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07/14/01

Colombian salsa band which in the '90s began to rival the success of Jairo Varela's Grupo Niche.

Profile by John Child (John_Child@descarga.com)

Guayacan Orquesta

Colombian salsa band which in the '90s began to rival the success of Jairo Varela's Grupo Niche, who during the previous decade had transformed Colombian commercial music with a confident, sassy sound aped by countless others. A contributing factor to Guayacán's success was that they dared to be different: "Guayacán's sound is rootsier, more apparently fixed in the structure of the Cuban guaguancó and montuno, sparser, darker, with stripped-down arrangements," said UK salsa deejay Tomek. Named for a type of wood typically used in Colombia by the coastal blacks to build their houses on stilts, Guayacán embodies the musical concept of Alexis Lozano, the band's director, trombonist, guitarist, tres and güiro player, arranger and producer, who is obsessed about the need for a musical philosophy, and harshly judges those who lack one.

Lozano was born in the mid-50s in Quibdó, the capital of Chocó, the Pacific coastal area of Colombia, with a hardcore salsa following; the son of two teachers, he had already led small groups at the age of 10. "Chocó is a marginal black community which developed its culture and music separately from the rest of the country," explains Bogotá-based Puerto Rican keyboardist Israel Tanenbaum, co-prod. and co-arr. of seven Guayacán albums between '87 and '97. "During colonial days it was standard practice to dump blacks on the beaches to fend for themselves. Escapees found refuge in the coastal wastelands the white man ignored and seldom ventured into. The native music is Chirimia played by a similar instrumentation to bands that developed in New Orleans: trumpet, sax, baritone horn and clarinet with a rhythm section of snare drum, crash cymbals (between eight and twelve inches) and a tambora (comparable in construction and size to the tambora used in Dominican merengue), which serves as a bass drum. A genre akin to the Cuban danzón was developed, and later local musicians began to compose music close in style and flavour to the bolero. So when Cuban music was imported, it easily fell into the groove of this community."

Lozano teamed-up with Varela (another native of Quibdó) while studying in Bogotá, and became co-founder, co-mus. dir. and co-arr. of Niche. After working on Niche's first single and first four albums (Al Pasito '79, Querer Es Poder '81, Preparate Grupo Niche Vol. 2 '82 and Niche '83 [aka Directo Desde New York), Lozano parted company with Varela due to musical and business differences to start his own band. Back in Bogotá he gathered a group of young men into a workshop and trained them for nearly three years. Guayacán's debut album was Llegó La Hora De La Verdad (The Moment Of Truth Has Arrived) '86 on Latin Sound (reissued on DM Productions '95); personnel incl. co-founder and co-leader Ricardo "Richie" Valdés on lead vocals and his brothers, timbalero William "El Niño" Valdés and bassist Julio César Valdés. (Besides Alexis, Julio was the only remaining original member on '99's De Nuevo En La Salsa .) Musicologist/ teacher "Maria del Carmen" supplied lead vocals to one of the standout, albeit uncharacteristic, tracks, "Mi Herencia."

The next album Que La Sangre Alborota '87 on Sonolux/ Sonotone set the mould of Guayacán's instrumentation for the following ten years. It was comprised of trumpets, trombones (two to three of each), tres guitar (Lozano later added a conventional guitar), rhythm section (timbales, conga, bongo, güiro, maracas, bass and piano) and lead and coro (chorus) voices; it marked the debut of John Lozano singing coro, and keyboardist Tanenbaum, who also acted as co-prod. and co-arr. on this and Guayacán's '90, '91, '92, '95, '96 and '97 albums. "I also recorded the piano on album eight (A Verso y Golpe '93), and produced a cut on De Nuevo En La Salsa '99," says Tanenbaum. "I held the piano seat twice for gigging purposes. The first was for about two months at the time the band moved to Cali, and then later for about six months during the time of the hits "Oiga, Mire, Vea" and "Invierno En Primavera" (both from Oiga, Mire, Vea '92)."

Regarding the substitution of guitar for tres, Tanenbaum explains: "We actually replaced the tres with guitar when we stumbled on an accidental sound oddity that allowed the guitar to sound much like a tres. In fact the phenomenon is so convincing that a funny story happened one night. At an international concert where we shared a stage with various groups from Puerto Rico (one of those rare occasions when I was actually playing the gig and not a guest, which I did every so often), Jerry Rivas, lead vocalist for El Gran Combo, who is quite a tres player himself, came on stage and motioned Alexis to let him jam with the band. But what a surprise when he picked up the instrument and it turned out to be a guitar. For about two long minutes he just didn't know what to do. He finally braved through it and played, but he quickly cut his intervention short. We all laughed together afterwards."

Success with the cognoscenti was substantiated by Willie Rosario's recording of Richie Valdés's composition "Falso Amor" (from Que La Sangre Alborota) on his Viva Rosario '90 on Bronco; Alexis regards Rosario's as the only band to emerge from the late '80s/ early '90s era of salsa monga (flaccid, saccharine romantic salsa) with integrity, his original sound intact.

