September 18, 2010
EDGARD NEVÁREZ: “It's not easy, but you can do it”
A conversation with John Child
Between 1978 and 1984 La Trópica were the toast of Boston's salsa scene. In 1984 the group's co-founder, the Berklee faculty member, trained trumpeter, arranger, composer and producer Edgard Nevárez, returned to Puerto where he became the musical director of the Tommy Olivencia orchestra for over 15 years and worked with luminaries like Grupo Niche, Raphy Leavitt y La Selecta and Richie Ray & Bobby Crúz. However, he continued to harbour a desire to revive La Trópica and return to the salsa gorda of the 1980s. He realised this ambition in 2009 with the re-launch of Edgard Nevárez y La Trópica and the release of the album Back On The Block (Combo, 2009). Here, Edgard talks to John Child about his career, the original and new incarnations of La Trópica and the making of Back On The Block.
John Ian Child (JIC): Edgard, our conversation has been prompted by the re-launch of your group La Trópica and the release of your album Back On The Block (Combo, 2009). However, before we talk about this, please take us back to your upbringing and musical background in Santurce, Puerto Rico.
Edgard Nevárez (EN): As far as I remember, I used to live in a main avenue were a lot of cars were driven. My mother didn't want us to go outside the front door just in case something would happen with all that traffic going back and forth. We did a lot of things inside the surroundings of our house. This might be around when I was nine years old. I used to play basketball on weekends when my parents were not working, and also music. My parents loved to dance. They were not musicians, but they were good dancers. Around that time we had some cousins that played accordion and trumpet at musical festivities where the family reunited. My brother and I loved that and we told our parents that we would like to study music. For some reason my brother took-up the accordion and I, the youngster, took-up the trumpet. There was a neighbour, Yuyo Martínez, who was a professional musician. My father spoke with him and I started learning to play trumpet with him at nine years of age. I studied for two years, and then I got tired of the trumpet. I stopped playing the horn from 10 until 16 years. Later on as a teenager, around 15 or 16, I decided to study again. I took lessons with Victor Vázquez at a music store called Casa Margarida. I met Tommy Villariny there because he also was taking lessons from Victor. Anyway, I was reading music and learning trumpet technique in a more serious way. I was only a part time trumpet player at that time; I didn't know anything about harmony and arranging. I was also playing with some rock groups that played cover versions of music from Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Chase, etc.
When I was admitted to the University of Puerto Rico, I received a grant to play in the university band. It was cool because I received a discount on tuition and I also received payment as a band member. I have a Bachelors Degree from the University of Puerto Rico in Marketing and Management. I never thought that I would spend the rest of my life in the music business. My parents, like most parents in Latin America, think that music is not the right profession for making a living. Actually music was my hobby.
JIC: Who are the Latin trumpeters and arrangers you most admire and who influenced you?
EN: Well, first of all, as far as Latin trumpet players go, I would say the Numero Uno would be the Mexican Rafael Méndez. Even today if you watch him on the old videos, it was amazing what he was doing around the '50s, it was difficult then and nowadays. Others were the late Juancito Tórres, a great friend of mine, Elías Lopés and Yuyo Martínez, who was my first teacher. From the US: Clifford Brown, Maynard Ferguson, Bill Chase, Wes Hensel (my teacher at Berklee), Charlie Lewis Jr. (my latest teacher and one of the founders of the Empire Brass Quintet) and Ray Copeland; and from France, Maurice André. Arrangers I would say, Jorge Millet, Maximo Torres, Tommy Villariny, Lito Peña and from the US, Quincy Jones, Henry Mancini and Don Sebesky.
JIC: Tell me about your earliest gigging and recording experiences on the Puerto Rican salsa scene?
EN: In the early '70s I used to play in local rock bands that included a brass section because groups such as Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears were hip at the time. After that, around 1973, I started to play with the César Concepción band that included five saxes, four trumpets and played a lot of prominent social circle dances. Also, I played with the Jaime Umpierre Trio in hotels and nightclubs in Puerto Rico and aboard the Mardi Gras cruise ship. It was a great experience because sometimes I had the opportunity to play with the Mardi Gras (CCL) show band. I used to sing, play congas, trumpet, flute and valve trombone. I also played with a group that is still performing called Latin Brass. This was the group that acted as springboard for a lot of young musicians at that time like Raffy Torres, Wisón Torres, Tommy Villariny and Jerry Rivas. On the recording side as far as I remember, the late Jorge Millet directed my first recording and he told me a lot of things to fix on my playing.
JIC: Can you recall the name of your debut recording directed by Jorge Millet (1939-1981)?
EN: I think it was for a group called Generación II, in which the leader was Victor "Papo" Garay, son of the late singer Vitín Garay.
JIC: There is very little documented about Jorge Millet. Can you share some memories of him?
