November 29, 2008
Henry Fiol ...I Am What I Am
A conversation with John Child
Although a child prodigy in the visual arts, the multitalented artist Henry Fiol explains to John Child why he has dedicated his life to creating "Corazón Music", a unique blend of Cuban, New York, jazz, Brazilian, doo-wop and American pop elements and flavours, and why he has made his 11th solo album De Cachete (Corazón CD 116, 2008) available as a free download. In addition to discussing De Cachete, Henry talks in depth and with candour about his career and artistic development, sharing with comparable zeal his loves and hates in relation to such topics as charanga flute, rumba, the conjunto sound, timbales, trap drums, timba, bachata and reggaetón, and issues a warning about the danger of the latter musical genre. A thread running through the conversation is the story of Henry's exploration of his dual Latino and Italian-American heritage, and the ultimate realisation of his true identity. After the interview, Henry told John: "I have no doubt that this interview will become the best interview I've ever done in English, 'the quintessential Henry Fiol interview', if you will." The piece is accompanied by a discographic profile.
John Child (JIC): Before we talk about your musical career, I would like to discuss the development of your overall approach and new production De Cachete (Corazón CD 116, 2008). Reviewing Cortijo y su Combo's Quítate De La Via Perico (Gema / Rumba, 1961) for the 1998/9 Descarga catalogue, you wrote: "If it weren't for this band, I probably wouldn't be playing music today." Please tell me the story behind this statement?
Henry Fiol (HF): I was born and raised in New York, in Manhattan, and even though my father, who was from Ponce, Puerto Rico, would occasionally play his 78 rpm records - mostly boleros and some up-tempo things - I wasn't really that exposed to Latin music as a child and as an early adolescent - and I didn't really like it that much. In my ignorance, I thought it was kind of hokey and corny and I was more into American music at the time - mostly the vocal groups that were popular back then, a sound that eventually became known as doo-wop. Well, one Christmas - I think it must have been around 1959 or 1960 - we went to Puerto Rico to visit the family, and I had the pleasure of hearing Cortijo y su Combo with Ismael Rivera live. This was at the time when Cortijo's band was in its heyday, with hit tunes like "Quítate de la Via Perico," "Severa," " El Negro Bemb&o,acute;n" etc., and I was totally blown away by the swing and the intensity of this incredible orchestra. I bought some Cortijo records right away while in Puerto Rico, and when I got back to New York, little by little, I put aside my doo-wop recordings and began to get into Latin music. This is why I say that if I hadn't been fortunate enough to have heard this band, Cortijo with Ismael Rivera, who knows? I might have never acquired an interest in Latin music at all - let alone dedicated most of my adult life to the playing of it.
JIC: What impact did the early '60s pachanga/charanga craze have on you?
HF: Quite a bit. Once I got into Latin music, via Cortijo, I began investigating and collecting Latin records, and at that time, the early '60s, the charanga sound was THE sound in New York; almost all the major groups were either full-fledged charangas with violins and lead flute, or variations thereof. I loved the sound of the flute and the clean, precise sound of the charanga groups - especially Pacheco y su Charanga, José Fajardo, Joe Quijano, Ray Barretto, and Eddie Palmieri's early "La Perfecta" recordings which were basically charanga with trombones instead of violins. In fact, my first instrument was the actually the flute, the antique, the five-key, pre-Boehm system flute that was used in charanga music. I studied this "pachanga flute," as it was called, for a while with a Cuban gentleman, but because of the language barrier - my Spanish was very limited at that time - and his insistence on my learning to read music and doing scales and exercises from boring "solfeo" books - in Spanish no less - I wound up discontinuing the classes. I then got a hold of a fingering chart, and with the fingering chart, I taught myself to play the charanga flute well enough by ear so that I could have fun and play along with my LPs at home. I got pretty good for a while, and I had many of Pacheco's and Fajardo's flute solos memorised, and I could play them, note for note, along with my records. My family was very supportive of my interest in learning the flute, because my great uncle, Leonard Posella, on my mother's side, my Italian side, had been a well-known Juilliard-trained flautist who had his own chamber group for a while and then relocated to Los Angeles where he became lead flautist for the Warner Brothers Orchestra in Hollywood for many years.
JIC: With the mid-'60s swing to brass in New York, you were particularly drawn to Johnny Pacheco's pure Cuban trumpet conjunto sound and sought out original Cuban conjunto recordings. In this regard, you are on record as saying you prefer Chappottín's approach to Arsenio's "thick, syrupy, vibrato-laden, multi-voiced vocal arrangements." Please elucidate?
HF: First of all, the transition from the charanga to the conjunto sound wasn't really that big of a leap or a stretch for me. The charanga music, which I already had been immersed in for several years, was, obviously, very Cuban, and once I had acquired the Cuban feel and the Cuban phrasing via charanga, I continued my investigation of Cuban music and I began to study the great Cuban conjuntos of the '40s and '50s. With regard to your question, I had a mixed reaction to Arsenio Rodríguez's conjunto when I first began to listen to it - and I still do to this day. First of all, I hated all of the boleros - and still do - because a bolero, or a love song, which is designed to be an intimate expression of sentiment, inevitably loses all its intimacy and poignancy when sung by two singers, instead of one, in a duet - especially if sung in corny, heavy vibrato. But Arsenio's sones and son montunos, are another matter altogether. I immediately loved the slow, yet intense groove that Arsenio's group laid down. The complexity of the polyrhythmic concept he employed through the strong use of the clave, playing with it and creating tension by playing against it, astounded me - and still does. This great musician was way ahead of his time, and if anyone can be fingered as the innovator, the creator, or the "father" of what is now known as salsa, it would have to be Arsenio.
Unfortunately, I've always had a negative reaction to Arsenio's use of vocals. In the early recordings, from the early '40s, it's not so pronounced, but by the mid-'40s, once Arsenio's cousin Rene Scull joins the group on vocals, the vibrato becomes a little over-the-top for my taste. Remember, I'm a New York kid who grew up listening to the silky-smooth sounds of doo-wop, and even though I understand that this heavy-vibrato style of singing was in vogue at the time when these recordings were made, I couldn't help but react negatively to it. Chappottín's group, on the other hand, which was a splinter group or an off-shoot of Arsenio's band, not only cuts down on the vibrato, but it gives the lead singer more of an opportunity to sing. Miguelito Cuní, for example, who had worked with Arsenio's conjunto for many years, doesn't really get the opportunity to stretch out and express himself vocally until Chappottín takes over the helm. I think Arsenio's group is rhythmically much more interesting than the Chappottín splinter group, but in terms of the vocals, I think Chappottín's group excels. Just listen to Cuní (one of my all-time favourite vocalists) soar on "Yo Sí Como Candela" (available on Sabor Tropical late '50s on Puchito / Antilla), and I think it becomes obvious.
JIC: In Mary Kent's book Salsa Talks! (Digital Domain, 2005) you said you don't like timbales. Please explain why and how this conditioned your approach to instrumentation?
HF: Let me preface my response by saying that one's likes and dislikes in music are quite similar to one's likes and dislikes when it comes to food. Some people can think of nothing better and more enjoyable than the taste and feel of eating a raw oyster, while others are horrified just at the thought of a fishy-tasting, phlem-like substance slithering down their throat. This is not to say that raw oysters are no good or that they are not a legitimate and valuable food source, it's simply a matter of taste. Having said this, let me say that I think one of the reasons why I got into Latin music in the first place, is because I detest the sound of trap drums or drum kit - especially when played by heavy-handed, tasteless percussionists who overplay. (The Brazilian trap drummers are the only ones who can make this obnoxious instrument sound appealing to me.) In fact, I'd like to know who invented this awful, one-man-band percussion concept, with the abrasive and irritating sound of the snare drum (a military drum that was designed to cut through gunfire) leading the charge, and the cymbals clinging and clanging away behind it at full tilt. I'd like to dance a guaguancó on his grave.
The timbales or timbale drums are cousins of the trap drums. They were developed in Cuba, I believe, as an accompaniment to the contradanse or contradanza music that eventually evolved into the danzón. Both drums are European in origin, and although the timbales have more tone and are less strident than the traps (with its horrendous snare drum), they're both stick drums; and as stick drums, they tend to be excessively loud and tend to disrupt the sound balance of most musical ensembles. I like the sound of timbales very much in charanga - especially when played by a light-handed timbalero who is a true musician and plays with taste. The sweet tone of the timbales and the light sound of the high-pitched bell can work quite well with the other instruments in the charanga setting. In a conjunto, however, timbales are rarely used. The reason being that when timbales are played in conjunction with a bongo, the same high-pitched bell, which can work so well with a güiro and a single conga in a charanga, will invariably drown out and swallow the guitar (tres) in the conjunto, especially when the montuno kicks in and the bongo player starts to play his lower-pitched cowbell. I've always felt that one bell is enough in the montuno; two bells is overdoing it, and it starts to sound like a cow pasture with multiple cowbells banging away, drowning out the other instruments, raising the overall volume level of the ensemble, and making the sound irritating and unpleasant to the ear. This is the main reason why I've never used timbales in all my years in Latin music, and it's also the reason why I rarely listen to any non-conjunto salsa. The timbales banging away, with the constant cymbal crashes, just makes everything sound too loud and tacky for my taste.
JIC: In 1998 you wrote: "When I was learning to play conga in the late '60s, participating in the rumbas which were common then, in the neighbourhood, in the park, or at the beach...Patato & Totico (Verve, 1967) was the record." Tell me how this album and rumbones figured in your development?
HF: I began playing the conga around 1968, more or less, and after I practiced at home for a while, playing along with my records, I then began to participate in the rumbas (impromptu jam sessions with just drums and voices) that were quite prevalent in New York at the time - in the parks, in neighbourhoods, and at the beaches. My participation in the rumbas not only improved and sharpened my technique on the drum, but also my vocal technique as well. These were not real, first-class, bona fide rumbas I'm talking about, which can require excellent singing and drumming, just conga players getting together and jamming - although occasionally the right people might pop up and it might turn into a heavy-duty rumba. The records that we used as models or guides at that time were mainly the Conjunto Guaguancó Matancero (which eventually became known as Los Muñequitos de Matanzas), Los Papines, Alberto Zayas y su Grupo Folklorico, Justi Barreto (who came out with a nice rumba album called Guaguancó 69 on Gema; reissued on Disco Hit in 2005), and last, but definitely not least, the Patato and Totico album - although this recording can't really be considered as 100% pure rumba because it included a tres and a bass along with the drums and voices. This album is a classic - Patato and other excellent drummers on congas, Arsenio Rodríguez on tres, Cachao on bass, Eugenio "Totico" Arango on vocals - and it really became the bible for all the young aspiring rumberos in New York at the time. I for one had almost all of the songs memorised, and to this day I can still sing most of them word for word. In fact, when I became a singer and released my first solo album (Fe, Esperanza y Caridad '80 on SAR Records), I did a conjunto version of one my favourite tunes on the album: Eugenio Arango's composition "Caridad Malda." I can't really call myself a rumbero - that's a lofty title that I hold in extremely high regard - but I've away been a lover of the rumba, and many aspects of my phrasing and my vocal style come directly out of the rumba.
