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A conversation with a legendary figure in salsa, master violinist Alfredo De La Fé

Plenty of Latitude:
In Conversation with Alfredo De La Fé

by John Child (

John Child caught up with Alfredo de la Fé during his visit to London in June to promote his new album Latitudes (RykoLatino RLCD 1016) and the Salsa 2000 festival on July 16th. A discussion about Latitudes acted as a launching pad for a free-ranging conversation about Alfredo's career, which he began at the age of 12. With the tone of typical PR hyperbole, his press kit states: "Alfredo's history is the history of salsa itself: born in Cuba, raised in New York and an international phenomenon ever since." In this instance, however, the statement definitely has the ring of truth.

After the interview, Alfredo emailed this message to John: "It was great meeting you and certainly the best interview I ever had. The other great interview was with my good friend Gabriel García Marquez." Praise indeed!

John renewed his acquaintance with Alfredo at the Salsa 2000 festival, the biggest salsa event the UK has seen to date. In addition to Alfredo, the bill featured Rubén Blades, Oscar D'León, Celia Cruz (his godmother), José "El Canario" Alberto and the new Latin dance beats of Sidestepper and Mambo Trance Allstars. John also caught up with with El Canario back stage after his exciting performances: first fronting his own orchestra and then retreating to the chorus to accompany Celia. In a companion interview, José talks about his career and his recent live reunion recording with Típica 73, including Alfredo, at New York City's Copacabana, October 3rd 2000.

Alfredo de la Fé (ADLF): Honestly, what do you think of my product?

John I. Child (JIC): I'm supposed to be interviewing you. (Laughter) To use a British expression, I want to do things "arse-about-face," and talk about your latest production first. And use this as a jumping-off point to talk about your career. When I first heard Latitudes, I thought it was the strongest thing you've done in a long time. A previous album of yours which stood out for me was Para Africa Con Amor (1979), which you did for Sacodis. Maybe we can talk about that later.

ADLF: You really like that?!

JIC: Yeah.

ADLF: You know that album took eight hours to record and eight hours to mix! We did that album in 16 hours altogether. That's incredible you say that.

JIC: It's got a cult following. It's a very rare album. But back to your current CD.

ADLF: Latitudes is an album I wanted to do for a long time. The whole time I was in Colombia I had a record company that always thought they knew what sold and what didn't.

JIC: Fuentes.

ADLF: That's a big mistake you know. That's why I'm grateful for Ryko. Because I think you've got to allow an artist to create. Of course there are limits because a record company wants to sell records, and the artist also wants to sell records. It's nonsense to pretend not to want to sell records. I think it's my best work so far. Latitudes is very experimental. I know where I want to go, but I'm still taking risks. Everybody is using trumpets and trombones. I took the trumpets out. I put flute, violins, saxophone and three trombones.

JIC: The 'bones and flute sound is trombanga-ish, reminiscent of Eddie Palmieri's La Perfecta with baritone sax and violins added.

ADLF: I added four strings and the baritone. Of course it has that redolence because Palmieri is the one who made me a solo violinist. Of course part of me is Eddie. I cannot avoid that. Part of that record is also Fajardo. It has a little bit of everything. I didn't realise, but someone pointed out that the album is really telling my story. The second song 'Asomate a la Ventana' was written by my father over a 100 years ago. When I was in my mom's belly, I'm sure I was listening to Arcaño, because that's what my mom used to do the whole time. My mom is a danzón fanatic. That's why I have a song on the album called "Hilda," which is her name. Then it has that Latin New York part. The opening song "Latin New York" is one of my favourites because it was written out of the moment. It just came out like opening a faucet, like water coming out. I laid down the pen on the piece of paper, and before I knew, it was finished. I first thought it was long, and then I said I'm going to leave it like that. The whole album has that essence: it's my story.

JIC: It's interesting that you should say it's your story, because it struck me that the album is almost a musical taking stock of where you have reached. Because there are the two tracks you did previously with Típica 73 on it ("Xiomara" and "Que Manera"). There is effectively the tribute to Palmieri: "Muñeca." And - if you don't mind me saying so - it has that exciting feeling of Típica from the period you were with the band.

ADLF: Of course, because it was some of the hottest music played in the history of Latin music. No other band played the way Típica 73 did. We used to play songs with Típica 73 that we didn't want to finish. It was time to go to the coda, and we would do another mambo! It was amazing, because the dancers did not want it to end either! There was an excitement in that band which I've never come close to feeling since.

JIC: Do you mind if we go off on our first tangent? We'll keep going back to Latitudes .

ADLF: Sure.

JIC: Accounts of Típica 73 speak of there having been a tension in the band between those that wanted to remain típico and those that wanted to be experimental. You came back on the scene in the mid-'70s when they moved in the direction of being experimental.

ADLF: It was for some other reason that it became that way. I was playing with José Fajardo, and so was Sonny Bravo. And the other guys: Johnny "Dandy" Rodríguez, Orestes Vilató, Adalberto Santiago, René López, Dave Pérez, they were in Ray Barretto's band. All of a sudden we started doing something that we used to call Tuesday night jam sessions.