EN: He was a very good and strict person when it came to recording. He was an admirer of my first roommate in Boston, César Concepción III. Unfortunately, both of them died. He was a great arranger and graphic artist. As a person he was a great guy to hang out with, always joking out of the studio. But in a recording session he was very strict. He wrote very difficult arrangements, especially for horns. I remember that when he was in the hospital, he was still arranging non-stop - and he was ill! To me, he is one of the greatest arrangers of Puerto Rico. Not only salsa, he arranged a lot of styles. But was always considered a salsa arranger. He didn't like that because he considered himself as an all-round arranger, not just a salsa arranger. That's a bad thing that happens when you go into the salsa scene. They put a stamp on your head that says "salsero". Today it's changing a little, but not much.
JIC: What is the story behind you deciding to leave Puerto Rico after graduation in 1976 and enter the Berklee College of Music in Boston?
EN: I graduated from the University of Puerto Rico in three and a half years. Then I played with different bands and one day I had the opportunity to play on the Mardi Gras ship with the Jaime Umpierre Trio from Puerto Rico. One of these cruises went from Boston, Massachusetts, to Bermuda. When we docked in Boston the nephew of César Concepción, who by the way had the same name as César Concepción III (RIP), was studying at New England Conservatory and he drove to the pier to give me a tour of Boston. I fell in love with the city at first sight. After a couple of months he called me for a gig at Cindy's 76 club in Brighton, Massachusetts. I stayed at his home for four months. Around that time I started to check out colleges in the New England area to do my Masters degree in marketing. At the same time I also visited Berklee College of Music to see how the musical scene was. I returned to Puerto Rico right after the gig finished, but I knew inside that my future was in Boston. Well, I had the qualifications to be admitted to Boston College, but I decided one day to follow what I love: music. I took one month of intensive harmony and musical theory courses with Professor Nellie Justicia in Puerto Rico and then I passed the audition and was admitted to Berklee College of Music. There, I studied from 1977 until 1979 getting a degree in professional music. During this period I played with different local bands and in a nightclub called Horoscopo with the house band led by César Concepción III. We backed performers such as Celia Crúz, Candido Camero and Rolando La Serie, amongst others. While I was studying at Berklee there was a Puerto Rican bass player, Inocencio Rivera, teaching Latin music as an undergraduate. He stayed at Berklee very few semesters; then he decided to return to Puerto Rico. He really was a pioneer for me. Very humble person.
After I graduated from Berklee, the band founded by Tommy Villariny and myself, La Trópica, was doing very well as far as gigs were concerned. I was thinking what to do during the day so I could stay in Boston. Music is a very unstable business. Then I decided to apply as a teacher at Berklee. I knew that Latin music was my thing and that's how it happened. I was admitted to Berklee College of Music Faculty on September 1979. It was an honour for me because, to my understanding, I was the first Puerto Rican graduate to teach at Berklee. I started teaching Latin Ensembles and was also part of the Trumpet Department. In 1982 I also started to teach a two credits course called Salsa Music, it was part of the Performace Department.
JIC: Tell me more about the world-renowned musicians you encountered at Berklee, which included leading British timbalero Jim le Messurier?
EN: The experience at Berklee is unique. First of all, it's music 24 hours a day. Teaching Latin music was a very difficult job because I was showing people of different nationalities how to play the music that I had been doing for so long and it's not as easy as it looks. The Salsa Music course I taught in the Performace Department was the real thing, not a book version. Many students wanted to take my Ensembles course because I was teaching the theory and practice at the same time. I'm proud that I received very good grades from the students when they evaluated me. Some of the students that I had at that time where Brandford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Rodolfo Reyes (leader of Saxomania), James le Messurier (a very, very talented percussionist), Carlos Bislip (from Aruba) and a lot more students from all around the world.
JIC: Tell me about your activity on the Boston Latin music scene during your first couple of years in the city?
EN: Well, the first year I played with Cindy's 76 house band. In that band the singer was Tito Gómez (RIP) and some of the musicians were Efrain Toro (percussionist), Nelson González (bass and brother of the tres player with the same name), Cesar Concepción III (piano and leader), Efrain Salgado (tres and coro) and John Sarazen (drums).
Other bands I played with were the Radhy Montero-Elegua Band, Orquesta Tiempo, then the Horoscopo house band and then La Trópica.
JIC: I assume you are referring to Tito Gómez (1948-2007) the late Sonora Ponceña, Ray Barretto and Grupo Niche singer? Please could tell me about this stage of his career and share some memories about Tito?
EN: Well, Tito moved to Boston in 1977 and stayed there for a couple of years. I think this was after the Ray Barretto live recording (Barretto Live: Tomorrow '76 on Atlantic) that included the version of "Guararé" with Tito on vocals. Tito was a very humble person. He was also an excellent cook. I remember he always told me that the best thing for a singer's voice was running or jogging. He always kept a great voice.
JIC: So what's the story behind the formation of La Trópica in 1978?