In Colombia I've been given the nickname of "El Blanco que Canta Como Negro" ("The White Man who Sings Like a Black Man") and this, admittedly, is a direct result of all the rumba I listened to back then when I was starting to play the drum. I really don't listen to any salsa, but to this day I still listen to lots of rumba and I try to stay abreast with the new stylistic developments in the rumba genre. My therapy at home is putting on my headphones, whipping out my drums, and playing along with my rumba records. When the rumba is really tight and all the elements are locked into place, the intensity of the drumming and chanting can sweep you up like a wave and lift you up into the stratosphere. It can create an intense, ecstatic high, a high that I've never been able to get from any other type of music, and eventually it becomes an addiction. I guess you can say I'm a rumba addict from way back.
JIC: To throw another quote at you, in 1998 you wrote: "One afternoon in 1968, completely by accident, I happened to hear a tune on a juke box which really grabbed me on a gut level and changed my entire musical orientation. It was Guillermo Portabales singing what eventually would become one of my favourite tunes, 'El Carretero' (available on Lo Mejor de Guillermo Portabales '92 on Disco Hit)." Please tell me about this change in direction?
HF: I've told this story so many times; I think everybody and their mother must have heard it by now. By 1968 I had already passed through the charanga phrase, and I was heavy into rumba and the conjunto sound. Cuban country music or "música campesina", however, was completely unknown to me until I accidentally heard the voice of Guillermo Portabales come gliding out of the speakers of a jukebox in a Cuban bar. The song, "El Carretero", and Portabales' voice gave me goosebumps and made my hair stand on end. Up to this point, I had never heard any "salsa" vocalist, or any Cuban vocalist for that matter, sing with such sentiment and lyricism. And the sparseness of the instrumentation on this song impressed me as well. This was like the skeleton of a country son: only two guitars, bass and a conga - no bongo, no horns, not even a maraca or a güiro - just the stripped-down essence of a son campesino. I approached the jukebox, wrote down Portabales' name, and then proceeded to buy some of his records, which, after studying them and playing them over and over, led to an investigation of Cuban country music. This "guajiro" music was very different from the other branches of Cuban music that I had been exposed to thus far. I found that the country singers didn't sing loud the way most salsa singers do; they sang softly, and with great depth of feeling and a lot of sincerity. And they sang about things that seemed to mean a lot to them. They said what they meant, and they, undoubtedly, meant what they said.
So, after studying this country sound for a while, I tried to fuse it or incorporate elements of it - the soft vocal style, the syncopated guitar work, the rustic beat or "tumbao" - into the conjunto sound that I loved so much. My sound, the sound of my conjunto and my vocal style as well, is, therefore, a blend of, or an eclectic mix of Afro-Cuban elements (folkloric rumba, and the black, urban conjunto sound), along with elements of Cuban country music, "guajiro" music, music whose instrumentation, structure, and chord changes, trace back to the immigrants from Spain and the Canary Islands who settled in the Cuban countryside. On top of all this, I've tried to include some of the flavour of New York, elements of jazz (the use of the tenor sax), elements of Brazilian music, along with some ingredients that come from doo-wop and American pop. I guess this is why my style and my sound has often been referred to as "idiosyncratic."
JIC: Tell me about other soneros who influenced you?
HF: Although I admire many of my colleagues and contemporaries, my main influences, as far as my vocal style goes, are the great Cuban soneros who were prominent in the '40s and '50s. At the top of the list would have to be the great Beny Moré, not because he was a particularly strong influence on my style per se - I don't have the same gift, the voice, the timbre, the range, or the versatility to even BEGIN to try and imitate or equal this unbelievable vocalist - but simply because he was, in my opinion, the best. He was the gold standard; he's the guy that all young singers should listen to, intensely, to learn what the term "sabor" is all about. After Beny, I would say that the following soneros were definite influences on the development of my vocal style: Abelardo Barroso (beautiful phrasing and feeling), Guillermo Portabales (sincerity and lyricism), Cheo Marquetti (very unique style), Miguelito Cuní (a real "sonero" in the true sense of the word), Joseíto Fernández (an urban "guajiro" like myself - his speciality was música campesina, "La Guantanamera," yet he was a city slicker from Habana), Carlos Embale (a great sonero and a great rumba singer as well), and, of course, the one and only Celia Cruz (even though she was a female vocalist, I learned quite a bit about economy and accuracy of phrasing by listening to her early recordings with the Sonora Matancera).
JIC: You tend to cite Cuban soneros who were at their height in the 1930s to early '60s. Are there any soneros who emerged during the 1970s salsa boom and afterwards you admire?
HF: Of course. My favourite was Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez, a gifted sonero with great technique and a beautiful, round vocal timbre. I always thought Adalberto Santiago was an excellent vocalist as well, along with Ismael Miranda, Ismael Quintana, Cheo Feliciano, Jimmy Sabater, and the recently deceased Héctor Casanova. But as you can see, the vocalists that I've selected among my contemporaries - with the exception of Cheo Feliciano and Jimmy Sabater who have their own Puerto Rican/Newyorican style - are those gentleman who studied the Cuban soneros and learned how to phrase with the clave and the "tumbao," and against certain chord progressions that are very common in the "típico" branch of salsa. On the other hand, there are a slew of salsa singers of my era (who shall remain nameless so as not to offend anyone) - some of whom were or are extremely popular - who never impressed me at all, either because they employ a monotonous, monotone way of singing their inspirations or because they sing on the downbeats (the maraca beats) instead of following the clave.
JIC: Your selection of albums for the 1998/9 Descarga catalogue includes Cachao's Cuban Jam Sessions In Miniature, the first Alegre All-Stars outing and an early album by Cal Tjader. Are jazz and descarga elements an important part of your approach?
HF: I would say that jazz is definitely one of the elements that I've employed in my instrumentation and in the creation of my arrangements. I've always been a big jazz fan. In fact, I listen to more jazz than anything else - albeit smooth jazz or jazz ballads, the kind of jazz where the irritating and omnipresent traps drums are either played with brushes or are way in the background. But as far as descarga elements or the spontaneity, or the improvisational aspect of jazz is concerned, I would have to say that these things are not really major factors in my approach. Although I love descarga recordings (some of my all-time favourite recordings are descargas), I've always felt that "spontaneity" and "improvisation" are a bit overrated - especially by the public at large and non-musicians who really don't know how musicians operate. As a musician, I know that every player has his or her bag of tricks. Percussionists, for example, have their repertoire of special licks (or what we call "repiques") that we use over and over again, albeit in a different order or at different tempos, depending on the situation. Horn players have their practiced runs or licks as well, and they use them against different chord changes in different situations and in a different order as well. In other words, I really don't believe that anything is truly spontaneous or improvised; it just doesn't come out of thin air and drop down from the sky. It might be put together on the spot, but, basically, it's just musicians thinking fast and dipping into the ol' bag of tricks. In fact, I think there's an element among some jazz and Latin jazz players who run an "Emperor's-New-Clothes" game on the audience at times. There's a lot of posturing, posing, and looking hip, deep, and profound, yet very often there's been no preparation or planning that's gone into the performance at all. The attitude is: "We'll just wing it, the audience doesn't really know the difference anyway." This attitude has always appeared a little too easy, nonchalant, and condescending for my taste - and a tad disrespectful as well. The first idea that pops into one's head is not always the best idea. I, personally, couldn't care less about that first idea; I'll struggle and struggle with something, using trial and error, editing, and sustained concentration, until I come up with the best idea. This orientation or approach to the making of my music probably comes out of my training in the visual arts as an oil painter.
JIC: Once I got into your musical output and began learning about your background, it appeared to me that you are essentially an artist for whom music is just one creative medium. What's your response to this observation?
HF: I think you hit the nail on the head. What sets an artist apart from the average person or the "non-artist" is the degree of his or her sensitivity and sensibility - not so much the medium that the artist has chosen to work in. True artists, creative artists, in the true sense of the word - not individuals who have studied and learned a craft - are inevitably ultra-sensitive people who often are able to express themselves in different media: musicians who paint, for example, or painters or sculptors who play music. Duke Ellington, Tony Bennett, Miles Davis, the painter/saxophonist Larry Rivers, are a few names that come to mind - not to mention John Lennon, Paul McCartney and the Beatles, who met while attending art school. As for me, I was a child prodigy in the visual arts. At the age of five or six, I was already drawing and painting relatively advanced and detailed stuff. And by age eight, after I was sent to Saturday art classes because my public school didn't have the resources to develop my talent, I began making my first oil paintings. But at the same time, I always had an interest in music; I played a simple flute that I was given at school, and I sang and played the lead roles in some school plays as well. I majored in fine arts in college, and my ambition was always to become a painter - a great artist. Upon graduation, however, when I came face to face with the reality of the art scene or the art business, that esoteric world of the galleries, the exhibitions, the cocktail parties, and the aristocrats who actually bought the paintings, I felt like a fish out of water, and it was a big disappointment for me. I always was, basically, just a neighbourhood guy who happened to have talent in art, but I never really fit in with the artsy-fartsy crowd. So I made a left turn, and started to get more into music.
The birth of my first son, Orlando, who was born blind, probably was another factor in my decision to move away from the art scene and pursue music. I just couldn't see myself dedicating my whole life to something that my son could never see or understand. But I painted the covers of my LPs after I began making recordings, though. I relished the idea of sharing my art with my people, the people I identified with - albeit via a reproduction of one of my paintings on a record cover - and the LP format itself, that nice, big, thirteen-inch square, made the idea of offering the public fine art in a commercial-art context totally viable. These cover paintings played a major role, I think, in putting Saoco (the first major group that I sang with) on the map. Cover art was very important in the LP days, particularly when the buyer had the product in his or her hands and was at what the people in the record business would call "point of purchase." It was very often the cover art that would intrigue the record buyer and convince them to make the purchase. A few years later, when I began to record under my own name, I think the album covers that I painted then were also instrumental in grabbing the public's attention and getting my solo career off the ground. So, with me it's always been art and music moving in tandem.
I consider the Macho Mumba painting (the cover of Saoco's 1977 follow-up on Salsoul Records) to be, without a doubt, the best of all my paintings, and I would really prefer that it be shown as an example of my artwork as opposed to any of the others. It also serves as a graphic example of my background and interest in rumba as well.
JIC: In 1990 you wrote: "Nostalgia has never been my objective." What characterises your concept and style of salsa?
