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An in-depth and candid interview with one of the rare few authentic soneros in the United States.

Frankly Frankie, The Reluctant Sonero Del Barrio

by John Child and David Barton
Photos of Los Soneros Del Barrio by Eric Hason, Bruce Polin and David Barton

By the miracle of modern communications, David Barton in New York and John Child in London have collaborated to prepare this piece on singer Frankie Vázquez and his current album with Martin Arroyo: Los Soneros del Barrio (Rumbero RRCD 1765). David and John first met Frankie in London in 1992, when he was performing there with Manny Oquendo & Libre so they already knew what an articulate interviewee he is. Frankie proved such an eloquent raconteur that, with only minimal editing, we are able to bring you his candid account of his musical career and exciting new project entirely in his own words. Frankie unfolds a tale of someone who has travelled the traditional route of a sonero, gradually honing his skills and paying his dues in numerous bands, including those of Wayne Gorbea, Javier Vázquez and Manny Oquendo. This is in marked contrast to today's pretty boy (and girl) singers of salsa monga, who seem to appear out of nowhere.

The Long Road To Becoming El Sonero Del Barrio

On getting started in music in Puerto Rico

I learned from the radio and TV, basically more from radio. My father had means and he had a restaurant (in Guayama on the southern coast of Puerto Rico). Next to the restaurant was like a big big warehouse where he would buy me stuff. My first two drums were from New York: LPs. Galaxy. I bought two more wooden ones. Eventually I had four congas, a pair of timbales, a pair of bongos, two guitars, two bass. I had a trumpet but I couldn't play it. I bought the piano for the piano player because he didn't have money to buy a piano. I started playing congas with another singer, but all the instruments were bought by my father. The bongo player had a bell, and that was the only thing that was his. Nobody could take anything to their house. We would rehearse two or three times a week so it was like an after school boys club. It was a hangout.

My father's restaurant had space for music to be played. All he was thinking about was, "If I get this for my son then I'll have a house band." The band guys used to get paid $10 per gig. I used to get paid about $22. Five dollars from me went towards gas because I would wind up taking the musicians back to their houses. Even though I was too young to have a driver's license.

Singing with The Generals

When my singer started missing out on all the rehearsals we tried these other two singers, but they were horrible. We had these gigs on a Friday and a Saturday from 10.00 to 12.00 at my father's restaurant. So what we did in the week was that I rehearsed the songs until we got a singer. I remember doing "La Pelota" from Ray Barretto. "La Banda" from Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe. "Oye Como Va" from Santana, with the guitar. And we had this tune from Roberto y su Nuevo Montuno. I changed the lyrics to accompany the band: Los Generales, The Generals. That was like our theme. I started to get little gigs from town to town of $300, $350 and $400. And the guys started telling me, "Wow Frankie, we are getting more gigs with you singing than when you played congas."

The guys decided after about a year and a half that it was time to make the band bigger by adding a horn. We worked with the horn for about seven or eight gigs. We changed the name from Los Generales to La Soul Latina. And we started doing some Fania tunes. We had a trumpet but the trumpet wasn't really that good. It got to my father's ears. He said, "You know you guys sound much better without the trumpet. You don't make mistakes and besides that you make about $2 each more." I chucked him. We tried a sax player. With a sax player it was better. He can do some nutty stuff. It was like Coltrane. And we can do more merengues. People loved it. I did that for about six months.

After about two years with La Soul Latina I went to varsity. As soon as they heard me, they said, "Forget it man. We're gonna use you. You're the varsity singer." I was 17 years old. My teacher loved my singing. When he found out that I played at my father's restaurant every weekend and go to different areas, he wound up using me and then I wound up using him for my band. And he was a great sax player. He was very constructive. He taught us a lot. I would take his ideas and it helped out. We started getting bigger gigs, moving further out to different towns. And the gigs were starting to flow at $500, $550. And the guys were starting to get $25, $50. They had never seen this before.

Now I'm becoming more popular as a singer with his group and my group. And singing with two other groups that would call me to come and sit in. The guys started noticing because they said, "Listen, you're not putting emphasis into our band any more." And I started thinking, "Ever since I touched the mike and saw the feeling of the people, and the sensation, everybody likes it. I don't think I want to be the leader of the band anymore. You guys can stay with the band and stay with the instruments, but you have to bring them back as soon as you've finished your gig. I'm putting my brother as the co-leader." They stuck with the band for about another year.

He learns about his Puerto Rican musical roots

I was already singing with three bands: the local town band, the varsity school band and a guitar teacher's band, who was like 70 years old. All he did was bombas and plenas, and old aguinaldos. Typical music. That's where I learned to do typical music, with him. And the le-lo-lai's. That's where you learn that. With the campo, with the old cats. And then I started getting approval from the old veterans of the town. Once I got their approval, wherever I would go - I was young, I was only 17 - these people treated me with so much decency.

Debut with a professional name band

One of my best friends was a singer called Guillo Rivera, who was singing with Willie Rosario. His band was in Santa Isabel, two towns from mine. I hired him for two gigs in my father's restaurant. While he was there I was the man at the door. While I was doing that he calls me up on stage. He says, "Listen, we are going to have Frankie Vázquez singing now with us. Frankie would you come and sing with me." This was with Guillo Rivera, who had already done "Cha-Cha-Ri-Cha" with Willie Rosario (included on Gracias Mundo '77 on Inca). But I had given him the first opportunities to sing on a stage. He was a jukebox singer; he puts money in the jukebox, stays there and sings the whole song through.

