Seeing Venezuelan salsero Oscar D’León on an average night is great fun indeed, but seeing him on a good night is the kind of experience that lingers — a grand, mythological Afro-Caribbean moment whose vivid details you are likely to share with your grandchildren.
D’León appeared to be in a particularly effervescent mood during last year’s Fourth Annual West Coast Salsa Congress. On a bootleg video that I managed to acquire after witnessing his performance, you can see him belting out the sinuous Cuban standard “Melao de Caña,” inviting audience members to dance onstage and improvising lyrics (soneos) praising the Congress and its participants.
The singer’s buoyant mood was understandable — the music he loves was finally getting its due. In the utterly corrupt, aesthetically numb echelons of the Latin-music industry, authentic Afro-Caribbean music is currently considered to be a commercial liability. Events like the Congress are an anomaly. It takes an Albert Torres to pull off something this ambitious.
Born in New York of Puerto Rican descent, Torres has, during the last decade, become a key figure in the local salsa scene. An intimidating-looking man with a troubled history (it was his love for dancing that helped him shake off his many addictions), the 46-year-old Torres has a taste for the extravagant. In the past, he has brought to town expensive performers for shows that were artistically profitable but financially disastrous. (A 1999 reunion of the seminal New York salsa outfit Fania All-Stars at the Hollywood Palladium comes to mind.) But he has succeeded, against all odds, and the Congress is so far his biggest coup — by Torres’ count, last year’s boasted more than 3,500 participants from 45 different countries.
“In L.A., people take the Congress for granted,” says Torres. “But I don’t. The rest of the world is jumping off planes right now to come and see what we’re doing.”
Torres mentions some of the genre’s top names — trombonist Jimmy Bosch, sonero Hermán Olivera, violinist Alfredo de la Fé — as examples of salseros who wouldn’t miss his Congress for anything. Some of them, he adds quietly, are willing to pay for their own airfare.
Torres constantly tries to come up with new, unexpected twists. This year he has managed the near impossible: bringing veteran conga player and bandleader Ray Barretto out of the Latin-jazz context he has favored for the last 12 years and back to his salsa roots — Barretto’s early-’70s albums, such as the smoldering The Message, showcase the implacable grooves and streetwise brass riffs that make vintage salsa such a visceral proposition.
“It took a lot of convincing,” Torres explains. “It was a matter of letting Barretto know that the kids have not forgotten him. Now we needed to know that he hadn’t forgotten about us.”
On the phone from his home in New York, the 74-year-old Barretto sounds excited about this unusual excursion into the land of nostalgia. “It’s a chance to play music that was very important in my life. I know that I will be met with love and respect by a certain public who remembers that period in my career and wants to relive it. When you play this kind of music every day for 35 years, it’s easy to become part of the wallpaper.”
Barretto will share the Congress festivities with a return engagement by the inimitable D’León and a long-overdue L.A. appearance by the archetypal salsa duet Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz. The musical performances will complement the event’s main raison d’être — myriad dance classes and competitions starring a cast of more than 1,000 performers. Unlike at last year’s Congress, however, those who want to focus strictly on the music won’t have to compete for space: A special concert tent seating 2,500 has been built for the occasion.
Torres always mentions his team, which includes wife and partner Maya, when praised for his determination to bring quality salsa acts to town. (Future shows include venerable Latin orchestras such as El Gran Combo, Los Van Van and Fruko y Sus Tesos.) But it’s hard not to conclude that he has found personal redemption through his mercurial career as an overzealous promoter.
“I may be a hardcore-looking guy on the outside,” he admits, “but inside, I’m just like a little boy who wants to be acknowledged. I will work 24/7 so that I can see the smiles on people’s faces.”
The Fifth Annual West Coast Salsa Congress continues at Inglewood’s Hollywood Park Casino through Sunday, May 25.
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