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A conversation with respected salsero José Alberto

An Uptempo Talk with
José Alberto "El Canario"

by John Child (

John Child managed to pin down José "El Canario" Alberto for a quick chat back stage after his exciting performances at the Salsa 2000 festival on July 16th 2000, the biggest salsa event the UK has seen to date. Talking at a pace that seemed faster than the merengue he had just performed on stage, José spoke to John about his career and his forthcoming live reunion recording with Típica 73 at New York City's Copacabana on October 3rd 2000, which will also feature Alfredo de la Fé. (Also see the companion interview with Alfredo de la Fé.)

John I. Child (JIC): Tell me about your forthcoming production?

José Alberto (JA): We're going to be doing this live recording, a reunion recording with Típica 73 after 20 years. So we're going to do a live recording on October 3rd 2000 at the Copacabana nightclub in Manhattan. A couple of the members are no longer active, so we're going to have Mario Rivera, Leopoldo Pineda, Nelson González, Alfredo de la Fé, Nicky Marrero, Johnny "Dandy" Rodríguez, Sonny Bravo and Cachete Maldonado. Those were the ones that were with Típica. Plus we'll have other guests at the José Alberto and Típica 73 reunion.

JIC: Is it actually going to be under the banner of José Alberto and Típica 73?

JA: Yes.

JIC: You're going to use the name Típica 73?

JA: Yes, I am. I just finished doing a song as a guest with Plena Libre. In their new album which is going to be released in a couple of weeks. We are also preparing a project, I believe it's going to be for next year, a Latin tribute to Bob Marley.

JIC: I'm the guy who has written biographies on you for encyclopedias. Could you tell me about something about your beginnings.

JA: I was born in the Dominican Republic, as you know. My parents brought me down to Puerto Rico where I studied at a military academy. Then they took me over to New York, where I finished my high school and everything. That's where I really got involved in music.

JIC: Not until New York.

JA: In New York, yes.

JIC: Not previously?

JA: No, no, no. In Puerto Rico I was in the military academy, and I was studying music there. But I really started in New York as a musician. I started as a drummer in rock 'n' roll. Then I started going into Latin percussion and stuff like that. Getting involved with the Latin scene, and playing with little groups here and there.

JIC: Can you remember any names?

JA: Chorolo y su Combo, Sonora del Caribe; but my first professional step was with the César Nicolas orchestra. I recorded a 45, which I don't have, with him back in '74. In 1975 I recorded my first album with Tito Rodríguez Jr..

JIC: Curious? (1976 on TR).

JA: Then in 1977 I became part of Típica 73 when I did my first album with them: Salsa Encendida (1978 on Inca).

JIC: Those were quite big breaks for you to get. Not only with Típica, but to go in straight away to be a lead singer with Tito Rodríguez Jr..

JA: Incredible, yes. There was like a little intermission between Tito and Típica. I was like in the air, playing here and there with little bands, and then came the opportunity of Típica 73. It was Adalberto Santiago who spoke to me. He said: "You know what? Azuquita has left Típica 73. They are looking for a singer." So I called Sonny, and he told me to come over and do one gig. I came over and did the gig, and they really liked it. So they said: "We're interested, but we can't pay you much money. We can only pay you $25." I said: 'It's not much, but I'll take it.' I started October 3rd, 1977, at the Corso nightclub at 10 o'clock at night.

JIC: October 3rd, which is ironic because isn't that the date when you're going to be doing the Copacabana gig?

JA: Wow! What a coincidence! Oh my God! I hadn't even thought about that. Holy God! That's going to be 23 years!

JIC: That's spooky isn't it?

JA: Wow! What a coincidence!

JIC: So you can make something out of that.

JA: Yeah, wow! You've hit the ball. That's a coincidence. Look at that! October the 3rd. Because we were going to do it on the 26th (September), but Sonny Bravo and Johnny, they can't make it because they are going to be doing some gig with the Tito Puente orchestra. So they said let's do it the following week, October the 3rd 2000, and I started off on that day in 1977. Wow!

JIC: Right. So going back to your debut album with Típica 73. Although Azuquita is on half of it and you're on the other half, had he already left the band?