JIC: You were there from the outset (in 1972) when they were performing at a place called And Vinnies.

ADLF: Yes, of course. We would made so much money at the door that we could go to Chinatown at the end of the night and have Chinese food all together. Morning would come, and we would be sitting there laughing. Those were the best times. Then they decided, let's make Típica 73. I had an offer to go to Miami to work with Fajardo. So I didn't stay. I didn't believe then. I went to Miami to play in a nightclub five nights a week, and I became bored. I would put on the radio, and everywhere I would hear Típica 73. And I said: "Shit, what did I do?"

What happened was that Típica as a band broke up again, and that was for religious purposes. We were all santeros, including myself. All of a sudden the Padrinos, the Casa del Santos, they fought. The Los Ahijados, The Godsons, between them they fought, and that's how they became Los Kimbos and Típica 73. I had already been working with Santana for three months. I had gone to California with Eddie Palmieri. Eddie had turned back to New York. I was making great money. I was beginning to do some good work with Santana. But I needed New York. When I lived in New York back then, I thought the rest of the world was a farm with electric light. New York was IT, and for salsa it really was.

Típica called me and I left everything in San Francisco. That's when I went back and we did Rumba Caliente (1976 on Inca) with Tito Allen. I think that that was one of the best. Típica just keep growing. Sometimes we did 14 shows in one week. We would play three shows on a Saturday. We would finish playing one hour in one place and run as fast as we could to the next place to play.

JIC: So as is often the case, the story about musical differences is bullshit. It was religious differences.

ADLF: It was religious differences. I was in there you know.

JIC: And the two Típica tracks you've done on your current album, they're from Salsa Encendida (1978 on Inca) with Azuquita and José Alberto.

ADLF: Way before Típica recorded "Xiomara," Irakere made it in a very different version. It's one of my favourite songs. I liked the violin work, I did back then. So I wanted to bring that back again. We did it in a very different version. We changed "Que Manera," "Xiomara" and "Muñeca" completely. Of course there is the essence you can never change.

JIC: Tell me about the track "Sandra Mora." I think of the Naty version.

ADLF: I'm a little bit anti-timba.

JIC: Well, you're not the only one.

ADLF: This is very personal. That's our version of the timba. Because I'm more a New York musician. I'm a salsero from New York and not a Cuban salsero. Although I'm Cuban, my essence is Cuba. I love Cuba and will remain a Cuban forever. That is our interpretation of timba, which I think is more organised.

JIC: And there's the fusion with rap as well. A sort of DLG-ish feel to it.

ADLF: I wouldn't call it DLG-ish, because it's not that commercial.

JIC: It's one of my favourite tracks.

ADLF: Usually artists go in the studio with studio musicians, but I wanted to record the band that backs me up for live shows. There are things that happened during the recording which I left there, because we lived through it together. In our shows, our timbalero Rodrigo Rodríguez always raps during his solos. We have a lot of fun, and we answer him. So I wanted to record all these feelings that we have with this live band and put it on tape.

JIC: I've been looking at album sleeves for years, and I'm not familiar with the names of your personnel. I'd be interested to find out more about them. Obviously, someone who works very closely with you is César Correa.

ADLF: César Correa just turned 24 years of age. He's a pianist from Perú. I've worked with some of the greatest pianists: Papo Lucca, Palmieri for many years, Jorge Dalto. But I've never worked with a pianist like him in all my life. I've been a professional musician since I was 12 years old. He is so incredible. He also has magic. In fact, we did the arrangements together.

JIC: I know. You've obviously got a lot of confidence in him. He's played a very prominent part in the album.

ADLF: He plays classical, he plays jazz, he plays salsa. You ask him about any of the old records - and he's 24 years old - any one of the classics, and he knows it. He knows exactly how Sonora Ponceña arranges the music, he knows how Eddie Palmieri arranges the music. He has studied deeply, and that's why I respect him, even though he is a kid. I'm still trying to show him the way, because he's very young. Maybe give him five to ten years, and he'll be one of the greatest pianists in salsa.

JIC: Tell me about some of the other band members. Armando Miranda, the lead vocalist, for example.

ADLF: Armando is a very young Cuban guy. I had my singer for eight years (Igor Moreno), and we had differences, so he left. I didn't have anybody, then somebody brought me Armando Miranda, who used to sing like Luis Miguel. I slowly started telling him: "Listen, you're not Luis Miguel, you're from un solar de Cuba. You're from a place that if you speak like Luis Miguel, they'll kill you. You're from deep in the roots, you've got to sing like that." He's an incredible singer. He has a timbre, he has a colour to his voice.

