July 16 is a very particular day for Salsa music. Eight years ago, Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, passed away in New Jersey. Sixty three years ago, Ruben Blades, one of the best Salsa singers in history, was born in Panama. Through death and life, Salsa music remembers today two of its most legendary artists.
Celia Cruz left a permanent imprint in Latin music. This year, her unforgettable smile was featured in a USPS stamp collection honoring Latin music legends. Throughout her career, she produced some of the most enduring songs in Salsa music.
On the other hand, Ruben Blades was one of the leading voices that shaped the whole Salsa movement in New York along stars like Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe. His songs are charged with a message that has always questioned the world around us. His hit song "Pedro Navaja" is still regarded by many as one of the greatest Salsa songs ever produced.
Through the never ending cycle of life and death, Latin music celebrates today the musical legacy of Celia Cruz and Ruben Blades.
Dancing to Merengue songs is not for the physically challenged and a merengue dance party should come equipped with towels for the guests that can't resist dancing every number. I have to admit that this great playlist has been tamped down a bit making it music that even people over 30 can dance to!
1. Los Toros Band - "Mi Primer Millon"
Dominican Los Toros Band used to boast Hector Acosta as the lead on their vocals until Acosta decided to go solo; lately they've been associated more with bachata than merengue although their music has always been a kaleidescope of Dominican music performed with great vocals.
2. Puerto Plata - "La Cotorrita De Rosa"Merengue, like most genres, is changing with the addition of electronic elements, sped-up tempos and fusion with other forms. It's nice to take a break a listen to merengue in an older style, performed here by Jose Cobles and his band. Cobles took the name Puerto Plata from the Dominican town in which he was born. From Mujer De Cabaret
3. Joe Veras - "La Cadena Se Rompio"Joe Veras is another Dominican artist who fluctuates between bachata and merengue. This song from an all-merengue album starts with bachata instrumentation and then adds horns to great effect while still keeping its distinctive Dominican flavor. From Merengue de Joe Veras
4. Grupo Mania - "Me Miras Y Te Miro"
Puerto Rico's Grupo Mania has been one of the most popular merengue groups in the world even after their lead singer, Elvis Crespo, went on to solo career in 1997. Grupo Mania has had a lot of hits, but I picked a slower tempo merengue for the less manic crowd.
From Alto Honor
5. Elvis Crespo - "Suavemente" (Merengue Version)
Speaking of Elvis Crespo, the Puerto Rican merengue king is still a touch manic even without the iconic Grupo Mania at his back. Suavemente was one of his most popular albums and the single "Suavemente" was a fan favorite, so he performed it in several styles. This one is a merengue version.
From Suavemente..Los Exitos
6. Olga Tanon - "Muchacho Malo"
Puerto Rican Olga Tanon has so many hit merengues under her belt that it was tough to pick just one track. I liked this one; the title could be translated to 'bad boy' and who doesn't like a bad boy?
From Mujer de Fuego
7. Kumbia Kings - "Sshh!" (Merengue Version)
Putting the popular (and now defunct) Texas band Kumbia Kings on the list was a departure from the music of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, but I couldn't resist. "Sshh!" is one of the King's biggest hits, but the fact that the band did a merengue version of the tune just shows how popular the Dominican genre is all over the world.
From All Mixed Up
8. La Makina - "No Me Digas Que No"
Here's a tune from another Puerto Rican group that specializes in merengue.
From Merengue Power
9. Fulanito - "Ahora!"
Dominican Fulanito is a real kick. His music is faster than blazes, his fusions original and often unexpected. This track is a change of pace with an electro-synth and urban flare.
10. Los Hermanos Rosario - "Con Agua y Jambon"
I like the big band merengue groups from the Dominican Republic, and Los Hermanos Rosario is one of the best and most popular.
When Guerra graduated from high school, he entered the Autonomic University of Santo Domingo, enrolling in courses in Philosophy and Literature, the sort of Liberal Arts curriculum that attracts many young freshmen still unsure of what they eventually want to do.
Guerra Goes to Boston:
A year later, his true passion became clearer and Guerra moved to the Music Conservatory of Santo Domingo. Subsequently he won a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston where he studied musical arrangement and composition and met his future wife, Nora Vega.
Finishing college, he returned home and found work as a musical composer in television advertising. He also played guitar locally; it was during these gigs that he met the vocalists that eventually became the 4-40.
In 1984, Guerra and the 4-40 released their first album, Soplando. Guerra was very interested in jazz, and he described the music on Soplando as a “fusion between traditional merenque rhythms and jazz vocalizations". Although the album didn’t do very well, it was re-released in 1991 as The Original 4-40 and today is considered a collector’s item.
In 1985, the 4-40 signed a contract with Karen Records and, in an attempt to be more commercially accepted, Guerra altered their musical style to reflect the very popular, more commercial merengue. He included sections of ‘perico ripiao’, a form of merengue that added the accordion to the more traditional orchestration and was often performed at a very fast pace. His next two albums followed this formula and Guerra/4-40 started to gain in popularity and recognition
Juan Luis Guerra and the 4-40:
Since there were a lot of changes in the vocalists who made up the 4-40 over those years, by 1989 when the group’s first really successful album came out, the group’s name now featured Guerra as the central vocalist and Ojala Que Llueva Café (I Wish It Would Rain Coffee) was billed under ‘Juan Luis Guerra and the 4-40’.
The success of Ojala was followed by Bachata Rosa in 1990. Bachata Rosa sold 5 million copies, won a Grammy and is still today considered a seminal album in Dominican music. Although Guerra is not primarily a singer of traditional bachata, Bachata Rosa brought world awareness to a Dominican form of music that, before the album, was limited in popularity to the Dominican Republic
Areito and Guerra's European Tour:
1992 saw the release of Areito and the beginning of controversy. Areito focused on poverty and poor conditions on the island as well as in many other parts of Latin America. His countrymen did not care for this change of tone from upbeat music to social commentary, but the album was well received in other parts of the world. Guerra spent that year touring Latin America and Europe.
But living on the road was starting to get to him. His anxiety was high, touring was wearing him down and he started to wonder whether any amount of success was worth living like this.
Fogarate and Retirement:
Fogarte was released in 1994, but it met with limited success and the criticism that his music was getting stale. Guerra did a couple of concerts to promote the album and then, in 1995, he announced his retirement and concentrated on acquiring local television and radio stations and promoting unknown local talent.
During the four years of his retirement, Guerra became interested in and converted to Evangelical Christianity. When he came out of retirement in 2004, it was to present the world with his new album Para Ti which was mostly religious in nature. The album did well, garnering two Billboard awards in 2005 (for "Best Gospel-Pop" and "Tropical-Merengue").
Guerra's music is neither strictly merengue nor bachata but blends those basic Dominican rhythms and forms with his love of jazz, pop, r&b, blues - or whatever musical style has caught his interest at the moment. His lyrics are poetic, his voice smooth with a slight rough edge, his musical sensibility always original.
If you listen to his new, 2007 album, La Llave De Mi Corazon, you'll understand what makes this artist so extraordinary.
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