Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Salsa De Puerto Rico
I wish I was in Puerto Rico this very moment. Sipping a cold drink, smelling the salty 90-degree humidity, and grooving to the beat of a cowbell. Instead, I'm stuck with the cold, gray drizzle one expects to find eight months of the year in Denmark, not the Big Apple in June. My sliver of salvation blinkers with the knowledge of all the upcoming music that routinely blankets the city come summertime, when this mess of a town becomes a giant musical party, much of it driven by the melodies and rhythms of salsa. Harlem, where I live, becomes salsa-soaked (though you can hear Puente or Palmieri on any given snowy day blaring from someone's gypsy cab) whether from live bands carousing outdoor stages or ghettoblasters keeping the sidewalk domino tables moving. Unlike other scenes (e.g., Seattle) or sounds (e.g., grunge) that once flourished, disappeared, or morphed, salsa is still alive and kicking and spinning and twisting and sweating, not only in its birthplace of New York City (and, one could argue, Harlem) but all over the world.
I realize NYC can't take all of the credit for salsa. In a lengthier piece, we'd at least have to talk about West Africa, Spain, Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, the Dominican Republic, and, of course, Puerto Rico. And I would argue that the new release, The Rough Guide to Salsa De Puerto Rico should be renamed to include Y La Ciudad de Nueva York, since many of the compilation's artists are indeed from said ciudad. But, hey, after listening to the 13 songs collected here, I'll get over it. Puerto Rican. Nuyorican. Whatever. Just press play again already.
Those who are already mambo-nics or salsa pros will most likely not only have worn out shoes moving to the sounds of the artists included here, but also own many of their records. If this is you, go back to dancing. However, if you're just a novice, you are going to have fun. For, like the other Rough Guides, this is a great starter to anyone's first salsa steps (a good teacher wouldn't hurt either). You are probably familiar with the work (or the names at least) of the included heavyweights -- Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colon -- regardless of your heritage. Together, they've multiple Grammys, hundreds of albums and many, many millions of sales. Their selected tracks here are solid, if not overly stellar; but fear not for you can readily find amazing work by each.
The veteran Yomo Toro jumpstarts this collection with his blazing cuatro playing (some call him the Jimi Hendrix of the cuatro) on "Una Pena en la Navidad", the best Xmas dance song since the Salsoul Orchestra's yuletide effort. The band is on fuego from the get go, spurred by the sailing vocals of Dallia Silva, who has more than a dash of Celia Cruz in her, and the unnamed piano player's wicked runs. It's a hip-shaker. Plena Libre continues the dance lesson on "Consuelo", an example of salsa-plena, a sub-genre that Libre's bassist and bandleader, Gary Nunez practically created a decade ago. Mixing the folky guitar sounds of plena with the rhythms of salsa and jazz, the result is both heavy with horns and hyper-kinetic.
Trombonist and trumpeter Jimmy Bosch should be a household name. His rich timbre has graced some of the best Latin jazz and salsa albums released over the last few decades, from Cachao and Celia Cruz to Eddie Palmieri and Marc Anthony. "Muy Joven para Mi" is from his wonderful solo debut, Soneando Trombon, and is as close to a perfect song as they come. Every instrument is in the pocket, stretching the groove or adding frosting to it, from the soaring vocals to the propulsive percussion, with Bosch's trombone gilding it all. Bosch, this time on trumpet, also contributes to the excellent "Que Humanidad" by Manny Oquendo's Libre, an act that has put out music to make you move for the last 30 years. This track is no exception, with Steve Turre's trombone work -- maybe inspired by his band mate Bosch -- shining with swing.
The aforementioned cuts are all quite good, but perhaps the most interesting to these fallible ears are the last three on the album. Via the cut "Vámonos Pa'l Carnaval", Truco Y Zaperoko provide a surreal, up-tempo blend of salsa, plena, and a Puerto Rican carnival rhythm called comparsa. As the liner notes will tell you, the hybrid is indeed "scorching", every instrument and voice combining to produce irresistible energy. NYC's Los Pleneros De La 21, who specialize in the percussive bomba and plena, bring a feisty politically-motivated brand of music to "Don Pedro" that aims to make you think while you move. Finally, Paracumbé's "Cico Mangual" is a fitting end to the compilation. Nelie Lebron Robles's glorious voice leads this all-female bomba troupe from southern Puerto Rico, as the vocals call and respond with urgency and beauty, the maracas rattling over the steady beat of the barrel drums.
This collection will keep you moving for at least an hour; perhaps just long enough to get you to the nearest dance class and/or music store where you can snag other releases by these wonderful artists.
Note to Rough Guide: would it kill you to note the dates these songs were originally released?