JA: Azuquita did the first album with me. After all the incidents that they had with the orchestra: first Adalberto left; the band broke up; they made another band with Tito Allen; then Tito Allen leaves; then they bring Azuquita. So they said, "From now on we're going to have two singers, that way we don't get strangled." So from there on they had two singers: Azuquita and me.

JIC: So you actually performed live together?

JA: Oh yes, yes. Then in February, Azuquita leaves to stay in Paris. So after that I was left as the lead singer, but there were other lead singers coming in like Tempo Alomar, Rafael de Jesús and Lalo Rodríguez. But none of them stayed in the band, so I was the main one. Then we did that album in Cuba.

JIC: Intercambio Cultural (1979 on Fania).

JA: Intercambio Cultural back in '78, being the first US-based salsa orchestra to record in Cuba under the Fidel Castro government. Then we did another one, Charangueando (1980 on Fania), then we did Into The 80s (1981 on Fania), that was the last album I did with Típica. Then I signed a contract with Audiorama Records. I came out as a soloist with my own orchestra back in 1983. It was June 16th 1983 at Club Broadway, and Ralph Mercado was managing me. He didn't have a record label at that time. So I did three albums with Sono Max: Típicamente (1984), Canta Canario (1985), which is when they titled me El Canario, and then Latino Style (1986).

JIC: Alfredo de la Fé was telling me recently about how appearing in Cuba tainted Típica 73, and was the key factor in the demise of the band.

JA: Yes it was. It was because we were the first. After we came back to New York after recording and playing in Cuba, it was a disaster. Most of the club owners didn't want to hire us, the radio didn't want to play the records. So things started to fall down. I left the band because I could see it was coming down. I didn't want to come down with them, so I decided I'd leave the band, and I started my new stuff. I left the band December 31st of '82, and in February '83 I was in the studio. I was recording already, signed by Audiorama. My album came out on June 16th. So it was real fast. I didn't waste no time. After I left, Típica lasted for another year. Tito Allen came back.

JIC: So going back to your solo career, what happened after the trio of albums on Sono Max?

JA: At the end of '86, Ralph Mercado comes to me and says: "I want to make a record company. Could you do a production for me like you do with Audiorama?" I did Sueño Contigo (1988 on RMM).

JIC: Which was a big hit.

JA: Then he recorded Tito Nieves, Tony Vega, Cheo Feliciano, etcetera, on RMM. The company really started building up. It was like the second Fania.

JIC: Tell me something about the vision you had for the sound of your band, because I've got two out of three of your Sono Max albums...

JA: You've got more than me! They have a compilation from those three albums on CD (Salsa Con El Canario '89 on Sono Max).

JIC: ...and it seemed you'd set the mould for the sound of your orchestra with Típicamente.

JA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was really a conjunto orquestal , because I didn't use timbales back then. I started using timbales, and eliminated the tres player, when I started with Ralphy. That's when I really got the big orchestra sound when I recorded Mis Amores s (1989) with "Bailemos Otra Vez." Then I did Dance With Me (1991), which is when I first started recording in English. I did a duet there with Sergio Vargas. Then I did Llegó La Hora (1992) with "Disculpeme Señora." Then I did De Pueblo Y Con Clase (1994) in Puerto Rico.

JIC: With Tommy Villariny.

JA: Yes, with Tommy Villariny producing me. Then I did On Time (1995), with a duet with Celia Cruz, and Tribute To Machito (1997).

JIC: Which is a remarkable album.

JA: Plus we did various compilations like Tito Puente's 100th LP (1991), Combinación Perfecta (1993), Tribute to the Beatles (1996) and Recordando A Selena (1996). Other productions I have done are Boy Thode (El Canario Presenta Boy Thode '94 on Mat Records), a singer from Curaçao, Jimmy Jaimes from Colombia (Me Huele A Colombia '93 on Combo), and Los Hermanos Rosario. Then I did this production Herido (Heartbreak) (1999), and Ryko seemed to like it and they took it, and we signed a contract. And it has gone well, and it has been a beautiful change.

JIC: How many albums is the Ryko deal?

JA: Three albums. So we're going into the second. I guess by January (2001) I'll be in the studio again producing a new album, which I have in the closet. So when it's ready, we'll pull it out. I believe this project with Típica 73 is going to be very good.

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