My bass player, Eduardo "Dudú" Penz, is from Brazil. My percussion players, Nené Vásquez (bongo) is from Venezuela, Luis Aballe (conga) is from Cuba, the other (Rodrigo Rodríguez) is from Colombia, who also sings on the album. My trombone players: there is one from Italy (Carmine Pagano), one from Florida in the United States (Don Randolph), who has been raised with all the Latin people, and the third is from Cuba (lead trombonist Leonardo Govín). Other members of my band are Italian Elvio Ghigliordini (flute/ baritone sax), tres player Carlos Irarragorri from Cuba, and coro singer Ruth Mary Cravajal. I also had for the recording: José Rodríguez (coro) and Amik Guerra (trumpet), both from Cuba, Bruno Genero from Italy playing djembé and Gilson Silveira from Brazil playing Brazilian percussion. So there is a mixture of different cultures that gives a special thing. I feel that it is very special.

JIC: Just going back to Típica 73. The story that abounds, which I've included in stuff I've written, is that things slowed down for the band because of their appearance in Cuba. Is that true?

ADLF: That is true. When Típica went to Cuba, it was the hottest band around. We were very well off. We had a new uniform twice a week, because it was our band that was happening. See, I don't think music and politics mix. Although we are politicians as musicians when we sing about problems. For a while there was a thing against Cuba, that anybody that went to Cuba was void. So Típica went to Cuba. Not only did it go to Cuba, we publicised it in every newspaper with big capital letters. It was the first band that broke the blockade. When we were there we made an album. We invited all these Cuban musicians and we made a great album. It was made in eight tracks.

JIC: Típica 73 En Cuba: Intercambio Cultural (1979 on Fania).

ADLF: It's an eight track recording, and there are a lot of musicians there. When we got back to the United States, anti-Castro Cubans, who take up any issue and make it a political issue, started writing in the newspapers that one day Típica 73's congas will be tinted with blood. That broke the band up.

JIC: But after you, Fania All Stars and Dimensión Latina went.

ADLF: After Oscar D'León went to Cuba, he almost had to kneel down and ask for forgiveness from the people in Miami. Because they were burning his records out in public.

JIC: They also held it against Andy Montañez.

ADLF: They held it against Andy Montañez. Right now things are getting a little better. People like Buena Vista Social Club and Rubén González are going to the States to play and even the Cubans are listening and dancing to them. But back then with Típica 73, it was a big big problem. Some members of my family got mad with me and wouldn't speak to me for years because I had gone to Cuba to play.

JIC: And there was this album you did a few years ago with Papo Lucca (Papo Lucca y Alfredo de la Fé & El Sexteto Típica de Cuba '97 on Fania).

ADLF: Yes, it was done in Cuba. It's a horribly mixed album. The essence is great. What we did there was great, but the final thing that came out - I don't even play that album. It was fun anyway.

JIC: Típica 73 were doing a number of reunion concerts last year, which you weren't involved with.

ADLF: We're going to record now for Ryko.

JIC: Right, so the rumour's coming true? Because there was a rumour running rife last year that Típica were going to record again.

ADLF: Yes, we're going to record again.

JIC: Another one of my reactions to your current album, was that this is almost Alfredo's reunion gesture.

ADLF: Without knowing, I anticipated myself. Because I would say my record has a lot of Típica in it. A lot of Típica 73, but it is definitely Alfredo de la Fé.

JIC: Unquestionably.

ADLF: The sad thing is that right now, some of the members of Típica are not there any more. So they will have to be replaced. It would have been nice to record the original Típica 73.

JIC: That's right. What's happened to people like Dave Pérez (bassist)?

ADLF: Dave Pérez drives a cab now. He still plays, but he plays in Jewish weddings.

JIC: And Dick "Taco" Meza (flautist, reeds player)?

ADLF: I don't know what he's doing. René López (trumpeter) quit music, he was fed up with music. He always was, anyway. He was a musician but he didn't like the whole scene.

You know who I spoke to the other day after 20 years? David Amram. Did you hear the things we did with him?

JIC: On Flying Fish.

ADLF: Havana/ New York (1978). You know what? His house burned down to ashes. The only thing that didn't burn down was his studio with all the instruments. He's a beautiful person.

JIC: Another album from the same period that should be coming out is Dandy's Dandy, a Latin Affair (1979 on Latin Percussion Ventures), because Martin Cohen is talking about reissuing a lot of the Latin Percussion Ventures stuff. It was basically Típica people playing on that album, wasn't it?

ADLF: Yeah, because Johnny (Rodríguez) started to work with Marty.

JIC: Did you seen yourself in Jeremy Marre's influential British TV film from 1979 called Salsa? There's a brief interview with you in a studio, looking very youthful with your afro. You're briefly spoken to, and Nicky Marrero's with you as well.

ADLF: Really!

JIC: That's been issued on video in the States by Shanachie. It's in the Descarga catalogue.

ADLF: Oh, I love it.

JIC: I know I'm jumping around...

ADLF: Jump around.

JIC: ...but I was curious in reading Sue Steward's liner notes to Latitudes that she didn't really mention your solo career, which kicked-off with that album Alfredo (1979 on Criollo/ Latin Percussion Ventures).

ADLF: It kicked off before. I did the two African albums Para Africa Con Amor (1979 on Sacodis) and La Charanga 1980 (1979 on TKIOS Musique).

JIC: Did you actually record those before Alfredo ?

