Cano Estremera: The Last Sonero
John Child and Tomek, respectively the producer and presenter of Aracataca on totallyradio.com, speak to Cano Estremera, the self-proclaimed outlaw of the Puerto Rican and US salsa industry. A giant among today's soneros - he controversially says he is "the last sonero" - Cano worked with Los Pleneros del Quinto Olivo, Mulenze and Bobby Valentín before unwillingly beginning a solo career in the mid-1980s. To say that Cano is outspoken and opinionated would be an understatement! Conducting the interview was like trying to ride a bucking bronco, but what this piece essentially reveals is a thoughtful man dedicated to his chosen vocation. You can read the unexpurgated Cano here...
Cano's basic discography is provided at the end of the interview.
Special thanks to J. Fernando Lamadrid of justsalsa.com for providing the photos of Mr. Estremera performing at the Copacabana in New York.
Tomek (T): Having enjoyed your work for over 20 years, there is no question you made the right decision to go into the music business.
Cano Estremera (CE): It was not a business decision to go into music. Once I got into the business I realised that there were a lot of people who didn't operate the system the way it should be, like the lack of parity. You can go into the business as long as you play by the rules imposed years ago. If you have a difficulty with that and don't adapt yourself, you're going to be an outlaw in the business. And that's what I am, because I have my own way of thinking, and my own personality, and my own thoughts. This is a crime in this business.
John Ian Child (JIC): Maybe we could explore how you developed in this way? We know your godparents raised you. Please could you say what influence they had on your life and musical development?
CE: We came from a very poor neighbourhood in Puerto Rico. I don't really know how my parents met these people who they arranged to become my godparents. These people had a very strong moral basis. They were very religious and they were into the army. They had a system and an order in their lives. My godfather had his own way of thinking and didn't consider other people's thoughts. He was convinced that his way of life is the way it should be.
T: Is that always a good thing?
CE: For me it was. When you were developing in the neighbourhood I came from, the mentality you develop is like: "I've got to do everything I've got to do because I want to get what I want to get." This is the modern mentality of young people today. They gotta do what they gotta do; they want to take this and this fast. My godfather showed me order.
JIC: We know from what you've said elsewhere that you resisted the restrictions that were placed upon you at school. But you've just told us that you had a very, very ordered home life. Did you rebel against your home life, or just at school?
CE: My godfather had a very right wing mentality. He was like: "OK, I was in the army. I'm for the American mentality and I like the Catholic church." Very, very conservative. He had a strong class consciousness. He didn't believe in prejudice or racism. He didn't believe in the wrong distribution of power or money. I don't know why he developed that kind of mentality.
But when I went to school, I saw things turning the other way. And when I went into the neighbourhood I saw drugs and people trying to survive in an environment where they didn't have jobs, and families and hunger, and whatever. Little by little I learnt that it is not this way or that way, and that I had to make a fusion of conflicting thoughts to develop my own point of view. They didn't have the tools in Puerto Rican schools, because either you were blind or you could see well. I was like in the middle. I have vision in one eye. They just told me: "Sit down in the back and wait, and try to learn from what you hear. You can't go to the front because you're gonna make the class more difficult for other people."
So I learnt to learn that way. I was the only albino around in that environment. My two sisters and I are albino. This made it more difficult. You know how kids are? So I had a strong religious mentality and the fighting mentality of the ghetto. I had to deal with all that. That's what made me cosmopolitan.
JIC: Did your godparents raise your sisters as well?
CE: Yes. My two sisters and me. I have two other brothers who weren't albino. I tried to make the best of school, but it was very difficult. You need to see to learn basic things like writing and mathematics. All that I know I had to pick up by ear. Just listen and learn.
JIC: Has picking things up by ear been important in your musical career?
CE: Very important, yeah. Because I learnt to live that way.
JIC: Can you tell us how music started to come into your life as a kid?
CE: When I finished high school it came to me like an alternative, because I was prepared to go to university. Even though I wasn't prepared technically, but I had the ambition to be something like a doctor, lawyer or pilot. That was the mentality I got from my godfather: go ahead and do something for yourself, because you have to do something for your family. When they presented me with my choices, they told me: "You've got to go to blind school because you can't see and you can't go to university. You can't want to be a lawyer or something like that. No way." At that point there weren't the tools in Puerto Rico that there are today. A blind person can go to university because they have all the help in the world.
So I figured it out and music came to me because I used to listen to a radio station that played top 40 music when I was young. It was KBM. I like a challenge. Then I saw these people playing cultural music: bomba, plena, décima and stuff. I began to think: "I can do this. What other people can do, I can do." I thought that that was not so difficult to do.
T: So it was like an analytical decision?
T: How old were you?
CE: Like 16, 17.
T: So you made a conscious decision not to go to blind school and became a musician?
CE: Yeah, it wasn't really a difficult decision because these people invited me to go on a tour to New York and South America.
JIC: Who were these people?
