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A Conversation with Producer Aaron Luis Levinson.

El Barrio's Turn:
A Conversation with Producer
Aaron Luis Levinson

by John Child (

John Child talks in depth with Aaron Luis Levinson, producer of Un Gran Dia En El Barrio on Ryko/Ropeadope Records by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, one of the more significant salsa releases so far in 2002. In addition to providing an intimate insight into the making of the album, Aaron cogently argues that Spanish Harlem's rich musical heritage merits the same international recognition as Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club.

JIC (John Ian Child): Thanks for agreeing to an interview. The advance copy of Un Gran Dia En El Barrio I was sent lacked full liner notes and credits, so please bear with me. There is currently a climate of reviving and reworking classic salsa tracks, for example, the work of Mascara Salsera's Gold Stars, Los Soneros del Barrio, Sonora Carruseles, Quinto Mayor, La Son Charanga, Orquesta Tabaco y Ron and Las Estrellas del Ayer. Did this influence the decision to produce the Spanish Harlem Orchestra project in any way?

ALL (Aaron Luis Levinson): Actually not, as I conceived the album about six years ago. It took me this long to get it finished. I initially lit upon the idea when I was running RykoLatino in the late '90s. On the first Jimmy Bosch album (Soneando Trombón '98 on RykoLatino) it was my suggestion to do "La Soledad" with Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez which was of course a classic from the days of Cortijo y su Combo (from Con Todos Los Hierros (Everything But The Kitchen Sink!) '67 on Tico).

I have a pretty extensive collection of rare Latin albums with an emphasis on Nuyorican salsa of the '60s and '70s. I use this catalogue of roughly 15 thousand songs as my personal archive for resurrecting these compositions. While experts in the music may be aware of the songs on this album, I think the average 35 year old salsa listener would be extremely unlikely to be aware of all but a few of these songs in their original versions. Therefore I hope it works as an enjoyable record for the expert, but also a tasty primer for those just dipping their toes in the Latin pool.

JIC: Tell me more about the genesis of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra project and its defining philosophy?

ALL: The genesis was that the remarkable contribution by generations of artists living in and around Spanish Harlem to the development of 20th Century popular music remained largely unknown and untold. While the cultural history of African-American Harlem is the subject of vast scholarship, there is no equivalent for Latinos and what they contributed. Having lived in and around Harlem for some years in the early '80s, I was able to feel the unique energy of the place for myself. And I guess it made an impression upon me that has lasted until today. Anyway, I wanted this album to catalogue the less-famous members of the salsa universe. To salute guys like Héctor Rivera and Orlando Marín, who never achieved the commercial visibility of figures like Puente or Mongo or Celia, or even Rubén Blades to some extent. Let this one be about the rank and file, as it were.

JIC: Tell me about the process of selecting the musicians, singers and arrangers and who you picked?

ALL: I would say that Oscar Hernández was responsible to a large degree for the specific cats in the band. That is not to say that I didn't have some input in the choice of cats for the date, but I left most of the musicians and arrangers up to Oscar's discretion. He is one of the most versatile, insightful and precise cats I've ever had the pleasure of working with. Originally, I wanted Hermán Olivera and Frankie Vázquez 'cause I had worked with them extensively in the past and was always impressed by what they brought to the table. I had also worked with Jimmy Sabater before, so I knew he always comes "loaded for bear" as we say in the States. The participation of Ray de la Paz came about when I was unable to strike a deal with another singer, who shall remain nameless. Really, it was a blessing of the highest sort as Ray is simply one of the most incredible soneros in the history of this music as far as I am concerned. Incidentally, these cats regularly sing coro together so the blend of their voices is a proven commodity in the Nuyorican salsa scene. I like the range that these guys have stylistically as a group. They can really cover the waterfront.

JIC: Tell me about the decision-making process of selecting the material?

ALL: As a salsa deejay I have years of feedback in my hip pocket regarding what songs pack the floor and which ones clear it. I chose songs that were consistent dance floor classics as well as a few things that exhibit a wider range of emotion. One great thing about a classic Fania album was the mix of stuff you got on one record. I think in this way, I'm becoming a slightly different type of producer than a Harlow or Pacheco, who do not have the luxury of being able to "test drive" all kinds of tracks in a club venue and see how they work within the context of a modern salsa audience. As leaders they have the limitation of not often playing the music of another band. On the other hand, I don't have their musical gifts, so it makes sense I have to compensate in other ways.