ADLF: Yes, in 1979. I did La Charanga 1980 simultaneously with Alfredo. That's why I didn't put Alfredo de la Fé on La Charanga 1980 because I already had a contract.

JIC: That came out again as La Charanga 1983.

ADLF: I didn't know that. I just found out. I should get some royalties. (Laughter)

JIC: It's been reissued on CD as well (Orchestra Rytmo Africa-Cubana Vol. 1 on TKIOS Musique, 1992). So the order in which you did them was Para Africa Con Amor first...

ADLF: First. I didn't even plan that album.

JIC: I love that album, as I've already said.

ADLF: Somebody showed up in New York with $5000 in their pocket, and said. "I want to do an album." And I grabbed that money so fast. I said, 'I'll do you an album." I did the arrangements in one day. We went to the studio the next day and we recorded this album in eight hours. We mixed it in eight hours, including a part where one of the tuning keys falls, and you can hear it hit the floor: TING!! We left it there because there wasn't any time to take it out.

JIC: It's got a wonderfully spontaneous feel to it.

ADLF: That's why.

JIC: David Barton and I recently did an interview with Alfredo Valdés Jr. (Alfredo Valdés Jr.: 'The Son of Buena Vista' , Descarga website, July 16th 2000), who was a key player during that whole SAR/Sacodis boom. It was like a conveyor belt that albums were coming off.

ADLF: Cuba was living a lot from selling records in Africa. Roberto Torres came with his company and started doing the old Cuban music. If you look at all the SAR series, the songs are very long. They all last about seven minutes. I did an album for them.

JIC: Triunfo (1982 on Toboga).

ADLF: Yes, which is a great album. It's a very good album.

JIC: And you sessioned on a lot of the SAR and Sacodis albums.

ADLF: Yes, because I was part of the Roberto Torres club. I did a lot of productions for him, although he didn't always put my name [in the liner notes].

JIC: You must have been on those Charanga de la 4 albums? Because they've got no musician credits on them. They would give musical director and producer, but they never gave credit to who actually played on them.

ADLF: Of course I did those.

JIC: I really got into Latin music in the late '70s/early '80s, and I must have been among many across the world who looked for your name on Latin albums. If I saw the name Alfredo de la Fé on an album, that would be a selling point. You were brought in to solo on lots of peoples' albums.

ADLF: Yeah, sure, for a lot of different albums. It was something weird because when I first played with a salsa band, it was with Orquesta Broadway. I was 11 years old. Roberto Torres (Broadway's co-founder) used to go to a place next door to my uncle's restaurant that sold records, and said, "We need a violinist. Come, come on." He took me. I was 11 years old.

JIC: Before Fajardo? The story goes that you started with Fajardo at 12.

ADLF: I started with Pupi Legarreta at 12, with Soy Campesino. It was the first album I recorded.

JIC: Whaaat!! On Remo.

ADLF: Yes, I was 12 years old. I went to play with Orquesta Broadway, and after the first song they stopped me and said: "You know what, you should become a cab driver, or you should stick to classical music. You're never gonna be good for salsa." And I said to myself, "Fuck you all. I'm going to become a great salsa violinist." So I stayed quiet and started studying and started listening. I started listening to solos from Brindis. I would transcribe them to sheet music and then I would learn them in every key. I would combine from different solos he did and sort of make patterns with them. After a short while I began to develop my own musical ideas. Then it was Pupi and Fajardo that took me and showed me the roots. And you know how life is weird, about four years later after they told me that, Orquesta Broadway called me to put this solo on their album. I went, and they said, "You remember when you were 11 years old when you first played with us, we knew you were going to be great." (Laughter)

You see, here comes a kid who has been studying classical and has never played this music, and they put a paper in front of you. Of course you're lost. I have never made such a comment to a musician, because that could kill you. I could have put my violin away and never have played salsa again in my life. It was great for me because it gave me a challenge.

JIC: You've made it clear to me now that you played with Broadway before Pupi and Fajardo. You started with Fajardo in '66; was that right?

ADLF: You know, someone gave me a copy of a live recording of myself performing in New York at the Corso ballroom with Fajardo when I was 12 years old playing a violin solo. I cried when I heard that man. Fajardo taught me the roots. He would actually pull my pants down and kick my ass. He would spank me man. Sometimes he would say, "Take a solo." After he would come up to me and say. "You're trying to take the spotlight away from me? Who do you think you are, you little kid?" He would scream at me, fire me. The next day he would call me - he lived around the corner from my house. I'm grateful for that. Then I got tired and I left. I left after Miami, after Típica 73 had started and I didn't join them. I came back to ask them, "OK I'm here." They said, "No way. You didn't want to be here when we started, now you're off." That's when I started with (Eddie) Palmieri. I played with Ismael Miranda. You know Así Se Compone Un Son (1973 on Fania), that album?

JIC: Orquesta Revelación.

ADLF: I played with that band. That was when Eddie Palmieri called me. I also played with Ismael Rivera.

JIC: That was about 1974?

ADLF: 1975.

JIC: But you started with Palmieri in '72?

ADLF: '72, yes.