After their third album, Guayacán Es La Orquesta '88 on Martínez Records (reissued as Guayacán Y Del Bueno on DM Productions '95), Guayacán went into crisis; they could not get enough work, and Varela poached Richie and William Valdés for Grupo Niche. A childhood friend of Alexis's, Niño Caicedo (b 10 July '58, Colombia), a metallurgical engineer by profession and a composer since an early age, came to the rescue, writing the monster Colombian hit "Cocorobe" as well as the hit title track for their next album La Más Bella '90 on FM/ TH-Rodven. Commencing with La Más Bella, John Lozano was moved to the front row as a lead vocalist, though still contributing to the coro. Caicedo became Guayacán's manager and coordinated their 5th anniversary project 5 Años: Aferrados Al Sabor '91 on FM, arguably their best to date, and the '92 blockbuster Oiga, Mire, Vea on FM/ TTH, supplying over half the songs on the first (as well as lead vocal on one of them), and all eight cuts on the second, the title track a massive hit in the international salsa market.

Alexis greatly admires veteran bandleader Ray Barretto, whom he regards as a mould-breaker; he contracted Nicaraguan vocalist Cali Aleman, who performed with Barretto in the mid-'80s (as well as having worked with José Fajardo, Javier Vázquez, Johnny Pacheco and Eddie Palmieri among others) to share lead vocals with John Lozano on Guayacán's '93 hit Con El Corazón Abíerto on FM (also issued on RMM/ Sony). Again, Niño penned all the tracks, incl. the international hit "Torero." After performing on Grupo Niche's Sutil Y Contundente '89 on CBS and Cielo De Tambores '90 on Sony, William Valdés returned to play timbales on the '93 album; Aleman left Guayacán and made his solo Cali '94 on RMM's Sonero label.

Caicedo took executive prod. credit on Con El Corazón Abíerto , as well as the follow-up A Verso y Golpe on FM released late '93 (one track omitted and two new songs added for US version A Puro Golpe '94 on RMM/ Sony), John Lozano's last (he released solo album El Mismo Pero Diferente c '96 on Codiscos and contributed vocals to La Sonora Carruseles' second album Con Más Salsa c '97 on Fuentes/ Salsa Productions). Once more Niño composed all the album's tracks, but inspiration was spread thin this time and none of the songs matched the band's preceding successes. They performed "Oiga, Mire, Vea" on Familia RMM en Vivo '94 on RMM/ Sony recorded live at Miami Arena Oct. '93.

Caicedo's ten new compositions on Marcando La Diferencia '95 on RMM/ Sony incl. several gems; various notable musicians sat in on the session incl. guest pianist Papo Lucca, timbalero Jimmy Delgado, trombonist César Monge, others; Aleman returned to contribute coro vocals. Marcando La Diferencia introduced two new singers, incl. Carlitos Sánchez, who'd previously sung coro on Niche's Un Alto En El Camino '93 on Sony and provided vocals to Alma del Barrio's Despegando '94 on RCA (executive prod.: Jairo Varela); he went on to become the bolero/ Latin pop superstar Charlie Zaa with the chart-topping Sentimientos '97 on Sonolux, followed by En Segundo Sentimiento '99 on Sonolux and Ciego De Amor '00 on Sonolux/ Sony Discos. "The whole idea of recording boleros with Carlitos came from the recording of the 1995 album," recalls Tanenbaum, "in which I arranged the whole head of "Cuanto Te Quiero" as a bolero. This tune was the local Colombian hit of the album."

Sadly the barrel of inspiration was scraped with '96's lacklustre Como En Un Baile - 73 Exitos on Fonovisa Tropical, which assembled 73 hits into ten medleys, each devoted to a different Latin style. Monge was there on 'bone and as co-arr. on Con Sabor Tropical '97 on FM, with eight tunes written by Caicedo and Richie Valdés joining the coro, it was a marked improvement. Meanwhile, Tanenbaum composed and arr. "Tanenbaum A La Lucca" on Sonora Ponceña's On Target '98 on Jerry Masucci Music/ Sony. (See the Descarga Journal Archives for a discographic profile of Sonora Ponceña's mus. dir. Papo Lucca by John Child.)

Nadie Nos Quita Lo Bailao '98 on FM was another disappointing assemblage of medleys, but significantly added saxophones to the lineup. Alexis and Richie's co-authored charts made stunning use of a two trumpet/ trombone/ alto, tenor and baritone sax combination for De Nuevo En La Salsa '99 on Musart/ FM, a magnificent return to form. Richie also played piano and sung coro. Caicedo composed all nine tunes, incl. "Nacidos Para Cantar" co-written with Alexis and featuring guest vocalist Camilo Azuquita.

Guayacán made their UK debut at London's Equinox '92, and returned in Oct. '00 to perform at The Fridge in south London. Various "best of" compilations are available.


Many thanks to Israel Tanenbaum for his feedback and input.



-This is a significantly revised version of one of over 130 Latin music entries written by John Child (John_Child@descarga.com) for The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 2nd Edition, edit. Donald Clarke; Penguin Books; 1998; 1524 pages; US$22.95, UK£16.99.

They are published on the Descarga website by kind permission of Mr. Donald Clarke.



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