HF: Although I have recorded some cover tunes and done some adaptations of songs by other artists from time to time, the main body of my work, from my beginnings with Saoco up to the present, has always been composed of my own original material, my own compositions, that have been composed, arranged and played in a típico style so as to extend the tradition of the son, keep it alive, and create a "son contemporaneo," a contemporary son or modern son. Nostalgia has, in fact, never been my objective. I'm not interested in recreating the glory days of yesteryear; I'm interested in the evolution, modernisation, continuation, and preservation of the essence of this music, which is now known as salsa. There have been other artists, in New York, in Cuba, and in other countries, who have employed the conjunto format and have and stayed close to the Cuban root of this music, but, for the most part, their respective repertoires have consisted mainly of cover tunes - sometimes even using the original arrangements from the original Cuban artists. What probably distinguishes my sound from the other típico groups, besides my instrumentation and my vocal style, is the simple fact that most of my material is new and original. I think one of the saddest and most unfair things in the music business is the way the composer is overlooked and taken for granted. Without the composer, that special person who creates something completely out of thin air, out of nothing: 1) the arranger can't arrange, 2) the musician can't play, 3) the singer has nothing to sing, and 4) the record company can't sell records. Unfortunately, most people confuse the messenger with the message, and it's the singer, the "song stylist," the interpreter of words that someone else has created and placed in their mouths, the one who delivers that second-hand message, who gets all the glory and the adulation - while the composer is not even considered. So, having said this, and getting back to your original question, what characterises my style of salsa and what distinguishes it, is the simple fact that I'm a singer/songwriter who has chosen to work within the framework of the son and the típico rhythms which are the essence and the foundation of this music.
JIC: Down the years, apart from briefly considering, but not pursuing, an English language "salsa-pop" concept (which we will return to later), you have never let commercial salsa romántica, reggaetón (we will talk more about your view of reggaetón later), bachata and the like trouble your basic approach. Why have you held the line, when others have maybe understandably yielded to trends?
HF: Well, I, obviously, can't speak for anyone else, but I've always been sort of a purist; I've always stayed relatively close to the root of this music. This is the style or the sound that moves me, and it's the style that I've always adhered to. With regard to reggaetón or bachata, two musical genres that I dislike intensely, me fusing my sound with these other two types of music was really never an option that could even cross my mind. I would prefer to retire and ride off into the sunset rather than pollute my music with this stuff. As far as salsa romántica is concerned, I have no objection to writing love songs or singing about love. (I've recorded some romantic material myself from time to time.) But in this multi-faceted world that we live in, to which we react, and respond, and feel the full spectrum of thoughts and emotions, to block all of this out and focus only one aspect of our experience - albeit an extremely important one: finding love and finding a mate - I think is extremely limiting and close-minded - and it smacks of commercialism. I've never really considered watering-down my sound and jumping on the salsa romántica bandwagon. In fact, it was in the mid-'90s, when the salsa romántica was at its zenith and the work got a little slow, that I distracted myself by working on the project of my novel. I guess I was looking for an escape route out of the music business, but it didn't pan out. I'm an artist, and I feel that artists should have integrity; they should stick to their guns and do what they do best, regardless of what's popular, what's in vogue, or what's commercially viable. My attitude is to just keep on keepin' on, and let the chips fall where they may. It's like Popeye used to say: "I yam what I yam, and that's all that I yam; I'm Popeye the sailor man. Pooo Pooo!"
JIC: In Salsa Talks! you make reference to preserving the root of the music and being on an internal voyage whereby you felt you were getting closer to understanding the real core. Where does this journey stand in 2008?
HF: Well, one never stops learning. Many musicians dismiss the típico style of music that I play as being old-fashioned and simple-dimple. But that's because they've never really investigated and studied the roots of this music and they haven't discovered all the intricacies that are involved in the execution of it. I've made some serious mistakes over the years: I've recorded songs in the wrong keys for my voice, for example; I've recorded a couple of albums using a metronome - something I'll never do again - and I've also recorded several songs on the wrong side of the clave. But I feel more confident now. My understanding of the clave and the cross-rhythms that one places against is getting a lot more solid. I'm getting closer to understanding the internal structure and the essence of it now. And I feel good about my most recent recording, the De Cachete album; I think it swings. (And for me that's quite a statement, because I'm a real perfectionist and I don't even listen to my own music because I hear all the flaws and it drives me crazy.) But I feel like I'm zeroing in on my sound now. I already know the changes that I'll be making on my next recording. I know what the missing link is, and once I get that in place, I have a feeling that that will be the turning point.
JIC: Apart from recording a few covers, your international cult following stems from an idiosyncratic body of self-penned recordings with a sometimes dark and world-weary perspective. I would be interested to hear your opinion of this summary?
HF: I think it's a fair statement - particularly with regard to some of the music I put out during the '80s when I had my own label: Corazón Records. Like all composers, most compositions come from our observations and from our personal experiences. I was going through a rough time then; I was fighting tooth and nail, to maintain my position on the salsa scene at a time when the merengue was kicking everyone's butt. I had invested my life savings in establishing the Corazón label, and it really was a serious, life or death struggle for me. On the other hand, what I've always tried to do on each album is to strike a balance, a balance between fun songs, or songs that are simply swinging dance tunes, and songs that could be considered sad and melancholic. Probably because of my training in the visual arts, I believe that the duty of an artist is to reflect the truth of life, the way things really are; and in life there are sunny days and rainy days, good times and bad. I like happy, fun songs as much as the next guy, but unlike some of my colleagues, I could never consider putting out a recording of purely escapist music. I'm interested in using the salsa idiom to make art, not to create a commercial commodity for the mindless. I want my music to have content, and that's why, along with the happy and sad tunes, I always try to include a song or two that has a spiritual message, and also a socio-political message as well. I'm also very conscious of the balance between fast and slow material, medium tempo stuff, and also the balance between major and minor keys. But getting back to your original question, I think my sad and melancholic tunes probably stand out and stick in one's mind because not too many salsa artists do this type of material; but if one listens to each of my albums in its entirety, I think the desired balance that I've tried to describe is fairly obvious.
JIC: Let's focus on De Cachete now, your 11th solo album to date, the title of which you explain on your website means "Freebie". The significance being that you have chosen to make the nine-track production available as a free download (go to: http://www.henryfiol.com/eng/index.html ). Please explain your reasoning for adopting this new marketing concept?
HF: Unfortunately, during the course of my career, I've never really had a powerful label (like Fania in its heyday or Sony or Universal nowadays) behind me, promoting and distributing my music worldwide. I've always suffered from poor distribution, especially in Europe and many of the countries in Latin America. The free download idea of my new album De Cachete is an attempt to flip the script, as it were, and use the available technology (the internet) to work in my favour, instead of against me, to try to expand my fan base, open up new markets, and get my music out there all over the world. By the same token, I also wanted to give something back to the fans - especially my Colombian fans - who have supported me and have been so loyal over the years, both in good times and in bad. Life is a two-way street - it's not always take, take, take - sometimes one has to give, reciprocate, and show one's appreciation. After all, I'm still out here doing my thing, thanks to the fans; if it wasn't for them, I would have been sent out to pasture a long time ago. And finally, another reason why I'm doing this is to try and reach the younger generation, and give them, via their home on the internet, a little taste of the real old-school salsa, a sound they may never be exposed to if not for the free download offer. I'm hoping they might take an interest in it, and, in doing so, keep this music viable. It's a bit of a long shot, but I'm a gambler from way back, and we'll see what happens.
JIC: Intriguingly, you have revived your Corazón label (founded in 1983), logo and red and black motif for De Cachete. What was the thinking behind this?
HF: Well, I haven't really revived the label as a business venture because no actual business is being done in this situation. There is no exchange of monies; everything is free. I put the Corazón logo on the CD simply because people expect to see some kind of a label on a product, and I continued with the red-and-black colour scheme because it's become kind of like my signature over the years - sort of like the colours of a racing stable in horse racing, or the colours of a football or baseball team.
JIC: What was the original concept behind the Corazón name, logo and red and black colour scheme?
HF: My style of Latin music or salsa has always been an attempt to get at the essence, the core, or the "heart" of this music, and, via new material and new arrangements, extend its tradition, modernise it, and keep it going. The heart, or "corazón" in Spanish, is primarily associated with love, but it also can symbolise the other things I just mentioned: the essence of something, the core of something, the nitty-gritty, or the "heart" of something. To "have heart" - as we used to say on the street when I was coming up - also means to have courage, and, as I said before, I had invested my life savings in the Corazón label and, in terms of staying afloat in this business, it was a life-or-death situation. So, having said this, I think it's fairly obvious why I would choose the heart, or the corazón, as my emblem.
As far as the colours go, there are several reasons why I chose them: 1) they're the colours of life and death - red, the colour of blood (life) and black the colour of darkness (death), 2) they're are also the colours associated with gambling and the gambler, as in the red and black in the game of roulette - and I was taking one helluva gamble with this endeavour, 3) they're also the colours commonly used to symbolise electricity - red the positive, and black the negative (ying and yang), and, finally, 4) they're simply the colours of Ponce, Puerto Rico, where my father's family comes from, and I thought that they might bring me luck. Another reason why I decided to make a couple of albums using only red and black on the packaging was to cut down on costs. I was operating on a shoestring budget, and by using only two colours (white is the colour of the paper and doesn't count as a colour), I was able to produce cover art that required only a two-colour printing job, which was relatively inexpensive, instead of the costly four-colour, colour separation used in full-colour lithography.
There's an interesting anecdote to the red-and-black colour thing that, to this day, totally baffles me. It was around the mid-'80s and I was scheduled to perform a few gigs in Miami. A few weeks before the trip, I get a call from the promoter, informing me that none of the Miami radio stations would play my records to promote the gigs because they said I was a "communist". "A communist?!", I gasped, "What the hell are you talking about?!" Well, apparently, totally unbeknownst to me, the colours of Fidel Castro's revolutionary flag were, coincidentally, red and black as well, and to the Cuban community in Miami, this meant that I was a "Fidelista", a Fidel Castro supporter, and, therefore, a communist. So, what can I tell ya? I guess that's just the way the Tootsie rolls. I don't know if this totally ridiculous and erroneous perception still exists among the Miami Cubans, but one thing is for sure: to this day, whenever I go to Miami to perform, I perform for Colombians and never for Cubans.
JIC: The download of De Cachete has suburb sound quality and you have clearly not skimped on production values, having used a high calibre 10-piece band for the recording in Cali, Colombia. Please tell me the story behind the project?
HF: This was, basically, a "kill two birds with one stone" kind of thing. I was scheduled to go to Colombia to do an extended tour, and considering the top-quality musicians that are available in Colombia, especially Cali, I thought it made sense to take advantage of the trip and record the album in Colombia instead of in the States. It was recorded in a state-of-the-art studio, Dial Music Studios, which is considered by many not only to be the best studio in Cali, but maybe in the entire country as well. As far as the musicians go, I had already worked with most of them over the years, and my friend, the very talented bassist Jorge Herrera (director of La Misma Gente), was instrumental in fleshing out the group by recommending some really top-notch players. I was determined not to make the same mistake I had made on my previous album where I used a click track or a metronome to lay down the basic rhythm tracks; so this time we rehearsed the rhythm section, got it tight, and then we laid down the skeletal rhythm tracks all together in one shot. I think this accounts for the general swing and the "live" feel that we were lucky enough to achieve on the album.