JIC: Un Gran Dia En El Barrio sounds as if the band were all recorded together live in the studio, or at least with minimal overdubs, rather than in sections which is virtually the norm in salsa these days. Please could you comment about this?

ALL: That was something that was pretty radical and, in fact, one cat on the session said he hadn't cut tracks this way in 25 years! As a producer I am pretty heavy handed about the technical side of the recording. In fact, even Oscar was somewhat concerned about the method, and referred to it as a "latin jazz" way of doing things. But I wanted him to understand that I was not at all interested in making a "latin jazz" album. I am not overly fond of that genre and rarely enjoy records that come from that side of the fence, though many people find that quite odd on my part. I feel that the "pressure" of having to do it all together not only has a unique sonic signature, but also forces a different kind of playing out of people. My production style is very much oriented in this direction and has been for quite some time. I actively dislike the sound of contemporary salsa albums in most cases as they suffer from the multitrack/overdub model you described, but also because they rarely, if ever, utilise really top notch acoustical spaces to make these albums. This album was recorded at Sear Sound, one of the finest recording studios on Earth; and I, for one, think the aural difference is enormous. On the technical side, I favour large ambient spaces and ribbon mic technology over the more popular condensers preferred by most people. I am as they say, an "analogue guy", in my overall orientation. This "less is more" philosophy informs my production method regardless of the genre I'm working in at any moment.

JIC: Who was the engineer on the album?

ALL: The tracking engineer is a very gifted young engineer named Todd Parker and the mix engineer was Plat-Numb Mike. I know Oscar was knocked out by these guys, neither of whom had ever worked on a salsa album before! I would use them both again in a heartbeat, they were consummate professionals. Of course, having Walter Sear stopping by to lend his two cents never hurt anyone either!

JIC: How did you decide who to allocate the tunes to?

ALL: We really let that process unfold naturally with the singers having as much to say as anyone else as to who got what. Though I was dead set on having Ray sing on "Obsesion". He is to me the Sinatra of salsa and his liquid style lent itself to a tune which I consider not only the finest work ever penned by the brilliant Pedro Flores, but also one of the most moving and profound love songs written in any language from any age. It is that good.

JIC: Did the fact that Frankie sings with David Lugo's "Héctor Lavoe Orchestra" influence the choice to use him on the Willie Colón / Héctor Lavoe classic "Llegó La Banda" (originally from Asalto Navideño Vol 2 '73 on Fania)?

ALL: Frankly, if you'll pardon the pun, I was unaware of that connection, but as I said earlier, this was a track that I knew, as a deejay, still held its own 30 years after the fact. Also it is self-referential as much of the Willie/Héctor songs are, so it lent itself ideally to an album whose concept is also self-reflexive in nature. A song about a band playing salsa on an album about the bands that played salsa, it's a little like Jorge Luis Borges and his meta-fictional experiments (if you don't mind a pretentious literary analogy).

JIC: Who arranged "Llegó La Banda"? It sounds as if it may be Angel Fernández, as there are touches reminiscent of his work with Angel Canales.

ALL: Nice try, John, but it's the amazingly talented and still underrated Marty Sheller, who was, of course, the musical director for Mongo Santamaría for decades. To me, while it has echoes of Angel, the post-McCoy Tyner jazz coda really is a signature section for the sophisticated re-harmonisations that have been informing Marty's concept since his earliest credited work with Sabú Martínez on Jazz Espagnole (1960 on Alegre). Marty Sheller will go down as one of the greatest arrangers in the history of Latin music and it has been an honour to be associated with him in this context.

JIC: Frankie also does a magnificent job on Conjunto Clasico's "Somos Iguales" from their 1979 debut album Los Rodríguez on Lo Mejor. What's the story there?

ALL: In this case, it was another barnstormer on the dance floor and I've always liked the aggressive politics of the track as a message. Racism is something that we constantly wrestle with here in the States and the answers are still out of our reach when taken as a whole. I also like it as far as sending a message that Latinos as a whole need to be treated as equals in an Anglo world, so the track has, at least for me, meaning and resonances above and beyond the one originally intended. And I agree Frankie absolutely kills this track from note one. That is no mean feat considering that the original was sung by Tito Nieves at the youthful zenith of his enormous talent. Frankie is a special cat and his cousin David Sánchez was also really helpful in making this album happen. I'd like to thank him for his selfless help at every stage of the album.