I looked at him and said, "Oh man. I would love to get up there, but you've gotta ask maybe Willie Rosario or something like that." He looked at me and said, "Just get up on stage." I got up on stage. But I didn't know I had it until when I got off there, and Guillo told me, "Wow. It was like as if I was singing. You did hell man. That was incredible." I said, "No Guillo. Out of all the town singers, you are the best town singer there is." That was the first time I got up on the stage with a professional band. A top band. A name band. And sang. That was in 1975. Word got out. The whole town was saying, "Wow, Frankie, man. That was incredible you know."

His first band with professional musicians

In 1976 I started another band using professional musicians. Like my cousin Miguel Pollo from El Gran Combo. He played with me for about six months. Also Fernand (Fernando Pérez), the bass player from Gran Combo two bass players ago. They were all raised with me. I got to use two or three of the greatest timbaleros of the south side of Puerto Rico, including Francisco Alvarado, who was a bongosero for La Sonora Ponceña and La Terrifica. That's the first Terrifica with Tito Gómez, where Yolanda Rivera sang years later. A great band. Francisco is retired now.

We used to do Sunday matinees. My band was like the rinkydink band, so they would hire us for $400. For $5000-$6000 they were hiring La Sonora Ponceña, La Terrifica, Gran Combo. I got to alternate with all these top bands in my hometown. They would always offer their equipment if we had anything missing. That was the good thing about alternating: if your band was rinkydink they would make you sound big. They would help out.

From my hometown there is Toñito Vázquez (Antonio Vázquez), the trombone player who basically plays on every album in Puerto Rico. We went to high school together. When we were in school we were never close. And today we're very close. He tells people that I'm his cousin. We're not cousins. My father tells me that we're like third cousins.

After I find out that I can do it on my own, I decide to stop playing with my band and proceed to record with small groups. I recorded a demo with a small group called Graces Reyes, which featured a sax player, another teacher. It was so fast in the studio. The next day he gave us each a tape of the demo. And I thought I did a horrible job. But they liked it. It's always the same thing. They wound up liking it and they said, "No we're going to leave it like this. This is what we are going to use to see if we can sell it." They never wound up selling it. What happened was that one of the leaders died, an old man who played guitar. Then the sax player decided to break up the band.

Influences and learning his craft

My influences were Héctor Lavoe, Ismael Miranda, Ismael Rivera, Pete "El Conde," Ismael Quintana. I knew every break to every album of Héctor Lavoe, every album of Willie Colón, every album of Ray Barretto. Because Ray Barretto was my favourite conguero. I had congas so I used to follow-up on him. I would play along to Hard Hands (1968 on Fania). I was doing all his riffs and everything. Until you get to a point where you figure, "Wow. I've learned everything I am going to learn from the records of Ray Barretto." As a youngster you say, "Well let me go now to the Patato albums." And you start looking for difficult stuff. But that's how I learned.

Singing was the same way. They used to call me a jukebox singer. I used to put a quarter in for five songs. Those would include Ismael Miranda, Héctor Lavoe, Ismael Quintana, Cheo Feliciano. And I would sing from the beginning to the end. Everything. You would have to know everything to the tee.

That's the way singers would model to singers. You would even fight if there was a word you didn't know. You would tell somebody else and some guy would give you another word. "No that's not what it says!" You would go to your house and hear it with headphones, go back the next day and tell him, "Look man. Put it on and hear. That's what it says." Because you prided yourself on perfecting everything: the choruses, the words, the breaks.

Every Puerto Rican drummer would want to be the Cuban drummer Orestes Vilató! And they would know his breaks to the tee. They would master his solos. It was like they had turned musicologists. They would listen to every little thing the campana would do. They would do the same thing Manny (Oquendo) would do.

You would have guys who would come just to hear who was on chorus. "I know those three guys on chorus. I can name them for you." "Yeah who are they?" "That's Justo Betancourt, Pacheco and Héctor Lavoe." "Yeah, who's this?" "Oh. That is Yayo El Indio with Justo Betancourt." They could tell you everything. They used to study a lot. You would grab a conga or the timbales or you would grab a bell. You would try to simulate them, sing along with them, the whole song. Today they don't study the music as much as they used to. If they hear a Victor Manuelle, they'll buy it, they'll hear it, have it in their house. But they don't go through the phrases like they used to. You don't see that enthusiasm you had years ago.

That's the way I was influenced. I heard all those great singers. If somebody says, "Who knows songs from Ismael Quintana?" Everyone jumps up. All right: "Pa La Ocha Tambó." You would sing the beginning, the end and the whole soneos. And the chorus. You would be doing chorus and singing at the same time. It was a beautiful atmosphere, living and being raised in Puerto Rico.

Frankie moves to the Big Apple

All of a sudden in September 1977, I got this call from my cousin David Sánchez who was singing lead for Fuego 77. He said, "I'm the singer but I can't pronounce like you can pronounce Frankie. I've got this New York thing man. It doesn't flow the way the way you sing. I was with you in a band in Puerto Rico, and I know what you can do. I know you can make this band." I said, "Bro, I'm not going to make a trip to New York just to do a tryout. What if they say they don't like me?" My cousin kept on telling me, "How are they not going to like you man? You pronounce perfect, you sing beautiful. They are going to love you. Come down."

Once they heard me, Al Santiago (producer of Fuego 77 '78 on Alegre) really vouched for me, "You gotta use this guy for the recording. Because this kid is different from David. Frankie sings higher and he does it in a different way. It's like you've got a Nuyorican singer and a Puerto Rican singer, two great singers. So you've got to take advantage of that." David had a big hit with the cut "Be Mine" in English here in New York.

