How do you compose a song ?
Often, the titles come to me at the same time as the words, and the music. It seems to me that if you take the time to listen to the world, to listen to life, messages come. It doesn’t matter if you’re an artisan, or an inventor…. For an artisan, the desire to create or to build come with listening and with observation. You can listen to something by watching it : you receive a message, and incorporate it. For me, songs come simultaneously : accompanied by music like a feeling, first, and then, suddenly, a message, which is translated by the text that you write. But it’s a message that’s half-said, in a mental or sensory vocabulary, and I sometimes have the impression that it comes from a different dimension that is not the dimension of art and reason, because it arrives like a feeling. Reason decodes the feeling, and transforms it into words, and human vocabulary.
It tells you its direction, and what kind of rhythm it should have, if the song is slow, if it’s blues, if it’s a happy song, if it’s a song that has to deliver, or one that can be cool. Sometimes there are songs that are strong and explosivem and which are not meant for dancers, nor are they meant for words.
I bring songs up to this point. Afterwards, in the group discussion, we remain, shall we say, the "artistic directors" for a song. Because we can often work with 30 musicians on one song, it makes for a lot of people with many different appreciations of its music. And I encourage this collective space, while keeping a close eye on the song’s roots, on the light that helps it grow. It is at this stage that I give the song to the arranger.
On an album of 13 songs, are there ones that you had to cut out ? Songs that were written, and abandoned ?
Yes, there are, and most of them are the French versions. I work with an artistic director. I make the songs, and he chooses them. Sometimes there are songs that I want, other ones that he wants, and we come to an agreement. I trust his opinion. Sometimes we exclude songs, even though we might have wanted to include 18, sometimes 20 songs. I wanted to make a double album, and he told me no, we’ll do a single album, with 11-12 songs.
I’ve noticed that certain numbers follow me, even though I do nothing to influence it. On the cover of "Yo Soy," there was the number 8. On "Vagabundo," there was a 5. If someone out there works in numerology, I hope they can explain this to me. It’s funny because in the orchestra, there are 13 of us, and I don’t want to change that. And there are 14 songs on the album… It’s a small detail, but for some people, the details mean a lot, it must mean something.
Why record in Colombia ? What is missing in France for recording a salsa album ?
Nothing’s missing in France. On the contrary, there is a lot of technology. I recorded my first album in Colombia, but it was as though I was in a Formula One car, being piloted through earphones. For my second album, "Yo Soy," I was in Porto Rico with Papo Lucca, and the great musicians of El Gran Combo. And afterwards, "Vagabundo" was also recorded in Porto Rico.
But I had not yet had the experience of leaving the studio, and going home. And I wanted to live that, because we usually go to a hotel. And I wanted to know what it was like to leave the recording studio, and go home to my parent’s house, have a cup of coffee. The experience seemed tender, to me. I’ve lived away from my native country for 20 years, I left home when I was 18, and since then I haven’t stopped moving. For me, this feeling was very important. Now I can do something else, but I needed to experience that.
You mentioned the 13 musicians in your orchestra, why didn’t you record the album with them ?
Some of them are in the album : the pianist, the saxophone player. It seems to me that some things that happen in the studio are very serious. I don’t have the time to spend a lot of time recording. My next album, I’d like to try. But when you record an album, when you go into the studio, you go in with a tight schedule and a budget. My musicians are very strong in concerts, they are very very good at communicating a feeling. But in the studio, it is an exercise that can be very difficult. I can be rather difficult, in the studio.
There are sounds that date from the 1930s, or from the 1950s, and sometimes I want us to play in that style. If the musicians in the studio don’t understand, I can be very demanding. If I’m looking for a color, and the musician doesn’t have that in his disposition, we need to stop, and start up fresh the next day. In the studio, I don’t have the time to do that.
I worked with Diego Gale on percussion. First of all because he’s a friend, but he’s quite possibly one of the greatest percussionists in Colombia, and he’s a guy who has his own group and who plays with a lot of other artists. He recorded with Marc Anthony, with all the big artists. If I ask him, for example, to take down the skin of the conga, he’ll take it down, and he’ll understand right away why he needs to : in the arrangement, that’s what’s written. I don’t have the time for that collective discussion, in the studio. In the future, for my next CD, I’ll do that. We work very collectively in the orchestra, and in practice sessions. But in the studio, I don’t have the time.
My musicians have a very strong affective authority over me. And I do not want to damage that relationship in the pressure required by the recording environment. I don’t want to record like that any more.
I make old boléros from the 60s, I did a boléro from the 50s and the ways in which they have to be played must be in the style of the period. You have to have lots of documentation.