CE: At that point they were musicians that played for everybody. They didn't have a name. They just had small connections. Eventually I got to work with Orquesta Mulenze.
JIC: Before Mulenze, and we want to talk about Mulenze with you, what named bands did you work with?
CE: First I played with folkloric groups, like Los Pleneros del Quinto Olivo, which was my first professional experience that I got some money for. Eventually this friend of mine, Cuto Soto
JIC: The trombone player and arranger.
CE: Yeah. I met him because he was from the same neighbourhood. And he took me to Mulenze. This was like over a short period of time, like a two-year period. I played bongo because I didn't want to be recognised.
JIC: You kept to the back?
CE: Yeah, because salsa music was not for white people. It's for black people. They didn't accept an albino singer in the beginning. They said: "Oh no, this is not the way it should be."
T: That's racism.
CE: Yeah, a little bit of that.
JIC: Having said that, were you aware of the work of Nestor Sánchez at the time?
CE: Sure, sure. He recently passed away. He was a motivation for me, because I saw him on TV in Puerto Rico. Nestor never lived in Puerto Rico; he lived in New York.
JIC: Anyway, you were telling the story about Cuto Soto.
CE: Cuto Soto introduced me to Mulenze. He was playing for them and he invited me. He told me that they were making this orchestra to accompany other singers from Fania. That was the main reason they formed Mulenze. They didn't form Mulenze because they wanted to make their own music. Because they mainly played for Ismael Miranda, they named the group Mulenze 76 after the song "Mulence" (from Miranda's Asi Se Compone Un Son '73 on Fania). I was the lead singer of the band, but the idea was that I sang the first set, then they had a show with the principal singer, and then I did another set to finish. So they could say to the client: "We give you four hours of music." But not with the principal singer. That's the way they wanted to manage the business, so the principal singer worked less because they had a large volume of work. We traveled with Celia Cruz, Ismael Miranda, Cheo Feliciano, and all the personalities of that time. We didn't travel with Justo Betancourt because he was the only singer that had his own band in Puerto Rico, Borincuba. A lot of bands were formed to accompany singers because there was such a volume of work. Sometimes they had four, six, eight bands playing for different singers in different places, like Puerto Rican Power and Orquesta Internacional (led by Pedro Conga). There were a lot of bands. I'm talking about the golden moment of salsa.
JIC: Was Edwin Morales the leader of Mulenze at that time?
CE: Yes. He was first the leader of a band they used to call Yambo. Then Yambo turned into Mulenze.
JIC: You said Cuto Soto was in the band. Were there any other musicians in the band that went on to be famous?
CE: Sure. The piano player was Eric Figueroa. Charlie Sierra played the timbales. The trombone players included Eliut Cintrón, Ernesto Rivera on trumpet.
T: Was it two trombones and two trumpets?
CE: Always two trumpets and two trombones. If they played for a singer that needed a saxophone or something, then they would add this for the gig.
JIC: When you were with Mulenze, did they start developing their own material?
CE: Little by little, but mostly we played the songs of the singers we were playing with that night.
JIC: Did you record with Mulenze at that stage?
CE: No. We recorded, but it was like a little demo in a home studio of the songs that were used on their first album.
[NOTE: Mulenze's debut album was Desde El Principio '79 on DC with Pedro Brull replacing Cano as the lead singer.]
T: How did you make the big step from being a young guy interested in music to being able to be a professional singer working with Fania people?
CE: Sometimes it's better not to know what you're doing. (Laughter)
JIC: How true.
CE: Because you go with the flow. You don't really know what you're doing, because you don't have any other choice. So then you go and you learn. But what I learnt with Mulenze and I don't want to say this disrespectfully is that those gods that they had over there like Miranda, Celia, Cheo and whatever...when you play day by day with them, you don't see it like that. You see it like: "I can do that too."
JIC: You have said in the past that you analysed the singers you listened to. Obviously during the Mulenze experience, you actually saw them first hand. Was that an important learning experience for you?
CE: Sure. My most important lesson, because I started to say: "I don't like this thing about this style, but I like this thing about this style, and I will use that. People don't like that singer, but I like something he has."
JIC: Were you doing that very deliberately or was it just happening like you were saying?
CE: No, no, I was doing it deliberately. A lot of people say I have my own style. Thing is, I'm similar to everybody. If you analyse my singing, sometimes I give you a Nestor Sánchez, sometimes I give you a Cheo Feliciano, and sometimes I give you a Marvin Santiago. But what I do is that I try to take every good thing about every singer and try to make it into a fusion. Even with bad singers, I take what is good and put it into the mix.
JIC: Which soneros do you regard as most important in your life?
CE: First there was the Cuban school like Machito, Beny Moré and stuff, which was the basis of what's happening today.
JIC: Did you listen to these early Cuban guys when you were 16, 17?
CE: No. I never heard them. When Cuba closed, there weren't any records out of Cuba to learn from. And there were not many Cubans in Puerto Rico.