EN: OK, to make a long story short, this is how it goes. In the middle of 1978 people from the Puerto Rican community in Boston that I had known for a while asked me if I could organise a band to play at the Festival Puertorriqueño de Boston. I told them yes and then I started to recruit the personnel. By that time, Tommy Villariny was my roommate and I asked him to be my business partner and help with the arrangements. That's basically the story. Tommy did the music and I did the business part.
JIC: What was the concept behind La Trópica and the thinking behind the horn combination?
EN: We planned the same concept as we used in the band Latin Brass with whom we played in Puerto Rico: two trumpets, one trombone and only one singer. The brass section was in front instead of the back. In the back we put the percussion. The coro being done by the musicians. It was also the concept behind one of my favourite salsa bands, the first Típica 73. We started with eight musicians like Típica 73 and later on we added a complete percussion section, so we passed from eight to nine musicians. The singer Efraín Salgado also played the tres guitar. This is still is my favourite horn combination today. The band played cumbias, merengue, salsa, Brazilian music, disco, boleros, ballads - actually we were a general business Latin band. I remember once that we played in a Jewish wedding.
JIC: Please tell me about some of the major Latin names La Trópica accompanied and shared a stage with between 1978 and 1984 at Boston venues like the Bradford Hotel, where, incidentally, my wife Helen and I stayed when we first visited the city in 1986?
EN: It's a lovely place to play; it gives me a lot of memories. We were very lucky that the people supported our band because there were a lot of bands in Boston at the time. We shared a stage with El Gran Combo, Tito Puente, Héctor Lavoe, Willie Colón and Rubén Blades, Angel Canales, Raphy Leavitt y La Selecta, Wilfrido Vargas, Johnny Ventura and a lot more during our six years.
JIC: During its first phase of life, La Trópica made three albums, La Trópica (TTH, 1978) for Aníbal Torres' Top Ten Hits Records and Tropical Feeling (1981) and Tropical Moods (1983) for Ralph Cartagena's Combo Records. Please tell me the history of these recordings?
EN: We produced the first LP in 1978 with $2,000 and then we sold the production to Anibal Torres. This was the first time I arranged and composed in my life. I might record those tunes again in the near future because the lyrics and arrangements are excellent. We where not in the right place at that time and very inexperienced as far as the business part was concerned. The only thing is that we where from Boston and not from New York where everything was happening. However, it was perfect for our purpose of showing the people what we had. We got a lot of gigs from that recording. We didn't have good promotion outside of Boston, so we decided to cancel the contract with Mr. Torres.
One day we shared the stage with El Gran Combo and I introduced myself to the president of Combo Records, Ralph Cartagena, who was the manager of El Gran Combo at the time. As a matter of fact, he was with his small seven year old son who played güiro on stage with our band. That kid is in charge of Combo Records nowadays, his son Derek Cartagena. Anyway, I told Ralph that we had an interest in being part of Combo Records and he answered that he liked the band and that's how it went. I figured out that Rafael Ithier, leader of El Gran Combo, and singer Jerry Rivas also influenced Ralph because we knew all these people from Puerto Rico and Jerry was involved in Latin Brass.
We made a demo for 1981's Tropical Feeling with arrangements of some of the compositions Ralph found for us and some of our own. Then we flew to New York and recorded in Latin Sound Recording Studios which was owned at that time by the late Raúl Alarcón, founder of SBS (Spanish Broadcasting System). We used the same musicians that we had in our band in Boston. In addition we used Adalberto Santiago and Felo Barrios on coro and Milton Cardona on batá drums. The engineer was David Rodríguez. This LP gave us a lot of gigs in areas outside of Boston. We also performed at El Corso in New York City, the house of salsa at that time.
We had more experience by the time we made 1983's Tropical Moods which had more or less the same recipe as the 1981 project. Tropical Moods was recorded in Eurosound, New York City. In this production we used Yayo El Indio and Adalberto Santiago on background vocals. This album also gave us the chance to travel to Puerto Rico with the band and perform on TV shows and do some gigs. Our trombone player could not make it on that tour, so we used William Cepeda. La Trópica was the first salsa band from Boston to play in New York and Puerto Rico. I was in Boston at the beginning of August 2009 and today people still remember La Trópica. One of my best friends, Mr. José Masso (the host of Con Salsa on WBUR-FM) interviewed me on his programme and the reaction was incredible. I can't describe how I felt.
JIC: If you were to pick just one track from the first three La Trópica albums that best represents the group, which one would it be and why?
EN: I would say "La Cantaleta", lyrics and music by Eduardo Cabas and arranged by Tommy Villariny. It was a hit in 1981 and today in 2009 it's on the lists again.
JIC: Meanwhile, you worked on recordings by the likes of José Liriano, Sonora Nuevo Amanecer and Caribbean Express. Tell me about these projects?