For many people, here in Europe, salsa is a rhythm. For us, for example a danzon, a bolero, Cuban son, a bambuco, a cumbia, these are rhythms that are very different, that have their own origins, that have their own histories and their own sonorities. To play a certain rhythm requires a very vast rhythmic culture. The artistic discussion around the way to play them is not that easy. On the inside of these rhythms, there are styles, different ways to carry them out.
People talk about Japanese salsa, French salsa, African salsa, Colombian salsa… I don’t like to get into that discussion, because everyone appreciates salsa in a different way, it’s their own sonority, it’s so vast, it’s infinite. I do not want to divide it into Japanese, French, English, Colombian, Portoricaine, Cuban. Salsa was not divided like that. On the other hand, everyone has their own interpretation. That’s another reason that I didn’t record with my musicians, because it is an exercise that takes a very long time, when you are with your orchestra.
You mentioned Diego Gale. He did all the percussion on the album. What was it like to work with him ?
Diego is a guy from Medellin, and it’s a region where salsa is very intellectualized. Much more so for example, than in the Black region of our country. I come from the part of the country where salsa is something very instinctive. Medellin is on a high plateau, on a mountain. Gale has the capacity to integrate other styles. He works on a lot of different projects : with King Bongo, on La Sonora Carruseles, with his own orchestra Grupo Gale, and he’s a music producer too. He’s a very eclectic guy. It’s very easy to work with him, it’s very pleasant. You just tell him what you want and he does it : it’s great.
I can tell someone that I want a danzon at this tempo he taps the beat on the table, and it can be played in a thousand different ways. If I tell him, I want a danzon from the 1970s like they played in the clubs in San Juan Porto Rico, he’ll know right away how it should be played. If I tell him from 1955, he knows. A danzon from New York, he knows it. I don’t have to do a debriefing for the group about "how Conjunto Libre played in the 1970s, there was Manny Oquendo, and there was this…" I don’t have to do all that, to take out the Bible. It’s different than the way the Cubans play, like Aragon plays the danzon, how La Orquesta Reve plays…It’s very vast. And with him it’s great, we work very quickly. It’s very easy to produce an album with him.
Can you please tell us a little about José Aguirre, who occupies a large role in the composition of the album, because he’s the one who did the arranging, the trumpets, and he also participated in the mixing.
And my career !
And in your career as well ?
José Aguirre is also a guy who comes from the mountains. He comes from the mountains in the region of Pereira, in Caldas. They’re people who are not considered to be salseros because they come from the high plateaus, at 2,000 meters elevation. They are good at country music : old Colombian son. They play music that is more like the music of Eliades Ochoa, country music. Not drum music.
He comes from a family of modest means, like mine. They were almost nomads, because his father was a guard on big ranches. All the family’s belongings fit into a Jeep. José told me that when he was a little boy, he moved every 2-6 months. They went from ranch to ranch. He is a bit of a nomad. And he always had his trumpet. He’s self-taught.
He’s a guy who started to become a studio musician because he recorded his trumpet music on a cassette. Afterwards he would take another cassette player, and he would play the tape of the first trumpet, and would record the second onto another cassette. Afterwards he would put the first and second trumpet on the cassette player, and record the third trumpet onto the first tape. What a mess, to mix that ! I can imagine him in his room, how he must have placed the first cassette player over there, the second cassette player there, and the trumpet here. That’s how he became a studio trumpet player, and section director.
He directed Guyacan, of Grupo Niche, of Son de Cali, of my orchestra. He’s a self-made musician. He comes from a family that is not very musical - musical in spirit, but not culturally. There were no theaters, no dancing, he didn’t come out of an artistic milieu. He was born in the country, and with his trumpet he became one of the greatest trumpet players of Latin America. For salsa, that is.
Because it is a very particular thing, to play salsa. Arturo Sandoval might be a great virtuoso, but he is not a salsero. A great pianist can be very good, like Rubalcaba, but he is not a salsero. Because they don’t have the groove that we have, in salsa. It’s like a code, and you have to dedicate yourself to this code. If you don’t, you can tell right away that they’re a virtuoso, but they’re not a salsero. It’s like a rock’n’roll dancer who recycles themselves into salsa, when you see them dance, they can do lots of pirouettes like in rock’n’roll, but it’s not in the spirit of salsa.
José is a great guy, and his story is not finished. He’s great great great great great great ! And he works a lot with Diego also. Almost all the trumpets on Diego’s albums, it’s José Aguirre who records them. Actually, we make up a little team. I never put the team together. There are also former singers from Grupo Niche, who are now with Son de Cali, Javier Vasquez, who sings the chorus in this album. I never experienced that. I lived that with other great portorican singers, references in salsa, Cheo Feliciano, all the big ones, but not our own little club. For me, that’s important.