JIC: Who were the soneros who made the biggest impact?
CE: In the beginning it was Ismael Rivera, because he was the Beny Moré in Puerto Rico. A lot of people say Ismael took a lot from Beny. But the point is: it's not what is out there, but it's what you make of what is out there. A lot of people don't have the talent or capacity to make it into a notion. Ismael made it into his own style; he did what I do. He made a very special mix. Cortijo liked to play with the rhythms. He was like a scientific rhythm player. That fusion for me was the basis. Then Cheo Feliciano, who I think was the closest to Ismael Rivera at that time, when he was with Joe Cuba. And then Justo Betancourt, who absorbed a large quantity of Cuban notions that we didn't even know about. It wasn't until three or four years ago that I spoke to Justo and learnt that he knew a lot of things I didn't know he knew, and that I didn't see in his music. Sometimes it's not what you know, but how capable you are of communicating what you know. Then I saw Celia Cruz perform live. A very, very big voice. You see perfection when you see those people play, because you wish you had the voice that they have. I wish I had a big voice. If I had a better voice I could do more with what I know.
T: In a previous interview, you made a distinction between "Riveristas" and "Cubanistas". Can you specify what the difference is?
CE: I didn't listen to Cuban music early on, and I didn't know about Cuban things. So what I tried to do was divide people into those that sing like Ismael Rivera and those that sing like the old Cubans. El Canario, Oscar D'León and Adalberto Santiago are from the Cuban school. From the Riveristic way are Cheo, Gilberto (Santa Rosa) and me.
T: Is the Ismael Rivera way more street, more funky, more about timing? Is the Cuban way a more classical approach? Is this the distinction you're making?
CE: Yes, for me it's more classical, more simple, and more fundamental. The Ismael Rivera style is more daring.
T: What do you mean by "daring"?
CE: Because salsa learns from everything: Cuban music, Brazilian music, or folkloric music of any nation in the world. The evolution of salsa has got to be fast. A singer or performer has to be in a hurry to assimilate all that.
JIC: How did the opportunity to work with Bobby Valentín come up?
CE: Fania was folding-up. The empire was finally going down. They don't say empires explode; they implode. The first to get out of there were Miranda and Bobby, who did their own thing. The last ones were singers with orchestras. One of them was Luigi Texidor who was with Sonora Ponceña. They used to sign all the singers with bands that were in the company. At this time I was with Mulenze and we recorded in a studio that was Bobby's property. The demo I told you about. At that point in time we made one song, and Bobby heard it. Bobby was asking round because he was having problems with Marvin Santiago. For me, Marvin was one of the best soneros there ever was. He was the people's singer. He got rid of Marvin, or Marvin got rid of him. He was trying to do something else. And Luigi came in with the idea of "Naci Moreno" (on Bobby Valentín's Musical Seduction '78 on Bronco), which was a gold record for Bobby. But Bobby didn't take into consideration that Luigi was signed to Fania. So they made the record and did gigs, but at some point Masucci told Bobby he could not use Luigi anymore, because he was with Fania. So they formed an orchestra for Luigi and that's the way I got in. And they gave me a chance.
[NOTE: Luigi Texidor made a series of solo albums for the Fania subsidiary label Nuestra: El Negrito del Sabor '79, El Caballero '80, Betún Negro '81 and Sabroso '82.]
JIC: From our point of view, we saw the Fania empire beginning to fall apart at the beginning of the 1980s, but you are putting it as early as the mid-'70s when Bobby Valentín went off to form his Bronco label.
CE: For us in Puerto Rico, it was when they began to do those records like "Paula C," "Juan Pachanga" and "Sin Tu Carino" (all three songs were composed and sung by Rubén Blades on respectively Louie Ramírez y sus Amigos '78 on Cotique and the Fania All Stars' albums Rhythm Machine '77 and Spanish Fever '78 on Columbia). Even though they were better musically and technically speaking, they lost all meaning for the revolution of the people.
CE: For me, what made Fania what it was was the phenomenon of Latin migration to the States. When you get a wave of music, it has to have a meaning, a social meaning, because music is a social thing. When all the Latinos went to the States, they needed something to get them together. So what they chose was salsa. Once Latinos began to assimilate in the States, they didn't need that anymore. So the meaning got lost. But some people still live in that time. We have to thank the Colombians, because without Colombians, salsa would not be here today. Because they are the ones who preserved the music into the '80s and '90s. They preserved salsa for us.
T: In the early '80s the Puerto Rican bands seemed to take over. We're talking about Gran Combo, Bobby Valentín, Willie Rosario, Roena, Mulenze, etc. You were part of that wave. Did you feel that the spirit of salsa was there in Puerto Rico?
CE: That was a really good time. We saw each other every day. We competed against each other, which is very good for music. Everybody wants to sound better. It was introduced into the New York scene too. There were a lot of good bands at that time. It was a golden age.
