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Editor's Pick: LA EXCELENCIA | Ecos Del Barrio

Reviewed by Richie Blondet

New York City. 'Ground Zero' for the urban hard-core Salsa Dura 'sound.' While there have been some doubters throughout the land in recent times of that claim's actual authenticity, here is a production that could have easily been titled "Exhibit A" to prove that point. What we have, instead, is a modern master-piece entitled 'Ecos Del Barrio.' The latest offering in a line of high quality musical and lyrical authenticity from LA EXCELENCIA - A group which the Salsa aficionado at large had long been hungry for to come around and permanently establish themselves. With this new production, they've accomplished this and then some. Formed on the basis of not just representing a type of sound, but an entire culture, La Excelencia is the voice of the people. The echoes that emanate from the open windows and the concrete landscape of the neighborhood 'barrios.' Echoes that bounce off the walls, intertwine and transform into a social message expressed through the explosive percussion of Cofresi, Silva and Dilone; the brassy trumpets of Powell and Hirose; the wailing and dancing trombones of 'Kaji' and Ronnie Prokopez; the heavy bass 'tumbao' of Bringas; and the intense sweeping of the black and white ivories of the young maestro, Willy Rodriguez.

There are 12 tracks in all, but they are produced as one large continuous flow after the other. No fade outs whatsoever. A process that was done intentionally to create that effect. The opening track are the very 'Ecos' that one hears in the air of their local 'barrio,'but which were, in effect, actually recorded from the same area of the Bronx, N.Y. where 'La Excelencia' is spawned from. 'Ecos' which then segue to a musical offer or gift to the world at large with the tune "Pa'l Mundo Entero," featuring the entire band personnel echoing its message on coro. Flowing seamlessly into the next track is an original composition by vocalist Edwin Perez, a true blue authentic Sonero in the sponteneously improvisational sense, who garners his first official song writing credit as a member of 'La Excelencia' with "Dale Otra Oportunidad." The story of a down trodden beaten down soul who has reluctantly received all of the hard knocks which life has to offer, but never a second chance from it, at making something of himself. The use of bata drums by the 'La Excelencia' rhythm section is featured prominently. Its actual use in a recording session being a first for this orchestra. "Nueva York Sin Ti" isn't so much of an ode to an anonymous woman, as it is to the city itself. Where well known historical landmarks and attractions are cited and replete throughout the song. A reality that even Salseros who reside outside of New York will be able to recognize and be familiar with.

The tres guitar, played by invited guest Yuniel Jimenez, makes its debut on a 'La Excelencia' recording on a funky guajira entitled "Guerrero." The title track, which means 'warrior' in english, will have the listener punching their fist in the air and crying out 'revolution,' as it describes a figure who declares war on the ills of society and swearing to never stop fighting the good fight as long as they exist. Complimenting the tres, along with the orchestra, was the use of an authentic organ (played by Willy Rodriguez). Which, interestingly enough, had to be physically brought into the recording studio and brought with it its own fan for the sole purpose of making the organ functional. True warriors indeed! The band continues to weave stories throughout this non-stop flow of music and brings to life a character that many people around the world are familiar with. The story of "Maria," a woman who opts for the 'fast life' but learns the fateful lesson, far too late, that the straight and narrow path is the one to follow. While violins and other string instruments (as added by synth technology) have been no stranger to Salsa recordings, the use of real strings, as are used on this track, have been quite rarely featured. On "Maria," they emanate over the track in a sweet and almost haunting fashion. Coupled with solos by Miki Hirose, Johnathan Powell and Tokunori Kajiwara or "Kaji," on brass, this mixture between strings and horns gives 'Maria' an even deeper emotional pathos.

The Afro-Boricua musical tradition is represented next in the form of the 'Bomba'. Authenticity is a hallmark that 'La Excelencia' prides itself on. So it is a no brainer that real authentic puerto rican instruments would be utilized in order to capture a traditional bomba sound on "Entre Espinas." Featured prominently on a mesmerizing trombone solo is Ron Prokopez. The next track is vintage La Excelencia. Hard core, kick butt, dirty sock Salsa, laced with a social lyrical content. "La Economia" is a reminder why this orchestra is this generation's un-official CNN. The song's title, which translates to 'the economy,' is a reality that, each and everyday, affects U.S. American lives, or that of any other country with a struggling livelihood amongst its citizenry. The song allows for both of the band's co-leaders to shine on their respective instruments, featuring timbalero Julian Silva and Jose Vazquez-Cofresi on tumbadoras. Both solos manage to echo a swinging reminder of that ever honest notion that the rich do seem to always get richer, while the poor continue to play lotto, but never hit. The song writing maturity of one of the band's composers is evident on Julian Silva's "Anoche Sone Contigo." A Salsa power ballad, initially convincing the listener that the subject in question is a living, breathing person, when, in reality, it is about someone who has long passed. A type of twist not found in many of today's contemporary recordings. From a love song, it then flows into a gritty son montuno entitled "Vagabundo." An acknowledgment to the 'invisible' people of society. You know them well. You've seen them before. You have given them loose change that you were able to spare and perhaps something for them to snack on. This is a tribute to those people, who we sometimes tend to forget... are people too.

Moving forward and never forgetting to pay respects to their roots, the following track pays tribute to 'La Negritud' found in Latin American culture in the song "Iyanla." Of Yoruban origin, the word translates to 'grand mother' in English. The song revolves around a popular refrain 'Y Tu Abuela Adonde Esta?' that touches on race and color in latin america, as well as challenging the listener to acknowledge and embrace the roots of their culture. Featured prominently on a solo is bongocero Charlie Dilone. The next and final track flows into a free for all 'Descarga' or Jam Session that features the entire band, along with invited guest personnel and instruments that one would consider to be unorthodox to a Salsa orchestra. Arranged by trombonist Tokunori Kajiwara, "Descarga La Excelencia (Tsumugi)" showcases all of the usual suspect's chops, including a really tasty bass solo by Jorge Bringas, additonal improvisation from trombonist Mike Engstrom and trumpeter Dennis Hernandez. But what separates this jam session, from all others, are the addition of Japanese musicians, Yuiko Oyama and Masahiro Nitta, who add their own cultural form of expression by improvising on the Japanese Shamisen string instrument. Creating a fusion of cultural expression in the most improvisational of settings. The term Tsumgi is Japanese for what can only be described as a rough, slubbed silk. Overall, this recording is a true gem and will be the modern 'classic' that dancers and aficionados around the world will memorably enjoy over and over.
Considering the band's humble beginnings, before they became internationally known, when co-leader Jose V. Cofresi and fellow percussionist Charlie Dilone would individually sell copies of their debut CD on a sidewalk on Fordham Road in the Bronx, "Ecos Del Barrio" will show and prove that they've certainly come a long way since then.

A must have. Highly Recommended! - Richie Blondet

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