Some might find it surprising that you’re interested in rueda de casino. Why did you write a song about that dance ?
Salsa in Europe is spreading out a bit because lots of bars are recycling themselves into salsa bars, because it brings in customers, it sells drinks. Lots of guys turned into salseros because they found out that it helps to pick up the girls. But whatever happens, there is a spirit of salsa that should not be lost, and that is the liberating force of the music.
Rueda de casino, because in many groups I see salseros, after all the filters have been passed, and all the mediocrity is weeded out. There is a superior level, the rueda. That is, the salseros who are not very authentic move away from the rueda, because only those who truly love and respect are able to get into the circle : I like this idea, because it’s as though there is a different goal, on the part of the serious dancers. The same way that we have goals, in the music. It’s a different way of giving us more elements to work with. I made it rather explosive…
Almost like an old mambo ?
Yes. He sings the refrain. Because I arrange with my mouth. he laughs. In my mouth and in my head I felt something, and in the arrangement, in the exposition of the theme by the brass, it makes it much heavier (he sings the theme again) : it reminded me of a boogaloo, when I made it up by singing. But if I had made it like a boogaloo, the people in the rueda, especially in Colombia, would surely have danced it like a boogaloo. So I made the compromise, and carried it out like it is.
I find it to be a little heavy, the phrase executed like that, but it’s the only way to prevent the dancer from jumping over the line into boogaloo, because that would deface what I wanted. There’s a trumpet solo, there’s a break, so that the dancers can interact. I hope that those who dance in the rueda will like it. It’s an homage to people who like the rueda.
In this album, there isn’t an adaptation of a French song, and there aren’t any duets with other well-known singers. Why did you make this decision ?
The truth is that I went into the studio in Colombia, and I was focused. When you’re there, you’re very far from temptation, to be with your friends in Paris and say « Oh, we should… ! » Often, duets come from musical crushes of a certain period. You can run into Michel Jonasz one day and say, « Ah, I’d love to record something with him ! » because you love his work, and he’s there. But if you’re far away ?
I could have done it with Javier, but it’s a different feeling. Salsa, back home, isn’t pretentious. It doesn’t pretend to be other things : it is just itself. Especially in Colombia, less so than in Porto Rico or in Cuba. It’s healthier, I feel. In Cuba, they show off : « this is where salsa was born ! » ; in Porto Rico, you run up against the American machine. In Colombia, it’s neither the machine, or the « we’re the best » attitude. I think it’s more natural. If you see Joe Arroyo, you see Jairo Varela, or Guayacan, even if he’s a little bit like that, the music isn’t. For that matter, if Guayacan might have problems these days, it’s because of that, because at one point he might have touched heaven with his hands… but it comes back.
What is the song "3046" about, and why did you choose to do two versions of the same song, with two arrangements and two different titles ? [NDLR : "3046" and "No Estoy Contigo" on the album have the same words, and the same melody, but one is a ballade, and the other is an energetic salsa]
"3046" is the number of people who have been kidnaped in Colombia. "No Estoy Contigo," is a song that is already really popular in Cali. We’re number 1 on certain radio stations with "No Estoy Contigo," which is the salsa version. People think that it’s a love letter, that it’s written about a couple. But this sont is talking about victims of kidnaping. Not a lot of people listen to my music in Colombia because I often talk about things that don’t amuse people, I sing about bananas, massacres, country people, a guy who grows sugar cane, an Indian, a Black, like that, simply… and they’re not very romantic.
So I made this song with a double meaning. One meaning, if I read the words « I would like to be near you, I miss you », these are very simple things that a normal guy can say to his girlfriend. But if you go into the universe of kidnaping, it’s the story of a man who is powerless in the hands of a Colombian, geopolitical problem, taking hostages.
As soon as you talk about kidnaping in your country, France, it’s not a problem because the actors in that war are not here. It’s very easy to talk about freeing a journalist who is in Irak because the principal people are not here. But to go and do protest march in Baghdad, is something else. What I mean is that if you talk about kidnaping in Colombia, the people involved are out in the streets, and might even be sitting right in front of you without your knowing it. To touch that subject…he interrupts himself to listen to the news on FIP radio, broadcast in the hallway of the hotel : they’re talking about Irak, about Baghdad !
I made two version, to let a lighter version live, just the love version. And "3046" has the same words. If you talk to me about "3046," I’ll talk to you about kidnapings ; if you talk to me about "No Estoy Contigo," I’ll tell you, « I miss you and am far away from you ». If you’re going to talk about the subject of a man who misses someone, talk about it ; and if you’re going to talk about kidnapings…everything depends on the universe that the person who listens to the song, lives in.
Why did you write a song about Patrice Lumumba ?