They really didn't understand what I was singing because they were Nuyorican and the only things they would understand is when I sang easy things. Because they didn't really study their Spanish they would approach me and ask me about the words. "You don't know what this is? You're Puerto Rican?" You have to remember I was coming from the island fresh. They're in that Nuyorican style, not so fluently speaking Spanish.

I turned David on to Tito Allen. I put his albums on and David would go crazy. He would sit down and study him from top to bottom and rock! He would be there rocking. He would not call me until he knew a song completely. "Look Frankie, I know the song from top to bottom. And look at the way I'm pronouncing." And I would go, "See. You're getting better, you're getting better." We learned a lot from each other and he learned a lot of Spanish from me. He became a better singer, but then wanted to become a producer. He wanted to make real money. In 1983 he took a six month course and passed it. I signed up but never went. And that's what he is today.

Bouncing in different bands

Fuego 77 did like two years. It wasn't working out with two leaders, who were Noey Matos and Marcos Hernández, conguero and piano player. They broke up and I wound up bouncing in different bands. From there I did the Sonido Taiborí and Calidad. And from that I jumped into doing Orquesta Metropolitana. So I was like doing the three bands on and off. I had also done the New Swing Sextet for a while. Their singer was away and I did like a month's worth of gigs. And that's how I met Harry and Angel Justiniano. When they heard me they wanted me to stay in the band but I couldn't stick in the band because they had their old singer.

Years ago Harry was the musical director of the New Swing Sextet, now it's Angel Justiniano. With faith, I'm going to manage to do an album with the New Swing. I'm going to have Martin Arroyo do some charts on there. Angel has already talked to him. When they jumped into Charanson years later, I was also moving with them from a band called Tony González and his Latin Jazz Ensemble. The guy was moving to Florida and he left us with the decision to keep the band or break it up. And Héctor (Serrano) wanted to keep the directorship of the band, and stay with it, if Harry was musical director. Harry said yes. Angel was doing something else, but we got him into the band like a year later. Before Charanson we did five years together with Wayne Gorbea. The relationship is that the three of us have been bouncing from band to band. Wherever they were, they would get me in. Wherever I was, I would get them in.

It's comfortable working with Harry and Angel because they are a duo that does chorus. Besides Angel playing his drums, he can do chorus perfectly. And Harry can do the same thing while he's playing his bass. So that kills two chorus guys. Harry helped me a little bit with phrasing. We've been together for some 16 or 17 years on and off. Ever since I joined Libre it's been difficult for them to keep with me. They're trying to make Charanson happen.

Five years with the Bronx's best kept secret

Harry took me to the rehearsal of Wayne Gorbea's Conjunto Salsa. Once Wayne heard me, he said, "You're the man. We need somebody like you. Are you willing to sacrifice sticking with us?" I said, "Hey man. I'll stick with you guys to see if something happens." And I stuck with them five years. I did that one recording (Sigan Bailando '86 on Wayne Go). It was a hit in certain areas of South America. But it wasn't a hit in New York. It played pretty much, but not as much as it should have been played. The recording had a fault. It was like stretched or something. The reels. You can hear it in the music: like sometimes dying, coming, dying. If you listen to it good, you'll understand what I'm telling you. The band did their job, but it's the tape. We worked around it and that's the best we got out of the recording. Wayne was putting it out himself and he didn't have much money.

I was travelling once with Grupo Niche, and we were going to Las Vegas from Los Angeles. When Charlie Cardona, the Grupo Niche guy from Colombia, found out I was the singer on Sigan Bailando, he sang the whole of "Lo Que Dice Justi," all the soneos and everything. My hairs were sticking out, because I couldn't believe that this kid knew all the song. He amazed me. And the timbalero came up to me. Like 29 years old and tells me, "You know that it is like an icon in Colombia. All the bands that start. 'Lo Que Dice Justi' is a song that they all study. It's like what you have in New York, 'Bilongo.' For us it's 'Lo Que Dice Justi' in Colombia. All those young trombone bands, they're doing that tune. You can't find a band that doesn't do that tune." I said, "Are you serious?" He says, "All over Colombia. This is all over Colombia." And I confirmed it when I went to Colombia with Henry Fiol. I had so many fans, it was incredible, man. And they treated me so decent.

Five years with the legendary Javier Vázquez (no relation)

I only did one recording with Javier Vásquez (Ella Me Olivido '90 on Cuco). And I really enjoyed that and you can hear with the experience of each one I'm getting better.

People were telling me that I sound older. It sounds like the music was done for Ismael Rivera and Los Cachimbos and they just replaced Ismael Rivera with my voice. That really hurt me when they told me that. But then I started thinking, "Well Javier Vásquez did Los Cachimbos, he was the musical director." And then I started listening to the music and I realised people actually do compare that music with the Cachimbos music. If you just hear the music, you would actually think it was Los Cachimbos again but a different singer.

When I hear the track "Odiame" it sounds like La Sonora Matancera. It sounds as if it was done for old people. And then having my voice there, which is young. That's why they say, "Wow. This is like as if it was done for old people. It sounds like as if you're the only young guy there." And I say, "Well actually I am the youngest guy there. It's just me and Tony the bongosero." But it was a very well done album.

I was getting better in the question of soneando. I was learning a new approach of knowing my lows, learning my lows. Because it was actually done for Ismael Rivera, who had a deep voice in his last years. That was the way Javier was writing charts. I wasn't doing songs where I was singing high. So now I had to adopt doing low scale songs, learning those lows and deeps. Grabbing them and holding onto them. Not just doing it and quickly trying to go high because that's usually what young singers do. They always tend to sing high. The higher they sang, the higher they wanted to go. And the more straight in a line they want to sing. No melodic influences. No lows. When you become a good singer, you are able to grasp those lows. Which you would never have been capable of doing 10 or 15 years ago. You admire those lows that you have recorded.