JIC: Your long-time associate Russell "Skee" Farnsworth with your oldest son Orlando Fiol wrote the charts for your nine compositions on De Cachete, which provide ample opportunities for solos. However, I suspect as with your previous albums, you had a hand in the arrangements? You can comment about specific arrangements and stylistic elements when we discuss the tracks in a moment, but before we do, please tell me about Russell and Orlando?
HF: Let's start with Russell Farnsworth, better known as "Skee". Skee is an excellent, accomplished musician - he plays bass, piano, cello, sitar - and, as you say, my association with him goes back a long way. He became known on the Latin scene as the bass player for Ricardo Ray back in the late '60s and early '70s, and he also was my bass player when I started my conjunto in the early '80s. Skee, who, incidentally, is the son of Philo T. Farnsworth, the genius who is credited with inventing television via the cathode ray tube, was also my arranger at the beginning of my solo career with SAR Records, and most of my best-selling records had been arranged by him.
Orlando, my oldest son, is another extraordinary musician. Blind from birth, Orlando, was already playing Latin percussion instruments (conga and bongo) at three or four years old, a talent which he continued to develop as he matured to the point of learning to play the batá drums which are considered by many to be the most advanced, intricate, and difficult percussion instruments to master. When he was nine years old, he began studying piano at the Lighthouse, a special school for the blind in New York, and at age 16 he won the prestigious Itzak Perlman award, an annual award given to the best musician in the United States with a handicap, for his accomplishments as a classical pianist. Around that time, Orlando had already begun to play with my conjunto, and he continued to play with my group for many years, serving as my arranger and right-hand man, until he moved to Philadelphia about six or seven years ago. Obviously, as a blind musician/arranger, Orlando requires the help of a transcriber, someone to write down his ideas and put them on the pentagram in correct musical notation.
When it came time to begin the preparation of the arrangements for the new De Cachete album, I could think of no better combination than Orlando and Skee. So Orlando came up from Philadelphia on a cold winter weekend in January, and we got together at Skee's house and began to collaborate on the arrangements: Orlando at the piano, Skee on bass, and me singing and playing the clave. With regard to my input into my arrangements, I would have to say that, even though I don't read or write music, I've always had, from the time of Saoco up to now, very specific ideas about what I want in my arrangements. Using my voice, I, basically, sing the parts to the arranger - the basic melody of the song, the piano licks, the guitar licks, the bass lines, the lead trumpet parts on the intro, coda, mambo, moña, etc. - and he in turn writes it down, voicing the harmonies on the horns, and, of course, adding his own ideas as well. In this case, on the De Cachete arrangements, Orlando was very instrumental in laying down the basic elements of what the rhythm section would be playing - setting everything in clave, establishing the chord changes, and finalising all the different licks or "guajeos" for bass, piano and guitar - while Skee's input was more in terms of key selection, setting down the horn lines, voicing the horn lines, and the overall transcription of everything. I was very pleased with the work we were able to put together in the preparation of these charts, the chemistry between us was good, and I thought it was a great combination, a combination I'd definitely like to use again on another project sometime in the future.
JIC: Please tell me about the sidemen and musical directors involved in De Cachete?
HF: The rhythm section was composed of Jorge Herrera, an excellent bass player who helped greatly in converting the notes on paper I brought from New York into a musical reality, Piolín Gálvez, a great pianist who diligently studied my son Orlando's ideas off of a cassette and executed them extremely well, William Ospino, a very competent bongo player with lots of swing and good time on the bell, and myself on conga. Jorge Huertas came in afterwards and completed the rhythm section with some tasty guitar work. Edgar Espinosa, an excellent musician/vocalist was the man on tenor sax, and he worked hard with the rhythm section, doing the counting and giving us the cues so that we knew where we were in the song at any given moment. The horn section was rounded out by an up-and-coming young talent, Javier Aponzá, on trumpet and flugelhorn, and the veteran trumpeter Oswaldo Ospino (William Ospino's brother). I was particularly pleased with the way the coro (chorus) turned out. Héctor Viveros - a guy who, along with Ella Fitzgerald, can break glass with his powerful vocal vibrations - worked his magic on the top voice, while Alex Torres blended perfectly underneath. And then, to finish things off, yours truly added a little spice to the mix by playing maracas and güiro, and I also overdubbed all the different drum parts on the rumba section of the last tune, "Una Rumba Mas".
JIC: Please provide some insight into the lyrics and meaning of the songs you wrote for De Cachete, especially for those who are not fully conversant with Spanish (and this includes me)? Let's begin at the top with "De Cachete", the trumpet arrangements for which reference the Chappottín sound?
HF: The title song "De Cachete" (which means "freebie" in English) is a type of manifesto of sorts in the sense that it explains, albeit indirectly, the reasons behind the free download idea. In the first two verses or "guias", I, basically, say that one can no longer compete with all the new technology, and the time has come to surrender. I then go on to say that I compose my song for young and old, rich and poor, but to have it stolen from me, I'd rather just give it away. Then the coro (chorus) kicks in and I explain in the vocal fills (called "inspirations" or "soneos"), that I'm bringing you a freebie on a silver platter, to download, to enjoy, to relax with, to groove with, etc. (This is, obviously, why I'm photographed on the back cover holding a silver platter full of CDs.)
JIC: Tell me about "Tantas Curvas", which has a nice solo from sax player and co-musical director Edgar Espinosa.
HF: I often like to compose material based on everyday street stuff, and this tune is based on something very common in Latino culture: the "piropo" or pick-up line, something that a guy would say to a fine girl as she passes by. In this case, the "piropo" is: "Tantas curvas, y yo sin frenos", which literally translates into: "So many curves, and me without brakes." At the beginning, in the two little verses at the top and in the bridge, it explains that every time this chick passes by, shaking it, the guy goes nuts; his blood pressure rises, his heart starts pounding furiously, and it feels like it's about to explode from the violent vibrations. Then he goes on to say that if he were an ant, he'd do a circuit around her little waist; then he'd "climb up the mountain, looking for the plains", but he'd never find it because there's nothing flat; it's all curves 'cause this broad is stacked. Then the song develops the idea as it moves along: "Oh, baby, you're gonna kill me, so many curves and I have no brakes; I can't stop...I'm gonna crash!" Everything rhymes and sounds a lot better in Spanish, but that's the basic idea. I particularly like the sax solo that Edgar Espinosa takes towards the end of this cut; his tone and phrasing remind me a lot of one of my favourite Latin saxophonists, José "Chombo" Silva.
JIC: Next up is "A la Larga", which features a fine solo from pianist Carlos "Piolín" Gálvez.
HF: This phrase, "a la larga", means "in the end" or "in the long run". The lyric warns an adversary that you can try and beat me and hurt me, using everything you've got (or ''hit me with your best shot", in other words), but in the end - "a la larga" - when the smoke clears and it's the last round, you'll wind up kissing the canvas. "Piolín" Gálvez takes a nice piano solo on this tune, and Oswaldo Ospino takes the trumpet solo deep into the montuno when the song starts to roll.
JIC: Tell me about "Chekendeke", which features a guitar solo from former Los Del Caney leader Jorge "Chavo" Huertas, a solo from bongosero William Ospino and a trumpet solo?
HF: "Chekendeke" is a word or expression, undoubtedly of African origin, which is used mostly by Cuban drummers to mean that "something special", that intangible "swing", "soul", "feeling" or "heart" one puts into one's playing that is essential and makes all the difference. The song says, basically, that even though you can read the notes of music on the staff or the pentagram, and you possess all kinds of technique and training, if you don't have "chekendeke", you ain't got much. It's quite similar in meaning to the old big-band classic: "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." As you point out, guitarist Jorge Huertas takes a tasty solo on this cut, as does William Ospino the bongo player. The short trumpet solo at the end is Javier Aponzá.
JIC: The fifth track, "La Vendedora", which again features some great sax work from Edgar Espinosa, was the first to really hit me. Tell me about this song?
HF: "La Vendedora" or the "The Vendor" in English, is a song which describes a fine black woman with a beautiful walk who carries a metal bowl balanced on her head, selling avocados and hawking her wares, something that is a common sight in Colombia and other Latin American countries. Hence the repetitive word "aguacate" or avocado, which is shouted out, gracefully, as a "pregón" or a "seller's call", to alert prospective buyers that she has the goods. As the afternoon wears on, she hasn't sold too many avocados, and begins to worry about her children and what food she'll be able to provide for them at suppertime. She swallows her anguish and keeps on keepin' on, calling out, "I got avocados, for God's sake, buy something", which is the refrain that becomes the "coro" or chorus of the song. Edgar Espinosa takes a strong sax solo here, and lifts the tune to its climax.
JIC: "El Agua Busca su Nivel"?
HF: This phrase literally means: water seeks its own level. It's a saying in Spanish that is used to express the idea that most people are usually cut from a certain cloth, or out of a certain mould, according to heredity or their inherent nature, giving them an almost predetermined status in life, and even though they may try hard to move up and put on a false front, "water always seeks its own level", and, eventually, they give themselves away through their actions and reveal themselves to be the lowlifes that they really are. I sing this song tongue-in-cheek, but with a lot of bitterness, and it's dedicated to the so-called "men" who don't know what it means to keep their word. Keeping one's word is something that was drilled into me as a child, mainly by my Italian grandfather, and it's something that has always been sacred to me - and it's also caused me considerable strife over the years, particularly in a business where promises are made and broken according to which way the wind is blowing. Some of the main lines are: "You're content at your level, like a fly in filth, like a rat in the sewer, or like a pig in the mud. I would have liked to have said, "like a pig in shit", but it would have been too vulgar and over-the-top for a song.
JIC: "La Canción del Delfín" has an initial ballad feel, then changes pace mid-song. Tell me about this cut?
HF: "La Canción del Delfín", or "Song of the Dolphin", is, without a doubt, my favourite song on the album. It attempts, in a poetic and symbolic way, to express something non-literal, something elusive and spiritual, something that can only be expressed via images and word-pictures. I would like it to be considered as an "art song" of sorts, a musical-painting using sounds, harmonies, colours, mystic symbols, and naive, almost child-like poetry to reach the listener on an emotional level, to get to the listener's subconscious rather than conscious mind. Some things don't translate well, but I'll try to explain the allegory, line by line when possible, because it sets up what follows and is crucial to understanding the exaltation of the montuno.
