- Azuquita, Manhattan, December 8, 2005.
PB : Can you tell me a little about the new album ? It’s great : can you tell me a little about how this album came to be ?
CA : I write songs, but I like to record songs written by other composers, because they have different things to say. First I meet with the composer, and then with the arranger, to make sure that the lyrics fit the songs, and then I call everyone and get them together in the studio to record. The album, Tipicamente Azuquita, was born in Los Angeles, CA. In LA we recorded three of the songs : ebre de Alegria, El muerto vivo and San Cristobal. After that I came to New York, and talked to the arranger, and we chose two Peruvian valsos, which I sung in Puerto Rico, and brought my own music. That’s how the album was born, and I’m very pleased with this CD, because it’s competely different from anything I’ve recorded before. It’s been well-received so far in New York, as well as in Puerto Rico and Miami, people are excited about it and say that they like it a lot. We’ll see what this one does… But it would be nice to sell at least a million. (he laughs).
PB : The album starts off with a medley of your older work…
CA : Yes. I was a singer with the greatest salsa dura orchestra in New York, la Tipica 73, and those are three songs that I recorded with them : La Botija, Tumba Tumbador, and Xiomara. People remember those songs, which were recorded back in 1976-78. The album is called Tipicamente so that people have that period in their heads as they listen to the album. I’m very pleased with the production. When I go to Paris next Wednesday, I will be meeting with people who are interested in producing my material there. I’ve started my own lable, Melao records… these days, many record companies have a hard time recording salsa music. I’ve been in the salsa business for a long time, and gracias à Dios, everything’s going well.
PB : How did you work with the musicians in this album ?
CA : I met the musicians in Los Angeles. Here in New York, I was introduced to Lucho Cuarto, who was the pianist for Joséalberto El Canario’s group, he’s a great arranger. In Los Angeles, it was the same, I met a young guy named Pedro Pachamango, and I’m very happy with both of them. When I came in, the music was already recorded. I recorded the vocals, but couldn’t see the musicians who were playing. José Mangual Jr., and Cuqui Amadeo, who is also a great singer, sang the chorus. I saw the other musicians very little because I wasn’t there when they recorded, but the result is good : lots of people think that it’s the Tipica 73, but no, it’s Azuquita y su Melao.
PB : The one song that you wrote on the album, Canto à Puerto Rico, starts out with a slow melody like a bolero…
CA : Yes, a tiny bolero, and then the rhythm of the danza starts. The danza is a traditional Portorican rhythm, (he sings the beats), it’s called la danza Puertorriqueña. Everyone who’s heard this song likes it a lot.
PB : A bolero, like a love song.
CA : Romantic, si señor, like a balada… many people in Puerto Rico congratulated me for this song because it was an unexpected gift : this song is a thank-you to all Puertoricans. I wanted to give something back for all the years that I’ve been coming to Puerto Rico, and for their support. I’ve always sung with Puerto Rican orchestras, with Roberto Roena, Kako y su Orquesta, with Luis Ramirez, La Tipica 73, Papo Lucca, Tito Puente, and this is my way of saying thanks.
PB : You live in Puerto Rico now ?
CA : I live in Puerto Rico. My home is in Paris, where my family lives, but I live in Puerto Rico, and from there I travel to Miami, to New York, Panama… It’s better than in Paris, because in Paris, even though I’m known as the pioneer of salsa, there isn’t as much movement of salsa orchestras as there is in Puerto Rico. I do still have an orchestra in Paris though, but they work on other projects.
PB : You worked with Yuri Buenaventura.
CA : Yuri Buenaventura sang chorus for me in Paris… he’s very well-prepared, and I’m proud of what he’s done, he respects my work and it’s always a pleasure to meet up with him.
PB : Do you ever think of going back to Panama ?
CA : When I want to, I can go back to Panama. But the majority of my career has been outside of the country, international, I’m out in the world. When someone offers me a contract, I say, why not, pourquoi pas.
PB : San Cristobal, from the album : is that in Panama ?
CA : Fievre de alegria, which mentions the sea of San Cristobal, is about Peru.
PB : And what is El muerto vivo about ?