Extasis y Dolor with Angelo Vaillant

When I went to Puerto Rico - when was it? '94? - with Libre, I have a fan out there who told me, "I bought that album you did with Angelo (Extasis y Dolor '93 on Mivajo). I have all of your recordings and I think that's the best album you've ever done in your life." And then I said, "Well there's not many albums that I've done in my life. There's only like five recordings. That was about number six, you know!"

Actually when I came back and heard it, I had the same opinion he had. Then I started thinking what my uncle had told me, who is a sax player. He had told me, "Wow. I heard that album that you did. It sounds like a Willie Rosario big band. And I never heard you in anything like that. I heard you with Fuego '77, two trumpets and a trombone, but it was a rinkydink band. It was all kids from 20 years old to 25. And I heard the stuff you did with Wayne. That was a great album, but it sounds like the recording wasn't great. But that was the best sonero album that you did."

Now where I'm perfecting the melodic low notes is when I do the Angelo which uses different ranges of my voice. And they gave me that "He Sabido Que Te Amaba," that Mexican ranchera. Actually the chart was by Héctor Martignon, the Colombian piano player. When he did that, he did it in such a low key that it reminded me of singing with Javier Vásquez. When I sang the beginning to that, it sounded so low to me that I was going: "Wow man. I've gotta do this in a higher range because I can't grab those lows." What prepared me for that album was actually that Javier Vásquez album.

On nearly 10 years with Manny Oquendo & Libre

I got a call at four o'clock in the morning on December 25th, 1990. My wife picks up the phone and says, "Hello, who's this?" "It's Andy González. Can I speak to Efrain Vázquez?" My wife says. "It's Andy González. He wants to speak to you." I say, "Andy González. This must be a joke from one of the guys." So I thought it was Harry Justiniano or Angel. So I pick up the phone. He says, "Hello is this Frankie Vázquez?" And I said, "Yeah. Is this Andy González? Libre? Andy González, the bass player?" And he says, "Yeah. This is me." So I say, "What can I do for you?" "Listen. We are in need of a singer and we have a gig on December 27th, on Friday night. Are you available?" And I say, "Yeah I'm available." He told me, "OK. Dress in black and white. A suit, white shirt and a tie. We're gonna be doing Club Broadway. Be there at 9.30. We start at ten o'clock." I told him, "What songs do I have to learn? Do I have to pick up a cassette from your house tomorrow or something? Are we going to get together?" He said, "No. Do you know 'Busca Lo Tuyo' by Eddie Palmieri?" "Yes I do." "Do you know 'Porque Tu Sufres'?" "Yes I do." "Do you know 'Saoco'?" "Yes I do." "Then just be ready to do those songs when you come up to Club Broadway."

I was outrageous when I got off the phone. I said, "Wow. He expects me to go up on stage without even rehearsing with them!" It was about 4.30. So what I do is that I start looking through the Libre albums and putting them on. I start noticing that I don't really need to listen to these songs because I know them. I know songs Libre don't do anymore. Like "Imagines Latinas." which is one of the best. "Lamento Borincano"--I've been in the band ten years and I think we did it once, only as a tryout in a sound check in Puerto Rico.

Their singer at that time, Luisito Rosa, was very uncomfortable with me. He's a trademark singer from the '70s. He sings with Charanga America, Charanga All Stars, and does chorus with Eddie Palmieri. He sings with Ricky González's band which backs up all the singers from Puerto Rico and around the world. When I got up on stage, Andy called for: "Chaquilla." which eventually came out on the live album (On The Move! (Muevete!) '96 on Milestone). Luisito looked at me and said, "This is my song. I'm going to sing it." I said. "That's cool." I said. "Let me take the güiro so you can feel comfortable singing and not playing an instrument." What I wanted to do was show Manny and Andy that I can play güiro. But I'm not thinking about the process of singing. We do the intro and chorus. Andy goes, "Frankie!" So I look at him and he says, "Sing!" I look at Luisito and Luisito's looking at me, like, "Don't you dare!" Andy goes again, "Frankie!" He's the boss. That was the second holler he gave. I started singing. When we were in the montuno, Luisito looked at me and I tried to tell him, "They told me to sing. And I don't want to lose the job. I want to win this job. It was my first gig." He didn't want to look at me. He turned the other way.

All of a sudden the song finishes. I gave him my hand and said, "Listen I'm sorry. They asked me to sing. I jumped in and sang. I don't want you to feel bad about it. I don't want to make you feel uncomfortable up here. I want to feel comfortable, and I'm not feeling comfortable. Please, Luisito, man. I'm just coming in, you've gotta try and help me out as much as you can. I'll help you out as much as I can." And then Andy comes out and announces the second song, "Busca Lo Tuyo." That's the song he wanted me to sing. Just in case I wouldn't come out singing, Luisito was gonna try and sing it. Suddenly Andy looked at me and said, "Frankie." So I came in and I sang it. And when I sang it I looked at Luisito and said, "Look they gave me permission to sing this one before I got to the stage." He said, "No problem." And he didn't talk to me no more. It was a long set. We did about 70 minutes.

When we finished that gig, I said sorry again. I asked Manny and Andy what did they think about it. Andy said, "Wow, man, it was great, man. It was like we never lost anything. You're doing a great job. The next gig is January the fourth in Side Street." I said, "OK great."