JIC: That was when Manny Oquendo and Andy González were still around (in Palmieri's band)?

ADLF: No. The first band of Eddie's I joined had Jerry González on congas, Nicky Marrero on timbales, Choki López on bongos, Barry Rogers and Jose Rodrigues on trombones, Mario Rivera and Ronnie Cuber on baritone saxophones, and Chocolate Armenteros and Victor Paz on trumpets.

JIC: It must have been later than '72 then?

ADLF: No, it was right after he did the Live At Sing Sing album. What year was that?

JIC: That was about '72. Yeah, yeah.

ADLF: Andy González and I went to Manny's house and convinced him to come back. He used to live in Long Island, and we would drive all the way to Long Island before every gig to pick him up. Just so he would come and play. We persuaded him to come back. He plays so tastefully you know, and he was part of the Palmieri La Perfecta phenomenon.

JIC: Then he and Andy definitively broke away in 1974?

ADLF: Do you know how that happened?

JIC: Tell me?

ADLF: We were in Puerto Rico playing. Eddie at that time was out of it. He didn't have order, he didn't have anything. He didn't care. I didn't mind. Eddie, to me, is Eddie. The band called him to a meeting, "Eddie we want to tell you this..." Eddie said: "Listen, I'm not behaving myself. I quit." He quit his own band! That's how Conjunto Libre came about. That was Eddie's band. He quit his own band and formed another band. That was some weird thing.

JIC: And it was with Palmieri that you appeared on the first ever Grammy winning Latin album?

ADLF: That's right. That's the first album I did with Eddie: The Sun of Latin Music (1974 on Coco), which was a great album. It was a great great album. Lalo Rodríguez was 16 years old. It was a big big band. I came from Fajardo before Palmieri, and with Fajardo I had never done solos. I was a Cuban with gold jewelry and suit and tie. The tie would match the shirt and I had shiny painted nails, too. I was a straight Cuban. I used to straighten my hair: real straight!

What happened on my first night with Eddie's band is that Chocolate Armenteros got sick. And Eddie asked Andy and Jerry González to get him a replacement. I had been jamming at Andy and Jerry's house in Gildersleeve in the Bronx, which were some of the best jam sessions I've ever played in. We would stay there the whole day and just play music. You would find 20 musicians there at a time. I'm talking about Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaría, Orestes Vilató. We would listen to albums and analyse them. Well, he asked Andy and Jerry to get a replacement trumpet player. They said, "Can we bring a violinist?" And Eddie said, "Yeah." So I remember I was coming from Fajardo's band, playing with that three violin section with a small rhythm section. Charanga is only one tumbadora, a güiro and one little bell. And here I come to this band with Barry Rogers and Jose Rodrigues, who are powerful. I remember feeling like I had a lion behind me. It was like, "Wow, what is this!" We played Eddie's theme song, and he got off the piano and said, "Who wanna work with me? I'll pay you $35 on weekdays and $45 on Saturdays, and when we travel, I'll pay you $70. You wanna work?" And that was our contract. We shook hands and we started working together. I stayed with Eddie for five years.

I was coming from Fajardo's school, and here I was the only violin. I went to the music store and I bought all these pedals to make my violin sound like an electric guitar. I changed from being a straight Cuban. I grew an afro and I started wearing jeans. I changed completely around. Eddie changed me. That's why I say he made me a solo violinist, because there I could do whatever I wanted. I didn't have any limits.

After being with Palmieri a while, Fajardo calls me back and says, "Listen, now you've graduated yourself, now you can play solos. I want you to come and do a solo on 'Confusión' on my album (Señor Charanga! '80 on Fania)." That's after many years of not letting me. That's why I quit him in the first place.

JIC: You say Fajardo wouldn't let you do solos, but earlier you mentioned doing a solo with him at the age of 12.

ADLF: It's not that he didn't let me do solos, but that he only gave me solos on very rare occasions and then he would always tell me that I thought I was big shit but that I was nobody yet. You see some old Cuban musicians feel that this is the way to teach someone music. Being very strict. I know that inside he felt I was probably doing great, but he would never let me know.

JIC: From the mid-'70s there was a bit of an explosion of charanga in New York, and you were on quite a few charanga albums.

ADLF: Yes, I used to freelance. While I was Eddie I used to play with Típica Ideal, Orquesta Broadway, Orquesta Novel, Charanga America.

JIC: I was going to ask about Ideal, who are one of my favourites.

ADLF: Great band. Chombo Silva and myself on violins. We used to go to Africa a lot with the band. That was a nice charanga band that had some incredible musicians. It only lasted a few years.

JIC: Pianist Gil Suárez was the leader?

ADLF: Yes.

JIC: They did a couple of albums on Artol (collected on Charangas! The Best of Típica Ideal '95 on WS Latino), and then they did that fantastic album Fuera del Mundo/ Out Of This World (1978) on Coco, which you were on, and Luis "Perico" Ortiz produced.

ADLF: Yes, yes.