"A dolphin got lost, looking for his burial ground (a place to die), and in his suffering, he cried, but the sea covered his tears. A dolphin got lost, looking for his burial ground (a place to die), and in his suffering he sang, but the sea swallowed his song. Refrain: "Listen to the song of the dolphin, ...listen to the song of the dolphin. And he swam and he swam, and his agony grew, when suddenly, all at once, he heard a beautiful melody. He stopped, ...he listened, ...and he sang along in harmony. And in doing so, he was saved, and his happiness returned. Refrain: "Listen to the song of the dolphin, ...listen to the song of the dolphin. Then, after the montuno kicks in, the chorus or chant becomes: "A dolphin is reborn, he's dancing in the waves." In my "soneos" (vocal fills in between the chants or choruses), I try to elaborate and paint a musical word-picture of the scene at hand: an intelligent, innocent, almost God-like creature, brought back from the brink of suicide, in the throws of ecstasy, joyously leaping and dancing, doing pirouettes in the waves, at dawn, jumping beyond the rainbow, singing to the lavender sky, ...reborn.
I took a big risk in this composition, in the sense that I opened up and exposed, perhaps, more of my inner-self than I may have wanted, making myself a little too vulnerable. But so be it. That's what artists do. I, regrettably, must admit that, so far, only a few individuals have mentioned this song or made any comment about it at all. Maybe because it's not very salsa-ish or salsa-like. I don't know. Or maybe because they just don't get it; they're not reading between the lines; they're not getting the poetry or the symbolism. This saddens me because this is not a song that should be read on a superficial level; it has several layers of meaning. It's not a simple-dimple song about a fish, any more than Henri Rousseau's famous painting of "A Tiger in the Rain" is a picture about a tiger, or Debussy's "Afternoon of a Faun" is a musical piece about a baby deer.
JIC: "Amos y Siervos"?
HF: "Amos y Siervos" means "Lords and Serfs" in English. This is a social-commentary type of song where I draw the analogy between medieval, feudal life (lords and serfs) and the commonly-lived, modern-day life of consumerism: living beyond one's means or "spreading oneself too thin" by borrowing from the bank (mortgage, car loan, furniture loan, student loan, credit cards, insurance, etc.), and in doing so, surrendering one's liberty and accepting an almost slave-like or serf-like existence. In the opening verses of the song, I state that nothing has really changed from medieval times to the present; it's, basically, the same ol' shit on a different plate. The only thing that has changed are the names; everything else has remained the same. The present-day "lord" is simply the bank, and we, the public at large, are the lowly serfs, working our asses off, like a rat on a spinning treadmill wheel, desperately trying to repay everything the bank has fronted us and stay afloat - kind of like sharecroppers in disguise.
JIC: And finally "Un Rumba Mas". I remember that your first Corazón Records album Corazón (1983) featured "La Ultima Rumba". Both showcase your soloing skills on conga.
HF: As I explained earlier, I refrain from calling myself a true "rumbero" because that's a term I hold in extremely high regard, a lofty status that I can only aspire to attain. But I can say, without any hesitation, that I've always been a lover of the rumba and that I've always had a rumbero's heart. This last song on the album, "Una Rumba Mas", is an expression of this, and it can best be understood as being the last will and testament of a rumbero. In the song, I, basically, say that when I die, rather than flowers, I'd prefer drums, and that I be sent out with "Una Rumba Mas", or one more rumba - with drumming, singing, and dancing - so I can go into the afterlife swinging, content, and in peace. Several months ago, I had the privilege to attend a memorial service for a real, died-in-the-wool rumbero, the late, great Carlos "Patato" Valdés, in which he was sent out in true rumbero fashion: with music and one helluva rumba. I had already written "Una Rumba Mas" the year before, but it was quite a moving experience in that I saw my song, my song's lyrics, and my song's message, realised and illustrated in detail, right before my eyes.
As far as the structure of the song itself goes, it begins as a "salón" or dance-hall guaguancó, but ends with a street-style rumba, a guaguancó played in the contemporary "guarapachangueo" style. After my co-musicians helped me lay down the basic skeleton of the rumba section, I overdubbed all of the drum parts myself, and tried, as best I could, to get it to sound live and spontaneous, and to give it that true rumba flavour. I feel okay about the results; my only regret is that I think the rumba section might have worked better if it were a little shorter though; as is, it might be a little too much.
JIC: Is there anything further that you would like to say about De Cachete before we move on?
HF: Yes, I have to acknowledge the contribution that bassist Jorge Herrera made not only in the production of this recording, but also in the post-production as well. One of the lessons I learned a long time ago as a bandleader is the importance of the bass player in a musical ensemble. These unheralded workhorses of our music rarely take a solo and are often ignored by the audience, but the swing starts from the bottom up. In other words, if the bass player ain't happening, it doesn't matter what you put on top of it, it ain't gonna happen; there won't be any swing. Yet, conversely, an excellent bass player can make even a mediocre group sound good. In the case of Jorge Herrera, he's always a pleasure to work with because, besides playing bass, he's also a percussionist and has excellent knowledge of the clave, the "golpes" of the drums, and has an excellent rhythmic sense, which helps greatly in laying down the foundation for the swing. And he also plays extremely in tune, which is half the battle for any singer. On top of all of this, Jorge has incredible ears, and when it came time to mix and master the recording, he, graciously, lent them to me and played a major role in the post-production phase of the recording process as well.
JIC: Tell me about the earliest bands you performed and recorded with?
HF: As I stated earlier, before I became known as a singer, I started out as a conga player. At first I played with a couple of Latin-rock bands who I guess were trying to piggyback on the success that Santana was having then in the late-'60s with his Latin-tinged rock sound. I then began a stint with a quintet named "La Placa" that was playing at a resort hotel in the Catskills area of upstate New York. La Placa was an imitation of La Playa Sextet in that, like La Playa, La Plata and Randy Carlos, they used an electric guitar instead of a piano. I was the only Latino in the group, the only one who could speak and possibly sing in Spanish - the other band members were all Jewish guys with one Italian - and I was elected to lay down some vocals as I played the congas. This experience turned out to be very instrumental in my development as a singer because, although I would sing and play the conga in the rumbas, I never considered myself a singer and never really had sung with a band before.
After La Placa came the Orchestra Capri - this was a bit of a misnomer because the band actually was a two-trumpet conjunto - where I played conga and sang coro. This band had had a hit with the English bolero "I Regret" (from En Fuego on Salsa), sung by the golden-voiced Dukie González (who eventually would sing coro with my Corazón group), and even though they had other original tunes in their book with that same Nuyorican flavour, a good percentage of the band's repertoire consisted of old Cuban conjunto tunes, mostly from Chocolate y sus Estrellas, that were played true to form in a very típico style. The Capri had a very tight, clean, precise sound, and the leader, the talented pianist Félix Morales - who may have been related to the great Noro Morales, perhaps a nephew, but I'm not sure - was very strict in that he knew exactly what he wanted played and how he wanted it played. In retrospect, I'd have to credit Félix with teaching me, in a very hands-on, nuts-and-bolts kind of way, and exposing me to the basic elements of the típico style and how these elements locked together.
After the Capri came a charanga, "Típica New York", that was led by Mike Pérez, one of the best Cuban violin players around at that time. Mike had the custom of bringing in some heavy musicians - albeit on a freelance, temporary basis - to cover some of the gigs from time to time, and I relished this because as a young, relatively inexperienced musician, I would get the opportunity to play alongside some great players, such as Cachao, the veteran bassist Eddie "Guagua" Rivera, percussionist Ray Mantilla, the late pianist José Madrid, and others. And he also used quite a few up-and-coming talents, such as flutists Dave Valentín and Andrea Brachfeld, and also vocalist Ronnie Baró. I had already written some songs by this time, and Mike arranged one of them and then was gracious enough to allow me to record it and sing it myself. This would mark my debut as a vocalist, and the name of the tune was the comical little ditty, "Cundy Macundy" (included in Mike Pérez y su Orq. Típica New York on Mas Records).
JIC: Tell me all about the formation of Saoco, the concept behind the group and the personnel involved?
HF: Around this time, by the early to mid-'70s, I had already composed a group of songs that could best be described - for lack of a better term - as "ultra-típico" in that they sounded more Cuban, and had more of the country or "guajiro" feel than most of the other original tunes that were being recorded in New York at the time. I felt that these songs had to be arranged in a corresponding ultra-típico style, and I also felt that I had to form an ultra-típico conjunto in order to play them. At first I collaborated with the talented pianist Danny "Mago" Franklin (now deceased), who also had some original tunes that he wanted to record and bring to light. I named the band "Saoco del Solar" and Mago and I began the initial work on the arrangement of the songs - some of the same songs that later would appear on the first Saoco album, albeit re-worked and modified - but due to the difficulty we encountered in getting capable musicians to come down and play the charts so we could hear them - without the prospect of any work - the project stalled and eventually floundered.
Around this same time, William Millán, an excellent bassist who lived in the same lower-Manhattan neighbourhood known as "Loisaida", was the leader of a band called La Vida. I did a couple of gigs on congas with La Vida, and after the last of these gigs, an ugly argument erupted which caused the break-up of the group. At this point, Willie and I decided to join forces, combine our respective repertoires, continue with some of the remaining La Vida musicians, and form a new band. This was the beginning of Saoco, and in those early stages, the nucleus or rhythm section was composed of Willie Millán on bass and coro, Ray Santiago on piano (who later would play with my Corazón band), Ray "Timbalito" Alcántara on bongo and timbales, Sammy Chévere on maracas and güiro, and myself on lead vocals and conga. If I remember correctly, we didn't really have any steady trumpet players then - they would vary according to the gigs and who was available - and we didn't really have that much work either. Those were rough times, and in those days, no venue - whether it be a bar, a lounge, an "after-hours", or a rinky-dink social club - was too small for us to play in - not to mention all the freebies and free auditions that we would do just to be heard and get our foot in the door. There was also many a night where my partner Willie and myself would sacrifice our pay and go home empty-handed just to keep the band working and intact.
But the tide eventually turned for us after I invested in a six-tune demo/master that we recorded in a small studio on Long Island. The great producer Al Santiago, of Alegre Records fame, wound up hearing the recording and offered us a deal with Montuno Records, a label in which he was a partner with two other gentlemen. Montuno then brought us into the studio to record a couple of more tunes in order to have enough for an album, but, unfortunately for us, when the product was ready to hit the street - the cover art, the photography, the packaging, etc. was all finished and ready to roll - there was a falling out between the partners at the label which resulted in the dissolution of the company. Needless to say, we were devastated, and, if that weren't enough of a disappointment, we had to wait more than a year, sitting on the shelf, worrying and nail-biting, until Montuno finally reached an agreement with Mericana Records and sold them the rights to the production so that our album, our "baby", could be released. So, as you can see, the success of Saoco didn't happen overnight; it took several years of blood, sweat and tears, and we definitely paid our dues.
JIC: Saoco's 1976 debut on Mericana Records, Siempre Seré Guajiro, was a bestseller and took the band to Madison Square Garden as one of the year's hottest properties, but you did not complete the band's follow-up Macho Mumba on Salsoul Records, only singing the lead vocals on five of the eight tracks. What's the story there?