JIC: You were with Bobby Valentín for a number of years, and recorded six albums together between 1978 and 1984, including two where you were the headline name. Could you tell us about that period with Bobby and how you developed musically during that era?
CE: Well, I always wanted to play with Bobby Valentín, because Bobby is the greatest arranger we have in salsa. That was the dream job that I was thinking about when I got into music.
JIC: Was that really an ambition of yours? You're not just saying that looking back?
CE: No. I wanted to be with that orchestra. I don't know how I got there. It was destiny. That was the band I wanted to belong to. When I went with Bobby Valentín's band, I didn't want to play with any other band, because it wasn't the same for me. There were a lot of good bands out there. But for me, getting to play with Bobby was the pinnacle.
JIC: You've said elsewhere that when you first started with Bobby Valentín, you were singing too fast and you slowed down. And also, towards the end of your time with Bobby, you really began to feel as if you had learnt to sing.
CE: That was because I was wild. I was taking all this information and trying to put it into the songs all at the same time. I went crazy and I was so erratic because I was trying to experiment. I was trying to make a fusion, and I was making some mistakes. It was a learning process. Then I had to pull myself back and try to sing more simply and learn the commercial way. If people don't understand what you are playing, then you are playing for a little crowd.
T: Do you agree that characteristically Bobby Valentín's band has mostly a laidback mid-tempo swing, while a lot of the other bands would play quite up-tempo?
CE: For me, all Puerto Rican bands are laidback. What we call "the charge," that's a New York thing. Descarga all the time, that's Palmieri, Típica 73, Libre, and all those New York bands. New York bands play like "charge." Once they get into their song, it's wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, until they finish. The difference you see in Puerto Rican music is that we make music like a book, like a novel, with structure.
Maybe the laidback style of Bobby Valentín came about because his is the Puerto Rican band that sounds like a big band. The Sonora (Ponceña) is a sonora, (El Gran) Combo is a combo, but the one band in Puerto Rico that sounds like a big band is Valentín. Having a big band mentality, they have got to go slower because they are more fat.
T: Did you have any differences of opinion with Bobby? Or did he say relax; don't go fast, or anything like that?
CE: No, he let me. Members of the public came to me and said: "You don't do the same soneos in the performance as you do on the records. We don't like that, as we like to sing along with you. We like to know what you're singing." At the time I was the main singer, so I could impose myself and even tell the people: "That's not the way I sing, because I improvise what you hear on the records." I improvise in the studio and translate it into the records. So I'm going to keep on improvising. And Bobby agreed on that. He didn't put restraints on me. One time he came to me and asked me to do some of the soneos that I used in the record, and then go do my own ones. So we could make a happy medium with people. I reluctantly agreed.
JIC: What feedback do you get from Colombians, because they really like the live performances to be like the records?
CE: Yeah. I didn't go to Colombia until the '90s and I didn't know that. I had a lot of difficulty when I got there. They even don't dance to the tunes they don't know. Imagine that? So I've got to work with that. I got to the point where I accept that, because Colombians are special to me. I do that for them. Imagine that? Me? (Laughter) You have to love something too much, or respect somebody too much to abandon your way of thinking and try to please this person. Colombians are that special to me. I tried to do that. I get bored sometimes when I sing to them. I try to explain to them, when I go on Colombian radio and stuff. I give them the lecture, because they respect me. OK, I'll do this for you, but you're wrong. (Laughter) You've got to understand this and this and this
"OK, OK, OK."
JIC: But sing it like on the record.
CE: Yeah, yeah. Sing it like on the record and that's it. (Laughter) You cannot impose your will every time.
JIC: We were asking whether you had any cross words with Bobby.
CE: One time in the '80s Bobby came to me and said: "I have this mentality to do baladas." He said: "What do you think?" I told him: "If we are going to do baladas, we've got to be good with them, because we are going to make money out of them."
T: Do you mean familiar songs, say, hits out of Mexico with salsa arrangements?
CE: Sure, making them in salsa, which was the '80s salsa. He told me he wanted to go into this because he was commercially minded. I told him: "Well, OK, that's easy. If you go that way, you're going to make a lot of money with it, but it's not good for the music."
T: But if a song is a good song, and Bobby is a genius arranger, why is that not good?
CE: The way that Bobby wanted to do it was the right way, but other people didn't do it that way. We made an example of that. We made "No Sera Facil," "Huellas" and "Fuera" (all from En Acción '84 on Bronco). Commercially that was an error for me. But my problem with Bobby was a contractual thing. I wasn't a commercially oriented person at that point and I didn't see a lot of the consequences. I did what I did and don't regret it. I don't regret anything I do.
JIC: How was the decision made to put your name to the fore on the last couple of albums you did with Bobby in the '80s (Presenta a el: Cano Estremera '82 and En Acción '84, both on Bronco)?
CE: Maybe he saw that the Bobby Valentín name was going into the shadow because I was gaining so much popularity. Either way, maybe he felt he was fading or he was trying to get more out of it. So he told me: "I want you to go away. I want to form an orchestra for you and keep making records for you and me." But I didn't like that!
