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Lisa Allen
El Flamingo
United States
New York City
New York
New York, NY

Salsa at El Flamingo - Celebrating 30 years of Salsa

by Lisa Allen
February 16, 2004
El Flamingo
547 West 21st Street
(Bet. 10th & 11th Ave
New York, NY 10011

Salsa at El Flamingo - Celebrating 30 years of Salsa

@ EL FLAMINGO Nightclub
(Bet. 10th & 11th Ave) 212-243-2121
(Across from Chelsea Piers)

Photos by Lisa Allen
February 16, 2004

Click on each photo to enlarge.
For more of Lisa's photos, go to her ExploreDance.com index page and www.TreehousePhotography.com.

Manny Oquendo y Libre (Notes from Henry Knowles)

Manny Oquendo & Libre are keepers of the flame. The nine-member band carries the torch of early Afro-Cuban percussion and breathes the fire of a 1970s salsa conjunto…in short, Manny Oquendo & Libre are preserving the best traditions of Latin music to evolve this century. But the group's assemblage of heavyweight musicians, led by percussionist Manny Oquendo and bassist Andy Gonzalez, doesn't stop there. Libre is also pushing Latin music into the next century. Listen to their release, Mejor Que Nunca, and the way they set a Marvin Gaye classic to the syncopated beat of a mambo-guaguanco, or launch a Cuban danzón with a massive trombone line electrifying the stately rhythm, and you'll understand why the band is truly "Libre" - free.

Oquendo and Gonzalez, represent a multigenerational dynasty of Latin music. Oquendo was captivated by the sounds of Cuba as a kid growing up in the Bronx, New York. The Almacenes Hernandez record store was just one flight down from his family's apartment, and the swinging big bands of Machito, Jose Fajardo, and Orquesta Aragon provided the soundtrack to his childhood. "There was music constantly coming out of that store, and that was my education," he recalls. Oquendo eventually became such an expert on Cuban recordings that he was a regular on a radio show hosted by Latin bandleader and vocalist Tito Rodriguez. "Tito was the announcer and I brought the records," Oquendo says.
In the meantime, Oquendo pursued his own apprenticeship on bongo and timbales with a succession of New York's top bands, beginning with El Boy, then Chano Pozo and Jose Curbelo's bands before he moved into the orchestras of Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. In 1963, he joined "La Perfecta," the conjunto organized by pianist Eddie Palmieri. "La Perfecta was struggling at that time, trying to compete with all the other bands at the Palladium," says Oquendo. "I'm talking about big bands with 15 people in them. Eddie's was a small conjunto group. But what made us different was the music and the playing -we were looser, more free."

By replacing a conjunto's traditional trumpet line with trombones, La Perfecta added a forceful yet somewhat melancholy voice to its compositions. That tough-but-woeful edge was pure New York, and an immediate hit. Oquendo encouraged Palmieri to incorporate Cuban rhythms in the dance numbers the pianist wrote, then backed him up with an unforgettable, hard-driving attack on timbales.

Andy Gonzalez was among the crowd of young listeners drawn to the La Perfecta's brash orchestration. "La Perfecta had a big sound, an influential sound," he remembers. "I thought they were the best band on the scene." By age 13, Gonzalez was well equipped to judge: he already had several years of violin and bass training behind him, had formed a quintet with his older brother trumpeter/percussionist (and Milestone recording artist) Jerry Gonzalez, and was playing professionally. He recorded his first album in 1967 with Monguito Santamaria (Mongo Santamaria's son) and later worked with Ray Barretto and Dizzy Gillespie.

In 1971, Gonzalez was hired by Eddie Palmieri's band. Oquendo had left to play with a stellar assortment of bandleaders, including Pupi Campo, Noro Morales, Miguelito Valdes, Johnny Pacheco, Larry Harlow, and Israel "Cachao" Lopez. Gonzalez wooed him back to Eddie Palmieri's company, where the young bassist and elder statesman of the drums formed a lasting friendship. In 1974 Oquendo and Gonzalez left Palmieri to move in their own direction.

"I'd proposed forming our own band, and Manny was a little skeptical," Gonzalez says. "But when he realized I was a serious scholar, he got interested in the idea. There was a lot going on at that time; you had, in New York, the Young Lords, the 'Viva Puerto Rico Libre' movement. That word was in the air a lot-liberation. We decided we'd have a band that was free to incorporate jazz, Afro-Cuban, to explore alternatives, so we named it Libre."

During 1976 to 1981, Oquendo became a preservationist of the tipico sound he'd perfected with Palmieri. Libre's first albums included classics by composers Ignacio Pineiro, Rafael Hernandez, and Nico Saquito, as well as traditional Puerto Rican plena by Manuel "Canario" Jimenez. At the same time, the group also attracted the most innovative young artists in Latin music. Jerry Gonzalez was a founding member; Alfredo de la Fe contributed searing violin solos on Los Lideres Salsa and singer Herman Olivera made his recording debut on the same album. At various times Barry Rogers, Jose Rodrigues, Angel "Papo" Vazquez, Jimmy Bosch, Reynaldo Jorge, Dan Reagan, and Steve Turre held down the trombone line, while Oscar Hernandez and Joe Mannozzi have romped on piano.

Libre's fourth album, Increible, was issued in 1981, followed by Ritmo, Sonido y Estilo in 1983. Otherwise, though their touring schedule in the 1980s brought Libre before devoted audiences all over the U.S., Europe, Latin America, and Africa, the decade marked a long dry spell in recording contracts. Living up to the name Libre made the group a historical gem, but it was hard to sell their artistic goals to commercial interests, Gonzalez says.

"I came up during the peak of Latin music, and the sensibilities and care I have for the music comes from that," he notes. "Most record companies today put out records with the same old formula and a different singer." Libre's musicians continued to distinguish themselves as indispensable sidemen on the Latin scene (Gonzalez, for example, has played with such disparate forces as Astor Piazzolla and Paul Simon), but the group's fans had to wait until the early 1990s to hear Libre's innovations on disc.

The first element that distinguishes Mejor Que Nunca is the way it was recorded. 'We don't record in layers; we do everything live," Gonzalez explains. "It takes a lot to prepare mentally for the kind of concentrated work that involves, but the sound is much richer, more real." The album brought together Libre veterans Papo Vasquez, Jimmy Bosch, Dan Reagan, and Leonard Pollara in the trombone line with Willie Rodriguez on piano, George Delgado on congas, and Efrain "Frankie" Vasquez on vocals; special guest are Dave Valentin on flute, Alex Harding on baritone sax, and Arturo Velasco on trombone. On "Sara," four more trombones pitch in to make the unbeatable "Libre Trombone Choir": they're blown by William Cepeda, Orlando Pena, Reynaldo Jorge, and Jose Vidal.

"We covered a lot of bases with that album," Gonzalez points out. Libre rocks with "Alabanciosa~ and the title descarga; gets sentimental with a beautiful bolero medley, "Prelude to a Kiss/ Misterio de Tus Besos," and soulful with a rendition of Marvin Gaye's "I Want You."

"We're just trying play music that has meaning, Gonzalez says. "The act of recording and putting those things out there means a lot in terms of bucking trends. After all, somebody's got to shake things up, and we're not afraid to do that."

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