JIC: What's the story behind the Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez tribute "Pueblo Latino" (originally from El Conde's Este Negro Si Es Sabroso '76 on Fania) sung by Hermán Olivera?

ALL: I believe that Oscar's first recording session as a pianist was with Pete's band and the album has always been one of my favourites of Pete's solo work after leaving Pacheco. Pete has always been a singer whom I've admired enormously, as a former singer myself, and getting the chance to work with him and both his super-talented kids was a genuine high point of my creative life. He has the most relentless swing of any singer I've ever heard, with the possible exceptions of Maelo and Héctor. I mean drummers could learn from this cat! Of course, again, the message of the song refers to the Latin community and the album itself is about the most famous barrio in the world! It was Oscar's suggestion, and after listening to it in the context of the existing songs, I felt it was a valuable and inspired suggestion. I hope you agree?

JIC: Undoubtedly. The CD also pays homage to the great Mambo King, Tito Rodríguez, with the opening cut "Mama Guela" performed by Jimmy Sabater. What would you like to share about that?

ALL: First, Tito was another cat who became very famous in the Latin world around the globe, but never achieved the respect he deserved outside of the Golden Age of the Mambo. While many music fans know Mongo and Tito Puente quite well, the same is not true for Mr. Rodríguez; and really that is just unacceptable to me. You know the really cool thing about the genesis of this version is that Gil López, who wrote the chart, added an introduction to the tune. I mean, wow, after 50 some odd years to write a new part that catalyses the song was a stroke of pure genius. As Oscar exclaimed upon hearing the playback: "That song's been waiting 50 years for that part!" He's absolutely right you know. The original song, as brilliant as it is, kind of starts from thin air and this almost regal fanfare just gives the song the most extraordinary platform from which to leap. God bless Gil López and his 75 years of musical wisdom, we are all richer for his gifts.

JIC: Coincidentally, last year I selected "Vale Más Un Guaguancó", from the 1975 Ray Barretto album Barretto on Fania, for the Rubén Blades compilation Salsa Caliente De Nu York I prepared for Nascente in the UK (the album has been issued by Fania in the USA). So it was nice to hear the song superbly interpreted on Un Gran Dia En El Barrio by another fine Barretto alumnus, Ray de la Paz. What's the story there?

ALL: Again that was an Oscarism. He suggested the song in an effort to have a guaguancó in there somewhere, which I dearly wanted. [He said] that maybe that was a good candidate for that role. As usual, he was dead on correct. I had a few others in mind, but in the end having a Barretto tune was essential to making the album complete. In the strange coincidences category, as Ray, Oscar and myself left the studio on 48th Street after the final few hours of the recording, we walked out into the sunlight and who is literally sitting in a traffic bound car staring right at us but Ray Barretto! I was too dumbfounded to speak, the others laughed about the freakishness of it happening at all, standing amidst a city of 12 million people.

JIC: Another Ray de la Paz tour de force on the album, "Aprende A Querer", has been bugging me. The tune is familiar but I've yet to identify the original. Are you going to put me out of my misery?

ALL: Hey, I don't feel so bad now! If John Child is stumped then you are really on top of your bloody game. Honestly, I had never heard the song before Ray suggested it as a song he'd always wanted to sing. It is from a hideously rare album by Orlando Marín. (If anyone out there has an original pressing they'd care to sell me I'd be pleased as punch.) I also got to briefly chat with the author Tony Rios, who is a very nice guy, and he was thrilled and somewhat surprised to hear we were doing his song nearly 40 years after it was originally released. What a gem that song is and what a gentleman Orlando Marín is who brought the composition into the public ear. He still plays mean timbales (the legendary Humberto Morales model), and continues to lead a fine small group in New York City to this very day!

JIC: Shit! Now the penny has dropped. I have the album, it's Esta En Algo (1967 on Fiesta) with Justo Betancourt singing lead vocals. No, I don't want to sell it! Who arranged the number for Un Gran Dia En El Barrio ?

ALL: It's our old pal Oscar doing his special thing once again.

JIC: "Pa Gozar" acts as a improvisational showcase for the core trio of soneros: Frankie, Ray and Hermán, with solos by bassist Rubén Rodríguez, conguero George Delgado and timbalero Chino Nuñez. Is there anything you would like to share about this track?