HF: These events are a little too painful to remember and rehash in detail. Let's just say that a rift developed between the record company and myself which resulted in a court case that was, basically, a dispute over who had the right to the use of the name Saoco. It took a couple of years until the case reached the court for decision, but when the verdict finally came down, the ruling roughly stated that even though I had been the creator and registered owner of the name Saoco, upon signing the Mericana contract, these rights had been relinquished or ceded to the company, and Mericana Records was, in fact, the owner of the name Saoco. The ruling did go on to state, however, that I was to be released from the contract - which was long and binding - and that I was free to perform or record with whomever as long as I did not use the name Saoco. At this point, after all this suffering and aggravation, I vowed to never use any type of band name or pseudonym again; from that point on I would use my real name, the name my mother and father gave me, a name that could never be taken away.
JIC: You said in Salsa Talks!: "I've never been cooperative with the powers that be in the music industry. It's a cultural thing, see?" Please expand?
HF: Let's just say that it relates to my previous comments re: the song "El Agua Busca su Nivel." Because of the way I was raised, with the strong influence of my Italian grandparents (whom I saw every day because they lived across the street), I feel that in the centre or core of my being, my personality and my values are more Italian than Latino. This is not to make a value judgement, however; I'm not saying that my values are any better or any worse than anyone else's - just different. This has created cultural conflicts for me over the years, and this is what I meant when I said that it's a "cultural thing."
JIC: After being out of commission for a while, you bounced back in 1980 with your bestselling solo debut Fe, Esperanza y Caridad on SAR Records produced by Roberto Torres. How did the SAR deal come about?
HF: I don't remember who called who, but I do remember that I had been quite impressed with one of the first recordings released by SAR, Monguito El Unico's album Yo No Soy Mentiroso (1979). I knew that if I could record with that same group of musicians, something good could result. In other words, what SAR was now doing and what I had been trying to do with Saoco was a match, a good fit, and I think it was fairly obvious, both to the SAR partners and to myself as well.
JIC: The era of the SAR stable (including the Guajiro, Toboga and Neón labels), which lasted for about five years in New York, with its distinctive house sound, seemed very exciting. What was it like recording for the company?
HF: Well, It was a great experience for me because I got the opportunity to record with some experienced, top-notch musicians, like Chocolate Armenteros, Alfredito Valdés, Guillermo Edgehill, John "Dandy" Rodríguez, and Roberto Torres as well. I feel that the accompaniment they provided on the recordings lifted me up and brought me up to a new level.
JIC: Fe, Esperanza y Caridad and your SAR follow-up, El Secreto (1981), both featured a two-trumpet conjunto of session musicians, including SAR All Stars' Chocolate, Alfredo Valdés Jr. and Charlie Rodríguez. However, your 1983 self-produced SAR finale La Ley de La Jungla used a frontline of one trumpet and a tenor saxophone. Why the change?
HF: The tenor sax has always been one of my favourite instruments - it is said that the tenor sax is the instrument that sounds the closest to the human voice - and now that I was starting my own band, I wanted to incorporate it into my conjunto to try and create a new, distinctive conjunto sound, one that would set my group apart from the other conjuntos out there at the time, and give me more of the New York sound that I was looking for. Another reason was that I had always listened to a lot of jazz, and I knew that trumpet and tenor - which was a very common combination in jazz quintets - could sound thick and fat if the two instruments were arranged properly and played in a tight, synchronised way. Also, switching to the sax was like adding a new colour to my box of crayons, and I thought that it would set up some new possibilities as far as my arrangements were concerned, allowing me to bring in some of the elements and the feel of Brazilian music, which I was listening to a lot at the time.
JIC: In Fe, Esperanza y Caridad and El Secreto you cover tunes associated with soneros you admire, such as Cheo Marquetti and Abelardo Barroso. Tell me the story behind these selections and your approach to interpreting them?
HF: On my first SAR album, producer Roberto Torres didn't want to include any original material at all; he wanted only to do covers or adaptations of old Cuban tunes. He gave me a cassette with a series of songs on it that he thought would fit me well. I remember that I didn't want to do "La Juma de Ayer" at first because I really didn't like it that much - I thought it sounded kind of corny - but he believed in the commercial potential of the tune and convinced me to do it. "Skee" Farnsworth and myself had to do a lot of work on it, though, adding new coros, expanding the montuno, and using some new elements in the arrangement to make it sound a little hipper. Roberto Torres also suggested Pio Leiva's "Ciprian," which, after Skee and I re-worked it, became one of my favourite tunes. If I'm not mistaken, I think I suggested "Oriente" because I had already worked on that tune when I had been collaborating with "Mago," and I knew that I could squeeze more feeling out of the lyric if it were to be done at a slower tempo, more like a "guajira." But after the success of my first SAR recording, Roberto allowed me in my subsequent albums to include more original material and also to bring in more of my ideas. I must say at this point, however, that one of the major factors that distinguished my sound from the "SAR sound" and the sound of the other SAR artists, was the time and effort Skee and myself put into the charts. Most of the other SAR recordings were cranked out with the house band, using simple arrangements that were almost like "head charts," and I think the resulting music, although quite swinging at times, reflects this.
JIC: La Ley de La Jungla contains a masterful cover of Eddie Palmieri's "No Hay Mal Que Por Bien No Venga" originally from what you describe in the 1998/9 Descarga catalogue as probably your favourite of his La Perfecta recordings (Lo Que Traigo Es Sabroso '64 on Alegre). Tell me why you chose to interpret this track and the significance of Eddie and Conjunto La Perfecta in your musical growth?
HF: Well, I really don't consider it "masterful" at all. In fact, I was very disappointed with the results. I was just learning how to use the sax in the conjunto at that point, and I really didn't like the thin, wimpy way the horns sounded on the finished recording. I probably should have left that tune alone - Eddie Palmieri's original version sounds ten times better - but I was very attracted to the lyric. After all the trials and tribulations and suffering I had been through with Saoco, I couldn't help identifying with the message and the words of the song, and it fit me and my situation like a glove. I thought, perhaps, because of Palmieri's emphasis on swing, the meaning of the song got a little lost in the shuffle, and I figured that if I could slow it down and really milk the lyric, I could bring this meaningful, down-to-earth life message home to the listeners, many of whom I knew were struggling against poverty and all kinds of adversity in their personal lives. As far as Eddie Palmieri and La Perfecta's influence on me is concerned, as I stated earlier, this is what I listened to in the early '60s when I was first getting into Latin music. I had all of Palmieri's Alegre recordings, and I listened to them constantly. In fact, I probably had all of Ismael Quintana's soneos memorised and I could sing along with him, word for word. I remember I was in high school when "Muñeca" hit, and that was a killer.
JIC: Why did the run with SAR come to the end and the Corazón Records chapter of 1983 to 1986 begin?
HF: SAR Records was a partnership that had been forged between three individuals, and, as the situation was explained to me, a conflict had developed among the partners that caused the demise of the label. Another factor may have been the merengue boom of the mid-'80s that hurt salsa sales quite a bit. Re: the establishment of Corazón Records, the break-up of SAR had left me in the lurch so to speak, and I had to keep whatever momentum I had going, somehow, otherwise I could easily have faded away and become a memory in the Latin music business. Around that time several salsa artists had started their own labels and had struck out on their own, and I felt I had no choice but to do so as well. So I made an investment with the money I had saved, and Corazón Records was born.
JIC: Corazón featured more covers of songs associated with your heroes, including "La Negra Sanda" and "Monina" from José Fajardo's Mister Pachanga (Columbia, 1962) and Mon Rivera's Que Gente Averiguá (Alegre, 1963) respectively, both albums you selected for the 1998/9 Descarga catalogue. Tell me about your interpretations and the significance of these artists and albums to you?
HF: The Mister Pachanga album had been one of my favourite charanga albums, particularly because of the great sound that it had - I think it was recorded in a superior American studio - and "La Negra Sanda" was one of my favourite tunes on the album. I always thought that it was a song that could really swing if arranged and adapted to the conjunto format. As far as "Monina" and Mon Rivera is concerned, Mon had always been a favourite of mine - I think he was one of the true originals in this business - ever since I first heard him on the hit "Dolores" with the Joe Cotto band. Around the time in question, I had asked Skee Farnsworth to make a quick arrangement of "Monina" so that my coro singer could have a tune to sing lead on and stretch out a little on the gigs. The song always got a good reaction from the dancers, and after this particular vocalist left the band, I thought it might me a good idea to record it myself - which I did.
JIC: What's the story behind the raw "live" sound on Colorao y Negro (1985), your second Corazón release?
HF: Unlike many of my colleagues who would replace their regular, working musicians with studio musicians when it came time to record, I, for the most part, used the same guys who made up my Corazón conjunto on the Corazón recordings. I felt that it was only fair; my attitude was: if you're good enough to gig with me, then you should be good enough to record with me as well. Unfortunately, Corazón Records was always operating on a shoestring budget - I recorded a couple of albums in inexpensive "American" or non-Latin studios that were way out in the suburbs - and it was usually a matter of "beat the clock"; we would rehearse the material and then try and lay it down in the studio in one or two takes or as quickly as possible. This probably accounts for the "live" sound you mentioned. On this particular album, however, I think I went a little overboard on the reverb or the echo. I was trying to correct a flaw I had perceived on the previous album, which I thought was too thin and dry-sounding, and I think I overcompensated and ruined a couple of nice cuts in the process.
JIC: When my wife Helen and I first met you and saw you perform with your conjunto Corazón (all in immaculate uniform); you were on the same bill as Héctor Lavoe and his orchestra on a quiet Friday night at the now defunct Corso club in Manhattan in 1986. However, I subsequently learnt that it was rarity for you to perform in Manhattan at that point. Please could you give some insight into the live scene in New York during that era?
HF: As far as me rarely performing in Manhattan at that time, I don't think that was really true. I, admittedly, would play a lot in the borough of Queens for the Colombian crowd, but my booking agent in those days was actually the manager of the Corso nightclub and he would put us in at the Corso on a regular basis - and for some reason, I would often be paired with Héctor Lavoe as well.
Re: the uniforms you mentioned, in retrospect, looking back on the scene at the time, I sincerely doubt that I would still be out here today, alive in this business and doing my thing, if it hadn't been for the idea of the uniforms and the red-black-and-white colour scheme that I came up with when I went independent and started the Corazón label. I took a lot of criticism for this at the time - few really understood what I was trying to do - and some of the comments I heard were really hurtful. I simply was trying to create a vivid, colourful, "show biz" kind of identity for my group because, as I said before, I was operating on an extremely limited budget - I had little or no money for the promotion of my product, let alone for payola - so I had to do something that was effective yet inexpensive. So I bought a few dozen sweaters and caps, and a few pieces of red felt that would be cut out and applied to the uniform as "corazones" or hearts, and I used this as our uniform for several years. To my knowledge, no other salsa group had done or was doing anything remotely resembling this at the time, so the idea of the uniforms worked; it set us apart and gave us an identity that kept us in the minds and also on the tongues of the fans all through the middle part of the decade, a time when salsa artists couldn't get themselves arrested because of the popularity of the merengue.