T: Why? Surely that's good?
CE: I felt comfortable being a singer. I thought I had everything figured out at the time. My mentality was: I don't need this. I'm a singer. I'm single. I'm traveling all over the world with the band I want to play with. I'm getting very good money out of it. I didn't want the strains of being a solo singer at that time of my life, because I had a good life.
JIC: You didn't want to be a leader?
CE: Not because I couldn't, but because I knew that that's not the way I would make myself happy. What you want to get in life is not to get much, but is to get happy with what you've got. This was always my mentality. I told him: "I don't want to go there. I'm happy the way I am. I've got all the things that I want. And if I get into that, I'm not going to be happy." Because I am a very analytical person and a perfectionist. And that's not good for business. So I was clear as water at that point in time, and I still think the same. But I had to do it because I had a fight with Bobby one time about musicians. Business wasn't going that good at the time. He tried to make us take less money to keep going. I told him: "You've got to do something about the business, and about us. You've got to try and find another way to make business." Because that was the '80s, traditional salsa was going down. We got into a fight. After the fight, he told me: "If you wanna go, go." Being the person I am, I said: "OK, I wanna go." I went, but he retained the rights to the records. He wanted to keep them. Then, because of the power they have with the radio in the salsa thing, they used their power to try to hold me down. And that was it.
T: Which record was it that he retained the rights to?
CE: I took him to court, and we won the case, and they gave me a release. But at that point in time, I wasn't in demand anymore, because it was the '80s.
JIC: Do you mean a release from your contract rather than the rights to your recordings?
CE: Yeah, I had one album left.
JIC: You still had an album to make with him?
CE: Yeah, and he wanted that album badly. And I didn't want to do it.
T: And you went to court?
CE: And they gave me the release, but Bobby had a lot of power at that moment so they went to the radio and stuff.
T: So the manner of your breaking with Bobby Valentín did not help your solo career?
CE: No. I think that because I broke with Bobby Valentín, they ruined my recording career. I had like five or six years without making a record.
JIC: En Acción came out in '84, and then your first album El Niño de Oro came out in '86. So you had two years when you didn't record.
CE: Yes, but they didn't let them play this album.
JIC: El Niño de Oro?
CE: Yeah, El Niño de Oro. Then my next album was in '88 (Salvaje! 88 on CEG Records).
JIC: So you're saying that the radio stations suppressed El Niño de Oro?
CE: Yes, because they had a lot of power at that time.
T: A released album that you couldn't do anything with?
CE: Yeah, they didn't play it.
T: What about working?
CE: No, no, they didn't give me any work in Puerto Rico. And that's another problem in Puerto Rico. If you don't agree with the mentality of the business that they want to impose, you're an outlaw. And that's what I am.
JIC: So you're saying that Bobby Valentín is an influential figure who was able to influence the promoters and radio stations not to play your music?
CE: And not to give you gigs and stuff.
JIC: Are you OK with all this being published?
CE: Oh yeah, no problem. This is something everybody knows that I openly talk about.
JIC: The fact that this is going to be on a major English language website will make this wider knowledge.
CE: No, that's what I want. I want everybody to know why I am what I am.
JIC: How did you go about the business of preparing for your first solo album and organising a band?
CE: It was so erratic, because I didn't know anything about the business. So I had to learn. Nobody wanted to sign me until I got to Combo Records, but Combo did not put too much effort into pushing the albums.
JIC: But don't jump the gun, because your first album, Salvaje! 88, on your own CEG label was a number one on the Billboard chart!
CE: I did Salvaje! 88, and I did Dueño del Soneo Vol. 1 and Dueño del Soneo Vol. 2 (1989 and 1990 on CEG).
JIC: But Salvaje! 88 was a big, big hit!
CE: Yeah, that was good, but not that good in Puerto Rico. That was my problem. Bobby Valentín's company was so little and so limited in distribution, that I didn't make much of my career in the international scene. That's why I couldn't get out of Puerto Rico and send them to hell, and work in the world.
T: I can understand that in Puerto Rico you can be blackballed, but as John says, Salvaje! 88 was number one in the Billboard chart. Why couldn't you work outside Puerto Rico?
CE: At that point, nobody wanted to do it. You've got to remember that Puerto Rico works internationally. Puerto Rico works through New York, and they have got a lot of power in New York too. The promoters in New York have the same mentality as the promoters in Puerto Rico, because promoters in Puerto Rico learnt from those in New York. The record companies in New York and Miami are the same thing. What they don't figure is that there is a Colombia, there's a Venezuela, there's a Panama, and there's a Europe and there are the colonies in Europe and the United States from those places, too.
JIC: But from our perspective, as John says, he's looking at the Billboard chart, he says: "Wow, Cano Estremera is back. He's got a number one record."
CE: That's the way it's supposed to be, but I wasn't working and the record wasn't being played much.