EN: José Liriano for TTH was a completely merengue production. I used to play with him once in a while and then one day he asked me about doing a production. We agreed and we did it. It was a great experience for me. Then Sonora Nuevo Amanecer was a cumbia group from Washington, DC. I did all the arrangements in that production. Caribbean Express was a group from Lawrence, Massachusetts. This production was made by Tommy Villariny for A&M Records. In this production I arranged and composed a theme entitled "Necesito". This production was nominated for a Grammy.
JIC: Why did La Trópica co-founder Tommy Villariny decide to leave the band in 1983?
EN: Tommy was in and out. He started to play and travel with Mongo Santamaría for a while and I think that he wanted to get involved in some other projects as a producer and arranger. My part in the group was much more the business side and his part was the music. I understood that he wanted to do other things; anyway we are still very good friends.
JIC: Why did you decide to quit Berklee and La Trópica in 1984 and return to Puerto Rico?
EN: I decided to leave Berklee for a number of reasons. My parents in Puerto Rico were getting older and I wanted to spend some time with them. The salsa scene was changing because merengue became the hip rhythm and I wanted to create a music production company and recording studio to work with the advertising agencies in Puerto Rico. I did it, that's how Music Designers Inc. was created with which I have done more than 150 jingles and a lot of commercials.
JIC: Did La Trópica remain active in Boston after you left?
EN: No, La Trópica was Tommy Villariny and myself both practically and as far as business was concerned. I took the arrangements with me because Tommy was already in Puerto Rico and that was it.
JIC: Tommy Villariny went on to work extensively in the Puerto Rican salsa recording industry, and was especially active during the salsa romántica boom, whereas your career took a different path during the next 25 years. Please explain and tell me about some of the highlights.
EN: I opted to enter the jingle jungle because it was a different scene as far as arranging and producing was concerned. I have arranged in a lot of different styles: pop, reggae, salsa, reggaetón, hip hop, country, lelolai, plena, and it is well paid. I have been musical director on recordings for Tommy Olivencia, Raphy Leavitt, Juan Manuel Lebrón, Grupo Niche, Ommar (for Sony Records), Pascual (El Rey de la Bachata), Gerardito y los Rockolos and others. Although I was not involved on the salsa scene much as an arranger, I was involved as a musician. The company took up a lot of my time.
JIC: Let's talk about your recordings with Tommy Olivencia (1938-2006), which, by my reckoning includes Ayer, Hoy, Mañana Y Siempre
! (TH Records, 1985), 30 Aniversario (TH-Rodven, 1987) and El Jeque (TH-Rodven, 1988) all with Héctor Tricoche and Paquito Acosta; Enamorado
Y Qué! (Capitol / EMI Latin, 1991) with Paquito Acosta and Pichy Pérez; and 40 Aniversario (AJ Records, 2001) with Paquito Guzmán, Simón Pérez, Viti Ruíz, Héctor Tricoche, Marvin Santiago, Sammy González and Melvin Martínez. Please can you share some of your reminiscences of these projects?
EN: Tommy was my musical godfather in Puerto Rico. I learnt a lot about the business just by being his musical director for more than 15 years. I was co-musical director on Ayer, Hoy, Mañana Y Siempre
! but they never gave me the credit. I arranged "Yo Si Vivo Bien" and "Chiki-Chiki" and also played trumpet. I just played trumpet on 30 Aniversario. I arranged "12 Rosas" on El Jeque. That was the hit from that production. On Enamorado
Y Qué! I co-wrote and arranged the new version of "Enamorado
Y Qué!" with Morist Jiménez and arranged and composed "La Unica". The 40 Aniversario is a real live performance of the band. Let me explain, this was a two track recording done by the discographer Robert Padilla. He sold the two track production to AJ Records and Luis "Perico" Ortíz, who was working with the company at the time, mastered it. There was not much to fix in this recording because it was not recorded on 24 tracks. What you're listening to there is the real thing. It was a great concert. I was directing and also playing trumpet. The 45th anniversary of Tommy Olivencia (Tommy Olivencia Para La Historia) has not been released because there are legal problems involved. Tommy died in 2006. This is a jewel of concert on DVD. You'll see the last performance of Marvin Santiago, plus Viti Ruíz, Pichie Pérez, Lalo Rodríguez, Paquito Guzmán, Simon Pérez, Paquito Acosta, Héctor Tricoche, Sammy González and Gilberto Santa Rosa. I expect to work on the mix soon.
JIC: Did you perform on Salsa Live Vol. 1 - Frankie Ruíz & Tommy Olivencia (Protel / Universal, 2000), recorded live at La Clave Club, Miami, and Por Ti - Concierto Homenaje A Frankie Ruíz: En Vivo Desde Tenerife, Islas Canarias (Sony Discos, 2004)?
EN: We never got paid for the recording at La Clave. It was just another gig in Miami that somebody recorded without our consent. Years later we saw the CD and nobody in the band knew anything about it. The concert in Tenerife we have nothing to do with that.
JIC: What became of his orchestra when Tommy Olivencia was in prison between 1991 and 1996?