Because Lumumba is a great Man. But he hasn’t received the same marketing treatment as Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, or the political machine of South Africa for Mandela. And all the geopolitical strategy that required them to have a Black hero to clean up their image of racial exclusion. With Mandela one might say, South Africa is not racist, but the racism continues in the heads of the leaders of South Africa. It’s not because Mandela existed or exists, that men’s souls will change.
Patrice Lumumba didn’t benefit at all from these machines. He was the victim of colonial and imperialist forces in Africa. It’s just a way of saying to those people that Patrice Lumumba can not be snuffed out like that. I open up my concerts with "Patrice Lumumba". I’ve already played it in countries where Mobutu asked for political exile… I’m going to go there and play it, in the Congo, formerly Zaïre. These are great Men who do not have the place in history that they deserve. But they will have it, history will give it to them.
There is a very strong boléro component to this album, and there are even salsa-boléro numbers, like you started with "Ne Me Quitte Pas." Explain your attraction to the boléro ?
I love boléro. I think that my voice is more adapted to singing boléro than it is to salsa. I love it, it’s very beautiful. The words… this type of refusal of machismo on the part of the Latin-American man, all the poetry in the boléro ! It is the tender side of the macho man. And it makes the women cry. When you see the machismo in the dance, it’s surprising that the same person can do a boléro.
There is also a very different ambience on the album between the two songs on which the guitar predominates…
Yes, "Temes" !
And, also, "3046".
The instrument is the Colombian tiple. It’s a little bit like the Cuban tres, but it’s different, it’s called tiple.
And José Aguirre plays it, for that matter.
Yes ! He’s very good, because it comes from the mountains, it’s a country person’s instrument. That’s why the guys who play it aren’t Black. Often, Blacks play the drums. And the mixed-race people, play the guitar. The origin of European and African mixing… José plays really well.
We just spoke about "Temes". It’s difficult to imagine a salsa dura album without a song by Tite Curet, but I imagine that it’s not only for this reason that you chose the title. Why did you pick this song by Tite Curet Alonso ?
I knew Tite in the 1990s. 1999. I met him in San Juan. He wrote mostly on common subjects, but I’ve always been impressed by the way he wrote about love. It’s almost a love story, but it’s a street story at the same time : it can be the story of a prostitute on a street corner. It doesn’t take place in a castle, it’s not a love story in an idyllic place, it’s a love story in the street. It’s impressive how, as a composer he can relate the sublime story of human experience, at street level. He is one of the greatest author-composers…
It’s very evident in your work that you want to share with your public, and this comes across tremendously in your concerts, the idea that salsa is not just about having a good time, it’s not only about the music, about making people dance, but that there is an enormous culture surrounding it. Why do you have this need to promote salsa, above and beyond the simple profession of singing it ?
Because here in Europe, you consume flamenco one year, and the next year, you’ll take up jazz, and the year after that, lambada, and then carapicho or who knows what else, and then that "Mambo Number Five" thing, and after that, whatever… I want to say that salsa is an authentic music, it’s a veritable human element, that salsa is real food. Salsa is good for the spirit, it’s good for life. The brass, the drums, it’s good. he points his finger to the interviewer It’s good for you, or for you, or for you too ! Don’t just walk on by…
He catches a fragment of Billie Holiday, broadcast over the radio It’s like jazz ! If the European intellectuals hadn’t opened up a place for jazz, in the United States jazz wouldn’t have had any way to get out. It’s through European awareness that Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillespie, Erroll Garner, that all this took on a planetary dimension !
It’s like jazz, it has the same origins : Africa. It’s like Bresilian samba. You think samba and you see a girl in a string with a feather on her head ! But Bresilian music goes much farther than than. Because Joao Gilberto, Jorge Ben, Jobim… if these great Men had never been, we would still be at the level of beach-level consumerism. I don’t want salsa to become a page in your cultural history without leaving its true nature.
Salsa doesn’t need Europe to live, because America feeds itself on salsa every day. Oscar d’Leon doesn’t need to come to Paris to be Oscar d’Leon, nor Celia Cruz either. However, we do need to communicate, to come to Paris, to get your ideas, to take them back home, to come back, to listen to an African orchestra play salsa or mix up the music, learn that, incorporate it, go back home, come back… We all need that exchange. How to say it…Jazz didn’t need Europe, but with Europe’s approval, that allowed Jazz to expand into other countries. A woman doesn’t need to marry a man for him to realize that she’s a good person. A good journalist doesn’t need to work at Newsweek or the BBC to be good. But we all need these exchanges, we need this journalist who works at his tiny newspaper, and who says things well.
That’s what it’s like for me, and I have to express that feeling. Because the only thing that I can say is that, on stage and in our work, there is honesty in the middle of our mediocrity. We have a great desire to be honest with other people.