JIC: In Puerto Rico?
CE: Yeah, they have a monopoly over there. And that's something I'm fighting. I've done interviews for television in Puerto Rico and I'm creating a war over there, because I went public with this. I tell it as I see it. In Puerto Rico they have a system that if you don't work for these people, you don't work.
T: Did you never heal your rift with Bobby Valentín?
JIC: He went back to work with Bobby.
CE: We did a concert one time (Encuentro Histórico '98 on Bronco, recorded August 22 1997), and we're in the process of doing another one. But for me, it's not about healing; it's about business. You know what? When he tried to damage me, he released me. At that point in time I had something to thank him for, because he took me and made me a star. But once he tried to destroy me, I felt relieved because I became myself and I didn't owe anything to nobody. Because he made me and he took me down.
JIC: He defined you as an individual?
CE: Yeah. At that point I said: "OK, you tried to finish my career, maybe you succeeded. But now I'm for myself." For me it's a business thing. If it's the right money to play with Bobby Valentín, I'll play with him. If it's not, I won't. If I see that Bobby has too much advantage, I'm not going for it. It's a business decision, strictly business.
T: Was it good to do musically? Did you enjoy it?
CE: No. I didn't enjoy it. I will enjoy making a new album with him. To try to make something different.
The people that work in salsa are hurting salsa. They hurt the music and just want to get money out of it. I believe in my music and I believe in what I'm doing. I don't care about the money I make out of it or don't make out of it, for me it's making a living. I perceive people like Victor Manuelle and Gilberto Santa Rosa as "musical-lite." They wanna push people out of the way to go where they wanna go, like cry at Celia's funeral or get into soap operas to make themselves bigger. There's one person in this genre that knows what he's doing. I want to try to make a revolution in Puerto Rico about music. There are no guts in salsa, and they don't have the guts.
T: Are you saying that Gilberto Santa Rosa and Victor Manuelle have sold out completely?
CE: They have all sold out. They are not thinking about music any more, and they hate me because I say so. Those guys, even with the power of money they have got behind them, they are not better than the ones who are not working right now in Puerto Rico. I want to make this point clear, because I don't want them to pollute Latin America, Colombia, Panama and Europe. If it takes my career to get that message across to future generations, so be it.
T: Whether people agree or disagree with you, what speaks for itself are the records you make.
CE: Technically there's nothing else I can do to convince people that I really know about the music. I'm years ahead of what they are doing now.
JIC: But there's much more to you than your technical capability. Do you agree that you have a much greater impact than that?
CE: Yes. I know I have virtuosity compared to other salsa singers. You shouldn't take virtuosity for granted, or use it to make yourself vain and puff yourself up. When you have virtuosity, you shouldn't think of it as a personal gift, but as the property of the people that you are guarding.
T: Getting back to your albums, for example the Dueño del Soneo albums. How did you make the decisions about songs and arrangers? I'm interested in the fact that you used the old time arranger Tito Valentín.
CE: Tito Valentín is the closest thing to Bobby Valentín that there is.
T: Not only by name. (Laughter)
CE: If you want to know the real qualities about somebody, you ask their main enemy or competitor. If you go to Bobby Valentín and ask him about Tito Valentín, he's going to tell you, maybe reluctantly: "Yeah, yeah, he's great." If it takes a person with a big ego to say that the other person is good, it's because they have got to be better than them. I don't want to be disrespectful to Bobby, but for me, he's the closest thing to Bobby Valentín. Tito Valentín is great. José Lugo is very good. Julio Alvarado as well.
T: What's the process?
CE: What I do is that I hear their arrangements for other people, and I say: "This guy has potential." And I go to him and I sit with him and tell him: "This is what I want to do." We put things together and do the project. If you check the records, all the people I started to use are working with other people now.
JIC: José Lugo now works for the devil in your eyes.
CE: Yeah, and Julito. The only one that they don't use is Tito Valentín. He is a free spirit too, and they don't want people like that in the business. He's even better than those other two people, and they know so. They better do something about Tito Valentín, because we're going to lose him in a few years because his health has not been very good.
The situation now is that I can do nothing about recording new music, because companies don't want to do new music, but they are doing remakes of old music. Do you know how I survive in this market? Because of piracy. They go to a place where you are playing and they record it. I try to curse in my songs to get my point across, and then maybe people will listen. I'm doing a fusion between reggaeton, rap and salsa. I try to keep myself busy. They record my presentations, and there's a black market.
JIC: You don't seem to be keen to talk about your records.
CE: I don't mind about records, but I mind about my point of view.
JIC: We want a balance.
CE: I want people to go ballistic, sending you an email saying that they hate me and whatever. I don't care. If you do a concert, half the people are going to hate you and half of the people are going to love you, but they are all going to pay the same price to see you. (Laughter)
T: Tell us about Ralph Cartagena and why you went to Combo Records?
