The Descarga Journal • September 18, 2007
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We Will Never Return To The Horse And Buggy
A conversation with John Child
Keyboardist, arranger, composer, producer and musical director Sergio George was born on May 23, 1961. The son of Puerto Rican parents, Sergio George, from Nagüabo, and Maria Velázquez, from Carolina, he grew up in the housing projects of East Harlem listening to black R&B and the "raw street New York salsa sound." His successful fusion of these influences into a creative and evolving modern salsa sound has played a key role in shaping popular Latin music over the past 20 years. He started playing piano at age nine and studied at the City College of New York (CCNY) and New York Conservatory Of Music. His tutors included the jazz luminaries John Lewis and Ron Carter.
He joined Conjunto Caché in the late '70s and worked on their albums Por Primera Vez (Criollo, 1979) Rosa Records Presents Conjunto Caché (1983) and La Buena Vida (Caimán, 1987). Meanwhile he gigged with Tito Puente in 1980 and wrote arrangements and toured Europe with Machito. Between 1979 and 1989 he sessioned on New York Latin dates by the likes of Conjunto Clásico, Román y su Conjunto Nabori, Monguito, Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros, Los Mangual, Grupo Baruc, Salsa Ritmo Caliente and José Bello. In 1987 and 1988 he was a member of Grupo Star in Colombia. Upon his return to the Big Apple, Clásico's former lead vocalist Tito Nieves persuaded arch-promoter Ralph Mercado to hire Sergio to complete the production of his solo debut album The Classic (1988) for Mercado's new RMM label. The Classic spawned the hit "Sonambulo" and Sergio went on to became RMM's principal producer, musical director and arranger until 1994, working on albums by many of the label's leading names including Cheo Feliciano, José Alberto, Orquesta de la Luz, Tito Puente, Marc Anthony, La India, Celia Cruz, as well as the all-star Familia RMM. He continued to work on outside dates such as Néstor Sánchez's Como Nunca (Sonador Records, 1990), Sarabanda's A Golpe De Marea (Kañaveral Records, 1991), the first two volumes in the notable Africando African salsa series and Mauricio Smith's Latin jazz set Madera (Wenmar Records, 1996).
He founded his own production company, Sir George Entertainment, Inc., and studio, Sir Sound Recording. The first release was the super hip major hit Victor Manuelle (Sony Tropical, 1996), the third solo album by the highly regarded young sonero. The initial release on his own Sir George label (distributed by Sony) was the Grammy nominated DLG (Dark Latin Groove) (1996), a masterfully seamless fusion of salsa, hip-hop and ragga.
Having consolidated his position as one of the most sought-after producer / songwriters in the mainstream Latin music industry, the multiple Grammy Award winning Sergio went on to work on productions by Nora (ex-Orquesta de la Luz), Frankie Negrón, Servando y Florentino, Yolandita Monge, Lisette Meléndez, Charlie Cardona, Charlie Cruz, Huey Dunbar, Tito Nieves, Bacilos, Celia Cruz, La India, Marlon, Andy Montañez and Isaac Delgado, among others.
In early 2004, Sergio and prominent Latin recording executive George Zamora created SGZ Entertainment in Miami, Florida, focusing on urban artists. SGZ is now partly owned by Univision Records. Starting in August 2006, SGZ Entertainment became part of Univision's sub-label La Calle Records.
John Ian Child (JIC): Tell me about your upbringing in El Barrio, musical influences and education?
Sergio George (SG): The best school I probably could've had was El Barrio. It had its simplicity and beauty but at the same time the obvious dark and negative side. I guess it well prepared me for the music business! The musical influences at the time were the street sound that connected with the black and Latino youth: soul music and "salsa" music. Most kids liked black music, no different than today, but a few of us were comfortable being fans of both at the same time. My personal favorites were James Brown, Ohio Players, BT Express, Jackson 5 and anything that Fania Records put out.
JIC: Looking back on your early life, do you recognise the roots of the hip and commercially successful "Sergio sound" you started developing in the early 1990s?
SG: The roots absolutely were from that neighbourhood and that era. Later on other influences came into play, but to this day I'm still a fan of what I grew up with.
JIC: We will return to your signature sound later. Tell me about the early bands you worked with, particularly Conjunto Caché, which I understand you joined at the age of 17 and which made its debut on Martin Cohen's Criollo label?
JIC: You undoubtedly paid your dues on the New York típico and Latin jazz scene, working in a range of formats from the big bands of Tito Puente and Machito to the conjuntos of Conjunto Clásico and Monguito through to the Latin jazz sextet of Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros featuring Machito Jr. (Mario Grillo), Andy González and Mario Rivera. I know from our earlier conversations that you would especially like to speak about your albums with Conjunto Clásico, Monguito and Chocolate, so let's begin with Clásico's Felicitaciones (Lo Mejor, 1980)?
SG: My first major recording with a popular band. I actually played half of the record. Sonny Bravo played the other half, since he was the top session pianist and did their previous recording. The leaders of the band gave me an opportunity to record since I was in the band. At the time I probably thought it was my right to be on that recording, but later on I really appreciated what they did for me since they weren't obligated to use me. They gave me the chance and I'm very grateful for that.
JIC: Did you gig with Clásico? If so, please share your memories?
SG: I was in the band for 11 months and left. I was in my first year of college and I had a hard time showing up to school on time after finishing a gig at 5:00am. I chose school instead and quit the band.
JIC: Good boy. Moving next to Chocolate En Sexteto (Caimán, 1983), on which you played piano and wrote all the arrangements. You also appeared on his Rompiendo Hielo! (Caimán, 1984) and Chocolate y Amigos (recorded in the '80s, but not issued until 1995). Please share your reminiscences of these projects and gigging with Chocolate's sextet?