ALL: I figure if I have Oscar Hernández, the director, the pianist and the arranger, I might as well have the Renaissance Man of salsa contribute some writing as well. This cha cha is so danceable I have seen dead people rise from the grave to dance to this track! You know Rubén loves the legendary Bobby Rodríguez, and I for one hear some strong echoes of this maestro del bajo in his gorgeous solo.

JIC: Incidentally, David Barton and I did an extended interview with Rubén Rodríguez, which should be appearing on the site soon. Do you wish to add anything about the remaining two tracks: the instrumental "Tambori" and "La Musica Es Mi Vida" (sung by Hermán)?

ALL: "Tambori" was more of a transcription, as opposed to the other works, which were consciously new arrangements of existing songs. I wanted people to hear what a straight '50s Latin instrumental sounded like and this piece by Héctor Rivera (from his debut album Let's Cha Cha Cha '57 on Mercury) is, I feel, just a dynamite piece of economy and groove. Again, Héctor Rivera is not a household name, but just like Orlando Marín, he was a player in the history of this music, and we offer just a sliver of what made him unique. Hopefully, some people may dig a little deeper into all the great music available to them at outlets like I hope that happens; that is for sure. "La Musica Es Mi Vida" comes from an album by bandleader Johnny Zamot (El Hulk De La Salsa '80 on Fania by Johnny Zamot and Sociedad 76). Again Johnny Zamot was another cat who I dig who'd been making records for nearly 20 years by the time this album itself came out 20 years ago!

JIC: The record company blurb describes Un Gran Dia En El Barrio as Harlem's answer to Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club. Please could you comment on this comparison?

ALL: The comparison is not musical in nature so much as saying that while you may know a bit about the glorious music of Cuba, here is your chance to learn about an equally compelling story in the history of Latin music; and this story is in your own backyard.

JIC: I first noticed your name in connection with the now sadly defunct RykoLatino label, which began with some reissues of some Montuno titles in the mid-'90s; then you were associated with fresh productions for the label by Jimmy Bosch, Plena Libre and the all-star Roberto Clemente: Un Tributo Musical '98. Tell me about how you became involved in the Latin recording industry.

ALL: Actually we co-founded RykoLatino in 1997 alongside my partner Brad Rubens, and principally Arthur Mann and the legendary producer Joe Boyd over at Ryko. We wanted to start a Latin imprint that we hoped might become a boutique label for high-quality tropical music. And we wanted to apply the well-known level of excellence that Ryko has always been known for to this genre from a packaging and design perspective. This was a defining experience in my career development, and while the imprint is no longer active, I continue to build on the success we enjoyed from real lovers of la musica latina.

JIC: I understand that you initially produced the Spanish Harlem Orchestra for Atlantic Records, but you had to subsequently shop around for another outlet. Hence the release on Ryko/Ropeadope Records. What happened there?

ALL: There was quite a bit of consolidation in the AOL-Time Warner family and my album was a casualty of that belt-tightening. Fortunately my good friend Andy Hurwitz, who initially introduced me to the Atlantic people back in the "bubble" days, stepped into the breach and agreed to do the deal and put it out on his exceptional label Ropeadope.

JIC: I'd never heard of Ropeadope Records until this release. Tell me about them?

ALL: This is the first Latin album on Ropeadope, but I've already had a great relationship with them in the past from a jazz record I produced for them called the Philadelphia Experiment, which went to number three on the Billboard jazz chart last year. They are a very talented bunch of people who have a potent vision of what a great record company can be. I take my hat off to Andy Hurwitz and his whole crew, not only for helping out on this album in such a major way, but also for putting out such challenging and vital music in every genre they encompass. They also have a very au courant design team that produces a great line of urban clothing as well.

JIC: So what's the connection with Ryko?

ALL: The Ryko connection is that through many mutual past dealings, Rykodisc ending up distributing Ropeadope for territories outside of the US and Japan. However, in the U.S. Ropeadope is available through the WEA family of labels. The other connection is that Ryko and Ropeadope are both labels which stand for quality, integrity and creative excellence. So the match is a very good one.

JIC: Is Ryko returning to releasing and producing Latin projects?

ALL: I cannot speak on behalf of Ryko in any way, shape or form.

JIC: Do you have any other Latin projects in the pipeline?

ALL: I'm always working on new things, but right now, that is my only scheduled Latin release for this year.

JIC: That's me done. Thanks very much.

ALL: You are a keen listener and your questions reveal a staggering insight into the music. I am thrilled to have had you as the man who decodes the runes.

JIC: You flatterer!!

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