A Conversation with Producer Aaron Luis Levinson.
El Barrio's Turn:
A Conversation with Producer
Aaron Luis Levinson
by John Child (John_Child@descarga.com)
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.
Tell me more about the genesis of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra project and its defining
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.
Tell me about the process of selecting the musicians, singers and arrangers and who
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.
Tell me about the decision-making process of selecting the material?
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
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?
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.
Who was the engineer on the album?
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!
How did you decide who to allocate the tunes to?
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.
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)?
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).
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.
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
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
Coincidentally, last year I selected "Vale Más Un Guaguancó", from the 1975 Ray 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?
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.
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?
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!
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
It's our old pal Oscar doing his special thing once again.
"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?
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.
Incidentally, David Barton and I did an extended interview with Rubén Rodríguez,
which should be appearing on the Descarga.com 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)?
"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 Descarga.com. 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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
I'd never heard of Ropeadope Records until this release. Tell me about them?
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.
So what's the connection with Ryko?
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.
Is Ryko returning to releasing and producing Latin projects?
I cannot speak on behalf of Ryko in any way, shape or form.
Do you have any other Latin projects in the pipeline?
I'm always working on new things, but right now, that is my only scheduled Latin release
for this year.
That's me done. Thanks very much.
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.