SG: I loved Choco and the recordings! It's a shame we never toured. I met Chocolate while we toured together with the Machito Orchestra in Europe. Again, Chocolate gave me an opportunity to write all of the arrangements for the recordings and it was a great challenge for me, since I didn't feel ready for such a challenge. But the great players on the sessions made it work for me.
JIC: Tell me about Yo Soy La Meta (Caimán), which you recorded in 1985 with Monguito, who sadly passed away on May 26th 2006?
SG: One of the funkiest, dirtiest (in a good way) records I've ever been involved with. If salsa had a black music, Monguito was it. Raw was an understatement. His passing is a big loss for Afro-Cuban music.
JIC: You say: "If salsa had a black music" in relation to Monguito's work. I know this is a minefield, but do you not regard salsa as essentially black?
SG: You're right John. I meant "black" as in its simplest, most raw form, just focusing on the Afro-Cuban percussive element with no regard to lyrics and message if you may. To say it simply, it was just "funky," unlike the filtration of romantic type songs, which had already begun around that time. It was similar to Africando in a way, but of course before that record was done. For example, there were no European classical music elements, which were prevalent in charanga. Even though most of the elements of salsa are essentially black (danceable), the focus on that recording was to keep it very raw. Hope this makes sense?
JIC: Eminently. Did you gig with Monguito? If so, please share your recollections?
SG: I did no gigs with Monguito, just that one record.
JIC: It's documented that you spent time in Colombia working with Aroldo Molina Molinares' band Grupo Star during 1987 and 1988. You certainly played piano on Grupo Star's first New York recorded album (Grupo Star de Colombia '87 on Combo; directed and arranged by Alberto Barros) and worked on recordings by the Colombian bands Grupo Niche (Cielo De Tambores '90 on Sony) and Grupo Caneo (Para Amarnos Más '90 on Codiscos and Grupo Caneo '92 on RMM). Tell me more about the Colombian dimension to your career at that stage?
SG: Living in Colombia made me a record producer. Ironically, I was hired to just play the piano and nothing else. Alberto Barros was the arranger and bandleader. The experience of living there taught me the "art" of appealing to the masses. I went there on this whole "jazz head" when I played in gigs or recordings. They thought I was someone from Mars or something since I was trying to get people to see things from my musical perspective, but life doesn't quite work out that way. I had to adjust to them and their taste in music. I guess not wanting to be an outcast and wanting to fit in to the culture, I adjusted to their taste in music. Later on when I left the country, unbeknownst to me, all of those musical influences from Colombia stuck with me and for that I am eternally grateful to that country and those people in that beautiful city which is Medellín.
JIC: Talking of the Colombian connection, in 1988 you shared lead vocals with Ray Pérez, played keyboards, arranged and produced Reencuentro (Buho Records) by Grupo Baruc de Carlos Paz, recorded in New York. This appears to be your first entire record production. Please share your memories of this project?
JIC: How did you land the job as RMM's principal producer, arranger and musical director?
SG: Tito Nieves called me to be an arranger on his first record as a soloist. Ralph Mercado just started his label RMM, and I believe Tito was the third artist signed after Fernando Villalona's brother and José Alberto "El Canario." The late Louie Ramírez was the producer for Tito's recording but during the middle of the recording process and before one of the sessions, Louie Ramírez quit the recording, to this day I've never known why. There was no one else at the studio to direct the sessions, so Tito and Henry Montalvo, who was working for RMM, asked me to finish that night's session. The next day I was hired to finish the record against Ralph's wishes since I truly was inexperienced and he didn't know me and wanted someone with more experience to finish. Tito built a good argument for me and he won out. The record had a song called "Sonambulo" which became a hit and thus my producing career was born. Suffice to say, Tito Nieves and I are very close friends to this day. After that hit I became Ralph's music guy even though there never was a title or contract or anything of the sort. He just kept hiring me over and over and records just kept selling, artists were getting larger and larger, and everything grew bigger than any of us expected. RMM was born.
JIC: You worked on a number of RMM's productions between 1988 and 1994, but your milestone recordings of this period arguably include Tito Nieves' English language salsa hit "I'll Always Love You" (from Yo Quiero Cantar '89), Marc Anthony's first salsa record Otra Nota (1993 on RMM's Soho Latino label), Familia RMM's Combinación Perfecta (1993) and La India's Dicen Que Soy (Soho Latino, 1994). I would like you to provide some insights into each of these projects? Let's start with Tito's Yo Quiero Cantar and "I'll Always Love You," which became the first English lyrics salsa song to top the Puerto Rican charts.
SG: Tito was easy to produce since we both came from the same "school" and English was also his first language. Therefore doing English salsa music came very easy and natural to him. Taylor Dayne originally sang the song "I'll Always Love You" and we did a cover of the song with a salsa arrangement. All of my influences from El Barrio soul music to Colombia are probably evident in that recording and everything I did during that era. The song worked out for us even though it wasn't released as a single until the late Frankie Crocker, a very popular radio deejay, started playing the song on his own and pretty much made it a hit song. The song had a domino effect and thus comes Marc Anthony.
I knew Marc from the neighbourhood but he was singing in English at that time. The success of Tito made salsa music hip for the young artists and kids of that generation, and India and Marc were the pioneers of that movement. I worked with Marc on Otra Nota, which put contemporary salsa on the map, including Marc and myself. No one sang salsa music like that before, with a combination of pop music interpretation, vocal agility and swing. Marc was finding his way with the clave patterns at the time, but it didn't matter since his interpretative skills and sense of timing were extraordinary. I somewhat took care of the clave situation and just focused on his strength to interpret anything and make it vocally sound great. Much of what we did musically was "wrong" as far as the traditionalists were concerned, but these are the little things that would grab people's attention since everything at that time was so "correct" and repetitive. When people heard what Marc and I had done it totally stood out from the rest. At this point my focus was totally on the average listener who wasn't a musician, and NOT the musician. We were heavily criticised for this recording by the so-called "establishment," but all they did was bring us attention. Goal achieved!