EN: I left the band in 1990 and started to play with Raphy Leavitt and La Selecta. At that time I was also producing Juan Manuel Lebrón. I was not in the band when that problem happened. While he was in prison we keep in touch through letters. In 1996 his widow Paquita asked me to be the musical director for Tommy's return and I continued in this role until his death in 2006. Still today, once in a while, I direct the Tommy Olivencia Para La Historia band with his widow. Let me explain something here, it's never the same when a bandleader dies because even though the band still sounds great, the audience don't see the leader. That happened with Tito Rodríguez, Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Pete "El Conde" and also with Tommy's band La Primerísima. The only thing is that the music should be played and preserved so that future generations learn about it. That's part of the culture. And all of these leaders are part of the history.
JIC: Is there anything else you would like to share about Tommy Olivencia?
EN: I think that Tommy had a sixth sense for singers. To my understanding some of the best salsa singers and musicians passed through La Escuelita as he called his band La Primerísima. Chamaco Ramírez, Paquito Guzmán, Sammy González, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Frankie Ruíz, Simon Pérez, Lalo Rodríguez, Héctor Tricoche. I remember once that the fronline of the band was Frankie, Tricoche and Paquito Guzmán - a Dream Team.
JIC: I am a longstanding admirer of the work of Jairo Varela, so would be interested in hearing about your involvement in Grupo Niche con Cuerdas (Faisán Records, 1986).
EN: I played once in Cali, Colombia, with Tommy Olivencia at Los Compadres Club. Tito Gómez was there and he introduced me to Jairo Varela. We spoke very little, but he told me that he wanted to record in Puerto Rico with Puerto Rican musicians. I said OK, and after that we spoke on the phone a couple of times until we met again in Miami. Jairo told me that he wanted to include a string section and wanted me to orchestrate the tunes. That's how it happened. I directed the whole recording session in Puerto Rico before Jairo arrived with Tito Gómez. After we recorded Tito's voice he took charge of the mix and mastering of the recording. The engineer was David Rodríguez.
JIC: Another favourite of mine is Raphy Leavitt y La Selecta. Tell me about your input to Somos El Son (Bronco, 1986), one of his strongest albums.
EN: I was the musical director of this recording. After we finished recording all the rhythm tracks something happened with the tempo of the tunes. So much so that Raphy was not satisfied, so we recorded everything from the beginning again. First congas (Giovanni Lugo), bass (Efrain Hernández) and a clave (myself) for the whole production. Then we added the bongos and timbales and so on. It is one of the best Raphy Leavitt productions. It was a very hard job because Raphy is very exacting. I also played trumpet on a couple of tunes and sang in the coro. I remember that the title track of Somos El Son had a very high coro. I sang coro to the bridge on the first take of "Somos El Son" and then Giovanni Lugo overdubbed me. Later on, I directed and arranged five songs and played trumpet on the Raphy Leavitt production 20 Años Después (Frama, 1992).
JIC: In recent years you were involved in some anniversary and high profile events and an associated recording and DVD with regard Raphy Leavitt y La Selecta: 30 Aniversario: 2 CD Set, 2003, and 30 Aniversario: Live In DVD - 2-DVD Set, 2006, both on VI Music / Universal. Please tell me more?
EN: On this production I orchestrated all the arrangements because a third trumpet was added. Raphy Leavitt is very meticulous with the sound of his band. That's why I had to orchestrate everything keeping the original sound of La Selecta. It was a beautiful night and the band sounds very good. The mixing done by Ronnie Torres was superb. Still today, it's one of the best-recorded salsa concerts on CD and DVD.
JIC: In recent years you were also involved in some anniversary and high profile events and associated recordings and a DVD in relation to Richie Ray & Bobby Crúz: Aniversario En Vivo: 3-CD Set (Combo, 2004) and A Lifetime Of Hits / Toda Una Vida De Éxitos... Live At Centro De Bellas Artes, San Juan Puerto Rico: 2-CD Set & DVD (Codiscos / Salsa Power 2006). Please tell me more?
EN: I've been very lucky so far as a musician. When I started buying LPs my favorite bands where Tommy Olivencia, Raphy Leavitt and Richie Ray & Bobby Crúz, and I've played their biggest anniversaries with all three. The band that Richie Ray & Bobby Crúz have right now in Puerto Rico in 2009 is very unique: Edwin "Mulenze" Morales on bass; Edwin Clemente, timbal; Richie Carrasco, bongos; George Padilla, congas; José Ruíz, Julio Alvarado and myself, trumpets (Efrén Rodríguez played trumpet in the Bellas Artes concert, but he's now with Sonora Ponceña and was replaced by José Ruíz); Darvel García and Primi Crúz on background vocals. What more could you ask?
JIC: What motivated you to reform La Trópica?
EN: I'm a very persistent person and when I have something in my mind that I want to do it, I'll do it. The market for recordings and jingles for the advertising industry has diminished drastically. I've done that for over 20 years and was a little bit tired of it. My father died and we sold the building where my studio and office was located. I built a recording studio in my house but the advertising business is not so profitable as it was.