CE: I went to Combo because there was nobody that wanted to sign me at that point. Let me tell you something: the heads of the record companies don't know a fucking thing about what they are doing.
JIC: That's true in most organisations.
CE: They have the Japanese over there, and they are just looking at numbers. The people they send to Puerto Rico and Latin America to scout are fucking up the companies. And they are seeing now because they're having problems. How can you believe that a talent like me goes unknown by all the big companies in the world?
T: Because they think that you are more trouble than you are worth.
CE: That's got to be the old world mentality, because in the United States they took Rubén Blades. And when he started to talk about El Salvador, Nicaragua and Grenada - you know what? They stuffed some money in his pocket and took him into the system to make him lose credibility. He bit the bait.
T: Did Ralphy say come to me, or did you say to him can I come to you?
CE: There was no alternative; I had to go somewhere. He was the only one willing to put up with Cano Estremera. He took me and made the worst of it.
JIC: Did you go to him or did he come to you?
CE: I think somebody went and
JIC: A mediator?
CE: Yeah, a mediator.
JIC: Did you already have an album, or did you start making the first album after signing the deal?
CE: I produced the first one Cambio de Sentido (1994 on Combo) and they produced the other ones. And I sold them Opera Ecuajey, Volume One (2002 on Combo), which was something I made for myself.
JIC: Just going back to the first two albums, Cambio de Sentido and Punto y Aparte (1996 on Combo), Mario Ortiz, someone we admire who died in November 1999, worked on those albums. Would you like to say something about Mario Ortiz?
CE: Mario Ortiz was a really special good person that our music didn't deserve. Mario was a gentleman and a great musician. He had perfect pitch. He was extraordinary and great to work with. Mario Ortiz was the nicest person I've ever met in this stupid business. I was so fucking sorry that he went away, because if we had a person like Mario we would be better than we are now. Mario was an extraordinary person, I wish you had met him. All the people that you can ask will tell you the same. Although he was a great musician, he was a better person. Mario was in the same class as me. We don't care about fame. We know fame because fame comes with good work and we accept the responsibility because we know how to handle it.
T: He did some fantastic albums, Vamos A Gozar and Ritmo y Sabor (respectively 1984 and 1985 on Ralph Cartagena's Rico Records), with Primi Cruz and Anthony Cruz. But then he went commercial. He went salsa monga.
CE: Everybody had to go there, because you could not make a penny out of traditional salsa at that point. History will condemn that, but we can do nothing about that. We can go there and say Cano Estremera was doing salsa monga, and you can try and hold that against me. But you've got a living to earn. We didn't do it because we believed in it. We didn't do it to become rich; we did it in order to survive. It was like prostitution. You can go into prostitution because you want to be rich or because you've got to eat every day.
T: Your albums are modern and radio friendly, and friendly to women who buy records. But they are sophisticated in the tradition of the Bobby Valentín arrangements and big band sound. They are salsa without prostituting itself. How did you manage to do this?
CE: That was my concept.
T: All the albums were your concept?
JIC: How much control did you have over your first three Combo albums?
CE: Very much. They wanted to use different arrangements. They thought the reason they weren't selling that many albums was because of my mentality. They didn't accept that they weren't putting enough money into it. Ralphy thinks that he's good because he has the (Gran) Combo. He doesn't sell the Combo; people buy the Combo.
JIC: Your third album with Combo, Diferente (1999), was a real digression where you were taking on a Sergio George type of sound.
CE: That was the company. On the ones I did with Mario Ortiz, he was the musical producer and I was concept producer. But they like to put their names to everything.
T: They are clearly your albums.
CE: But they said they did not sound the way they were supposed to, and we were going to try something else with Diferente.
JIC: It was a great album.
CE: It wasn't that bad.
JIC: It was you doing a better job than Victor Manuelle. (Laughter)
CE: To go that way, you've got to put a lot of money into it.
JIC: You did a good job but they didn't push it.
CE: No, they didn't push it.
T: You've said in the past that you can do 200, 250 soneos from one tune.
CE: Some songs are not conducive to that.
T: You've spoken about the laziness of soneros that repeat soneos.
CE: Those are not soneros; they are pregoneros. That's why the concert I promoted myself at the Anfiteatro Tito Puente was titled "The Last Sonero."
T: Do you get the opportunity to improvise your soneos on tour with pick-up bands?
CE: Yeah, I gotta do it. One of the reasons that I didn't go on the road until a few years ago was that I had to adapt to playing with other bands. It's hard to adapt to playing with other bands. It's hard for me sometimes because the music is not the way it's supposed to be. It was difficult for me to get out of Puerto Rico for many years and not play with my band or not play with more acceptable bands. Not that I want to talk bad about musicians in other places, but because of commercial considerations, promoters pick the cheap ones, or good musicians aren't available. I've got to make a living so I've got to go out there and adapt myself, but it was very difficult for me to go on the road and try to play with anybody. I used to be the worst one playing, because I learned with a lot of people that played very well. I get my notions from very good musicians. I used to be the bad one that they told: "Hey, you, you're doing this wrong." They pushed me because they knew more than me. But when I've got to take command of what's happening, I try to make the best of it. But I feel that I'm not learning from them and am going in circles.