Combinación Perfecta was an idea Ralph Mercado had to unite all of his artists, which I thought was brilliant on his part. We sat down and made a wish list of whom we would like to see paired together in duets, and thus this recording was born. All recorded live at Electric Lady studios in New York, except for "Vivir Lo Nuestro," which was done in a conventional recording session. We didn't want to put Marc and India in a situation we weren't sure they would thrive in, so I thought it was best to record that song in a non-live format. Plus the arrangement wasn't done in time for the session anyway! They could've done the job live but I erred on the side of caution just in case. That song commercially saved that record, ironically the song that went against the original live concept. In my opinion: the best salsa duet ever done to this day. And one of my simplest arrangements aided by two amazing vocalists, who brought it all to life.
With India's Dicen Que Soy, it was one of my most satisfying records and challenging at the same time. She had just done a recording with Eddie Palmieri, which was critically loved but commercially panned, for her supposed screaming vocals. Which I never thought were bad at all, but combined with Eddie Palmieri's very aggressive music it gives the impression that she's screaming. She had to in order to be heard! I did not change a thing vocally since this is who she is, but just picked better songs that women can relate to, since they're doing the bulk of the buying. Musically I put her in a position to succeed by smoothing out the music, which in turn made her sound soulful even though she's still belting out the songs. But honestly she makes MY tracks sound better and not the other way around, as with all of the great singers I've been blessed to work with. Without them I wouldn't be doing this interview.
JIC: You said in passing that women do the bulk of record buying. Please could you elaborate about this?
SG: Women definitely buy records more than men. Women tend to focus more on the lyrics than men do and love to sing along to records. This is a fact when we are talking of any popular music form. This was confirmed when salsa erotica, if you may, was born. As much as the hardcore salsero hates it, the reason why it continues to be a force is because of the female population that buys these records. They want to be romanced either by the artist, or by the message of the song that they can apply to their own personal situation. This is also true in nightclubs, since women are the ones who go out to see an artist, even if clubs let them in for free, knowing that men will pay because they want to meet women. John, in my case, absolutely most of my fans are men, because of the music element. The women don't really care about this as much as they tend to care only about the singer. But, whenever Marc Anthony says "ataca Sergio" on these records, the women take an interest because Marc sort of "endorsed me," if you will. It's the same with female singers. Women do not buy other female artists as much unless they sing songs that they can dedicate to a man. Generally these are songs of "revenge" for getting dumped by a man, or "you're not good enough for me, so forth, so forth." That is why it is rare when a female love song hits with a female audience, unless they already like this particular artist. Hope this explains my comment?
JIC: Definitely. When I co-interviewed your then regular bassist, Rubén Rodríguez, in 2003, he said Marc's platinum disc winning Otra Nota: "kind of revolutionised the whole salsa scene." Adding that your trademark sound "started really coming together with the Tito Nieves records The thing about the Marc Anthony record is that it's just the whole was greater than its parts, the whole idea and style. It was criticised as occasionally going against the clave by the clave police. But rules are sometimes there to be broken. Sergio did his homework, and everything was intentional. Those are not mistakes. From then on, the music scene changed." I would love to hear your viewpoint?
SG: As Rubén said, we set out to be different since we had the vocalist who had the credibility to sell these ideas. Since Marc was new to the scene, there were no preconceived judgments by the audience. Combine this with his talent; it was a no-brainer to go another route other than the traditional one. I didn't want to be different just for the sake of it, but there were many ideas in our collective heads (including all the other session players), which called for some interesting ideas. A lot of songs had no intros, songs that ended with just background vocals, songs that had no soneos at all and songs which had Marc just wail over the track as if he were singing house music or a pop ballad. These things were done in other types of music consistently, but in salsa people at the time either didn't try, didn't want to or care to or just didn't succeed at it. We got lucky, I guess. But there was a precedent for all of this, since Willie Colón was a great innovator who paved the way for us in his many previous great recordings.
JIC: Illustrated by Otra Nota, Rubén told us that you did not write down some of the charts in the traditional sense, but used a freer impromptu approach in the studio. Please tell me about the techniques you were developing to produce albums?
SG: Of course I learned the correct way of writing scores to arrangements, but this became too limiting for the process. I had at my disposal too many great musicians in the recordings for me to not try this method. They ALL had great ideas to contribute, including the artists themselves, which then left me to be more of an organiser instead of just an arranger. It was and is more fun to this day since it makes the musicians part of the process instead of just showing up and playing their arrangement and going home. Generally I show up with a blueprint of what we SHOULD do, and the universe takes over from there. Whoever doesn't want to contribute does not have to since they are not obligated to, but their ideas, if they have any, will not be ignored. Also, with the demands on my time and having to meet schedules for recording releases, there simply was no time to sit at home and write arrangements. The business was changing and that forced me to adjust to those changes. If I continued doing things the same way I was doing them for years, then I would have simply been one of the bunch just writing charts. Not to criticise those who do this, but it just simply got very boring to do this for me personally.
JIC: Although I've highlighted Otra Nota so far, you pointed out in our pre-interview discussion that you would like to talk about Marc's Grammy nominated triple platinum chart-topping follow-up Todo A Su Tiempo (Soho Latino, 1995), which you co-produced and largely arranged. I'm all ears?
