MORE

Kid Heartbreak

Victor Manuelle injects genuine romantic woe into salsa's slick grooves

Bogotá, 1998. It was another bummer of a Valentine's Day. In Colombia the lovers' holiday is known as the Day of Love and Friendship, and though it falls in October instead of February, the end result is just as likely to be as disappointing as Uncle Sam's celebration of the saint of sweet nothings. High expectations lead to broken hearts. In the first flush of infatuation, I bought tickets for my beau and me to see a salsa concert featuring the legendary Puerto Rican showmen, El Gran Combo, and their compatriot Victor Manuelle, a popular upstart all the newspapers in the city insisted on calling the "voice of the youth."

Colombian fans, more than any others, have kept the fire of salsa burning by turning out for classic acts while at the same time opening their wallets and ears to nurture fresh talent from Ponce to Cali, from Havana to the Bronx. Nightclubs still play old-school favorites such as El Gran Combo's working-stiff standard "El Menu," and the pastries, roast pig, pigeon peas, and rum the song celebrates taste as fresh now as they did in the '70s. Meanwhile the radio blasts unknowns who, like Manuelle, often splash big here before making a ripple anywhere else. Since his 1995 debut album, Manuelle has burned up the Colombian charts with a series of six CDs, the most recent of which, Inconfundible, currently has four hits lodged in the Top 10. Much of the youthful singer's popularity in a nation of salsa aficionados lies in his attempt to fuse the commercial imperatives of contemporary romantic salsa with the percussive power, complex arrangements, and virtuoso vocal improvisations characteristic of salsa's golden era.

On that Day of Love and Friendship, 80,000 people crammed together for a romantic evening in a soccer stadium. My boyfriend stood me up. Alone amid the multitudes, I contemplated the current state of Caribbean soul. Was it just my melancholy mood, I wondered, or were the complaints of so many salsa-ologists true? Has the once rhythm-charged chronicle of life in the barrio come to nothing more than empty promises of romantic love splayed across uninspired musical arrangements? Cutting short my bitter reverie, Victor Manuelle took the stage.

"Tell me things tonight that will hurt me," Manuelle began, solitary in a spotlight. The crowd roared with recognition at the opening lines of the song, "Palabra y Pensamiento" ("Word and Thought"). "Do things to me tonight that will cause me harm," he continued, begging his lover to do him wrong so he can end a relationship gone boring. Stinging from my own betrayal, I thrilled at Manuelle's proposition of masochistic pleasure.

Then, in the pause between those histrionic lines, I heard something more: the spare echo of the conga that accompanies Ruben Blades' trademark tough guy down the mean streets of the "old barrio" in salsa's transnational anthem, "Pedro Navaja" ("Mack the Knife"). Tum-kataka-taka. Tum-kataka-taka. Here was the vibrant dialogue between voice and instruments that had been lost when classic salsa gave way to salsa romántica's dull lament and synthesized accompaniment.

"Understand me," Manuelle pleaded in the idiom of romance, but the piano responded with the percussive punctuation of a tumbao. "You know that once you were everything in my being," he lamented, and the trumpets pealed out, prolonging the rhythm of his words. "There's nothing left of this love," the chorus singers insisted, their nasal intonation sweet with the flavor of street-corner song. When the set chorus-verse section ended, Manuelle's virtuoso chorus singers kicked in. In the growing frenzy of call and response, the young sonero suddenly left the stage. He scrambled up a mechanized post meant to support a television camera and danced on a tiny platform that extended out over the heads of the audience. From this precarious height, Manuelle's vocal improvisations soared, elevating the soap opera elements of contemporary salsa into the musical heavens inhabited by the old legends.

"No, there was no choreographer," Manuelle confesses, as I drag him down memory lane with me on a recent afternoon in a Coconut Grove café. "I saw that post and made the most of it," he explains with a laugh. "Later on I realized it was probably pretty dangerous."

Avoiding the tightly scripted stage shows of many contemporary Latin acts, Manuelle aspires to the spontaneous communion with the audience seen in the landmark concert films produced by the New York-based Fania Records, Nuestra Cosa (1973) and Salsa (1974). As the credits explain, these films feature "the Latin people of New York" in starring roles alongside the first salsa greats, among them El Gran Combo, Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe, and Willie Colon. Performing as an ensemble, the Fania All-Stars demanded ritual, not spectacle.

Manuelle has participated in the rites of salsa from childhood, growing up in the small Puerto Rican town of Isabela, in a house filled with the early records. "My father was a Fania fanatic," he recalls. In his youth Manuelle sang in a salsa outfit with his cousin. In the high-school band, he played trumpet, like his idol Colon. By the age of 17, he began to sing professionally, taking up the chorus with such legends as Ismael Rivera and Cheo Feliciano.

Reflecting on his persistent persona as the tragic victim of love, Manuelle explains how he grew from a hard-salsa kid to a hard-knocks lover. "The first salseros used to sing about people in the street and social problems. The genre used to be a lot more machista," he explains. "Nowadays women are the ones who buy the music, so the lyrics reflect what women want to hear."

Dressed for a Univision promo shoot in a smart black sweater, Manuelle seems to have been groomed to reflect what women want to see, as well. He sports braces that will eventually eliminate any possible imperfection in his rakish smile. His frequently downcast eyes smolder with the suave passion of a lounge singer in a smoky bar.

"Women like to think they make men suffer," he observes. "At the same time, when women sing my songs at home, I think they turn the words around and invert the roles. They're singing to the men who cheat on them and leave them all alone." In wholehearted agreement I recount the callous mistreatment that brought me to his Valentine's show in Bogotá all by my lonesome. "You came to exactly the wrong place," the singer laughs. "All my songs are about the suffering of love." Manuelle's penchant for exploring the dark side of commercially mandated passions often comes close to a mockery of romance. "I don't like sweet songs," he says, using the English word to convey just how foreign sappy sentiment feels. "As an interpreter, the drama gives you more to do. Pain and suffering let you take this romantic salsa to another level."

Like the hopeful groom in an arranged marriage, Manuelle makes the most of the material at hand. "Salsa might perhaps be living one of its best moments right now," he says gamely. "You might even say it has the same rhythm now as did classic salsa, but it's more romantic and more danceable."

Be that as it may, Manuelle continues to dally with his first love. Even though today's star may have eclipsed his idols in record sales and concert draws, he remains faithful to the Fania legacy in his own way. For an upcoming show in South Florida, promoters once again proclaim Manuelle the voice of "youth" and present Willie Colon, the Puerto Rican powerhouse who set the aggressive brass standard of classic salsa, as the voice of "experience."

Sharing the stage with Colon, Manuelle steps into the very big shoes of Hector Lavoe, the late, great Fania star who recorded with the trumpeter such masterworks as "El Día de Mi Suerte" ("My Lucky Day") and "Calle Luna, Calle Sol" ("Moon Street, Sun Street"). Manuelle presages this bid for succession on his 1997 self-titled CD, where among the lady-pleasing hits he squeezes in a noncommercial, high-octane guanguancó that pays homage to Lavoe as the "singer of singers." Here Manuelle takes his place in the salsa pantheon by identifying the traits that make him worthy: "They say if you have the drum in your soul and the flavor of the street in your voice, you will be a great sonero." The much-touted voice of youth asserts his own credentials with the chorus and title of the song. Ahora me toca a mí, he sings: "Now It's My Turn."

Contact Celeste F. Delgado at her e-mail address:

celeste.delgado@newtimes.com


Sponsor Content