The throaty voice on the other end of the phone line sounds quiet and taciturn, even a little tired, and for a moment it‘s hard to believe that it belongs to Joe Arroyo. But there he is, one of the key figures in the history of Colombian music, sitting somewhere in his house in Cartagena, calmly answering my questions, telling me about the riches, the hit singles, the drug addictions, the beautiful melodies and the beginnings working as a 10-year-old singer in Cartagena’s whorehouses.
If you live on this side of the world, it‘s easy to think of Arroyo as a mysterious character in the world of tropical music. Though he’s one of the most famous salseros in the world, a living legend, he hasn‘t performed in Los Angeles for over eight years. The press — even the specialized, Latin-friendly press — has devoted little if any space to him for the last decade. Yet Arroyo is very much present in record stores through a spectacular string of albums, consistently magnificent, endlessly imaginative, released quietly by the tropical division of Sony Latin, a conglomerate clearly unaware of the prodigious talent it holds in its fold. Now, if everything goes as planned, Arroyo will perform on Thursday at the Grand Avenue club in downtown Los Angeles, and we’ll be treated to the most anticipated Latin show of the year.
Arroyo swings like few other bandleaders. Thick and soulful, his voice has the emotional ring of an Otis Redding, a Marvin Gaye, a Stevie Wonder. His body of work rivals that of a Ruben Blades or an Oscar D‘Leon. His self-penned hits — from early gems such as “Flores Silvestres” and “Catalina del Mar,” recorded in the ’70s with the supergroup Fruko y Sus Tesos, to the more mature nuggets from his ‘80s solo career such as “La Noche,” “Rebelion” and “Barranquillera” — are informed by a rainbow of tropical styles, from traditional salsa and merengue and cumbia to new, adventurous hybrids involving soca, calypso, rare folk rhythms from his native Colombia, and the infamous “joe-son,” a genre he invented to fuse the Afro-Cuban recipe with his lifelong love for the music of Haiti and other Caribbean islands.
Remarkably, Arroyo is only 46 years old. He was born into a poor family, and as a child helped his parents make ends meet by selling tins of water in his neighborhood. He started singing professionally at age 8, and when he was 10 got a job performing the tropical hits of the moment at a Cartagena bordello in order to pay for his education at a priests’ school.
“I would sing from 9 in the evening to 3 in the morning,” he recalls. “Occasionally, the police would bust the place, and the prostitutes would hide me in their rooms because I was underage. I would wait until the police were gone to come out and continue singing.”
In the beginning, Arroyo was a bit intimidated by the women of the night. But the prostitutes took an instant liking to this young black kid who would come every night to sing traditional cumbias and salsa by the likes of Cortijo y su Combo. “The other members of the band were much older than me. They encouraged me and gave me advice on how to treat a lady. Naturally, I became a man at a very young age.”
Arroyo tells these stories in the same placid tone that defines the rest of his conversation, though there‘s a glimmer of humor in his voice when he remembers his youthful shenanigans at the whorehouses. It’s easy to understand why his music, festive and joyful as it is, is also marked by a melancholy air that permeates most of his melodies, from the classic “En Hora Buena” to the brand-new “Noche de Arreboles.” Other excellent Colombian orchestras such as Grupo Niche and Los Titanes are all about the glittery seduction and addictive euphoria unleashed so generously by salsa. Arroyo‘s universe reproduces that exhilaration effortlessly, then punctures it with liberal doses of heartache and regret. This violent contrast of emotions exemplifies Afro-Caribbean music at its most transcendental.
When asked about his songwriting methods, Arroyo explains that he keeps a tape recorder next to him just as he’s about to nod off at night, when he‘s in that fuzzy state between being asleep and awake. “My head is flooded with all sorts of tunes at that moment,” he says blissfully. “I hum them into my recorder and I go to sleep. The next morning, I sit down and listen to the treasures that lie hidden in those tapes.”
Joe Arroyo y su Orquesta perform at Grand Avenue Nightclub, 1024 S. Grand Ave., Thursday, January 24. (310) 450-8770.