JIC: I was thinking, talking of Broadway - excuse me, but I've been listening to this music for so long - the cut "Latin New York" from Latitudes reminds me of "Barrio del Pilar" from their Pasaporte (1976 on Coco) album. You know the street sounds Barry Rogers used on that track.

ADLF: The street sounds were my reference to New York. Also Rubén Blades used it on "Pedro Navaja" (from Siembra '78 on Fania). I wanted to include this because the song talks about New York.

JIC: You recorded with Cachao. You played on his two Salsoul albums (Cachao y su Descarga '77 Vol. 1 '76 and Dos, Vol. 2 '77).

ADLF: Yes. He's one of the funniest persons I've ever met.

JIC: Really.

ADLF: He played with Palmieri for a while when I was in the band. He's a joke teller. He's a comedian who loves telling jokes. I think he's a beautiful musician. I remet with Cachao last year. We played at a festival in France.

JIC: I'd welcome your reminiscences about working with Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino and Libre. You're on Libre's third album Los Lideres De La Salsa (1979 on Salsoul).

ADLF: Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino came from all of us who used to unite in Andy and Jerry González' home in Gildersleeve in the Bronx. We used to gather there every day and play together for hours. René López, the musicologist, and Andy Kaufman used to hang out with us and that's how the idea to do those two great albums came about (Concepts In Unity '75 and Lo Dice Todo '77 on Salsoul; Alfredo plays on the latter). It was more of a friendly get together thing. I remember those days as the best musical days of my life because there wasn't competition among us and it was just good music and fun. There were very few live presentations of Grupo Folklorico. I was called to record with Libre because I had been playing with the guys in Eddie Palmieri's orchestra for years. Remember Libre was Eddie's band till he fired himself and they became a group on their own. I was never invited to join them because I remained with Eddie, but I would sit in as a guest on many occasions, so they decided to invite me to do Los Lideres De La Salsa .

JIC: You were a member of Tito Puente's Latin Jazz Ensemble.

ADLF: I was the director of Tito's Latin Jazz Ensemble. Right away, it makes me feel something in my heart when you mention Puente, because of the fact that I really loved the man. I spoke to him two days before he died, and there was nothing wrong. He was perfectly fine. Then you hear: Tito dies. Tito taught me how to be a professional. He taught me to respect my public. To love the audience. That was one of the most experimental bands I worked with, when it was really small, when he had Patato, Jorge Dalto, Mike Viñas and myself. There were five of us. We did the live at Montreux album (LPJE Live At The Montreux Jazz Festival 1980 on Latin Percussion Ventures) and a video. That was an incredible band.

JIC: And you're on Tito's first album on Concord Picante: On Broadway (1983).

ADLF: That's a nice album too.

JIC: Then you disappeared after that.

ADLF: No. I quit when Johnny "Dandy" Rodríguez came in as Tito Puente's director. I made my own band in New York and I left Típica. In order to punish me, they got me out of Tito's Latin Jazz Ensemble.

JIC: They punished you because...

ADLF: ...I left Típica. They said to me: "Why do you leave Típica now, at this moment?" I replied: "Man, I have to take my chance," which is when I did the Triunfo album.

JIC: Puente's Latin Jazz Ensemble almost became the Típica 73 Reunion Club, didn't it?

ADLF: After, yes. It was the Latin Jazz Ensemble, then it became Tito's band because he added a trumpet, then another one. All of a sudden it was the big band again.

JIC: You departed from American shores to Colombia didn't you?

ADLF: I went to Colombia. I was a drug addict for 22 years. By the time I left New York and went to Colombia it was really strong. I went to Colombia for three weeks, hired to play in a club called Juan Pachanga in Juanchito, Cali. There it was pure drugs. So I just stayed there. I say this because I think it's important talking about that, too. I can say it now because I'm clean. I've been clean for many years. I always try to mention this in my interviews, because maybe it will help somebody that is suffering what I suffered back then. When I ended my drug addict career after 22 years, I was doing 10 grams of coke a day. I had a constant bleeding nose and I was out of it. When morning came I pulled all the drapes down and wanted to kill every little bird in the world. I took the phone off the hook. Didn't wanna work, didn't want to do anything except use drugs.

Something funny happened, the Pope went to Colombia. The Governor of Antioquia where Medellín is the capital, where I used to live, said, "Listen, I want you to play the violin for the Pope." I said, "Wow, play for the Pope!" I prepared myself for three months to play for the Pope. The night before my appointment with the Pope I went to celebrate that I was going to meet the Pope.

JIC: Ha, ha, ha...

ADLF: So I said, "I'm going to have one drink, just one drink, to celebrate." You know, when you're an addict one drink is too much. One drink is too many. My appointment was at eight o'clock the next morning. And when eight o'clock came, I said, "Later for the Pope. I'm having so much fun." I was out of it. I didn't go to the meeting with the Pope. The Pope left Colombia, and I was like partying for five more days. I went to sleep, and when I woke up two days later and looked at myself in the mirror, what I saw was so disgusting that I went running and asked for help. I went to a rehabilitation centre. I walked in and said: "My name is Alfredo de la Fé." Of course, everybody knew me. "Either help me or kill me." This was about 15 years ago. I decided then: no more for me.

