There is no lack of praise for Bio Ritmo´s new album, Puerta del Sur (VampiSoul, 2014). Look up other reviews of their latest contribution to the salsa genre and you will find critics´ superlatives and adjectives galore. However, looking up other contemporary salsa orchestras, one finds similar praise. There are plenty of noteworthy bands in the Latin music spectrum; polished musicians with unprecedented levels of technique, skills, and speed. They have the benefit of historical hindsight, a plethora of opportunities to hone their craft, and can even teach themselves in isolated environments with the accessibility of performances and tutorials on the web.
Yet with few exceptions, such as some of the old guard and isolated groups here and there, the Salsa scene has felt stagnant, as if its blissful rhythmic machines were hovering above the ground, most sounding good, but relatively similar, and unable to lift listeners into space or challenging dancers to change and adapt to new deliriums. This is where Bio Ritmo sets itself apart from the rest. Listening to Bio Ritmo´s recordings or seeing them live propels audiences into space, and opens windows into other salsa dimensions yet to be fully explored. This is due to their propensity to prioritize and take to heart the spirit of the music: malleable, experimental, aggressive, absorbent, and singular.
Through their careful study of the seminal classics and spontaneous approach to the creative process, they continually manage to stamp a clear identification seal on the music; when one listens to Bio Ritmo, their sound is undeniable, harking back to the vintage salsa of the 70´s. This is in great part due to incorporating an inspiring array of elements into their art, which transcends most salsa today. For example, there is no mistaking Rei Alvarez´s peculiar voice and style. He is also one of the few practitioners composing original songs riffing on traditional themes (“characters” from the neighborhood, a “challenge” to dancers, and “advice” about life), and with coros that strike a chord with both Caribbean and post-twentieth century zeitgeists.
Bio Ritmo also distinguishes itself by building and maintaining a provoking visual aesthetic, something not quite developed to such heights since Izzy Sanabria, Ron Levine, Charlie Rosario and other graphic artists gave Salsa its ¨look.¨ For Bio Ritmo, the music is one big, ever-present and unpredictable vejigante at the front of life´s carnival. And few orchestras boast such innovative piano talent as Marlysse Simmons, who in addition to an ethereal quality in her sound, produced the album and contributed horn arrangements in the four most ambitious tracks. One never knows where Simmons´s keys will go, which instrument will produce them, and how they will be interwoven with hers and Bob Miller´s sound effects.
It is also noteworthy to point out the fleshed-out rhythm section, which has been good all along with Simmons, Giustino Riccio, Edward Prendergast, and Gabo Tomasini, but now has a fully-textured effect with the incorporation of bongos as a standard instrument in the album (Mike Montañez and Tomasini providing their talents on this front) and the technique and creativity on the part of the orchestra´s newest member, Hector ¨Coco¨ Barez, renowned percussionist of Calle 13 fame.
After 23 years distinguishing itself in the grueling Salsa scene and generating a body of work that places it at the pinnacle of the genre, Bio Ritmo solidify their status as perhaps the most important and influential Salsa orchestra so far in the 21st century. It continues to fulfill avid salseros´ expectations, but still manages to surprise in the most unexpected ways, and carve an experience out of its music. After the entire album, the listener is sure to have undergone a great journey, wanting to repeat it to discover all its layers of complexity and sabor, and is left wondering: Where will Bio Ritmo take us from here?
About the Author: Abner Bardeguez is one of the founders of Agúzate Productions. A writer, Dj, poet and teacher, he resides in Chicago since 2000.