SG: That record was a great example of the cooperation between the session players and Marc. The percussion session with Marc Quinoñes, Bobby Allende and Luis Quintero really made that record happen, rhythmically speaking. I could not have created the large bulk of those breaks myself, but they were given the freedom to create. Marc Anthony and Rubén on bass had great ideas themselves and my role really was just to organise it all. Without these creative, incredible players, without Omar Alfano's great songs, and without a great vocalist, that recording was impossible to make. In no way can I take full credit for this or any of my hit records.
JIC: Undoubtedly, Marc's success and heart-throb status helped wean a new generation onto salsa, albeit the soft romantic variety, making it hip for young Latino hip-hop/dance music fans to listen to him as well as other young, mainly Puerto Rico and Miami-based, salsa romántica stars like Jerry Rivera and Rey Ruiz. Twelve years down the line, I would be interested to hear your observations about the part you played in these market changes?
JIC: And of course, as you've already pointed out, Marc was paired with La India on the monster hit "Vivir Lo Nuestro" from 1993's Combinación Perfecta.
SG: Perfect pairing musically, though they never faced each other in the recording studio. It was all done separately since they were both busy and personally they were never the best of friends to begin with, which made it difficult for them to tolerate each other in a studio environment. I don't think this is a secret that I'm telling, I would never do that, but I think it's pretty well documented at this point. As far as the song is concerned, I picked the song since I remember playing it as a keyboard player in a club in Queens, New York, backing up its original singer, Basilio, and recalled that I thought the song was beautiful and had a great hook that I remembered all of those years later. I held the song in my memory bank until the right situation presented itself, and I thought Marc and India could've been the right situation. I guessed right, even though I'll tell you that I'm probably more wrong than right!
JIC: Let's return to India's tropical funk tinged Soho Latino follow-up Dicen Que Soy, which went platinum in the US seven weeks after its release. You said in a 1997 interview that you were particularly passionate at the time about the Marc, Combinación Perfecta and India albums. Can you give some further insights into the Dicen Que Soy project?
SG: Marc and India were so fresh to the business how can I not be passionate about these artists? India was so heavily criticised for her Eddie Palmieri record commercially that I took it as a personal challenge that I could make it happen, since her vocal talent is extraordinary. I needed to get women on her side (to buy her record of course), so with India's permission, I proceeded to go the man-bashing route. I looked for cover songs from all the classic female ballad stars such as Rocio Jurado, Rocio Durcal and Lupita D'Alessio that had that focus. India, a young lady named Shirley Marte and myself wrote a few love songs in case my ideas were to blow up in my face. I needed a backup to the bashing songs, therefore the cover of George Benson's "I Just Wanna Hang Around You" and our own love songs came into play. I tried to get India to not change one single thing from how she sings. Since house music at the time was her forte, I had her sing house style vocal riffs over the salsa tracks, even over where horn lines would normally go. Instead of hearing a horn "mambo" as usual, I gave you India doing her thing, which gave her an identity and sound that no one else had. Whenever you heard this going on in a song, you knew it was India and this is what makes a successful artist, personal identity that the average person can identify. To conclude, this labourious project took four months and many arguments between us to finish. What's interesting is that we worked on a record together two years ago (Soy Diferente '06 on Univision), and we were still arguing! Go figure. I guess that must be the trick. PS: The arguments were because she wasn't sure any of my crazy ideas would work. Neither was I.
JIC: There are two further RMM productions you chose to talk about. Firstly, Orquesta De La Luz's US debut Salsa Caliente del Japón / Hot Salsa From Japan, which was released to coincide with their return to New York in the summer of 1990, which included an appearance at the first part of the 15th annual New York Salsa Festival. The album topped the Billboard tropical/salsa chart, reached number 1 in Puerto Rico and Colombia, and went platinum. You co-produced the album as well as the band's 1991 follow-up Sin Fronteras. Please tell me more?
SG: Orchestra De La Luz came to me through RMM. Their booking manager Richie Bonilla booked dates for them without a record throughout the US in 1988. One of those shows was at the Palladium in New York, which is where I saw them play live, and also where Ralph Mercado saw them play. We were impressed with their stage show and the sound of the band and Nora the lead vocalist, even though they played mostly cover songs from the Fania era musicians. The crowd loved them and saw them as somewhat of a "freak show," respectfully speaking, since they were definitely different but also had the credibility of playing this music very well. RMM decided to sign the band and asked me to produce the album, which I was very glad to do, since it was going to be a great challenge for me to work with an entire band opposed to just a vocalist. The record was supposed to be recorded in New York but it was cost prohibitive to do so. RMM simply did not want to fly an entire band from Japan to New York, and the studio costs in Japan were extremely high to record there also, therefore a second company got involved in the process to help cover the costs, which was BMG Japan. It was too much of a financial risk for RMM to take since no one knew if this was going to work as far as record sales.
When we started to produce the record in Japan there was a slight communication gap, they spoke no English or Spanish, other than Nora, and I spoke no Japanese. We had an interpreter in the studio in order to relay messages to each other, which was a first for me and them I'm sure. Songs were picked to preserve the integrity of the group but also some songs were picked that reflected the radio scene at that time, which were a mixture of love ballads and the hard driving salsa that the band was about. Nora didn't know Spanish very well and basically learned the songs phonetically, which made my job a bit tougher since my Spanish wasn't the greatest either. The band recorded every note on that record including all the coros themselves to the disbelief of many people, who thought that I recorded it in New York with session musicians and then gave the De La Luz musicians the credit. The recording process took a month in Japan to do and the success was totally unexpected by all of us, band and label included.
JIC: Secondly, you wanted to comment about Tito Puente's Grammy nominated The Mambo King: 100th LP (RMM, 1991), an all-star big band affair you produced and for which you wrote three charts: "Hay Que Trabajar," sung by Oscar D'León, "Nuestro Amor," sung by Tito Nieves, and "El Bribon Del Aguacero" sung by Ismael Miranda.
