Keeping salsa fresh Los Hacheros
The musical vitality of New York in the 1970s — from disco to punk to hip-hop to free jazz — set the enduring styles and standards of these music genres to this day. The same city era also gave us salsa dura. As popularized by Héctor Lavoe, Willie Colón, and the Fania All-Stars, the music genre fused together Cuban orchestral music genres like charanga, son, and guaguancó with the lyrical street sensibility of Manhattan’s Puerto Rican and Dominican barrios.
On radio and streams, salsa dura has long since been replaced in popularity by the more manufactured sound of salsa romántica — think of the Latin pop studio confections of Marc Anthony and La India. But in New York, the hard-hitting salsa dura sound never died out. The genre was kept alive at clubs and quinceañeras by a new wave of Latin American musicians, who grew up with Celia Cruz and Rubén Blades records cooing to them in the crib.
Los Hacheros, a five-piece outfit from Brooklyn who play a free concert at the Railyard Plaza on Saturday, July 22, is prominent among the crop of salsa dura revivalists. With darkly red-hued cover art that is suggestive of Santería aesthetics, their second record, Bambulaye, both looks and sounds like a Fania record from a more grimy era of New York, when stagflation, random muggings, and graffiti-covered subway cars were the norm. Released last year, Bambulaye was a critical darling and a favorite among salsa DJs, who are keeping several of the album’s classic-sounding Afro-Caribbean grooves in heavy rotation.
“We formed Los Hacheros when we were all freelance musicians in New York City playing with a lot of different salsa bands. A lot of us play with charanga bands,” said Eddie Venegas, who plays both trombone and violin for the group. “Those bands, if you hear them live, it sounds like it’s playing from 1975. We love that old sound. It’s got the more clear acoustics of a salsa band.” Venegas, who was part of Marc Anthony’s tour band for several years, is steeped in the many varieties of salsa. Originally from Colombia, he moved to New York to attend college, earning a master’s degree in classical violin.
Of all of salsa’s subgenres, he remains most infatuated with charanga, a throwback midcentury Cuban dance music that accommodates violin and flutes alongside the classic five-stroke clave beat. In the studio, he also appreciates charanga’s clear sound, where each instrument is allowed to shine through, a quality that is manifested throughout the recordings on Bambulaye. “What makes the sound clean is that there is less instrumentation. We did our recordings live. There are no overdubs. That’s what gives you the clarity of sound,” Venegas said.
Released on Chulo, the Latin imprint of Daptone Records, the neotraditional record evokes the the sound of 1970s New York salsa while allowing for heavy dollops of Afro-Latin dance genres from the 20th century. The high-pitched flutes of midcentury Euro-Cuban parlor music show up here, as well as the rhythms of tumbao and rumba that have captivated Caribbean audiences for nearly a century. “We’re very international. The two other percussionists were born and raised in Venezuela. The singer — his name is Papote Rodriguez — is Puerto Rican. The flute player, Jacob, is from Israel. The bass player is Jewish, grew up in New York. His wife is Colombian. He speaks really good Spanish. Him and Jacob actually write songs in Spanish,” Venegas said.
As other music critics have pointed out, Los Hacheros has crafted a salsa sound that is steeped in tradition without being shackled to it. It seems that Los Hacheros have done for salsa what Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings did for ’70s funk — or what Gillian Welch and David Rawlings did to revive a certain strain of midcentury American folk music. Essentially, these artists restored a sound, making what was old new again, and proving the genre still had life enough to adapt. “At our shows, we have the old-school people that relate to this this kind of old-school sound. They were in New York back in the 1970s, who grew up listening to bands like ours. They dance their butts off at our shows,” Venegas said. “There are younger crowds who come to our shows, too, but not necessarily Latino. They come to our shows for that sound.
“We are now planning our third album. To promote it, we’re gravitating towards doing a little 45 vinyl single. It looks very attractive, and it’s much cheaper to produce than a full-size record,” Venegas added. “In Santa Fe, we’ll probably try some of the new stuff from the record we’re working on with our audience.”