So why do I make this parentheses in this conversation? Because if somebody is reading this, and he has real serious problems with drugs, with alcohol, with any kind of dependence, I want to say it is possible to get out of that.

JIC: When did you really get hooked then?

ADLF: I started sniffing coke when I was 12 years old.

JIC: As early as that?

ADLF: Yeah, when I played in the first band. I remember the first night when I played the first set, in the break time everybody left. I said, "Shit, what happened? They didn't like me, what is it?" The second break, they left. I said. 'Wow, they didn't like me." It wasn't that they didn't like me, it was that in the breaks they would go and get high. Two days later they took me with them, and said. "You wanna get high?" It was my way of getting accepted, I was 12 years old. I tried it and stayed there.

JIC: Yes, I see.

ADLF: I don't know when I passed that line from being a social user to being an addict. I cannot really tell you when. I thought I was all right. I thought I didn't have a problem. But then, again, nobody thinks they have a problem.

JIC: I know drugs are obviously an inextricable part of the music scene.

ADLF: Not any more, it's starting to change.

JIC: You think so?

ADLF: I think so? For example, in my band, you offer wine to a musician and they would rather have a soda water or Coca Cola. Not one of them drinks, and they are all young guys. So I say, "Wow, in my time if you didn't drink or use drugs, you were out." There was no way in New York. Drugs were music's closest relative.

JIC: You mentioned that the Juan Pachanga club was in Juanchito. Can you tell me something about the significance of Juanchito?

ADLF: Juan Pachanga was indeed in Juanchito, which is a little town on the limits with Cali. It has always been very important to salsa, since it was the place where salsa was heard for the first time in Cali. The other thing is that the clubs can stay open all night, so after everything closes in Cali, everyone goes there. There's only a bridge that separates Cali from this little town and it's only a couple of minutes away. This club belonged to Larry Landa, one of the persons who started salsa in Colombia and the first to bring Richie Ray and the Fania All Stars to Colombia. At the time it was the best and most luxurious club in Colombia. Larry Landa died in a United States jail from a drug overdose. He was a beautiful person and a personaje de la salsa en Colombia.

JIC: When you relocated to Colombia you made a few albums before you joined the Fuentes label.

ADLF: I did three albums with Phillips. I did one called Made In Colombia (1985 on Mercurio). I did another one,Vallenato (1986), playing vallenato. I love vallenato. I think it is one of the musics that has the most expression: the words they sing and what they sing about. I played this party with one of the vallenato kings, and I went to Valledupar, where vallenato originates from, and I played in the Festival of Vallenato. It was the first time an instrument outside the traditional vallenato instruments played there. Also I remember the press saying it was the first time that people stopped dancing in the 25 year history of the festival, to look at what was happening there. So it went so well, that I decided to make this vallenato album. I don't know if you've heard it?

JIC: Yeah, I've got it.

ADLF: OK. Then I did another album called Dancing In The Tropics (1987).

JIC: That's one I don't know.

ADLF: I'm glad you don't know it.

JIC: The title sounds a bit dodgy.

ADLF: I'm very glad you don't know it. I had my own studio. They hired me to make this radio station in Colombia. It's still one of the best salsa stations today. It's the only 24 hour a day salsa station. It doesn't play any salsa that is not classic.

JIC: What's it called and where's it based?

ADLF: It's called Latina Stereo and it's in Medellín. They play the best salsa. I had a 24 track studio with a beautiful garden in the back. But I was messed up. I was doing drugs. I used to have a double aguardiente for breakfast. So in this album, you can hear that. It's horrible. It's horrible. I feel ashamed of this record.

JIC: It's distribution must have been pretty poor, because I've never come across it.

ADLF: Phillips Records said, "Listen, before we let you go, you've got to give us a third album." That was the compromise. So I gave them this album that's horrible. Then I went to Fuentes, and I did a great album, the first one I did called Salsa (1989). That was released here (in the UK) on Mango (in 1990).

JIC: You implied earlier that you found it a bit creatively stifling with Fuentes.

ADLF: It's not that. Colombia's manipulated by the radio you know. Back then when romantic salsa was the biggest thing - and I never liked romantic salsa, I think it's elevator music, airport music - I wanted to do an album like Salsa, with it's poly-rhythmic things and two tonalities playing at the same time. Fuentes didn't want it like that. As a matter of fact, Fuentes wanted me to put some lady's behind on the album cover, and I refused. They said, "But a lady's behind is what sells the most records." That album Salsa has a cover...

JIC: It's a painting of you...

ADLF: It's a painting. I was going to call it "Salsa CD of the Future," a CD with all the different places of the world. That's when I got my electronic violin, the Midi violin. It was hard to get that album cover, because they said they weren't an art gallery, they were a music company.

JIC: How much creative control did you have?