JIC: You played piano on the first two African salsa projects by Africando, Vol. 1 - Trovador (1993) and Vol. 2 - Tierra Tradicional (1994), both released on Stern's, directed and arranged by Mali's Boncana Maïga, an early pioneer of the tradition of Africans journeying to New York to record with Latin musicians. Please share your recollections of these notable productions?
SG: My fingers hurt is what I most remember! We recorded two albums live in two days, a grand total of 18 songs or about. That recording had one song become a big club hit, the name I can't pronounce, and the song took off about two years or so after the record was done. Boncana was the principal arranger, a very nice and talented musician.
JIC: I believe it was "Yay Boy" from Tierra Tradicional. Tell me about the circumstances behind your decision to leave RMM and branch out on your own with Sir George Entertainment, Inc. and Sir Sound Recording ventures?
SG: All that I will say to that is that it was time to move on; water under the bridge.
JIC: Did forming Sir George Entertainment represent a change of musical policy on your part?
SG: My musical policy was SURVIVAL. I had no idea how things were going to work out after leaving my security blanket. I had to create new artists with a new team of people that I wasn't as familiar with, and vice versa. I basically continued what I was doing at RMM all along, which was trying to innovate and grow musically, but this time I wasn't sure how it was all going to be promoted since RMM had built a great promotion machine for this music.
JIC: What inspired you to take on the young sonero Victor Manuelle's third album Victor Manuelle (Sony Tropical, 1996) as the inaugural Sir George Entertainment release?
SG: George Zamora, who later became my partner, was running Sony Discos and asked me, as part of my production deal with them, if I would be interested in producing a young man named Victor Manuelle for them. I had heard of him and met him a couple of times and thought he was extremely talented and possibly the future as far as soneros go. It was his third record for the company that I was hired to produce, the first two had moderate success, but I guess not enough for the company who were going to give him his artist release if this next record didn't sell. They're glad they didn't and so is the salsa industry.
JIC: The "Sergio sound" you stamped on Victor Manuelle (as well as the follow-up A Pesar De Todo '97 on Sony Tropical), which brings Cuban timba into the mix, basically set the stylistic compass for Victor's career up to the present day by breaking the traditional salsa mould characterised by Rubén Rodríguez as: "You do the intro, four coros, four soneos, mambo and then two or three soneos, and go out to the coda." Please share the concept and approach you adopted for this project?
SG: The concept was to "water down" Cuban timba for the masses with a little this and a little that. I tried to include some older salsa music and R&B flavour along with Puerto Rican bomba and plena elements, which cannot be ignored, since those are my roots and definitely Victor's roots. Musically I try to do things for the non-music fan who doesn't have the time or interest to analyse what I'm trying to do, but at the same time giving music fans something interesting to listen to and appreciate. It's a high wire balancing act that does not always work out like I planned. Therefore I keep things moving and interesting for the listener and catchy as well. Having ten coros and soneos in a row makes no sense for the modern day audience who tend to find that repetitive and boring. They simply do not have the knowledge of what our musical forefathers did before and probably don't care. They'll just as well do or listen to something else instead of sitting there listening to your song. I know this approach might sound too focused on commerciality, but there is a strong element of this in this business and whoever denies this either doesn't wish to go this route or is in denial, expecting things to revert to how they were years ago and it's just not going to happen.
JIC: I know it's a big ask, but how would you describe your signature sound and its ingredients to the layperson?
SG: My sound really is best defined by the people who like it. I'm sorry John but I don't consider myself as having a "sound." It all depends on the artist, the situation and the times we live in at the moment. But it definitely is a fusion of Cuban music as interpreted by me, with a little Nuyorican and a little South America and Europe. That just about covers most people, right?
JIC: Fair enough. You faced charges at the time that you were copying Cuban music. Ironically, bearing in mind you recently co-produced Isaac Delgado's post-defection album En Primera Plana (Univision/Universal, 2007), you cited a comment from Isaac in your defence: "We know your influence is a bit Cuban but you're adding something different and the Cubans are aware of it." With the benefit of hindsight, what would you like to add?
SG: I have many musical INFLUENCES, Cuban music being one of them. I highlight INFLUENCES and not copying since we all get inspiration from somewhere. That comment was made ten years ago and still stands today, Cubans in the know totally understand and respect what I'm trying to do. In the end I'm promoting Cuban music anyway. I choose to ignore negative commentaries since those people probably have their own agendas or self-created reasons.
JIC: Furthermore, not only were you accused of copying Cuban music, but your innovations also made waves with salsa traditionalists. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, what is your perspective on this?
SG: My attitude is society will never return to the horse and buggy as the primary source of transportation. Things move on, like it or not, whether it's done by me or someone else. I'm not saying that what I'm doing is better, but it is the natural progression or else it would not have worked.
JIC: The "Sergio sound" (there, I've said it again!) became dominant in the salsa-pop arena, not only as a result of your own activities, but also because other arrangers emulated your style. Grumbles emerged about the music sounding samey and formulaic. How do you answer these criticisms?
SG: It did become formulaic, including my own work, that's why I chose to become more selective than before. The pressure to produce a hit is intense sometimes and people do resort to copying someone else's style if they have to. Sometimes they're forced by the artist or the company in order to achieve immediate results. I simply cannot judge anyone on what they should or shouldn't do musically. Everyone has to live with their own decisions.
JIC: You have said elsewhere that you use a formula for the coros? Tell me more?
SG: If you call it a formula, but I just imagine myself as the audience singing along. I try to put myself in the head of the listener and what they are thinking and when, that's all. Just trying to make it memorable and to stick.
