Concert preview: Diego El Cigala’s Love Letter to Salsa

– by Don Macica –

Asking the question “Why did one of the world’s leading flamenco singers make a salsa album?” overlooks 500+ years of history, migration and adaptation. Salsa, even after 50 years of development, exists more purely as an idea and a movement than a single musical genre. The sound that grew out of New York City in the 1960s and 70s was an urgent mix of all things Afro-Caribbean (plena, rumba, son, mambo, merengue) thrown together in an urban environment that also felt the force of rock and R&B. It expanded from there across the world as well as back to the place of its musical DNA. If subjected to a saliva test, salsa’s DNA would reveal West & Central African, American indigenous and European strains. Following the Spanish European strain farther back would lead to North Africa, the Middle East and even India. That strain’s contemporary musical signature is flamenco.

Yep. Flamenco is in salsa’s DNA.

Diego El Cigala is one of the most popular flamenco singers in the world. He is also one of the genre’s most curious and adventurous minds. He’s 100% Gitano from the “Old World”, but also very much interested in how his heritage and culture have played out in the New. He rocketed to international attention and a Latin GRAMMY Award in 2004 in his first foray into Afro-Cuban sounds with pianist Bebo Valdés, Lagrimas Negras. That album also served to help reclaim the legacy of Bebo as a major figure in Cuban music history.

Lagrimas Negras is a lovely, spare album that gradually builds toward a satisfying finish, highlighting Cigala’s powerfully raspy voice and Valdés’ piano in a flamenco-infused journey through Cuban son. Cigala revisited Cuban music in 2008 for Dos Lagrimas, but then also traveled to Argentina for investigations of tango and Argentine folkloric music. He relocated his home to the Dominican Republic in 2014, all but guaranteeing that Afro-Latin sounds would never be far from his ears.

When he set out to record Indestructible, his third exploration of Afro-Latin music, he took things a step further by jumping to the 1970s and New York City. The title track is taken from the landmark Ray Barretto album and song that features singer Tito Allen. Cigala’s album is a high-energy celebration of the Fania Records era that also includes dips into a few pre-salsa tunes like Beny Moré’s Como Fue.

Recorded in New York, Miami, San Juan and Cali as well as in Spain, Indestructible features a superb cast that includes figures such as Venezuelan singer Oscar D’Leon, pianists Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Larry Harlow, trumpeter Luis “Perico” Ortiz, and many of the original Fania studio musicians. That diversity of recording locations highlights the global phenomenon that salsa became and remains.

Remember when I said that salsa was more of an idea than a genre? That is both true and not true in that, after the initial explosion of the 70s, salsa did indeed become codified into a certain commercial style, all of its rough edges smoothed into slick contours for maximum sales. What Cigala does brilliantly with Industructible is reclaim the urgency of the 70s by interpreting it through the passionate prism of flamenco. It’s sensual and earthy, an honest reflection of salsa’s legacy.

Cigala’s voice is a remarkable instrument, powerfully expressive, strong and vulnerable, seemingly fraying at the edges. It invests these songs with the same raw authenticity that Hector Lavoe’s Puerto Rican jibaro roots brought to Willie Colon’s brassy Nuyorican arrangements. Two of Lavoe’s signature tunes, Juanito Alimaña and Periódico de Ayer, are interpreted here, as is Sonora Ponceña’s Moreno Soy and a classic Cheo Feliciano tune, El Ratón. Many of the songs are composed by the unmatched Puerto Rican songwriter Tite Curet Alonso.

When Diego El Cigala arrives at Symphony Center this Friday, April 6, he and his 10-member band will draw much of the repertoire from his three Afro-Latin projects. Expect salsa fireworks for sure, but also intimate boleros like Como Fue.

At the same time, Cigala will remain Cigala, 100% Gitano, flamenco to the core.
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Diego El Cigala: Indestructible – Friday, April 6 at 8pm. Symphony Center, Chicago. Tickets at cso.org