As far as the club scene in New York at the time is concerned, there was a fairly large circuit of clubs because of all the money that was floating around - the coke trade was at its apex then - and on any given night, especially in Queens, whether it be a Tuesday, a Wednesday or whatever, there was always some club open that presented live salsa. In Manhattan, in the larger venues, it was a bit more difficult for the salseros because a lot of the open slots were being filled with merengue bands, who at the time were riding a crest of popularity that was kicking everybody's butt.
JIC: Citing the shrinking salsa circuit, you disbanded your group in 1988 and decided to discontinue Corazón Records. You even experimented with an English language "salsa-pop" concept at this point. How did this fare and why did you abandon it?
HF: The shrinking salsa circuit was definitely a factor in the disbanding of my group, but the main reason was the irresponsibility of some of my musicians - constantly arriving late or throwing a bomb on me, and not showing at all - and all this stress was getting to me. I felt that it was time to shut things down, take a rest, recuperate, and then come back again refreshed. In the interim, during this hiatus, I made a salsa-in-English or "salsa-pop" demo of three songs ("Have A Little Faith," "No Way Baby," and "Dig Yourself") with my son Orlando - I guess I was looking for some kind of an escape route off of a sinking ship - but it didn't really pan out. The feedback that I got was that it was "too Latin" for the Anglos, and conversely, "too Anglo" for the Latinos. Fusing Latin music and polyrhythmic percussion concepts with English lyrics has always been an extremely difficult endeavour to pull of successfully; it's like trying to mix oil and water; they just don't want to blend.
JIC: How did you hook-up with Humberto Corredor and Henry Cárdenas from the Colombian club Abuelo Pachanguero in Queens, New York, on whose label El Abuelo you issued Renacimiento in 1989?
HF: I had known Humberto for many years - he, as you say, had a club in New York, and he also had brought me to Colombia a couple of times - so we were friends. Humberto was aware of my popularity with the Colombian fans, and when he started his Abuelo label with partner Henry Cárdenas, I guess he saw potential. Although I did record my first, and only, tune in English on this album, "So Much in Love," I think this album is quite noteworthy in that it was collaboration between only two people: my son Orlando - who was only about 16 or 17 years old at the time - and myself. (As I said earlier, the musicians had stressed me out too much around this time, and I just didn't want to deal with them anymore.) So, between the two of us, and with the help of a transcriber, we wrote the arrangements (only the horn charts were really necessary), and then proceeded to overdub all of the parts ourselves - with the exception of the horns. Unfortunately, the synthesized guitar sample that we were forced to use at the time was not as good and doesn't sound as genuine as what is available today on a present-day synthesizer, and I consider this to be the major flaw on the album; but if one overlooks this and focuses on the material and the way it was executed - specifically by a blind, inexperienced 16-year-old - I think this recording is astounding. This album includes some of my better compositions, "Palo Santo," "Ojos Que No Ven," "Aprovecha Mi Son" and "Maria Mia," to name a few, but because of the lack of promotion and poor distribution - distribution is always an insurmountable stumbling block for most small, independent labels - this recording flew under the radar and went, basically, unnoticed. This hurt me quite a bit, mainly because I thought that my son's accomplishments on this album were truly amazing for a young man, particularly for one with such a limiting handicap, and, unfortunately, for whatever reasons, these accomplishments went totally unheralded.
JIC: It was not unsurprising that you recorded with a Colombian-run label at this point, as you had gained a significant following in Colombia and among the Colombian diaspora. Please could you share your views about this?
HF: Well, there's really not too much to say. From the very beginning, with my first SAR recording, I got lucky in Colombia; my music really seemed to click among the Colombian fans. I've tried to analyse this phenomenon over the years, and I think some of my success might come from the lyrical content and the feeling that most of my songs contain and project. I've travelled quite a bit over the years, and one of my observations - at the risk of generalising - has been that each country has a "collective personality" of sorts. In other words, in some countries, like the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, for example, a good percentage of the people see music as a fun thing, a pleasurable distraction, something that's basically escapist in nature and in function. In Colombia, on the other hand, the vast majority of the people are quite verbal and extremely well spoken - possibly because of an excellent educational system - and I think this may carry over into their taste in music. The average Colombian - and I'm generalising again here - looks for content and meaning in music, spiritual food, and food for thought as well, something that makes them think, something that fills them up and crystallises some of the things that they may be feeling in their daily lives. Much of my music - with the exception of some of the fun songs I've recorded and the songs that are, basically, dance tunes - usually has content and some sort of message. Perhaps this might account for some of the success I've had in Colombia, but who knows?, and who's to say? All I really know is that I'm really grateful to the Colombian fans for their interest and their support over the years; without them, God knows where I would be by now.
JIC: In a 2007 interview for Herencia Latina you comment: "The problem is that when I go to Europe to play, I do not play for Europeans but for Colombians or Latin Americans who emigrated to Europe." Why do you perceive this as a problem?
HF: I re-read the Herencia Latina interview and I really didn't come across the word "problem," or "problema" in Spanish; maybe it somehow crept into the translation. I don't know. But, for me, it's definitely not a problem. Basically, what I was trying to say was that, although I'm extremely grateful for the support of my Colombian fans over the years - if it weren't for them, these re-located Colombians who have emigrated to Europe, I might not even be going to Europe at all - I still would like to reach a native European audience as well. (I'm always looking for ways to expand my fan base and bring my music to as many other countries and other cultures as possible.) This is not to say, however, that native Europeans don't show up at my performances; they do, but they're definitely in the minority, probably due to the lack of promotion and the poor distribution that has plagued me in Europe for many years. I'm hoping that the free-download idea might correct this problem and bring more native European fans into the fold, but we'll see what happens.
JIC: Your three Corazón releases, Corazón, Colorao y Negro and Juega Billar! (1986), retained the one trumpet and a tenor saxophone combination, but on Renacimiento you added a second trumpet. What was your reason for this decision?
HF: Part of the reason was purely musical. With three horns, instead of two, there are many more things that can be done harmonically in the arrangements. Also, I've always liked the idea of the sax taking a solo and then throwing a moña (a 16-bar repetitive horn figure) on top, to lift and intensify the swing. This manoeuvre, obviously, has more power and is more effective, if two trumpets are playing the moña instead of one. But another reason why I added the additional trumpet was purely pragmatic and functional: to protect myself from vulnerable situations as a bandleader. As I said before, the one trumpet with tenor sax combination can sound thick and fat, and can be adequate, if one has steady players who know the book and are phrasing everything together, very precisely in a tight, synchronised way. Unfortunately, because of the realities of the music business, I would often find myself in situations, on any given night, where one of my horn players couldn't make the gig and I would be "cojo," or lame, or - God forbid - when both of my horns couldn't make the gig, and I'd have to bring in two new guys who were unfamiliar with the book and had never played it before. Needless to say, this would be the worst scenario of all because it would be a situation of "the blind leading the blind," and would very often result in disaster. So, in order to protect myself from these inevitable situations, I added an additional trumpet. My logic being that the chances of all three of my regular horn guys being absent on the same night were much slimmer, and there would always be - I would hope - at least someone, one out of the three, who would be familiar with the book and the routine, and could lead the other two replacements
JIC: Two companies issued compilations of material from your Corazón Records catalogue, firstly Sonero (1990) by the UK-based Earthworks label and then Lo Máximo (1995) by the Colombian-oriented New York-based Exclusivo label. What impact did these releases have on your career?
HF: Not too much, ...unfortunately. To my knowledge, I was the only Latin or salsa artist that had been selected for the Virgin Earthworks series, and I had very high hopes that this Sonero compilation would help me cross over into the "world music" market and put me on a different place on the map, where I would begin to get more American (non-Latin) and European gigs, and start performing for an ethnically-mixed, world-music audience. For whatever reasons, this never panned out, and it definitely was a disappointment for me. As far as the Lo Máximo compilation was concerned, I really didn't expect too much - it was offering more or less the same cross-section of my work as countless pirate compilations throughout Latin America - and although, it probably served to keep me a little fresher in the minds of some salsa enthusiasts, and possibly exposed me to some new fans, it, basically, helped me to maintain the status quo.
JIC: You reformed your conjunto in 1991 (with a two trumpet / tenor sax frontline) and took them into the studio to record Creativo for MVM Records, which spawned the big Colombian hit "Changuería." Tell me about Creativo, which has become somewhat of a rarity, and MVM Records?
HF: MVM Records was owned and operated by Manuel Vargas, Wilfrido Vargas' brother. He was very caught up in the Persian Gulf War (the first war in Iraq) at the time, and he approached me with the idea of writing a song that would relate to the war in some way. It has never been my practice to write political songs or songs dealing with a specific political situation, but Manuel was willing to bring my band into the studio and finance an album, so I, reluctantly, went along with the program and changed the lyrics to an existing tune that I had written and came out with "Dulce Paz," or "Sweet Peace" in English - which really wasn't that political because all it did was celebrate the end of the war and rejoice in the idea of the troops coming home and being reunited with their families, etc. I was pretty happy with the sound we were able to put together on the Creativo album - which was recorded in the La Tierra studio, of Fania Records fame, with the legendary engineer, the great Irv Greenbaum at the controls - and there are some nice tunes on this recording, particularly "Bonito Amanecer" in which my son Orlando orchestrated and executed a beautiful and elaborate introduction on the synthesizer, and also "Zúmbale," "No E' Pa' Tanto" and my favourite, "Viva Nueva York" - which came out a little too jazzy and hip for most of the Latino audience and flew way above their heads.
JIC: Now a sonero in his own right, Frankie Vázquez was singing coro and playing guiro with you at this point, and performed in Colombia with you. Who were some of your regular sidemen at this stage?
HF: First of all, I'd just like to say that I'm very pleased with all the success that Frankie Vázquez has enjoyed over the last decade or so after he worked with my group. He's a very talented vocalist, a great guy, and he deserves every bit of it. As far as my other sidemen at the time, I had my son Orlando on piano, César Rivera on guitar, my long-time associate Domingo Cruz on bongo and vocals, his brother Dario Mercedes on bass, Camilo Alarcón on coro, and another long-time friend and band member Pete Varela on conga. Around this time I think I was using the talented Jay Rodríguez on tenor sax, the capable Chris Anderson on trumpet, and the tasty soloist Steve Gluzband on trumpet as well - but my horn section would vary according to the work I had and who was available to cover it. I've always tried to maintain the same personnel in my rhythm section though; this is the foundation, the bedrock on which everything else rests, and I've always tried to maintain this as a constant or a given whenever possible. As far as "Changuería" is concerned, I was sort of surprised when it clicked in Colombia - I didn't think it was one of the best tunes on the album - but that just goes to show you how much I know.
