ACCORDING TO Orquesta La Romana founder Edwin Ortiz, his group champions "the New York City salsa sound, with the straight-up New York flavor. I'm originally from New York City, and that's the sound that we try to follow. As far as I'm concerned, salsa was born in New York City, and that's the true form of salsa -- it's hard-hitting, it has a little edge to it, it's a little more urban."
That type of salsa is defined by implacable grooves laid down by the percussion triumvirate of congas, timbales and cowbells, cascading piano lines and propulsive bursts courtesy of a tightknit brass section. And that's exactly what you'll get Friday as Orquesta La Romana headlines the second of three free summer concerts that the Weekend section is sponsoring at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre. Also on the bill are Son de Aqui and the Latin Jazz All-Stars.
Ortiz, who studied flute before switching to bongos, moved to Washington in the mid-'80s to raise a family. He worked with a number of local Latin bands and in 1989, put together the first version of Orquesta La Romana, a salsa band whose name implied it was a merengue band: After all, Dominican dance music was extremely popular in Washington at the time, and La Romana happened to be the name of a town in the Dominican Republic. The ruse worked splendidly, and the band's highly energized, danceable brand of salsa apparently earned forgiveness from club owners.
"We do nothing but salsa, and back then it was difficult to keep a salsa group going," Ortiz explains. "A lot of people wanted those different rhythms, and although people had a need for salsa, what was happening was [clubs] were bringing in merengue acts from out of the country just to switch it up and they would hire us to open for them. So we were quite busy, even during the merengue invasion."
"We had a good run for about five years, then broke up and came back together in 1997," Ortiz adds. As with any music, the popularity of salsa ebbs and flows, but according to Ortiz, "it's still very popular, and there's enough pure salsa clubs and pure salsa following that we're gigging like crazy now, especially, believe it or not, for Americans."
In fact, Ortiz says, business is so good that the majority of Orquesta La Romana's jobs these days are in the non-Latino community. "We're kind of on the expensive side of what local bands would charge for the nightclub circuit, so in order to survive, we have a different clientele on the private circuit, both Anglo and black. But a lot of the clubs that were once black or white now have a salsa night once a week." Orquesta La Romana can be found on occasion at Zanzibar on the Waterfront or H20 (where they will play an after-party later Friday night).
Currently working on its second CD, the band consists of Ortiz, musical director and baritone saxophonist Albert Sanchez, vocalists Luis Castillo and Willie Garcia, Felix "Guapo" Nelson on congas, Giancarlo Rodriguez on timbales, bassist Tony Laguer, pianist Kendra Holt, trombonist Herbie Martinez, and Marco Alzamora and David Lopez on trumpet. The lineup echoes that of Johnny Pacheco's Fania All-Stars, which in the early '70s took salsa to new levels of popularity thanks to a rotating orchestra that featured such stars as Celia Cruz, Papo Lucca, Hector Lavoe, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Willie Colon, Larry Harlow, Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez and others -- essentially a Latin music hall of fame and the cornerstone of modern salsa.
SON DE AQUI
"Every one who goes to Fania is good," says Adrian Reyes, founder, onetime trumpeter and now manager of Son de Aqui, adding that his band "plays pretty much the salsa dura, the old salsa from the beginning, the music that you hear on the radio where the classic band is the Fania All-Stars -- we play that kind of music. And while we pretty much concentrate on salsa and Latin jazz, we also play merengue and reggae, just in case people ask for it."
Son de Aqui has been together for a little over a year, though many of its members have been playing in the Washington area for much longer. The lineup features pianist and musical director Julio Torrejon, Carlos Rubio on bongos, Andy Caceda on timbales, Marciano Gonzalez on congas, Christian Gonzalez on bass, Giancarlos Alfaro on baritone sax, Alberto Tirado on trombone, Marco Alzamora and Johnny Iyquipa on trumpet, and singers Wilfredo Garcia, Ivan Loyola and Gustavo Principal. Except Tirado, who is from Puerto Rico, all are originally from Peru.
"We knew each other from Peru because we all used to play in groups there," Reyes says. In fact, much of Son de Aqui's lineup derived from three of Peru's most popular salsa bands, La Clave del Callao, Orquesta Progressiva del Callao and Orquesta Antonio Cartagena. The musicians first came to Washington when those bands toured the United States. "Some stayed, and we decided to put them together in one band," Reyes says.
Adds Torrejon, "Now the idea is to play salsa dura and salsa romantico."
As it prepares to record its debut album in the fall, Son de Aqui can be heard in monthly shows at H20 and the Musica Cafe in Falls Church.
LATIN JAZZ ALL-STARS
"We don't do all salsa, but if people want to hear it, that's no problem," says master percussionist Joe "Killer Joe" Falero, leader and musical director of the Latin Jazz All-Stars. Together since November 2002, the ensemble has an expansive repertoire, which Falero describes as "Latin jazz, mambo, cha-cha, rumba, merengue, boleros . . . and salsa. We are a performance band, but if people want to dance, we have the ability to change rhythms so they can dance."
As for "Latin jazz," Falero describes it as "basically like mambo or salsa but without the singing. With us, the singing part is played by the flute or piano doing the melody of the tune."
The core of the Latin Jazz All-Stars is a quintet consisting of Puerto Rico-born Falero on congas, bongos and timbales -- "all the Latin American percussion instruments," he notes -- as well as "flutologist" Arch "AT" Thompson, pianist Oscar Perez, bassist Tony Acevedo and singer Rafe Alvarez, who also doubles on bongos. The group can grow to as many as 14 pieces; Friday's ensemble will number eight, Falero says. "It all depends on the money."
While there are some arrangements that can be used by the larger ensembles, Falero points out that they're not really needed because the All-Stars tend to do "standards that the musicians know by heart: 'Oye Como Va,' 'Guantanamera,' 'Watermelon Man,' 'Girl From Ipanema'. . . . They don't need arrangements for that. Basically, almost all we play are the greatest hits of Latin American music."
Which, Falero says, seems to please their audiences. "I keep changing rhythms so we can please people from different parts of the globe, because everybody doesn't like the same kind of music. People say they like that we keep changing rhythms. And I want to keep the people happy."
At Friday's concert, some of the area's finest salsa dancers will dance to the live music. The dancers are being provided by Eileen Torres Productions.