track from last year’s lovable album – has, underneath all its Brazilian cuica noises and Caribbean production textures and funky keyboard textures, a more or less traditional salsa structure. So don’t be worried about not understanding Bio Ritmo, and don’t be snobby just because they’re not being fronted by Hector LaVoe or Ruben Bladés. This really great working band might just be hitting its stride Even As We Speak.