CA : El muerto vivo is the story that actually happened to me in 1996. I was supposed to take off on an American Airlines flight from Puerto Rico to New York, and from New York to Paris. The airplane crashed, and everyone on the flight died. I was on the passenger list, but I cancelled at the last minute because I had to record in Puerto Rico. And when the radio announced the news that "The singer Camilo Azuquita died in a plane crash," everyone called my family in Panama. When I heard it, I said, "no, I’m here, in Puerto Rico !" That’s why I recorded this song, I was dead, but I’m right here, el muerto vivo. (He laughs, you know, I’m starting to get hungry…)
PB : How do you go about writing a song ?
CA : I start with the lyrics. I think about the text that I want to write, and then I write it, little by little, word by word, and afterwords, I arrange it. That’s how I work : I don’t compose at the piano, everything is in my head.
PB : Where do you get your inspiration ?
CA : Reality, things in my imagination, things in my life. I see something, and I write about it.
- 10th Avenue in the December cold. 12/08/2005.
PB : In an interview with Eric Gonzalez, you said that you were a typographer. Can you tell me a little about this ?
CA : When I graduated with a degree in typography, I was already singing with a local group in Panama. I started out for three years as an intern, singing boleros, guajiros. When I was working at the press, they fired me because I would sing all day long. I used to sing every day, even when I was working on the machine. They told me : if you sing, you’re going to have to leave. No no no, I said, I won’t sing anymore… but one day…
PB : They fired you ? Because you sang ?
CA : Because the machine didn’t advance.
PB : Afterwards, did you work as a typographer ?
CA : I worked at a press in New York. I worked with a machine that had lots of little letters, una armadora. All the individual characters, looking for the R, for the S, you really have to concentrate. This is why, when the machine didn’t advance, and I was singing, they fired me.
PB : And you also draw.
CA : I designed the cover of Cé magnifique. I drew the Moulin Rouge, and I also drew a picture of Tito Puente and myself in a glass of champagne, but they changed it, and took me out of the drawing.
PB : When you talk about creating a song, you talk about ’seeing’ the image : is this artistic vision the same as when you draw ?
CA : It’s the same inspiration, to make an album cover, a song, a dream that only you can see in the way you see it, so in this way it’s the same as drawing, and gracias à Dios everything is going along well… But I can’t go on about this, I’m too hungry ! (he laughs). When I come to Paris we can talk about this. And please say hello to Maurice of les Etoiles and his wife for me… is there live salsa these days at Les Etoiles ?
PB : No, not for salsa, they have a DJ. But there are more and more people going back to Les Etoiles, it’s a magnificent ambiance…
CA : Si, señor, quel ambiente. I sang there, three nights a week. But mamita, quiero comer, I’m so hungry… there’s a restaurant across the street, buena comida latina.
PB : Can we keep talking over lunch ?
CA : Yes. I have this thing where when I’m hungry, I have to eat.
- Lunch : papitas and rice and beans, with tamarindo to drink. December 8, 2005.
(lunch at Felix on 10th Avenue)
…leaving the restaurant…
PB : Why is salsa, which is not native to France, so popular there ?
CA : Because it’s something different. Salsa is the music of happiness, you can go out and dance the waltz, you can go out and dance tango, but salsa lives in your heart. Before I came to France I went to Germany, and no one knew how to dance. Whenever I sing I dance too, people know that’s the way I work, I dance the rhythm, I’m a showman. I think this is important. When I sing, I’m dancing, un dos tres, it’s not complicated, no es compliqué, I’m showing them that it’s not difficult. And gracias à Dios, they go out and have a good time, and it helps them with their problems. And they’re still enjoying it. Salsa wakes you up, it’s an alarm clock.
I always say : joy is the message that the music sends, joy. They call it salsa to make it commercial, but it’s joy.
(we enter GB Records to find Sergio in discussion with another customer, who we find out is Bruce of Descarga.com).
Sergio : Hey, this is Descarga. This is the man in charge of Descarga.
Bruce : Hi, how you doing, nice to meet you.
CA : This is a young beautiful girl from France, here to interview me.
BP : Hello young beautiful girl, how are you. Are you here for any of the salsa congresses that are going on ?
PB : (laughs). Actually I’m here to interview Azuquita on the occasion of his new album for SalsaFrance… I’m happy to meet you because you have many faithful buyers in France from Descarga, it’s the one place that we can get the CDs that we need.
Sergio : Descarga is the most important.
PB : Can I take a picture with you together ?
Sergio : With Azuquita, not with me, I’m too ugly.
PB : what’s your name ?
BP : Bruce.