So when we went to Side Street, the singer didn't show up. Louie wasn't there and I was worried. I asked Papo Vásquez, "Where's Louie Rosa?" "I don't know where he is." I asked Andy, "Where's Louie?" "I don't know. I called him at the house. He didn't return my call. I don't know what's happening. Gee, I guess you're gonna have to do it alone." I said, "Wow, man. You see, this is because you put me in that spot with him. Now he doesn't want to come. I need his number. I gotta talk to him." So I called Luisito about two days later. He laughed down the phone and said, "Listen, Frankie, it's no problem man. I've got ulcers and I can't take any more Manny Oquendo & Libre."

Frankie's debt to Manny Oquendo & Libre

I'm in Libre now. For them, I would do anything. And I'm still doing it. I learned a lot with Manny and Andy. The learning experience with Andy is incredible. After every gig we hang out in the hotel. As a musicologist he has a cassette player in his hotel room. And he'll start playing all the best singers of Cuba: old Abelardo Barroso, Beny Moré, Roberto Faz. He'll give you all the best. You'll hear these tunes and you'll say, "Oh, wow. I heard that tune in the '70s." "Now you know how old it is." 1950 something. 1940 something. Andy can give you dates, musicians. And that's what so good about it. Then you'll start, "Wow, man. Vitín Avilés and Pellín Rodríguez sang with José Fajardo when he lived in Puerto Rico!" It's incredible to hear Roberto Torres and Justo Betancourt with La Sonora Matancera from 1975 on reel-to-reel tapes! What a swing! Three trumpets. Natural sonora.

The years of experience I've gained with Manny are the most important of all. Besides travelling the world, meeting all you beautiful people with Manny's band. I'm always going to thank him. Because without him, and without Andy, I would not be in the position I am now. I know that for a fact. I would still be struggling in New York bands. I made a song for Manny on the timbales which will hopefully be done in the next recording. If it's done by me or the other singer, I don't know. But I know they are going to do the song because he promised me.

On the exacting character and example of Manny Oquendo

You do things for Manny and he'll love you the rest of your life and you'll love him the rest of your life. You do the recording the way you're supposed to. You sing for him the way you're supposed to sing for him. And you and Manny will be for years. But you do one thing wrong to Manny and you will never be there no more. He's that type of person. But there are people who appreciate him and understand him and know how he is.

He has so much stuff to put on and take off the stage. He doesn't like people to get close to him at the beginning or the end. I've seen people come up on stage just to say hello to Manny while he's screwing a bell on. And he'll go, "Andy, Andy. Please not now. Tell them not now. Don't bother me now, please. When I finish." Some people look at him as if it was a bad thing. He does this all the time. There are people that love him so much that they want to come up to him. He'll tell me, "Frankie look, I'm gonna try and pack up as fast as I can. I don't want nobody next to me. So if you see anybody getting next to me, try to help out." So I already understand the situation. If I see anyone getting close to him. I go over there. "Oh, you want Manny to sign this for you. Let me sign it first and then we'll talk to Manny as soon as he takes off everything. He'll give you the time and he'll talk with you." Even if you love him, don't go when he's setting things up or when he's taking things off. Because that is a process of 45 minutes to an hour.

People sometimes don't understand. "Wow, Manny's a grouch." "He's not a grouch man. Do you know how to set everything up for him?" He will not let you touch anything. If you try to help him, "No! Please! You don't know where it goes. That one goes over there. Leave it alone." It's happened to all the guys that take care of Manny. All of them go through that. I went through it in the beginning. First I would help him. If I would misplace a bell or put one stick in the wrong place, "What the hell are they doing to me? I put it here. They put it there. What are they doing? I'll never get done."

I understand him. You've got three pairs of tims (timbales), bongos, you got cymbals, you got bells, you got blocks. You've got all that stuff and then you've got to put that in cases. You've got to know where to put the things in cases. Because he knows where he put things and he'll look for it where he puts it. If he doesn't find it there, "You see Andy. I told you. Don't let nobody on stage." If you can speak to him after he has everything put away, that is your best bet and he'll give you everything. He'll give you a long interview. You'll have to stop him from talking!

I've learned a lot from Manny about being a leader. Manny will tell you, "All you have to be is yourself and tell the truth. And the truth hurts people. The truth is what will make you comfortable. If you don't like what you see, you say you don't like what you see. If you like what you see, you say you like what you see." I told him, "Manny, that's one thing that you don't do. What you don't like you say. But when you do like something, you never say it." And he came out, "Well sometimes when you finish a song, don't I say. 'Frankie, Frankie Vázquez, El Sonero del Barrio.' Don't I?" I say, "Yes you do. But that's now. That doesn't mean you did it years ago. You've become comfortable with me, you've worked with me, played with me. We talk. You know my kid. You give him money. It's like a family relationship. And I don't want this to die. With me and you." He says, "And I don't want it to die neither. I heard you say once that you would be with me a hundred years." I think that was at the 23rd anniversary. Each member spoke and I came out and said, "I've learned a lot and I expect to keep on learning a lot. If I can be here a hundred years, I'll be here a hundred years." And he remembered. And I acknowledged it.

Reflections on working with Jimmy Bosch

Performing live with Jimmy

Once Jimmy's band starts, we do the intro and everything. Everything is fine. But when we get to the solos, that's when the people start getting closer to the stage. Jimmy starts going crazy on his trombone. People love that. I love when he starts playing. I love it. If he knows he's losing his chop, he'll call quickly, "All right let's trade solos. Jeff come here." Jeff (sax player Jeff Lederer) comes in and starts with his leg. I love that shit, man. I love it. And then when he sends the percussionist to take a solo. You've got David (Lugo) going crazy. Because David moves his body to a swing and he moves the tims. They're loud! He plays them just as loud as Manny. The motion, the sweat and the smile. When he's taking a solo he's so into a smile. It's like he's thinking and thinking, "I'm going to do this and this. This." You can't stop watching him. Then all of a sudden Georgie (conguero George Delgado) takes a solo. Chucky (bongosero Chucky López) takes a solo.

