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Performance review

Article: Salsa Festival '93 — Madison Square Garden, NYC

by George De Stefano

The annual New York salsa festivals at Madison Square Garden reflect the current state of the music, or at least what’s happening in producer Ralph Mercado’s RMM stable. This year’s model also was supposed to be a tribute to La Sonora Ponceńa, currently celebrating their fortieth anniversary. But the event became a five-hour endurance test that exhausted the audience and dispirited this reviewer.

You know contemporary salsa’s in bad shape when the most well-received performer of the evening is Marc Anthony, a former disco singer from the Bronx. Rail-thin, his abundant hair tied in a ponytail, Anthony drew a rapturous response for his set of salsa lite. But while his singing is much stronger in concert than on his Otra Nota album, Anthony still represents the dilution, or degradation if you prefer, of classic salsa that’s been going on for the past decade or so.

Two other performers who represent that unfortunate trend also evoked strong responses from the crowd: Rey Ruiz, a slick popster con clave, and Tito Nieves, a lackluster vocalist whose popularity is utterly mystifying to me. The nadir of Nieves’ set was a salsified but English-language version of Barry White’s “Deeper and Deeper”: that featured a guest rapper and that inane “whoot there it is” chant. Once Afro-Cuban styles merged with jazz to produce a brilliant hybrid; today it’s salsa lite meets hip hop. What’s even scarier is that much of the audience actually seemed to like it.

If Anthony, Ruiz and Nieves serve up bland contemporary fare (while I’m on a tear let me add Eddie Santiago and Luis Enrique to the dishonor roll), Oscar D’Leon is a standard bearer for classic salsa, a charismatic and often thrilling performer who at his best merits the title “el rey de los soneros,” as he has immodestly proclaimed himself. However, this was not one of the Venezuelan’s better nights; at the Garden he rushed through an uninspired set of some of the same tunes he’s been performing in New York for the past two or three years.

Even worse, D’Leon persists in inflicting his untalented teenage son, Yerman, on his audiences. When junior just danced and shook maracas he was a bearable if superfluous onstage presence. Now, however, padre lets hijo sing entire verses of songs, torturing listeners with an immature voice that’s rarely on-pitch. Oscar, put aside your paternal pride and think of your fans. Send the kid to college, por favor.

The evening’s biggest disappointment, though, was the unexplained cancellation of Joe Arroyo. The Colombiano is perhaps today’s most creative, versatile, and eccentric singer/songwriter, and his new CD, Fuego, is one of his best. Having seen Arroyo and his combustible orchestra tear apart the Village Gate a couple of years ago, I was prepared for a characteristically explosive performance.

But Arroyo’s replacement, fellow Columbian Cheo Acosta, was a pleasant surprise. Opening with “El Cantante,” the Ruben Blades song associated with Hector Lavoe, and closing with a medley of Lavoe’s hits, Acosta sounded uncannily like the recently deceased sonero, and his band played real salsa, with plenty of drive and swing.

Acosta’s set wasn’t only a reminder of past glories; it also demonstrated a startling historical irony: if Puerto Ricans once were the guardians of Afro-Cuban tradition, now it’s South American singers such as Acosta, Arroyo, and D’Leon who are maintaining the music’s integrity while adding their own distinctive sabor.

Headliners Sonora Ponceńa closed the festival to a rapidly dwindling audience; as their set neared it’s end the Garden was more than half empty. Musical director and pianist Papo Lucca played well, and the presence of the band’s former vocalist Luigi Texidor offered a refreshing break from the purveyors of salsa romantica. But Sonora Ponceńa couldn’t dispel the accumulated doldrums of so much mediocrity.

Oh, yes, there was also a Dominican merengue band, Los Hermanos Rosario. Since I find most merengue grindingly monotonous I’m not well qualified to assess their performance. But they were tight and fiery, and the crowd loved them.

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