Gentlemen prefer them green

Gilberto Santa Rosa is the only romantic salsa star that doesn’t suck.

Having said that, what’s the big deal about Gilberto Santa Rosa?

The Grammy- and Latin Grammy-winning Puerto Rican sonero (master vocal improviser) and bandleader performs Sunday at Club Río, and even my Russian friend Inessa is going nuts, telling everyone about it, and seriously considering renting a van to make sure all of her friends make it. A Russian!

Santa Rosa, a former singer with Willie Rosario’s orchestra, went solo in 1986 and became one of the most commercially successful and respected “serious” artists in Latin music, but all I hear is a well-arranged, sophisticated version of salsa romántica, the corniest and most useless concoction in the history of the genre. And the most unforgivable thing is that the románticos came right after the best of them all, salsa dura (hard salsa) masters the Fania All Stars of the ’60s and ’70s. If you thought Bush following Clinton was bad, ask any true salsero out there what he thinks of Eddie Santiago following Héctor Lavoe.

There is only one person on the planet who understands why I fume while everyone goes bananas over Santa Rosa. His name is Eliseo Cardona, and those who know him either idolize him or hate him. He’s beyond that petty thing called journalism, but in his time as a staffer for Miami’s El Nuevo Herald (and now in his amazing blog, he became known — by those who dig reading real shit — as the most knowledgeable and uncompromising critic Spanish-press in the U.S. ever knew. He once wrote that the noise a flushing toilet makes has more rhythm than a particularly shitty album, and the musician went to look for him at the paper ... with a gun. “Who is Eliseo Cardona??!! Who is Eliseo Cardona??!!” The cops arrested the would-be attacker and, for a while, the YO NO SOY ELISEO CARDONA T-shirts were a hot item in South Beach. Only he will tell the truth about Santa Rosa.


Gilberto Santa Rosa
9pm Sun, Sep 6
Club Rio 281 & Bitters

“Oh, man ... you remind me of my father,” said Puerto Rican Cardona on the phone from Miami. “He just can’t put ‘Gilberto Santa Rosa’ and ‘salsa’ in the same sentence. Deep down, he thinks `Santa Rosa` is a soberano comemierda `literal translation: sovereign shit-eater`.”

Good, keep talking …

“But Dad is a little unfair,” adds Cardona. You gotta be kidding me. “A little unfair”?? Not you, Eliseo. True, Santa Rosa’s orchestra smokes, he’s a great sonero, but except for two or three outstanding tracks per album, the bulk of Santa Rosa’s music is nothing but syrupy commercial stuff!

“I’ve seen Santa Rosa `vocally` improvising live with the best of them, and he’s as good as they come,” continues Cardona. “The problem is that in order to remain a good seller with Sony, he had to make terrible concessions. But he’s a superb sonero and always had a top-notch orchestra and arrangers.”

Maybe that’s why I don’t like Santa Rosa: He sounds to me more like an entertainer than an artist, but, hey, what is he supposed to do? The ’70s are over, and people don’t give a rat’s ass about how good a sonero you are — they want to dance. And Santa Rosa, nicknamed “El caballero de la salsa,” like any good gentleman would do, politely smiles at purists like me all the way to the bank.

When even Eliseo Cardona refuses to say anything bad about Santa Rosa, maybe the guy’s that good. But I don’t give up. I’m sure Henry Brun will let me cry on his shoulder.

“While another great sonero like Rubén Blades `who, unlike Santa Rosa, also writes his own stuff` uses in-your-face sociopolitical tough love to wake you up so that you fight for your rights, Santa Rosa somehow manages to talk about love but make you proud of being a Latino,” says Brun, a Nuyorican, the leader of San Antonio’s Latin Playerz and the host of “Ritmos del Mundo” on KSTX 89.1 FM. “Blades chastises you, and you wake up; Santa Rosa wakes you up on love alone, and then kisses you.

“But, even though most of his songs are love songs, he’s not representative of salsa romántica. He has the sonero, the elegance, and an orchestra that’s precise and plays lightweight romantic stuff with the conviction of salsa dura. To say they’re tight is an understatement. When you’re in front of those three elements, you just can’t keep still. This is a first-class dance orchestra with above-average musical ambition.”

OK. You both convinced me to get out there early and get close to the stage, as God intended concerts to be heard. And you, Gilberto, better deliver. I’ll be watching.

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