I love to sing with Jimmy. I'm inspired by him, and I think he's inspired by me. He's taking me to Puerto Rico. David Lugo told me it's seven gigs. I'll be the only singer. And he's going to use Papo Lucca and Bobby Valentín. And Sammy Vargas on congas. There's just four of us going: Jeff, me, Jimmy and David Lugo. That'll be a great experience.

Recording with Jimmy

I didn't have much time to prepare my parts when I did the recordings with Ryko (Jimmy's bandleading debut Soneando Trombón '98 and follow-up Salsa Dura '99 on RykoLatino). There were charts done for Salsa Dura, and it was much better.

I didn't know the first song ("La Cacharra" from Salsa Dura), which was a Ricky González chart. I got into the studio. He says, "Frankie, now it's laid down, all you gotta do is put in the voice." But I've never heard it in my life. So then he writes it down for me real quick. And I go into the studio. They let me hear it once or twice. The layout and everything. But I'm wondering, "Where does what go and where do I come in?" So really that's not comfortable. And then you want to give him your 100%. But you know you're not going to give your 100% if they're gonna tell you this is the way it's going to be done. So I went into the studio, and each paragraph was done. We were doing each track in layers which is not the best way for me to do a song.

Jesus, some of you guys are gonna like it. When I tell you the truth, some guys will go through it and hear it and then you'll understand what I'm talking about. But Jimmy, he wants to keep it all spontaneous, not much preparation. The only time that I really enjoyed it is when it came to the soneo parts. But maybe I'm being too critical. Please, don't get me wrong, the opportunity of recording with Jimmy has been as important to my career as that amazing phone call from Andy González.

The Los Soneros Del Barrio Project

Martin Arroyo lays a trap for Frankie

When it all started, I was not one of the components of the recording. I got sucked into it by the bass player, John Benítez, and Jesús "Chuíto" Rivera, the singer, who recorded on Martin Arroyo's previous album with New York Power. He is a friend of mine. I got him to record with Javier Vázquez and me on a couple of recordings. He seemed to have this feeling he owed me something. So as he had recorded with Martin, he kept on calling me every day. And he would ask me, "Frankie, look, Martin Arroyo's got this project, which is all old songs, but they need a sonero and they have you in mind. Martin's been trying to get you to record with him for about two years. And you always tell him no. Because you don't want to sign a contract. You don't sign contracts." And I told him that was the reason.

"What if I can get Martin to get you to do the recording without a contract?" And I say, "It might be possible, but I'm still not sure if I want to do the project. I have to hear the project." Well, they gave me a call to go and do the maracas on 11 tunes. But I had already done a gig with Benítez with Cruz Control a week before. He drove me home after the gig and he kept on bragging to me about the project. And he said, "Man, you gotta hear this project. Once you hear it you're gonna love it. It's you, it's you. You're young, you've got that style. You have that voice." I told John, "Well, I would like to hear it, but I don't think I want to do it."

When I went to the studio to do the maracas, Martin was singing a Héctor Lavoe song "Paraiso de Dulzura" about Puerto Rico (originally from Lavoe's solo debut La Voz '75 on Fania). Martin has a horrible voice. He had the words on a sheet and he was singing and it sounded horrible. Chuíto was there. So I was going, "What the hell is he doing Chuy? He's messing up that song." He says, "It's his production, he can do whatever the hell he wants with it. You can't tell him he can't do it."

So I kept on hearing it. It kept on clashing with me. I got to a point where I said, "Bro' why don't you let Chuíto sing the song? He sounds better. Why don't you let me do it? I sound better than you." Chuíto says, "You remember the song, right? You used to sing the song when we were doing Bistro Latino with David Lugo's band. So you remember the song." I say, "Yeah, I remember the song." That was his gimmick, his trap to try to get me into the studio. So I sang it. And him and Ray Castro, from Conjunto Clásico, were amazed. Especially Ray Castro, because he had never heard me sing. That was amazing to me also. And when he heard me sing, he liked it. He said, "Wow. This is what we're searching for. Someone like you."

I caught Martin from the corner of my eye like telling Ray, "I told you. This is the guy we need. This is the man. Let him get comfortable in the studio." And I did those demo tracks for him. I did that and Lebrón Brothers' "Salsa y Control" (the title track of their sixth Cotique album). All old tracks from the late '60s and '70s, that were redone by Martin, who always had this desire for playing these songs and said, "If someday I ever become a studio musician and I have a studio, I would love to be able do these things." That was like a dream of his and he's accomplished it with me, which he says is the fitting part. I think I was perfect for it.

I noticed it when we did the third song. Ray Castro was getting a little more comfortable with me. He was telling me, "Wow, it's so great to work with you. You catch things like this, but I don't just want you to sound like one sonero. I want you to sound like a melodic sonero. So you will have to be able to do things around here." And Martin wasn't too cool with that. When Ray said that, Martin stopped the recording and said, "Wait a minute, Ray. I bought Frankie here because I want Frankie to give what he gives the best. And what he does the best is his street style. You gotta let him do what he can and leave him spontaneous. Don't stop him. I saw a problem as soon as you started stopping the recording and saying, 'Well, I want you to put this soneo this way.' You're getting Frankie mechanical. It doesn't sound like Frankie and it's not bringing the best out of Frankie. You're also the producer, Ray, we want the best of Frankie. Let's get the best of what he's good at. The ones he does wrong, he'll fix the words, but that's the way he laid it. Let's do it that way. Believe me, I know what I'm telling you."