JIC: You seemed to imply that you're quite proud of Opera Ecuajey, Volume One.
CE: I tried to make that for myself. I owed Cartagena one album and I wanted to get out of there. That seems the story of my life. (Laughter) I gave him that one so I could get out of there.
JIC: It's an interesting album in that there are only seven musical tracks.
CE: I don't believe in putting too many compositions into an album, because I think you lose most of them.
JIC: We're not suggesting that you're cheating us, but the rest is made up of a spoken narrative between the tracks by Mr. Salsa.
CE: He's a traditional deejay in Puerto Rico from old times called Elliot Pizarro. He wasn't doing that well. A lot of deejays from the day said to me: "I wanna do it, I wanna do it." But I wanted to use this guy because a lot of people from that time remember him. He has this style that not everybody likes. I was going to use the voice of Ismael Rivera, because I have a recording of an Ismael Rivera interview. I wanted to put pieces of this recording between the songs. But because of the family, the rights and stuff, I couldn't get an agreement. So we had to go for an alternative way, and I figured: "Let's use this guy."
T: Why do it anyway? What's the point in it?
CE: The point is that he's telling a story. What he's talking about is the same thing as in the interview. I modified it so he could speak it in first person, speaking directly to you. What he's saying is the same thing that Ismael said in the interview. So it was his ideas. It's like he was on radio and he's presenting the tunes.
T: Are you working in Puerto Rico now?
CE: Not much, mainly by my own doing. I'm working in Colombia and the States.
T: What songs do you have to sing in Colombia?
CE: I do "Viernes Social" (from El Niño de Oro), which was a hit over there, "Pero Me Hiciste Tuyo" (from Dueño del Soneo Vol. 1) and "Amame En Camara Lenta" (from Salvaje! 88). And they are making new hits out of old ones over there, so I've got 15 or 20 tunes to play. We're doing good. Don't worry, I am making a living. A lot of people say I'm frustrated because I'm not doing well economically, but that's not the case.
JIC: What's not the case? That you're not frustrated or you're not doing well economically? (Laughter)
CE: Maybe I'm frustrated. Frustration is not a bad thing, because it shows you're concerned about something. But it's the way you handle it. Good things in this world are made out of frustration.
JIC: You can't be a perfectionist without suffering frustration.
CE: Sure. (Laughter) I want people to know that I chose to be a sonero. That's why I feel so responsible, because for me, it's a serious business. It's my profession.
T: The quality of your work demonstrates this.
CE: I would like to do other things
T: He's not interested in compliments is he?
CE: No wait, a compliment is like a screw with a thread trying to bore inside something. I don't need that. I know what I am, and what I'm NOT.
T: The compliments come not out of just trying to want to worm your way in
CE: Maybe this would be a good way to begin the piece: "This is a man who would not accept compliments."
JIC: What title would you give it?
CE: You can use the name of the concert.
JIC: The Last Sonero.
CE: The Last Sonero. That's going to cause controversy enough, let me tell you.
Cano Estremera: Basic Discography (excluding compilations)
1978 Bobby Valentín- Bobby Valentín (aka La Boda de Ella) Bronco 107
1980 Bobby Valentín - Bobby Valentín Bronco 111
1980 Bobby Valentín - Bobby Valentín (aka El Gato) Bronco 114
1981 Bobby Valentín - Siempre En Forma Bronco 120
1982 Bobby Valentín - Presenta a el: Cano Estremera Bronco 124
1984 Cano Estremera with Bobby Valentín - En Acción Bronco 129
1986 Cano Estremera - El Niño de Oro PDC 8601
1988 Cano Estremera - Salvaje! 88 CEG 001
1989 Cano Estremera - Dueño del Soneo Vol. 1 CEG 002
1990 Cano Estremera - Dueño del Soneo Vol. 2 CEG 004
1994 Cano Estremera - Cambio de Sentido Combo 2105
1996 Cano Estremera - Punto y Aparte Combo 2117
1998 Bobby Valentín & Cano Estremera - Encuentro Histórico Bronco 167
1999 Cano Estremera - Diferente Combo 2126
2000 Sonora Ponceña - 45 Aniversario Live BMG / Ariola 81167
2002 Papo Lucca - Festival De Boleros VI Music 564
2002 Cano Estremera - Opera Ecuajey Volume One Combo 2136
2003 Puerto Rican Masters - Los Maestros De La Salsa AJ Records
Many thanks to Leoncio Caicedo of Bilongo Latin Music / Ola Latina
© Descarga.com and John Child, producer and co-host of the the totallyradio show Aracataca , contributor to the Descarga.com Latin music website and
MusicWeb Encyclopedia of Popular Music, and Penguin and Guinness Encyclopedias of Popular Music