For many years I've had this nagging feeling about what it would be like to have La Trópica back again in Puerto Rico. One day I was in New York and I visited the offices of Combo Records in New Jersey. I asked Ralph and his son Derek if they had the original masters for La Trópica. They told me to check out if they were there. Derek and I found the Tropical Feeling masters. I asked Ralph if he would give me the master tapes to take to Puerto Rico and change the format to digital so I could work with the production in my studio with a new singer. He said, "No problem." We have been friends for more than 25 years and kept on good terms. Anyway, I took the tracks to another friend, Rolando Alejandro (of Rolo Studio), and he gave me the digital tracks of the recording. I was kind of crazy because it is like having an old house and instead of building from the beginning you just want to fix it. This way is also more expensive and longer. I wanted to keep the same swing we had when we originally recorded the album and not use a click track as they do today. I trust my heart. Then I spoke with Tommy Villariny about the project because he was an important part of La Trópica, but Tommy has been very busy doing a lot of projects and playing trumpet with the Gilberto Santa Rosa band. He said, "Cool," and that was enough for me. We are still very good friends.
JIC: Tell me what part the master tape of your 1981 debut album Tropical Feeling on Combo Records played in the process of making La Trópica's 2009 comeback album Back On The Block?
EN: After I transferred the analogue master to digital we started the process. After that I re-recorded the rhythm section with the help of my good friend Rei Peña (one of the best engineers in the business for a long time), but kept the live recording tempo we used in the '80s, not using a click track. I used top class musicians: William "Cachiro" Thompson on congas, Edwin "Mulenze" Morales on bass, Edwin Clemente on timbales, Celso Clemente on bongos, Joselito Hernández on güicharo, Quique Doménech on cuatro, José "Negrele" Lugo on piano and Charlie Sierra on percussion. I didn't touch the original brass because it was fine. Tommy Villariny on trumpet, Norman McWilliams on trombone and myself on the other trumpet. Adalberto Santiago and Felo Barrios on coro. The recording engineers were Rei Peña, Rolando Alejandro and myself. All of these people are very good friends of mine in the industry for years and it is a big challenge for myself coming back to do a band after 30 years, I have to be crazy, but this is what I really like.
JIC: Six of the songs on Back On The Block, "Mi Fe", "Pronto Te Veré", "La Cantaleta", "Pequeñas Cosas", "Aprovechemos El Tiempo" and "La Bomba Que Te Traje", appeared on the original vinyl issue of Tropical Feeling. However, there are three more titles on Back On The Block: "Dentro De Poco Tiempo", "Don Lalo" and "No Vale La Pena". What's the story behind these three tracks?
EN: "Dentro De Poco Tiempo" is the same tune as "Pa'l Año 2000". We changed the name for obvious reasons, the year 2000 already having passed. "Don Lalo" and "No Vale La Pena" were recorded at that time but they were never released. "Don Lalo" is a tune that I composed and arranged for my late grandfather, Olegario "Lalo" Nevárez, and it has a social message about leaving the countryside for the city life. "No Vale La Pena" is a tune composed by Jorge Ayala and arranged by me. This tune was originally recorded as a merengue but I decided to change the rhythm to plena and also used a batucada rhythm. It is an interesting mix.
JIC: What track on Back On The Block do you think epitomises what you were seeking to achieve with the new version of La Trópica and why?
EN: Again "La Cantaleta," "Aprovechemos el Tiempo," and and "Dentro De Poco Tiempo". I think '80s music is coming back. After all, salsa is music for dancing and the wheel is round and comes back to the beginning again. In my heart I felt that we were doing the right thing, only at the wrong time, but that's life. Both of these tunes are very danceable and the lyrics are perfect.
JIC: Tell me about La Trópica's lead singer Javier "Javi" Marrero and his background?
EN: Javi Marrero was originally a trombone player for Roberto Lugo, Ismael Miranda, Johnny Rivera and some other salsa bands. Later on he was corista with Roberto Roena and Apollo Sound and then Roberto Roena used him as a lead singer in the Sr. Bongó production (Roen, 2006). After that, he sang and recorded with Puerto Rican Power (for instance, Salsa Of The Caribbean '07 on Musical Productions). Let me tell you that he was not the singer I was originally planning to use, but things are like that. Thanks to singer Josué Rosado, who told me about Javi, he was the perfect choice for what I had in mind. Very talented and you will hear a lot from him. Also I told him the same thing Tommy Olivencia said to each singer of La Primerísima: "Si te dejas llevar de la mano lo vas a lograr."
JIC: Please tell me about the gigging version of La Trópica and your regular sidemen?