The other candidate for El Sonero del Barrio

When Martin saw I was comfortable in the studio, he admitted, "Frankie, you are the guy we were expecting to do this recording. There are 11 tracks. Now if you don't want to do the recording, it's cool. But we would like to have you on, like, maybe six tracks, or five tracks. And we have Marcus (Marco Bermúdez), this other kid that sings with Johnny Almendra and with Clásico. And we would like to use him. But he is not a developed sonero like you are so it's going to take us a lot more time to work things out with him in the studio. Because then we are going to have to write stuff for him to sing. It's not like a sonero. A sonero has already adopted what he is going to say. The thing is putting it the way you want it melodically to give it a little more fluent taste. That's all you gotta do with Frankie." That's what they were thinking. If we use Frankie, we gotta work less in the studio. If we use Marcus, we gotta work a little longer in the studio.

So it got to the point where I told them, "Look. I like what's happening here and I like the first two songs we recorded. Do you want me to do the whole thing?" And they jumped off their seats quick and they said, "That's what we want. We want you to record the whole thing. All the 11 songs are for you man. Do you want them?" And I said, "Well all right. Now how are you going to face this kid? How are you going to tell him?" "We don't even have to tell him man. This is our project. You're the man. We want you."

And I said, "Well, do you want me to call the guy? I would like to, because you already turned the guy on. Gave him some hopes, and now you are taking hopes from him. I've been through this when I was young. I was given hopes and then these hopes were taken away from me. And when they take hopes away from a singer, and he's a young singer and a new singer, he will develop anger. He will have this built in him. And it will stay there for years unless he just bounces back. Even though he's also with Isidro Infante (he sings on the Isidro Infante y La Elite albums Isidro Infante y La Elite II '95 on Marcas, reissued on RMM, and Licencia Para Engañar '98 on RMM) it doesn't mean he hasn't been turned down from the job. You learn when you're turned down from projects, you know that it's because they have thought of somebody else or you weren't perfect for the job."

He's going to mould into a great singer. I'd say in maybe three or four years maybe he'll be even better than me. Yeah. Because I love the things that he's already doing with his voice. It's just that he needs the experience of knowing what his voice sounds like in a studio and what it sounds like in different environments. In a street festival he has to get the knowledge of how to work around the mike. Move two feet, three feet. What power he needs to release. What he has to save for another set. Stuff like that comes with experience and gigs. Because in a studio you don't get that. That's through the gigs that you get that.

This is the map one

Before we mixed it, Martin would look at me and repeat, "Bro' this has got to be the album, this has got to be the CD. This is the map one. This is the one that is going to put you on the map." And I would keep going, "Well, I think this is the best one I've recorded." And he would tell me, "Well I think this is the best production that I've done as a piano player. Because all the other stuff that I've done, I haven't done it with enthusiasm. I've done this with enthusiasm, like if I was a kid playing with a water gun. This is bringing me back into what I've lost for years. Because Frankie, I've done salsa noventa, I've done Martin Arroyo (the first release on World Beat Records '97). I've done the jazz things. And they're what I wanted to do, but I wasn't really into it. This, I'm into it. This is easier for me, and yet I'm really more into it with this. And you, yourself, are telling me that this is the best you've sung. And I really enjoy what you've been singing."

Old tunes with a new funk

The tunes selected for Los Soneros del Barrio were all top hit songs Martin Arroyo heard through the '70s while he was a kid and wanted to do again. He was raised here in upper Manhattan, the Dominican area. He had heard Bobby Rodríguez's "Número Seis" (from Lead Me To That Beautiful Band '75 on Vaya, Bobby Rodríguez y La Compañia's debut album), written by Rubén Blades, and that was a big hit in New York. Especially with the Number 6 being the local subway train. It was a very famous tune for Puerto Ricans and all Latins here in New York. You had to take the Number 6 to get somewhere. When that tune came out it became popular, and it was Bobby Rodríguez's first big hit. After that, Martin played with Bobby Rodríguez for years. And he still plays with Bobby Rodríguez up to today, when Bobby calls him if his regular piano player has another gig because Martin knows all the repertoire.

It's like a kid wanting to buy a toy. He heard that song. Lived it and danced it. And plays piano. And always wondered, "Wow, man, someday I would like to be able to appreciate and enjoy this done by me. My version." And that was always in his mind through the years. Before even having a studio. And the same thing with all the other songs. "Sonero del Barrio" was another big hit for Bobby Rodríguez like two albums later (Latin From Manhattan '78 on Vaya). When he heard it and it was such a big hit, the same feeling also went through his mind, "Wow, I would love to record this and have the pleasure of playing it with my band. But with a singer who can really push people. Wake people up."

When I went to the studio and heard him playing "Soy Boricua" (the title track of Bobby Valentín's classic 1972 album on Fania), I was really amazed by the song because of the way they placed the chart. Because I love Bobby Valentín. When I heard it. The sax! I said, "Wow, this is really pushing the song. It's helping out the beginning of the song." The beginning's got that jumpy feeling. And when I start singing, me being a Puerto Rican born over there, raised out there. Just forget it. Chills went through my body. And when he heard me singing it, he said, "Wow, Frank. I used to dream of having you sing these songs man." I said. "You're serious?" He said, "You're the guy I wanted for this from the beginning."