JIC: The initial release on your Sir George label was the Grammy nominated DLG (Dark Latin Groove) (1996), a groundbreaking fusion of salsa, hip-hop and ragga featuring 21-year-old singer Huey Dunbar (who sang chorus on La India's Dicen Que Soy and toured with her band) and rapper-toaster James "Da Barba" De Jesús (who performed on Tito Nieves' hit "You Bring Me Joy" from Rompecabeza / The Puzzle '93 on RMM). Arguably the DLG sound prefigured salsatón, the salsa community's response to the massive popularity of reggaetón, which you had a hand in developing, most notably on Andy Montañez's 2006 CD Salsatón / Salsa Con Reggaetón (Univision). What's your response to this statement?
SG: DLG was a sound created for what was needed at the time in salsa music. I could not make Huey Dunbar into the next Marc Anthony, since I very well knew there would never be another Marc Anthony like there would never be another you. Huey had his own identity and my job was to find it. Thus DLG was created around his strengths, which was to sing with a slight Jamaican feel since he is half-Jamaican, with a little hard edge high-pitched voice sound. Where soneos generally would go, in came James the rapper and Fragancia the other rapper. Why subject him to something that he wasn't good at? The fans made DLG since we really didn't know if it would catch on with the public. Later on the confidence of the group members grew with the initial success and they really contributed heavily to the project, which in turn really made that sound even stronger. Unfortunately that confidence became too strong where they felt they could continue on without each other, thus the members not being able to co-exist anymore. The group broke up after three records. A shame.
As far as salsatón is concerned, Daddy Yankee initiated that concept on a song with Andy Montañez called "Sabor A Melao" (from his CD Barrio Fino '04 on Universal). The Andy Montañez recording was a spin-off of that idea which Daddy Yankee proved could work. Andy's record was a little more salsa than what Daddy Yankee did and also did well with a guest appearance by Yankee on Andy's record.
JIC: Tell me how your approach to recording albums in the mid-'90s differed from the traditional way salsa recordings had been made?
SG: The main change will probably be in the arrangements on the spot method that I mentioned before. Other than that, records like DLG were done with musicians recording one by one with a computer sequencer, because the drum beats which were to be the primary focus were recorded beforehand on a computer. Many times arrangements were changed simultaneously on the computer as the musician was doing his part. If I or he (she) had a better idea, I would change it in the computer first, then continue recording with the musician. This is how we layered all of the instruments, and many times one player played all the percussion parts such as Marc Quinoñes with the first DLG record, or trombone or trumpet players layering multiple parts. The players never heard the singer or song itself, which made it probably like flying in the dark with no navigational instruments. We sometimes tried to avoid this by having a reference vocal done first, but this wasn't and still isn't mostly the case, as some of these vocalists simply aren't available to be present during the tracking session. I think this method, although not universally loved by purists, gives me more flexibility when trying to innovate. I get to work with a player one on one and focus on the individual parts that they are strong with and comfortable with, instead of generically expecting someone to play off of a chart. It's almost like producing the musician, which becomes more fun for all of us involved.
JIC: From where I sit on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, you epitomise the shift in creative focus in the Latin music industry from the artist to the producer, mirroring the development in other popular music genres. However, unlike some so-called producers, you are a trained and experienced musician. How do you react to these observations?
SG: John, my experience as a musician only helps me to communicate with other musicians and be able to change on the fly with different musical ideas, but believe it or not, I try to disconnect myself from being too good a musician at times. I can only speak for what I do, but I really have to try very hard to put my ears in the street from the audience point of view, and not the musician point of view sometimes. I really try to catch myself when things get a little complicated to understand, and I've done some records which I would take back because of this natural musical tendency to overdo it and subsequently overproduce.
JIC: Bearing in mind that you play such a key role in shaping the direction and content of the music you record, what particular strengths - and dare I say, weaknesses - do you think you bring to the process?
SG: As far as my weaknesses, I wish I had the time to practice my playing more. I'm not or have ever been a great soloist or player but play to my strengths, which is to accompany. When a challenging song that requires a great pianist is concerned, or a concept that I want to do that requires a different type of pianist, rest assured I will and have hired a great pianist to play instead of me. I'm not sure of my strengths in the studio yet. I guess you'd have to ask an artist that I've worked with, if they'll tell you.
JIC: Another album you selected to talk about is the multiple Grammy winning Caraluna (WeaRock, 2002) by Bacilos. Shamefully, I have to confess that Bacilos have hitherto slipped under my radar. Please bring me up to speed about the band and the album?
SG: That was a local Miami pop rock band that had a big local following in the club scene first. I did two songs on this record, which were important for me since I was never called to do anything other than salsa before that record. I credit the late Ellen Moraskie, head of Warner-Chappell Latin division, who signed the band and also believed I could do other things other than what I was known for. I co-wrote "Mi Primer Millón" with the group's vocalist Jorge Villamizar which became a hit song for them and me and won us a couple of Grammy awards.
JIC: Learning about your involvement with Bacilos raises the question: What stimulates your interest as a producer? And, presumably this doesn't have to be confined to salsa?
SG: I'm interested in interesting people that have a voice that should be heard by the masses. It does not matter what genre it is, as long as it deserves to be out there for the public to listen to. With salsa today, there really aren't that many interesting things to do, as some things are just an extension of what's been done already or something stuck in the past. I'm really not trying to offend anyone but this is just my opinion.
JIC: You requested to speak about Celia Cruz's last two albums, both of which you had a hand in producing. Firstly, 2002's La Negra Tiene Tumbao, which was co-produced in New Jersey by Johnny Pacheco, Isidro Infante and yourself. You produced six cuts including the outstanding title track featuring rapper Mikey Perfecto. The CD achieved the double of a Latin Grammy Award in 2002 and Grammy in 2003.