JIC: 1994's El Don Del Son on Kubaney / Codiscos was your first fully blown Colombian production "using a few key musicians from my group and some fine musicians from Colombia," as you explained to me in correspondence at the time. Tell me all about this project?
HF: This was another one of those "kill-two-birds-with-one-stone" situations. I had taken the nucleus of my conjunto at the time (my son Orlando an piano, conga and vocals, César Rivera on guitar, and Domingo Cruz on bongo) to Colombia to do a tour with me, and, while we were there, with the help of some excellent Colombian musicians, we recorded with the Codiscos company in their studios in Medellín. I think this recording sounds pretty good. I particularly like the tune "No Dejes Que Se Muera Tu Son" which was arranged and played in an ultra-típico style, and was a protest of sorts against all the salsa romántica that was so prevalent at the time.
JIC: You completed a novel, The Short End of the Stick, in 1996. Please tell me about it and whether we will get to read it?
HF: All I can say about this project is that "you win some and you lose some." I invested a good five or six years on this novel, writing it, re-writing it numerous times, modifying the language, not to mention the drudgery of correcting all the little errors and typos, and then shopping it around and trying to find a literary agent and/or publisher who would publish the work. This last phase of the process was, by far, the worst aspect of the entire experience for me. When it comes to the sustained concentration, the actual hands-on work, and also the discipline and perseverance necessary to bring an artistic endeavour to completion and fruition, I've always excelled; I've never run out of gas or been a quitter. But when it comes to selling myself, knocking on doors, and blowing my own horn, that's where I suck. I've always found things like this extremely difficult. I'm not an aggressive or pushy person by nature, and this last phase of the process - the first-time novelist, the fledgling writer, with no track record or literary connections, making unsolicited submissions to the elitist gate-keepers who control the literary world in a futile attempt to score a publisher - was overwhelming, and, eventually, it put a strain on my emotional and mental health. It got to the point where I decided that, for the sake of my sanity, I just had to put the book aside and move on. For this reason, it's doubtful that it will ever be read by anyone, but to give you an idea of the story:
The Short End of the Stick is long, 500-page novel, written phonetically in the Italian-American vernacular, about an Italian-American boy, Joey Posella, growing up in East Harlem or "Italian Harlem" during the '50s and early '60s who has a double handicap: he is extremely short, almost midget-sized, and he was born with one leg shorter that the other, causing him to have ambulatory problems and walk with a pronounced limp. By way of his uncle, who is a gambler and a racetrack denizen, Joey falls in love with horse racing and sets his sights on becoming a jockey, because he knows, instinctively, that once he is up on the back of a race horse, his leg problem will be rendered moot, the playing field will finally be levelled, and, for the first time in his life, he will be the same as everybody else. The novel traces Joey's life in detail, from his childhood and adolescence - during which he suffers abundant ridicule and ostracism at the hands of his peers - to his adulthood, when he actually realises his dream and becomes a jockey, only to sink, little by little, into a corrupt world of drugs, Mafia involvement and race-fixing. To this day, I don't know if this novel will ever be published, and after all the work put into the writing of it, this is, understandably, a big disappointment and a tough pill for me to swallow. But on a positive note, one good thing came out of this whole experience: in telling this story I was able to finally express the long-neglected, Italian-American side of my being, balance it out with my Latino side, and, in the process, rid myself of the internal, cultural conflicts that most half-breed or mixed-breed individuals are plagued with. Now, for the first time in my life, ethnicity is a non-issue for me. I see myself simply as Henry Fiol, a hybrid, a nectarine of sorts. I'm not really an Italian-American, and I'm not really a Latino either: I'm just me.
JIC: In circa 2000 you produced an exciting demo of stripped-down, un-plugged material, including a remake of the classic "Caramelo A Kilo" you previously recorded on your first Corazón album. What became of that?
HF: Nothing really. This was done around the time when the Buena Vista Social Club recording was making a big splash, and I made the demo at the behest of someone who, supposedly, had connections with some of the world music labels and thought that they could hook me up with one of these labels and get me in. Apparently, there weren't any takers - or maybe this guy's "connections" were exaggerated - but I regard the making of this demo as a valuable experience, in spite of the fact that it didn't pan out. I got to sing and hear my voice in a true "guajiro" context, with just as couple of guitars and a conga, in a context quite similar to the one I heard Portabales' voice in when it came oozing out of the jukebox that day to blow my mind and change my whole approach to the music. I realised, by way of this experiment, that my light, expressive vocal style really sounds good in this stripped-down context, and I'm seriously thinking of including something like it in some future recording somewhere down the line.
JIC: Your 2002 CD Guapería on Fonocaribe was made for the Colombian market and issued in the USA on Faisán. Please share your comments about this production, which comprised of seven of your own compositions and adaptations of three vintage Cuban numbers?
HF: The Faisán version came out about two months after the Colombian Fonocaribe version. But that little, two-month delay turned out to be quite significant and caused me big-time problems, because with the difference in the money and the available profit margin, product manufactured in Colombia was brought into the US and sold here, thus putting a severe dent into my sales. Then to make matters worse, Fonocaribe went belly-up and broke up its operation in Colombia about a month after the album was released, putting the final nail in the Guapería coffin. But I waited until the licensing agreement expired, and then I made a new deal with Fuentes Records in Colombia, where we filmed a couple of videos and recorded a new version of "La Juma de Ayer" in Medellín (included in La Juma de Hoy '06 on Fuentes). The Fuentes involvement revived the Guapería album a little in Colombia, and the song "De la Mano a la Boca" or "Going From Hand to Mouth" (which is probably the best tune on the album), wound up becoming fairly well known in Cali. As far as the album itself is concerned, I wasn't too happy with it, mainly because I recorded it by using a click-track or a metronome, overdubbing everything on top of it, and I feel that this affected the overall swing on the album. I'll never record with a click-track again - I learned my lesson - but I must say that, in spite of this, I was happy with "De la Mano a la Boca." I think this tune, not so much because of the swing or the execution, but more because of the content and the message, is one of my best.
JIC: In our communications prior to this interview, you wrote: "If one were to mark the beginning of the 1940s with the innovations of Arsenio Rodríguez as the starting point of what we now know as 'salsa', this genre has already lasted for almost seven decades; and that's a pretty long run for any type of music. The music is, obviously, past its peak and in a state of decline right now, but I feel that if we can hook the young people and get them interested in it, we might be able to prolong its life and squeeze a little more juice out of the lemon." I can't fault your analysis of the current state of old-school salsa, but how do you propose that a little more juice is squeezed out of the lemon?
HF: Well, as I said, in my statement, the key to extending the life span of this music is to hook the young people - which is one of the reasons why I'm experimenting with the internet and offering the free download - and get them interested in it. This might sound like a futile endeavour or an unrealistic and foolish pipedream of a middle-aged guy who's completely out of touch with what's happening, but I remember the '60s and how the hippie crowd got into Ravi Shankar (which was music from a completely different culture) and also into the veteran bluesmen Muddy Waters and B.B. King - not to mention the recent success of the Buena Vista Social Club, most of whose fans were kids and twentysomethings. So I figure if Ravi, Muddy, B.B., and a Cuban contingent of oldsters can do it, why not me? - or some of my colleagues?
JIC: As a performer whose roots are in Cuban music, what is your opinion of the island's music in recent years?
HF: I'm not too impressed. The singers all sound very similar in their attack, their tone, and in their phrasing, almost as if they've listened to too many Oscar D'León records and copied his machine-gun style and made it their model, instead of looking inward, into their own culture and studying the great Cuban soneros. The use of the "fender" or guitar bass instead of the Baby bass is another thing that really turns me off about most contemporary Cuban music. If there's anything that can kill the swing and make it soggy, it's the good ol' fender bass. And the way the clave is squashed together and concentrated in a lot of these "timba" bands doesn't help matters either. The innate structure of the clave, its beauty, the thing that gives it its sabor and allows it to breathe, is the fact that is has a strong side followed by a weak side - or vice-versa depending on where you start. If you eliminate the weak side, and connect and juxtapose the strong side with another strong side, you're actually jumping the clave, and making a concentrated clave paste, something with the texture of gloppy tomato paste, that's too thick and chunky to swing.
JIC: Have you been to Cuba or plan to visit the country?
HF: No, I've never to been Cuba, and I have no plans to visit the island for the time being either. I'm stubborn. I feel that after all the years that I have promoted and preserved Cuban music, the least the Cubans can do is show a little gratitude and invite me there to perform or something. I was invited to participate in Santiago's "Festival del Son" a couple of years ago, but I was asked to pay my own airfare for the privilege of performing for free - and I thought that was asking a bit much.
JIC: In your 2007 Herencia Latina interview, you say that reggaetón is dangerous. Please explain?
HF: What we know as salsa music is based on the clave and the polyrhythmic concept of percussion that originated in West Africa. The salsa romántica of the last 20 or 25 years watered down the traditional or old-school salsa quite a bit, but at least it used Latin percussion instruments and had a little bit of clave. Reggaetón on the other hand, has no clave at all, and the rhythm that you hear - which to me sounds East Indian or Arabic, like middle-eastern belly-dancing music - is programmed mechanically, usually with one finger on a drum machine. This rhythm sounds like it comes from another culture, and once the current generation of reggaetoneros adopts this rhythm as the only rhythm, at the exclusion of the clave-based Latin music, the internal clave feeling which most Latinos carry in their bloodstream will begin to die. Once this internal clave feeling dies, it is very unlikely that it will return, and, looking 10 or 15 years into the future, it's even less likely that the sons and daughters of this generation of reggaetoneros will delve into their culture and rediscover, retrieve, or rescue this lost clave feeling. In other words, the sophisticated, complicated, and syncopated polyrhythms of music like salsa will eventually be lost, and they will be replaced by downbeats, simple-dimple downbeat music. This, in my opinion, is the reason why reggaetón is so dangerous; it threatens the very survival of a culture and its music.
JIC: Now my usual closing questions: Would you like to tell me what else you have been working on recently and what you have in the pipeline?
HF: I'm not working on anything right now. I've just released the De Cachete album, and the preparation and recording of this project took a lot out of me. Right now I'm just concentrating on gigging and promoting the new album, and also resting a little bit and charging up my creative battery. Artists work in cycles; intense, feverish periods of creative activity followed by fallow periods - and right now I'm enjoying the fallow period.
JIC: Is there anything else that you would like to add that we have not talked about?
HF: No thanks. I'm all answered-out at this point.
JIC: What title would you choose for this interview?
HF: I don't like Popeye's pronunciation, but I think "I Am What I Am" might work.
Well, John, it's been a pleasure. Thanks to you, your diligence, your patience, and all the homework you did and all the interesting questions you asked, I have no doubt that this interview will become the best interview I've ever done in English, "the quintessential Henry Fiol interview," if you will.
View the Henry Fiol Discographic Profile
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© 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.