EN: In the 2009 version of La Trópica right now the personnel is:
Piano and coro: Angel Torres "Pajay". A great arranger and piano player. He arranged "Periquito Pin Pin" for Tommy Olivencia (from Ayer, Hoy, Mañana Y Siempre
! '85 on TH Records), "La Cura" for Frankie Ruíz (from Solista...Pero No Solo '85 on TH Records) and a lot of tunes.
Bass player: Efraín Hernández. He used to play with Tommy Olivencia and a lot of salsa bands. He also records a lot of the Sonora Ponceña Lps .
Conga player: Kevin Vega, new talent on the salsa scene. He also plays excellent Bongo and Timbal.
Bongo and timbal: Celso Clemente (most of the time) and Jean Carlos Camuñas. Jean Carlos is just seventeen years old.
Trombone player and coro: Jerry Louis Rivas. The son of El Gran Combo's Jerry Rivas and you will hear a lot from him in the near future. A super talented trombone player and also a very good singer. I've know him since the days I co-produced Gerardito y los Rockolos when he was seven years old.
Trumpet player and coro: Joenuel Lebrón. This is one of the best young trumpet players I've heard in a long time. Extremely talented. He is also the lead trumpet player in the Marc Anthony band right now. When he’s in tour I use Tommy Villariny.
Singer: Javi Marrero.
I hope it stays like that because they all are very talented and humble musicians and I like that.
JIC: What numbers do you feature during your live sets?
EN: I play everything, not only salsa. We do boleros, merengues, cumbias, etc. It all depends on the gig, if it is a salsa dance we play mostly salsa. If it is a private party we do some boleros, merengue and so on.
JIC: Is there anything further that you would like to say about La Trópica and Back On The Block before we move on?
EN: Not really, everything is here.
JIC: I would be interested in hearing about your experience of the developments and changes in the Puerto Rican salsa recording industry over the last three decades?
EN: Thirty years ago it was a different ballpark from today. The salsa movement was at the top and there were a lot of recordings and a lot of live music everywhere. Bands like El Gran Combo, Raphy Leavitt and La Selecta, Bobby Valentín, Sonora Ponceña, Mulenze, Willie Rosario, Tommy Olivencia and a lot of salsa in Puerto Rico. Let me point out that each band has their own sound because most of the time the band recorded with the same personnel as played on a regular gig. At that time the leader was not the singer as happens today. Leaders like Valentín, Rosario, Olivencia, Lucca, Leavitt, etc., apart from being musicians were good businessman. That's why today you still know each of these bands from Puerto Rico and know their sound. Around the mid '80s companies started to put producers in charge of every aspect of the recording process. Well, these people were given budgets that meant if they finished their recordings in less time, they would earn more money. This was the beginning of the end. Studio musicians were used and the sound of each band suffered. It was mass production. Let me explain, for a recording with real bands, they have to rehearse a lot before they go into the studio. Musicians may be very good on live gigs, but recording is another thing. Sometimes musicians got scared recording for the first time. Sometimes a lot of time was spend during a recording session and time is money. The good thing was that each band achieved a different sound, but this cost a lot for the company. It was the same in Puerto Rico as New York.
Right now there are very few good salsa recording studios because CD recording is not profitable due mostly to piracy and downloads. There are a lot of small house studios, but for salsa I think you need a good space to get that analogue sound when you record the percussion and brass. Recording is a big sacrifice. People are recording mostly by themselves. It is very hard to get back what you actually invest in the production of a CD. Not only here, mostly everywhere. A CD is right now a business card.
The best thing about Puerto Rico is that there are good gigs even though we have been through a recession for some years now. We in Puerto Rico enjoy our cultural activities and events. That's why we still have a live scene. Not as profitable as before, but things are getting better, it all depends on the economy. You won't see a lot of big bands, but you will see a lot of eight-piece bands and smaller. Now, if a multinational label finds a good talent to record they want to have their bookings too, just in case. I don't think that this is bad because it is a big investment and you don't know who's going to be the next star. The only thing is what percentage each one receives. This happens in all styles of music recorded today by multinational labels. Now the artist has to trust the label and vice-versa.
JIC: What salsa and Latin jazz albums you are currently listening to inspire you?
EN: As far as salsa is concerned, I'm listening to a lot of good talent playing salsa from the '80s, such as El Sabor de Puerto Rico, Julito Alvarado, Edwin Clemente and Charlie Sierra. I'm not really listening to much Latin jazz. Regarding straight jazz, I listen to Clifford Brown, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. Actually, I listen to all styles of music because I'm still a jingle man and when you write jingles, you must listen to everything.
JIC: What's your attitude towards the "non-Latin" genres like reggaetón, rap and hip hop currently favoured by the younger generation of Latinos?
