Salsa Band Orquesta La Romana to Perform at Weekend's Weekends

By Mario Iván Oña
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 12, 2009

To the untrained ear, or even to some trained feet, salsa music is salsa music. But to Orquesta La Romana bandleader Edwin Ortiz, there's only one kind that matters: salsa dura, or hard salsa, the aggressive, grittier kind, rich with pouncing trombone drives, defiant conga slaps and irrepressible timbale licks over seductive bass lines and sprawling piano improvisations. It's a sound born in late-'60s New York when young Latinos started experimenting with their parents' music.

For nearly 30 years, Ortiz has served up salsa dura whether Washington wanted it or not. And with La Romana, his nine-piece band of nearly 20 years, he'll do the honors again tonight, headlining "Latin Night" at Carter Barron Amphitheatre as part of The Post's free Weekend's Weekends concert series.

Ortiz, the youngest of four brothers born to Puerto Rican parents, grew up in Spanish Harlem, "where if you were willing to learn music, there was someone willing to teach it to you," he says. But he missed out on the '60s and '70s salsa explosion in his back yard.

"I was too young to play, but my brother Edgar [who plays the bongos in La Romana] was at just the right age," Ortiz says. "He played with salsa legends like Willie Colón, Larry Harlow and Tito Puente." But the youngest Ortiz never relinquished his love for that sound, and he eventually got his chance.

At 18, Ortiz decided New York was no place to raise his baby daughter, so he moved to Washington in 1980. "My immediate concern was to join a band and play the bongos, the congas, whatever," Ortiz says. He joined longtime D.C. bandleader Pedro Julio Velásquez's hot-at-the-time Sonora Nuevo Amanecer, but Ortiz had to settle for playing slower, bouncier, accordion-laden cumbia instead.

Velásquez had to split the band to keep up with demand. Ortiz agreed to lead one of the groups but asked to expand the repertoire. He says: "To ease into it, I took a popular cumbia like 'La Suavecita,' and in the middle of the song, we'd break into a salsa mambo with a crazy trombone drive and would go heavy metal on percussion. It was a little nerve-racking at first 'cause no one was doing salsa, but people started going crazy for this stuff. They didn't know what hit 'em. I don't think anybody in this town was doing anything like that."

In 1985, Velásquez moved to Florida and entrusted Ortiz with his band and equipment. Ortiz renamed his new salsa band Orquesta La Rumba and even had a set of "OLR" cards printed up. But by then the faster-paced merengue from the Dominican Republic had replaced cumbia as the dance du jour.

"Nobody was hiring us with that name," Ortiz explains, "so I called up a Dominican friend and asked him, 'Hey, man, what's the nicest thing about your country?' He told me, 'La Romana.' And I said: 'Okay, Orquesta La Romana. That's good 'cause it's the same initials: OLR. We'll get to keep our cards.' "

Naming the band after a Dominican beach city nestled in the southeastern corner of Hispaniola had little to do with salsa, but it was a concession Ortiz was willing to make. It paid off. Though feeling slightly bamboozled, the promoters quickly got over it once they realized La Romana's dance-inducing potential. The gigs poured in, and the band became the de facto opening act whenever big-time salseros such as Johnny Ventura and El Gran Combo came to town.

"We were smoking hot and gigging five times per week," Ortiz says. "We probably could have left our day jobs, but for us it was always this little hobby that we loved doing. Funny thing is we never had to make that decision because the salsa we made took a huge dip when the Eddie Santiagos came out with their salsa romantica. We tried a few numbers, but, man, I kind of refused to do that with a passion. It wasn't true salsa. Salsa is supposed to have this aggressive, percussive edge, but when a guy is singing about love and getting up on satin sheets, you really can't take a conga solo to that."

Orquesta La Romana broke up in 1987, but two years later Ortiz re-formed the band. It has been together since. Today, Orquesta La Romana is a high-torque salsa machine. It honors classic salsa numbers with fresh, feisty arrangements that exude the spirit of exploration that once defined the golden age of salsa.

Joining the Ortiz brothers will be Marco "Pilo" Alzamora on trumpet, Andy Caceda on timbales, Willie Garcia on vocals, Tony Laguer on bass, musical director Herbie Martinez on trombone, David Lopez on trumpet and Felix "El Guapo" Nelson on congas. Opening for Orquesta La Romana tonight: Joe Falero and the D.C. Latin Jazz All-Stars, and Orquesta La Leyenda.

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