SG: What else can I say about Celia that hasn't justly been said by anyone that had been blessed to be part of her life. "La Negra Tiene Tumbao" was the last song to be included in the album. I was hired to do a straight ahead salsa album, but after hearing my tracks I thought something else was needed that was different from what I had already done. I was always into rap, so I asked Celia's permission to do something with rap in it. Celia, being the genius that she was, thought it was worth a shot if the song was right. I got together with a talented Venezuelan writer Fernando Osorio, and we played with words that rhymed with "Tumbao." He came up with "Y No Camina De Lao" and I came up with "La Negra Tiene Tumbao." I wasn't sure how Celia would take to being called "La Negra," and honestly was afraid to show her the song after we made the demo. I Fedex-ed the song to her without hearing any response for days. I thought for sure I was to be insulted when she saw me the next time. When she knocked on my door at my home in New Jersey where we recorded the record, the very first thing she said was, "'La Negra Tiene Tumbao'! Me encanta!" At that point I knew I was in business. The rapper Mikey Perfecto from Puerto Rico, who I met at a club in New York, was my second choice since my first choice didn't return my call. That rapper who shall remain nameless is probably kicking him (her) self today. They returned my call after Mikey had already done his part, which was exceptional, and I wasn't about to take him off of the song. That songs success was totally due to Celia herself since she had all of the power to say no to my idea. Without Celia that song would have gone nowhere. Once the video to the song was done, directed by Ernesto Fundora, a Cuban living in Mexico City, it really took the song to a whole other level. That song was the result of great teamwork by many great people and a record company believing in the song and promoting it.
JIC: Celia's Regalo Del Alma (Sony Discos, 2003) was recorded after she suffered a stroke in December 2002 and had been diagnosed with a brain tumour. You produced half of the 10 (plus bonus) tracks on the album, including the chart-topping single "Ríe y Llora" released prior to her death on July 16, 2003. She was posthumously awarded with a Grammy for the album in 2004. Please share your reminiscences of working on this, her final project?
SG: Still too difficult to talk about. Celia was a true champion and winner in every sense of the word. She couldn't remember her lines because of the tumour but continued on anyway. A class act that refused to be beaten, and cared deeply about her audience until the very end. She will never be repeated.
JIC: Tell me about George Zamora and the concept behind SGZ Entertainment you founded with him in 2004?
SG: George gave me my first opportunity when I left RMM when he ran Sony Discos. He wasn't sure what he was getting in me and knew it would get him in hot water since Sony distributed RMM at the time. That was probably the beginning of the end for the RMM and Sony relationship but in a weird way, the beginning of ours. No one knew what the impact of me leaving RMM would be, that's why Sony gave the deal the OK. I'm not sure if my leaving had any impact but it impacted their relationship. When I moved to Florida, George, who was now at Warner, was ready to move on. We got together and decided to give it a shot at making a label, all of the major labels were dropping tropical music like the plague and there was an opportunity to make deals with many talented artists that were out there with no record company. The initial focus was tropical music since it could give us a great start, but making a salsa label was not the objective. We wanted to focus on great talent that could get on the radio quickly and cost effectively since we were a start-up company with limited capital. Sony gave us an opportunity to distribute us and we later sold to Univision where we still operate from as of today.
JIC: From the mid-noughties, two prominent Colombian musicians became regular members of your production team: percussionist / arranger / producer Diego Gale (probably starting with Marc Anthony's Valió La Pena '04 on Sony Discos) and trombonist / arranger / producer Alberto Barros (beginning probably with Charlie Cruz's Como Nunca '04 on Sony Discos). Tell me more?
SG: Colombia has probably kept salsa music alive to a degree. Diego and Alberto are friends of mine since when I lived in Colombia 20 years ago and thought they had a lot to give as musicians and producers. They truly had their own sound and never resorted to copying what I had done in the past. It was danceable music and very radio friendly and had its own personality. With Marc's Valió La Pena I told him I wanted to go in another direction from what we had done before and thankfully he agreed. I thought the Colombian sound, known for being very danceable, could bring a different sound to the table by combining it with Marc's pop stylings. Colombian salsa music never had a vocalist like Marc singing to its tracks and the combination proved to be a winner. It's one of Marc's best records to date.
JIC: Looking at the credits on your productions these days, they are multi-centre recordings utilising studios in Florida, Puerto Rico and Colombia, Colombia. Has this affected your approach to producing?
SG: The market has gotten WAY bigger than before with many artists and producers living all over the place. It's no longer centralised in New York and Puerto Rico. My main pop producer is in Milan, Italy, and we produce tracks strictly over the internet. We send files back and forth and talk about concepts over the phone. Even international calling is much cheaper, making it fiscally feasible to do so. A lot of the players have their own studios even in Miami, and files are sent to them to overdub in the comfort of their own homes. This is the present and future way of recording especially since recording budgets are tighter than before, thus bypassing big recording studios for the most part.
JIC: Since the late 1990s there has been a retro trend of reviving and reworking classic salsa tracks, for example, the work of Los Soneros del Barrio, Sonora Carruseles, Quinto Mayor, La Son Charanga, Orquesta Tabaco y Ron and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, among others. This retro climate has been compounded by the re-launch of the Fania catalogue by Emusica. Meanwhile, reggaetón has exploded in popularity among young Latinos. So, from your elevated position in the salsa-pop bunker, what is your take on the current state of salsa and the Latin music industry?
SG: The current state is the same as always, there is a need for fresh talent that has something unique to offer regardless of the genre. Just living off of old salsa covers is not the answer unless it's done as a new FUSION. Unless there is a particular reason to do so, I don't see the point of re-recording the exact same arrangements. I'd sometimes rather hear the original.