BP to PB : Are you really over here to interview Azuquita ?
PB : I’m here visiting, and it worked out perfectly with the release of Azuquita’s new album.
BP : it’s a very good record.
PB : yeah. [smiles]
to Azuquita : How’s it going, how’s the record ?
CA : I’m here to make some advertisements, to talk to some newspapers.
BP : Let them know that if they can’t find it in stores, they know they can find it on Descarga.
CA : Can I have your card ?
BP : I don’t have one, I never had one made ever, the internet is one big card, I’m online.
CA : Where’s your company based ?
BP : Right here in Brooklyn New York, Brooklyn ; the center of the world. (laughs). I’m kidding.
CA : I hope the people accept the idea of my new record.
BP : Why do you think they wouldn’t ?
CA : Sometimes it depends on the promotion, sometimes they don’t know you have a new record. Because you can’t come on the radio here in New York, La Mega… bullshit.
PB : Payola.
BP : Cocaine. A luggage full of cocaine was what it took, at one point. Ok, so I may be joking about the cocaine, but at one point there was a very big, very ugly mess. And there was a big uprising. A lot of the listeners and independent labels would protest La Mega, protest the system of payola. It’s impossible for independent labels to make any headway in the market.
CA : a lot of good records don’t get heard on the radio. At least in Porto Rico, la Raza por lo meno…sometimes they put you on the radio on the state-run radio, a little bit. Here, nothing, nothing. Paulito Vega, Ramirez…
BP : And that’s a problem for most everybody. And if someone with your history in this music, if they’re not playing your record, imagine that some wet-behind the ears kid with good music, they’ll never get played. You know what, the internet is going to change everything eventually in terms of radio. People will have pirate radio stations on the internet, and they’re going to play whatever they think is good. It’s happening now, but I think it will be wider spread. When there is wireless internet, and you can play wireless internet in your car, that is when the whole landscape of radio will change. Transmitted radio will not be important any more.
CA : I hope so.
PB : …but you have to have a car.
BP : It’ll be wireless everywhere. So in France it’s a lot bigger market in terms of night life than here.
PB : There’s a lot of good DJs.
BP : There’s nothing here, it’s terrible.
PB : That’s what I’ve heard, I have a friend from France who came here, people say that the quality of our parties is much better than what they have here.
BP : The Europeans are way ahead of us, it’s incredible.
PB : Italy also has a really amazing market for salsa.
BP : Italy is great, London, there’s a whole scene, a whole underground scene. Latin, latin house, DJ mixes, it’s huge. I have customers sending me CDs that they burn from shows that they’ve been to and it’s outstanding material.
PB : I can only speak for Paris, but the quality of what we have is very very good.
BP : So you don’t have an accent.
PB : No, I’m American. (bla bla bla). It’s a pilgrimage every time I come back to New York, to get CDs here (at GB records) and stock up.
BP : But even on 5th avenue there are fewer places than there were, 3-5 years ago. When I started this business, there must have been 10 other major distributors based on 10th avenue and this area.
PB : I went up to the Barrio too, and things are changing as well.
BP : Maybe to Sergio’s benefit.
Sergio : No, no. It’s changed a lot.
PB : Vicente of Casa Latina said that lots of Mexicans are moving into the Barrio.
Sergio : Oh yeah, Mexicans are taking over the Barrio.
BP : So does he carry more Mexican music ?
PB : I don’t think so.
Sergio : He’s tired. He’s the owner of the building and the business there.
PB : They say that the Mexicans send their money back home, and don’t spend it in the Barrio.
BP : Well, if you can go on the street and buy a cd for 5US, they’d rather do that. Pirating, burning CDs - even in Brooklyn, on 5th avenue, where what’s his name has his shop…
Sergio : Rincon ? you’ve eaten, right ?
PB/Azuquita : si, bon appetit.
PB : I have to buy Cé magnifique…
CA : Sergio, where is Cé magnifique if people want to buy it ?
Sergio : Lazaro !
PB : Thank you. You drew that ?
CA : I drew the Moulin Rouge. He and me with the glass of wine, but they changed it. The company changed it.
PB : But you wrote five of the songs on the album.
CA : si.
PB : Who are the artists that you listen to ?