EN: Listen, there have been a lot of rhythms that have come and gone through the years. Salsa and bolero are still favourites. If we talk about reggaetón, it is a rhythm that has had a lot of influence in Puerto Rico, but lately it has been losing followers. I can tell you that once the youngsters grow up, they'll be looking for other styles of music. And that's what is happening with reggaetón. I think it was a little like the '70s disco era. I've arranged some reggaetón jingles, but it's not my strong point. Hip-hop is more creative than reggaetón, that's why it's still strong. I can tell you one thing, the big reggaetón stars like Daddy Yankee and Don Omar are salseros at heart. A lot of salsa dance schools are emerging and that's excellent. Dancing salsa is not easy, but it is a challenge and youngsters like challenges as they grow.
JIC: 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?
EN: Right now I'm devoting my time to promoting La Trópica's Back On The Block album with the help of my good friends Ralph Cartagena and his son Derek. I’m working on my next CD and I hope to finish mixing the Tommy Olivencia Para La Historia CD and DVD in the near future. It's a jewel.
JIC: Is there anything else that you would like to add that we have not talked about?
EN: You know that Quincy Jones recorded an urban music production entitled Back On The Block (Warner, 1989). I think this was after his Michael Jackson productions. I have that recording and I said to myself that if I ever return with La Trópica, I will give the production the same name and that's what happened. Also I want to acknowledge the support and patience of my family, Diana, my wife, and my kids Carolina Sofía & Edgar Javier for their support to make this project a reality after all these years. If you need to contact me you can email me at music email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
JIC: What title would you choose for this interview?
EN: "It's not easy, but you can do it." Tommy Olivencia used to always say this to me.
Check out these related pieces in The Descarga Journal Archives:
Obituary: Tommy Olivencia, 1938-2006
by John Child, November 21, 2006
John Child offers this discographic profile of Tommy Olivencia, in tribute to the renowned Puerto Rican bandleader who passed away on September 22, 2006. This is followed by a selected discography.
For nearly half a century, Olivencia's band acted as an incubator for various notable salsa singers, including Chamaco Ramírez, Paquito Guzmán, Lalo Rodríguez, Marvin Santiago, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Frankie Ruiz and Héctor Tricoche. Olivencia began as a singer, but preferred the role of trumpeter and musical director. After recording with a frontline of three trumpets and two saxes (alto and tenor) in the mid-'60s, he opted for trumpets and trombones in the mid-'70s, and used a combination of three or four trumpets and two trombones on most of his albums after 1978...
Obituary: Tito Gómez, 1948 - 2007
by John Child, July 28, 2007
In tribute to the recently deceased Tito Gómez, we repost an updated version of John Child's discographic profile of the matchless Puerto Rican sonero. A somewhat nomadic artist, before he began his solo career in earnest, Tito recorded with key bands in Puerto Rico, New York, Venezuela and Colombia, including Sonora Ponceña, Ray Barretto and Grupo Niche. "Tito was a man of much character, had the magic of a great singer and was very jovial
(his passing) is a great blow for us," said Jairo Varela, leader of Grupo Niche, with whom Gómez was touring at the time of his death...
Profile: Grupo Niche
by John Child, July 14, 2001_
Distinctive salsa band based in Cali, Colombia whose leader is musical director, arranger and producer, Jairo Varela...
Profile: Marvin Santiago
by John Child January 10, 2005
John Child offers this discographic profile of Marvin Santiago in tribute to the Sonero of the People who passed away on October 6, 2004, after many years of ill health...Regarded as a son of the school of the grand soneros Ismael Rivera, Tito Rodríguez, Cheo Feliciano and Héctor Lavoe, he possessed a distinctive fiery style, punctuating his vocals with catchphrases like "O-fi-cial" and "Linda melodia". He is idolised in Colombia and Panamá...
Interview: Elías Lopés
Remembranzas y Anectodas (Remembrances and Anecdotes)
by John Child, February 07, 2007
Maybe he is not a household name, but trumpeter, arranger, composer, producer and bandleader Elías Lopés is an important figure in the Puerto Rican salsa and merengue industry, having been a member of the Mario Ortiz band and El Gran Combo in the 1960s, co-leader, musical director and arranger of Roberto Roena's Apollo Sound and leader of his own band and director of Combo de Ayer. He acted as a mentor to the young Gilberto Santa Rosa and has worked with the Puerto Rico All Stars, Fania All Stars, CBS Jazz All Stars, MP All Stars, Puerto Rican Masters and directed the exciting Viva La Salsa - A Tribute To Latin Music, Live From The Tito Puente Amphitheatre In San Juan, PR 2-CD and Bonus DVD set released before Christmas 2004. A prolific arranger and session musician, Elías says that he has participated in a staggering 1,766 productions to date. Here he willingly and candidly shares memories and stories about his 48-year career with John Child and Ray Rosado...
© Descarga.com and John Child. John Child produces and selects the contents of the totallyradio show Aracataca and hosts the totallyradio show Sugar Jam. He is an editor and journalist for the Descarga.com Latin music website, and a contributor to elWatusi.com,
Donald Clarke's Encyclopedia of Popular Music and the Penguin and Guinness Encyclopedias of Popular Music. He has prepared compilations and has written liner notes for the labels Union Square, Nascente and Fania.