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Italo-Rican urban guajiro

Profile: Henry Fiol...Sonero

by George De Stefano

“Yo soy nativo de Nueva York,” Henry Fiol croons on "Viva Nueva York." But midway through this praise-song to his hometown he ruefully says, “Ah, Nueva York, Nueva York/te quiero y te odio.” Love and hate — what resident of the Big Apple, native born or otherwise, doesn’t share Fiol’s ambivalence?

"Viva Nueva York" appears on Fiol’s most recent album, Creativo, released in 1991 on MVM Records. It's one of eight original compositions by a formidably talented singer/songwriter/bandleader who deserves far more recognition than he’s received. Though he’s been recording and performing for nearly 20 years, Fiol unfortunately remains a cult favorite appreciated mainly by Latin music cognoscenti, here and abroad.

Fiol, 46, has been called “idiosyncratic” and a “maverick independent” by critics, and it’s those qualities that paradoxically have both limited his audience and make him worth hearing. Half-Italian (he looks a bit like Robert De Niro with a mustache) and half-Puerto Rican, he spoke Italian before he learned Spanish as a teenager in high school.

This living example of multiculturalism plays an updated version of classic Cuban son montuno, or son moderno as he sometimes calls it. His provocative lyrics, which often depict harsh urban realities, couldn’t be further from the insipidity of today’s salsa romantica. Fiol’s sound and sensibility flout the salsa mainstream, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

A trained artist (he has a degree in fine arts from Hunter College, NY), he became a fulltime musician around 1969. For several years he played conga and sang coro with such bands as Orquesta Broadway and Orquesta Tipica New York. In 1974 he co-founded the band Saoco. After two LPs, several hit singles, and a gig at Madison Square Garden, Fiol split from Saoco. For several years after he recorded on the SAR label founded by charanga singer Roberto Torres.

Fiol’s SAR recordings include the superb Fe, Esperanza, Y Caridad (1980), El Secreto (1981) featuring such stellar musicians as trumpeter Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, pianist Alfredo Valdes, Jr. and tres player Charlie Rodriguez) and La Ley de la Jungla (1983). In 1983 Fiol started his own label, Corazon, and over next three years issued as many albums. With Corazon Fiol enjoyed artistic control, but he lacked adequate distribution for his recordings.

Frustrated by his struggles with the Latin music industry, he disbanded his group and took a year off from the music scene. But in 1987 the New York-based independent label El Abuelo contacted him, and in 1989 he released Renacimiento. Fiol and his son Orlando, a blind, classically-trained prodigy who won the Itzak Perlman Prize in 1988, played all the instruments, except for the horns, and performed lead and backup vocals.

With Sonero, a compilation album released in 1990 on Virgin/Earthworks, the best material from his Corazon LPs got international distribution for the first time. Critics raved over the album with one noting that “in a just world, Fiol would sell a thousand copies of Sonero for every one of the latest from Ruben Blades...”

Henry Fiol’s music career is mainly the result of two happy accidents. Although his father used to play Latin records at home, the young Henry wasn’t moved by the sounds. Not until he visited his relatives in Puerto Rico when he was a teenager and attended a performance by Rafael Cortijo’s group, with Ismael Rivera on vocals. “They were in their heyday then,” says Fiol, “and they really knocked me out.” After that, “I really started getting into Latin music, buying records, and going to the Latin clubs.”

But the real turning point came when Fiol heard an old record in a Cuban bar in Tarrytown, New York.

“I was eating lunch in the bar and somebody played this record on the jukebox, and I hear this (sings, 'sum-da-dum, ding-ding,' and it was like somebody hit me over the head. 'Wow, what is this, this is funky, I never heard nothing like this.'”

This head-spinning ditty was "El Carratero" by Guillermo Portables, a Cuban country singer.

“All it was was two guitars and a conga, and him singing. Not even a guiro. Everything stripped down to the bare elements. I really liked the guitar work, and the way this guy sang sounded so sincere. His way of telling the message was so deep. Each word he was savoring, and he was singing with a rubato, behind the beat.

“I started doing research, getting all of these Cuban country records, Portables, Ramon Veloz, and Punto Cubano, which is real old-fashioned Spanish-based guitar music in 6/8 time, and Pio Leyva, who wrote "Francisco Guayabal" for Beny Moré. I liked the way these guys phrased when they sang and the emphasis on the message in the lyric. I related to that and tried to incorporate it into my style.

Fiol developed a sound that married Spanish-derived guajiro(country) styling with urban, black rhythms.

“My music is son montuno,” says Fiol. “I don’t use timbales, just conga and bongo, that’s conjunto. And the conjunto bands base themselves after Sonora Matancera, or Chapottin, or Arsenio Rodriguez. That’s very urban, black Cubano sound. I use an element of that but I use more of that white Spaniard country kind of stuff. That’s where my vocal style comes from. So I’m taking the country music and making it hipper by putting that funky black urban conjunto thing in it.”

Fiol uses the standard conjunto instrumentation — trumpets, piano, guitar (the Cuban tres or Puerto Rican cuatro), conga and other percussion, and bass — but he adds an unorthodox element, the tenor sax, which imparts a sultry, sophisticated, urban feel to his tipico sound. His current band includes Chris Anderson and Steve Gluzband, trumpets; Michael Blake, tenor sax; Orlando Fiol, piano; Dario Mercedes, bass; Domingo Cruz, bongos and coro, and Pete Blaza, conga. Fiol is currently auditioning cuatro players.

Besides having a unique sound, Fiol is that rare thing in salsa — a true auteur who controls every aspect of his musical production. “I’m really an anachronism because most other salsa artists don’t write the tunes. They don’t even select the tunes. The producer does that. Most of the singers aren’t even present when the music is being put together, the producer is taking care of that. They come in, learn what they have to sing, sing it, and they’re done. They’re not even there for the mix.

“But I write all the tunes. I never send my arrangements to an arranger, I’m always involved in it. I might not do the actual voicings of the harmonies, but I’m giving the musicians the bass line, the horn lines, the piano riffs, the guitar licks. That’s what I do with my son Orlando.

Fiol’s currently recording a new LP to be released in the summer. “It will have four son montunos, and some tunes that are more mainstream, what’s-happening-now Latin music, but in my style.” He says he’ll probably include one English-language tune.

Although Sonero introduced him to a broader audience, Fiol’s following consists mainly of Latinos. He’s toured most of Latin America and is especially popular in Colombia, where his recordings are bestsellers. Last fall he performed throughout Europe, and while in Italy visited his grandparents’ village in Calabria. In New York he tends to play “the periphery” of the Latin scene, mainly at Colombian and other Latin clubs outside Manhattan. In New York City the best way to locate a Fiol gig is through the listings in El Diario/La Prensa or advertisements on Spanish-Language television.

Fiol’s frustration over not receiving his due has led him to consider quitting music. But he sticks with it because “I’m in too deep at this point to pull out. Even if I wanted to pull out, and I’ve tried, I can’t. When I think things are real bad and nothing’s happening, I’ll get a call to do a trip, and I’ll be alright for a while. It’s like a rollercoaster.

“I look at myself as an artist, and you don’t judge an artist on one painting, it’s the entire body of work. So you gotta keep on creating so that when you die you can say, I left a body of work, for whatever it’s worth. Some albums are better than others, some songs are better than others, but it’s not for me to judge, I guess the people will judge.”

In this fan’s judgment, Henry Fiol, New York’s Italo-Rican urban guajiro, is an essential artist, a true original whom no real aficionado of Latin music can afford to pass by. ¡Escucha a el¡

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