And he was telling me the same thing through all the songs. And then there were like two or three I didn't know were on the recording. All of a sudden he put down the tracks, and he says, "Look I've got this, 'El Piraguero'," which is one of Conjunto Clásico's most famous tunes, "The Snow Cone Man" (originally from Felicitaciones '80, their second album on Lo Mejor). It contains the line, "Take out your nickel." I told him I don't know where you'll get a snow-cone for a nickel now. Even when Clásico recorded it you couldn't get them for a nickel. Now it costs about a dollar!

And then I heard Pacheco's tune "La Mulata" (originally from Los Amigos '79 on Fania). And that really baffled me. And I said, "Wow, did you always like this song, too?" And he says, "You know this is a famous Pacheco song with Héctor Casanova, when Casanova was the singer and had those big years with him. This was one of the ones that was a like big, big hit in New York." "Prende El Fogón" was a hit from Johnny Pacheco with Monguito (from Pacheco Presents Monguito '67 on Fania) and then it became a hit with La Sonora Ponceña with Tito Gómez singing (from Desde Puerto Rico a Nueva York '72 on Inca).

Martin's tune is "Ahora Si." He says, "You're inviting all the singers, like daring them to get up on stage with you, to sing with you. That you'll teach them, you'll show them, you'll mould them. You sing stuff that's incredible. I don't know who would get up on stage with you after hearing you sing that song?" And I said, "That's not what I wanted. I wanted them to feel comfortable [so they] would get on stage. I don't want to scare anybody. I want to make them enjoy it, and come up on stage and sing with me. And enjoy and learn, with me, through the process. And while they're learning with me, I'm learning with them too. Because you learn every day. There's always, like, something new for you to learn every way."

Martin worked with Angel Canales' band once in a while. He worked with Tito Nieves for a couple of years. With Clásico on and off. The thing is that since he's into producing he's not really dedicating himself to playing in bands. But when they call him, if the money is right, then he'll go and he'll do the gigs. But he'd rather not leave because he has his studio. And he has a lot of work in the studio with different young bands, rappers, ballad albums. And so he doesn't have that time he used to have like ten years ago when he was just a piano player. Now he's into everything.

Frankie takes on an Angel Canales classic

"Ana Isaoco" (originally from Angel Canales & Sabor '76 on TR) was another thing that stuck in Martin's brain. It was Angel Canales' first big hit over here. In the first album he had three hits. Another one was "Kung-fu Karate" (from Angel Canales Live At Roseland '78 on TR), which he did a spectacular show with. He had people dancing and doing karate things. It was a gimmick. But he was good at that. He was a showman. I think the last song he had a big hit with was "Bomba Carambomba" (from El Diferente c. '81 on Selanac).

When he told me, "I've got 'Ana Isaoco'." I said, "Well, I'm not going to be able to do that." Then he says, 'Well, we just want you to sing it your style. With your street, we're gonna do like a guaguancó and you're going to come in singing like it was a guaguancó." It wound up that I did the beginning, like the first two paragraphs, I did it with my voice and then all of a sudden I changed and started imitating Angel Canales. And they went crazy. They went crazy. Ray Castro told me, "Wow, bro', we gonna leave that like that. We're not gonna change it." I say, "You guys are serious man? We could do it again. I'll just lay down the parts where I sounded like him. I'll do my own voice." And they said, 'Oh, no, no, no. Leave it like that. Because that's gonna sell. That's the gimmick: you doing Angel Canales."

And I was going, 'Well, if you guys want to leave it like that. It's cool." Then I heard it two or three times, and I started understanding what they were going through. Then I was going, "Wow. This is nice. Let's leave it like this." It's just bits. And once it gets to my soneos I use my voice. But they loved it and left it like that.

Ray Castro was so great at helping me. Whenever I was tired he was right there to push me. He would hug me, be on top of me. "Lets go out and smoke a cigarette." Come back in. He would talk to me. I'd say, "Look, man, it's two o'clock in the morning. I don't think I've got it now." "Like, Frankie, look. All we need is just three soneos. We'll finish this song. Then we'll do the other six. But let's finish this one, man. You can do it, man. You've got the voice." I would look at him and say, "Wow, Ray. Look, man, really. It's two o'clock in the morning. By the time we're finished it'll be about 3:30, something like that. And then you guys want to record it for me, man. Let's not do nothing." And they would convince me and I would go back into the studio and do it. And it would wind up being perfect. Then I would hear it the next day. We would talk about it and say, 'Well, we're satisfied. The three of us are satisfied. Then everything is cool then, right?" If the three of us were satisfied, everything was cool. And on everything all three of us were satisfied. And it was because we had time in the studio. When you have time in the studio you can wind up doing the most beautiful stuff. But you have to have time. If you don't have time, you are not going to get to enjoy it as much as you want to and the music suffers.

Jesus, I almost forgot to mention Richie. Richie Bastar, Kako Jr., worked with Martin and Ray on the album's musical production and played percussion. His main gig is with El Gran Combo, now, so he's not around for the launch of Los Soneros del Barrio.

Los Soneros del Barrio the working band

This is it, man. I'm willing to stick with Los Soneros del Barrio if they are willing to stick with me and put up with me. As long as they let me be with the band. With Los Soneros del Barrio. I know Martin and me are going to take it places. They are already talking about Panama, and we haven't even started playing here. And for a new band to already be commencing travelling is kinda hard. Now this is going to be for January 2000. But it shows a line of success which is happening with us. Martin and me are already thinking about new tunes. Old tunes with a new funk for the dancers and those that love to hear it.

The band's image

The type of image that we want to project is that the atmosphere on the stage is like you were on the corner hanging out. And having fun with your friends. That's the atmosphere we want to give the public. Hear for yourself when we play for you and let me know if I'm wrong, OK?

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