JIC: Another development over the last decade has been the fragmentation of the US salsa recording industry. What was once a market dominated by a small number of labels and studios based in New York, Puerto Rico and Miami, is now characterised by a proliferation of independent productions, often self-produced by the bands/artists, emanating from a wide variety of places. Plus, albeit still on a modest scale, salsa recordings are increasingly being made outside the traditional Latin marketplace, particularly in a number of non-Spanish speaking European countries. What's your opinion about these trends?
SG: It's a great thing that was needed by the industry. This music always thrived on independence and the next big thing will definitely start somewhere out of an independent company and maybe even a non-Spanish speaking country. As I said before, the market has gotten a lot bigger and the world has become quite small.
JIC: How does Sergio George see salsa developing in the foreseeable future?
SG: Salsa will develop with true innovative artists with a vision for the future. It has to be futuristic otherwise it will be more of the same with a different name.
JIC: In all manner of popular musical genres, the upcoming new generation tends to supplant the previous one. For almost 20 years now you have been at the vanguard of salsa-pop. How do you intend to keep ahead of the game in terms of both keeping abreast of and defining what is hip and happening?
SG: I keep ahead simply by continuing to work and keeping an open mind and never letting the passion go away or otherwise everything stops. There are always many younger kids who will tell you what's "hip" and it's up to me to incorporate these elements in my music or not. The good thing at this point is that the artists who want to work with me understand and expect me to be innovative with my ideas. This, therefore, puts the pressure on me to do so.
JIC: Now my usual closing questions. Please tell me what projects you have been working on recently and what you have in the pipeline?
SG: The soundtrack to the movie El Cantante (El Cantante: Music From And Inspired By The Original Motion Picture '07 on Sony Norte), tracks for Mexican pop rock artist Gloria Trevi, a new incarnation of DLG and who knows what else. I try not to corner myself too much into projects since great projects always come up out of nowhere and at the last minute unexpectedly.
JIC: In view of your attitude to covering old salsa, tell me how you approached the material on El Cantante: Music From And Inspired By The Original Motion Picture (Sony Norte, 2007), which I haven't heard yet?
SG: The El Cantante soundtrack is a very good example of what I meant by the "having a good reason to" statement in one of my previous answers. It's totally a movie soundtrack, which had to, and should stay true to the original singer, era and style for the movie's sake. It wasn't a Marc Anthony record but a Marc Anthony MOVIE record singing someone else's songs and style. If we changed the arrangements or vocal stylings then it simply could not be an accurate depiction of Héctor Lavoe's life and legacy and would steer far from the main purpose.
JIC: Is there anything else that you would like to add that we have not talked about?
SG: Not really.
JIC: What title would you choose for this interview?
SG: Just trying to make history, that's all.
JIC: As an alternative title for the piece, to quote you from earlier in the interview, why not: "We Will Never Return To The Horse And Buggy"?
SG: I like it! Thank you for everything, John, and I loved the questions.
Check out these related pieces in The Descarga Journal Archives:
Interview: A Conversation With Bassist Rubén Rodríguez
by David Barton and John Child January 09, 2003
Descarga.com's transatlantic twosome speak with the innovative bass player Rubén Rodríguez, the heartbeat of many recent hit recordings by the likes of Marc Anthony, Tito Puente, Victor Manuelle, DLG, Tito Nieves, India and Africando. Along with his producer/friend, Sergio George, he has revolutionised the sound of contemporary popular salsa. The conversation begins with Rubén talking about his musical evolution and his influences, which include Tito Puente's long-standing bassist, Bobby Rodríguez, Sal Cuevas, the bassist of choice on many Fania sessions, and his teacher Victor Venegas. A more detailed, though not exhaustive, discography of Rubén's Latin work is provided at the end of the piece.
Discographic Profile: Tito Puente
by John Child November 08, 2000
Here is a discographic profile of the legendary bandleader, composer and musician, Ernesto "Tito" Puente, who passed away on May 31, 2000.
Profile: Forever Celia
by John Child September 23, 2003
A number of the excellent obituaries that appeared in the days immediately following Celia Cruz's passing on July 16th, 2003, highlighted her role as a cultural, political and gender symbol, as doubtless she was. However, those familiar with my work for Descarga.com will not be surprised that I offer a piece spotlighting her incredible body of recorded work, which spanned over five decades.
Profile: Obituary: Monguito "El Unico"
by John Child, June 17, 2006
In tribute to the recently deceased Monguito "El Unico", we re-post John Child's discographic profile of the distinctive Afro-Cuban sonero, composer, bandleader, producer and mainstay of Aboudou Lassissi's legendary Sacodis label. In addition, Ken Abrams pays respect with his paintings entitled Yo Soy Congo - Homage To Monguito El Unico.
Interview: Issac Delgado
by Abel Delgado October 24, 2002
Issac Delgado is one of the best contemporary Cuban singers out there. Getting his start with Pacho Alonso and later NG la Banda, he represents a curious bridge between hard-core Cuban dance music and the smoother salsa played in the United States, Puerto Rico and Latin America. We called him at his house in Cuba to learn more about his career, breakout CD La fórmula and future plans. Abel Delgado (no relation) did the interview and translation into English and Orlando Fiol did the hard part: transcribing Issac's words that had come through a Cuban phone line with more snap, crackle and pop than Rice Krispies to make sure we got the man's words right. So here it is.
For the Spanish version, click here.
© Descarga.com and John Child. John Child produces and selects the contents of the totallyradio show Aracataca. He is an editor and journalist for the Descarga.com Latin music website, and a contributor to the MusicWeb Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Penguin and Guinness Encyclopedias of Popular Music, and has prepared compilations for the Union Square and Nascente labels.
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