Salsa Dura: Willie Villegas plays Brooklyn
It’s a good bet, on a wet night at winter’s end, to get indoors and meet friends where a bar band plays. It becomes a hot plan when the location’s 200 Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, and the night in question is the Friday of each month that Willie Villegas and his band Entre Amigos hold down on the bar/restaurant’s Latin music roster.
Entre Amigos covers Classic NY salsa, their fans twirling in a crush by the bandstand, and singing along as vocalist Alfredo Torres does lyrics which many have known since they were kids and their parents wore the grooves smooth on the original LPs. Behind Torres, the band lays down a rich musical tumbao. Guillermo Bonilla plays brash melodic counterpoint on 1st trombone, nodding his 2nd ‘bone man into backing calls, congas, and Villegas’ timbales, while protégées with clave sticks line the edge of the stage. The leader looms over his twin tom-toms and cymbal, tracing the breaks with curt strikes to the skins, set to buts into spirited fills. Co-leader and pianist Johnson Morales plays with a hand in the tune and another on its pulse, gunning into solo spots into forceful amalgams of harmony and rhythm.
Villegas and his bandmates devote themselves to salsa’s formative days, when the music was full of fire and upstart glory. They cover “El Cantante” and “Anacaono” by legendary salseros Hector LaVoe and Chloe Feliciano, salute bomba y plena master Mon Rivera’s lilt and jive, and back vocalist Torres with the burly, two-trombone attack of Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri’s La Perfecta. Hard salsa drove the dancers wild when it was first being made, and, in Entre Amigo’s hands, it thrills them today.
Between sets, Villegas chats about this band, and about his 15 years as a musician, gigging with major bandleaders Palmieri and Joe Cuba and salseros Lalo Rodriguez and Frankie Ruiz. It was while playing congas, his primary instrument, in a Latin jazz band that had a regular gig at 200 5th, that the idea came up to form a salsa band. Villegas teamed with friends who love, know and play the music. Entre Amigos (“Between Friends”) gigs around the city and as far afield as L.A., and held the house band spot at La Tropica, S.O.B.’s Latin night, where much of NYC’s fine salsa and Afro-Cuban music has been happening in recent years. Villegas also spoke of his video channel, named “Salse en la Calle”, broadcast on Cablevision’s channel 68 and TimeWarner’s channel 35. Recording live shows by and special commemorations to Latin music’s masters, he seeks to entertain and educate people, especially young Latinos. With infectious enthusiasm and strong musicianship, Villegas promotes a vital and accomplished expression of Latin culture that’s overlooked as radio exposure cleaves to what’s new and what sells. (Salsa’s early phase as the vigorous New York sound gave way, through commercial blandishments, to today’s predictable formula, much as the ‘70s electric fusion melted down to the tepid popularity of smooth jazz.)
With us for this between-sets conversation was Willie Rodriguez, Entre Amigo’s conguero. Rodriguez related his seminal experience, playing as a teenager in a Park Slope band, the Brooklyn Sounds. Pulled together by a local trombone player, the band members were neighbors who’d played comparsas as kids in Prospect Park percussion circles and frequented the Cheetah club and the Red Garter when the hot Fania Records bands played. The Sounds got a contract and cut a couple of LPs, playing block parties around the city and aiming for the big break. But tours didn’t materialize to support the recordings, and they disbanded. Brooklyn Sounds’ original LPs trade now for hundreds of dollars, a fact that caught Rodriguez by surprise when told by Ian Morrison, whose label (www.passion-music.co.uk) is about to issue a CD release of the second album.
Villegas is looking for a label to cut the next Entre Amigos CD. Their eponymous first release opens with a descarga (a salsa jam), solos threading the signature chorus of Cuban bassist/bandleader Israel “Cachao” Lopez,”Como mi ritmo no bay dos” (“No sound like my sound”, to translate very loosely). A Puerto Rican plena follows as a frolicking lament, then an earnest bolero and an upbeat meringue track. “Willie Villegas y Entre Amigos” concludes with an old school montuno, Rodriguez’s conas and Morales’s pianovamps fueling Torres’s sonero, his voice wielding a plaintive edge that calls to mind Henry Fiol, another Nuevayorkino who built an ‘80s career revivifying salsa’s roots, playing against the commercial grain.
200 5th (718. 638. 2925) plans to open a performance space next door; check their schedule for Entre Amigos’ upcoming dates.