CA : Me ? Now, or before ? Now, I don’t listen to anyone. I don’t like to copy any one. But before, I listened to people. Benny Moré, the big ones. La Lupe. Doña Celia, nuestra reina. La orquesta Machito, Tito Puente. Many many singers, the majority of them Cuban, the great soneros, everything that I could learn from their lessons. But now, if I’m watching TV or listening to the radio, I’m not listening especially for anything. Here, I respect all the soneros of today and from Puerto Rico, but I don’t listen to them because they are all making the same music that I listened to when I was growing up and not with the same perfection, they’re copies of the best Cuban singers of my youth.
- Azuquita, Manhattan, December 8, 2005.
PB : What is the future for salsa ?
CA : The future of salsa, if it is able to stay in the marketplace, it will keep giving new things to the new generation, to keep them interested. Because the kids want new things. Every message passes through a good interpreter. If there are good people to carry the message in the future, the kids will listen. It’s the same thing with reggaeton, it’s a rhythm like salsa, and it’s working well.
PB : What do you think of reggaeton ?
CA : It’s a rhythm that is well-liked. It’s popular, everyone’s recording it. It has its base in salsa. It’s a new rhythm for the new generation, but it has its roots in salsa. Salsa is the roots, salsa is its race. There was a time when merengue was everywhere, and even in Puerto Rico everyone was recording merengue and very little salsa. Who knows what rhythm will be next ? But the public stays faithful to salsa because it is the most direct, the most pegajoso. It’s a fad, just a fad, reggaeton will pass, but salsa is forever, because it has its own public. Salsa is not a fad, salsa is forever.
PB : Pegajoso ?
CA : Pegajoso : it attracts you, it hits you here (he points to his heart).
Sergio : Salsa has variety. Reggaeton just has rhythm. Merengue has rhythm too, but it’s always the same. Bachata will break your head, it’s always the same. It’s the sensation of happiness, but it never changes. Reggaeton is worse. That’s what I think… Bachata, they take that guitar, it’s always the same thing.
CA : It’s always the same.
Sergio : I don’t have anything against merengue, but for me, no…
CA : Pegajoso.
PB : It grabs onto you.
CA : Vaya, vaya. It has impact, it goes direct. There are many rhythms that come from salsa, guaguanco, la guaracha, el mambo, el son montuno, all this is part of salsa, cha cha cha, all this.
PB : When you sing, what is interesting to you in the song ?
CA : That the public hears my repertory, that they hear my music, that my music is danceable, and that I bring a message that goes directly out to the people, so that they start to dance with my music.
PB : And you always dance.
CA : I don’t want people to come because I’m nice (bonito), I want them to know me for the sabor that I bring.
PB : In the music itself, what is the most interesting to you ?
CA : Most salsa songs have words. From the text, comes the inspiration. Some people don’t know how to improvise because they go outside of what the song brings. From the lyrics, to the soneo, from the soneo to the chorus, it’s all inspiration. To look out and see that the public is enjoying the music, this is inspiration. They have to dance. If this inspiration doesn’t come from the audience, if everyone’s sitting down, salsa dies. This doesn’t work for me. My salsa, gracias à Dios, is good, and it makes even the mosquitoes dance. (he laughs).
PB : You play with the rhythm, there’s swing in your voice.
CA : Salsa is a combination of rhythm, the words, and whatever it is that you do to bring the sabor. A composer gives you the words, but you’re the one that gives them flavor. You’re like a cook who is preparing a meal, adding spice. Before you try it, but you’re not sure how it will taste, you don’t know what people will think. I’m happy with my repertory, with my seasoning, and with my salsa and my sugar, too. (he laughs).
PB : What is swing ? This is the last question…
CA : [he snaps his fingers, with a swinging rhythm]. Swing is rhythm. This is swinging, vaya, swinging. Bringing up the rhythm, going outside of the rhythm, and the swing depends on the rhythm you’re playing, and you’ll make people dance in spite of themselves, enjoying this salsa. Swinging, enjoying, dancing, tasting this salsa. This is what I can say to the salseros around the world. Take a dose of salsa to forget your problems, to be healthy in your head, rich in your health. Doctors recommend dancing to forget the bad times, to be content, to be happy. Sigo pa’lante como el elefante.
PB : Live with swing.
CA : Eso. Always enjoying the swing, bringing out the rhythms of salsa.
PB : Thank you so much. I’ve got a lot more questions, but I’ll save them for later.
CA : In Paris.
- Azuquita, feliz, and Tipicamente Azuquita at GB Records, New York.