ADLF: In a way I've been a revolutionary. I always get my way. If I wanted a song recorded, I would go to the general manager. I would play him the song. I would say, "This is what I want." I knew he would say no. I used to make it like it was his idea. For example, I did a record for Fuentes called "America, Cantemos," and they didn't want me to record that song at all. They put it last in the album (Salsa Y Charanga '91), and the song was chosen by the Presidency of the Republic to represent Colombia in Expo 92 in Seville, in Spain. So they had to bite their tongue and redo the whole album to put the song further up. They had to do a video. They gave me $200 to do a video. $200 to do a video! (Laughter) I said, "That's fine." I called the Governor, for whom I'd done a lot of favours, because after I'd become clean I started playing for drug rehabilitation centres all over Colombia. I called people, and they helped me, and I did a great video. They used to show it in the Expo in Seville 10 times a day on a big screen - a $200 video!

JIC: I bet they felt they got value for the money?

ADLF: It's a beautiful video! I had a friend who had 55,000 birds on his own paradise island. I went and I started taking shots of these birds. I made it into a sort of ecological thing, and it turned out fine. I'm grateful to Fuentes because they gave me the opportunity to do it. I also did two albums for them called Los Violines de Alfredo de la Fé (subtitled 16 Grandes Sucesos de Cuba '90, released in the UK under the title Cuba's Greatest Hits , and Sentir de Cuba Vol. 2 '92). I think they're nice. It was my roots, it was all the music I had as a child. Salsa Y Charanga , you know that album?

JIC: Yes.

ADLF: They wanted me to do that. They forced me to do that album in that style. That's another album I don't like, out of everything I've done. I don't think I like Salsa Y Charanga. It's not me.

JIC: You don't owe anything else to Fuentes? You're finished with them now?

ADLF: A long time ago.

JIC: And you're part of the Ryko family now?

ADLF: Yes. Before Ryko I was with Sony Music in Colombia. I did a record that I'm sure you haven't heard either. It's called De La Fé Y Aché (1997). It's a mixture of house, vallenato and charanga. It did really well in Mexico. It's very commercial discotheque music.

JIC: You had a disco hit with "Hot To Trot" from Alfredo (1979).

ADLF: That was no. 32 in the top 100 in the United States. I think they are going to re-release that album. I got something the other day telling me, "Could you sign this, and you will get so much percent royalties." So I called him and said, "Listen, before I sign this, do you mind giving me the royalties you owe me from 1979 to today." (Laughter) "That way we can start our business clear." He said, "I don't know." I didn't sign anything, but they said they were going to re-release it, which is fine with me. It's a great album.

JIC: Obviously Latitudes is what is happening at the moment, but what does the future hold?

ADLF: This is the first record I've done with this group. The second one is going to be much much greater. As I said before: Latitudes is my best work...up to now. We've already started working on the next one. I don't know which way we're gonna take it, because you only know when you go to the studio. One formula that works for me - because as you said, it sounds like Típica - is that I record how we used to record. Right now people go in the studio and lay the rhythm section first, et cetera. I didn't do that with this album, I recorded the whole band together. Then you clean whatever you have to clean. The only way you're going to get that sound and that magic on an album, the only way spontaneous things happen, is when you play all together.

JIC: In passing, earlier in our conversation, you understandably thumbed your nose at salsa romántica. Clearly Latitudes represents the harder, swinging sound. Do you want to say anything about this resurgence that is thankfully underway?

ADLF: Everything is a cycle. Everything is a circle and it comes back. If you look at some of the things - not all of them - that were recorded in the last ten years. You listen to the biggest hit from five years ago, and you play it today and you don't want to hear it. Instead you take "El Raton" from Cheo Feliciano, and you play it now, and you still enjoy it. That's what I think it's about. It's not about making hits, it's about leaving something within the pages of the history of Latin music. When I do an album, I want at least one line written about it in the history of Latin music. That's what matters to me. I think everybody else feels different, but more power to them. I think Latitudes is going to be a record that is going to remain, like Triunfo is a record that remains, like Alfredo .

I don't think charanga will work right now. The way we used to play, just coro and flute. People don't warm to that anymore. Now you have to tell some other story. It's another time. I don't think - I don't know - charanga will happen any more.

JIC: In its pure form.

ADLF: In its pure form.

JIC: Bands like Orquesta Típica Novel have a new album out (La Nueva Generación '00 on Mambo Express).

ADLF: But it's not the same. Los Jovenes del Barrio sound great. They do some nice, interesting things, but I think salsa has changed. It's good to remember the past, but you gotta look to the future. It's good to have one foot in the past, because that's what the whole structure is, but the architecture is completely different.

JIC: It's that combination of styles you use, the charanga and conjunto sound, it gives you more colours and textures to work with. Doesn't it?

ADLF: Of course. There's charanga in Latitudes. When you hear the montuno part, that's pure charanga that's happening. I added a batá (drum), which gives it a force. That had not been used in straight salsa, maybe folkloric. Yes, they've used a batá in other types of salsa, but it's not been used in New York salsa for a while. That was one of the forces of Típica 73, the batá drum.

JIC: Thanks very much, I enjoyed talking to you.

ADLF: It was great. It was great. It was a great interview. It was nice. It was not the same thing that others do.

For the complete Alfredo De La Fé discography, click here.

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