By Mario Iván Oña
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 27, 2008

Tonight, Bio Ritmo's blasting horn melodies and sinuous piano harmonies will have concert-goers trying out the best salsa moves they never knew they had. And that's before the band busts out the ringing cowbell and zapping synthesizer to take its edgy salsa to a new level.

For the third and final installment of The Washington Post-hosted Weekend's Weekends concert series, Richmond's eight-piece salseros will headline "Latin Night" at Carter Barron Amphitheatre at 7:30 p.m.

With the right lead singer, right direction and right level of experience, Bio Ritmo's stars are finally aligned. The band exudes confidence and is on the brink of releasing the most innovative work in its 17-year history; its fifth album, "Bionico," is due out in the fall.

Bio Ritmo is no longer content with simply rehashing vintage salsa from its '60s and '70s Spanish Harlem heyday, when New York-based Latino musicians started fusing the old country's traditional music with the funk, rock and soul blaring out of the boomboxes.

Pianist Marlysse Simmons says: "We perform more true to the tradition of salsa clasica by being experimental. Salsa revivalists are stuck on a very formulaic approach to the music, and they forget about all the crazy experimenting that went on back in the '70s."

From his home outside Tampa, salsa engineer Jon Fausty, who has worked on more than 3,000 records, including Bio Ritmo's past two projects, says: "There's been many variations on traditional hardcore salsa, but Bio Ritmo is taking it a step further. People will be surprised by the weirdness and find it quite enjoyable."

On the way to finding its weird-but-enjoyable niche, the band has gone through a series of lead singers and several thematic iterations, from what once-and-current lead vocalist Rei Alvarez called "hardcore, groovin' stuff" to more technically challenging contemporary Cuban music to a flirtation with pop in 1998's "Rumba Baby Rumba" and finally back to classic salsa with its own kick.

That salsa groove was where the group always wanted to be, says percussionist Giustino Riccio. "Even before we had it right, we were trying to do original salsa songs. We didn't realize how bad we were, but we knew that we preferred to emulate those old salsa songs rather than cover them."

And several years ago, with Alvarez back singing lead vocals, the band seemed to have the musical muscle to pull off what it had intended all along: making the original vintage salsa albums on their own terms.

In 2004, Bio Ritmo released its return-to-salsa, self-titled album on its own Locutor label. Although it received mostly positive reviews, it didn't exactly push boundaries. Then the group brought on Fausty to work on its solid 2006 "Salsa System" EP. Still Alvarez questioned the band's motivation, telling his fellow musicians: "Let's not just gig because we're musicians and it's our job. Let's get back to loving the music and just playing the hell out of it."

That wake-up call paved the way for the group's work on the upcoming "Bionico." "This album is more our thing than anything we've ever done," Alvarez says. "We're letting our influences come through our music and going off on some crazy tangents because there's a whole new generation of influence that we can add to this thing called salsa. It doesn't have to necessarily fit into the salsa mold."

Bio Ritmo -- Alvarez on vocals, Riccio on timbales, Simmons on piano, along with Gabo Tomasini on congas, Eddie Prendergast on bass, Bob Miller and Tim Lett on trumpet and Tobias Whitaker and Bryan Hooten on trombone -- plans to perform old songs, new songs and songs that Alvarez excitedly says "haven't even been recorded yet."

They will be joined by Washington's Orquesta Zeniza All Stars and Sin Miedo. The eight-piece Zeniza salsa band is a Peruvian export entering its third decade under founder and bandleader Enrique Arauja. The international band settled in the District in 1993. Sin Miedo, which means "fearless" in Spanish, is an appropriate name for the salsa band led by French pianist Didier Prossaird, who is willing to try anything, such as singing salsa in French. He somehow pulls it off in a fresh and organic way.

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