Breaking Boundaries With A New Sound In Salsa
By Natalie Maniscalco
There’s a new sound in town and SALSEEK couldn’t resist sitting down with Gianni Mano, lead percussionist of The Williamsburg Salsa Orchestra (WSO), who will be performing at the Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg on Sunday, February 12th to get the inside scoop on what makes this band so unique.
With a fierce, red-headed female vocalist, backed by an 11 piece band of incredibly talented musicians, WSO infuses modern day music with the explosive sounds of Salsa. Songs, from Arcade Fired, LCD Sound System, Animal Collective, TV on the Radio and much more, WSO is best known for combining the best of indie rock tunes with salsa dura, creating an “innovative and vibrant aesthetic” of tantalizing sounds.
Check out our Q&A with Gianni Mano of The Williamsburg Orchestra:
SALSEEK: How did WSO become WSO?
WSO: A few years ago, I heard the song "My Girls" by the art-rock band Animal Collective. I thought it would make a great Cuban Yambu (which is a slow style of rumba) with a nice montuno section at the end. So I went into my studio and worked up an arrangement. To my surprise, I actually liked it, and then the light bulb went off: I would find a few other 'indie rock songs that I had been listening to over the years and arrange them for my dream band - which happened to be an 11-piece salsa dura orchestra. I realized that the idea was a little nuts, with two completely unrelated genres of music, but it gave me a chance to develop my own voice in salsa. I made four arrangements and recorded them myself, playing all the instruments I could, and borrowing favors from friends. I put them up on YouTube and within hours they were getting posted on blogs and I was getting emails from around the world. I realized that I had found my musical voice, and I knew it was time to really put the full band together. However, I didn't want to just hire whoever was available and throw the music in front of them, hoping they wouldn't make too many mistakes on the gig. I wanted a real band, in the style of the classic Golden Era bands, with the same players at every show. This was not easy an easy feat! Back in the day, once you were in a working band, you could pretty much make a living just with that one band. Today’s live salsa scene in NYC is whole other story.
However, the stars were aligned, and I put the group together. We were off to the races with a few tryout shows in 2010 just to make sure the concept worked. Within 6 months, we had begun our open-ended residency at The Brooklyn Bowl, and in June 2011, we released our Debut Album which has been critically acclaimed throughout the world, making it onto at least six "Best of 2011" lists. I'm humbled and amazed that my arrangements have been recognized as a new and distinct voice in salsa, and grateful that my players have given so much time and effort to bring the dream alive.
SALSEEK: Tell us about the members of the band
Solange Prat is our lead vocals. She walked in like a vision. A red-headed, fair skinned Latina from Argentina, fully bi-lingual, who was a musical theater star in Buenos Aires. She had only been in NY for a few months when we met, and it was magic immediately. She is a dynamo: intelligent, full of energy, sexy, with an incredibly well-trained powerful voice.
Angela Ortiz on piano. Half-Puerto Rican, half American mix, she grew up in a typical Connecticut suburban household - except for her father's love of Fania records which she heard constantly between her classical piano lessons. She has the natural swing of someone who has been around the music her whole life, coupled with the dexterity of classical training.
Andy Cotton down with the bass. He's a real NY-multi-genre player. I met him at a weekly Soul-R&B session in Brooklyn and soon after, we played a few Latin shows together. I knew he had the ears and the skills to play the kind of salsa I was writing since he can basically do anything - and he does it on his classic 1970s Fender Baby Bass (the real bass sound of NY salsa dura).
Jhohan Hernandez rocks the congas. He's a native of Columbia and a lifelong salsa lover. He's a multi-instrumentalist and a great dancer which really contributes to his great swing on the congas.
Geraldo Flores on the bongo. From Panama, I've known Geraldo the longest. I met him in 2002 when we were co-percussionists in the Latin-funk band Radio Mundial. I learned a great deal from him and he is one of the best-natured people I've ever met. He is also bananas on the campana (that's the hand-held cowbell that the bongo player uses). He has that natural feel that is sought by so many players.
And The WSO Horns, I could write pages about them. They are all great! James Hall & Alex Asher (trombone), Jason Prover & Mark Morgan (trumpets), Morgan Price (baritone).
SALSEEK: You left out one more person! Tell us about the man (Gianni Mano, Bandleader & Arranger/Timbales) behind the band:
WSO: I'm privileged to have such a great band, and to have found a growing audience for our music. I've been playing percussion professionally in NY for 10 years, and I finally have the band I always wanted to join! Although I'm an only-in-NY-mix (Half Italian Catholic+ Half Russian Jewish) from the moment I heard music from the Afro-Cuban/Puerto Rican/New Yorican diaspora, I knew I had to get inside it and learn to play it. To me, it is without question, the most fascinating, danceable, spiritual music in the world. It perfectly combines Africa and Europe in a live format right before your eyes and ears, synthesizing both pure rhythm and complex structure into something that can make you feel good. Somehow the histories of both parts of the world, the colonization of the New World, the tragedy of the slave trade and its aftermath, the discovery of love and all the joys and pains of living are expressed through this music - and you can dance to it! That sounds bombastic, I know, but it's the truth. Right, salsa lovers? You know what I'm talking about.
SALSEEK: What makes WSO unique?
1) We are a real 'band', not a shifting collection of hired players. The WSO members really know the music, and more importantly, they are emotionally invested in the performance. We love to play together and we know how each other approaches our individual parts. It gives the WSO our own sound.
2) The arrangements. All of our arrangements are unique to the WSO, and since the source material is from the wide-open world of indie-rock, the structures and melodies are different than any other salsa band working today. We don't use the same templates and chord changes that have been heard so often, but we strive to find a new sound within the confines of the traditional salsa orchestra.
SALSEEK: What is the musical style of WSO?
WSO: Our style has been called Salsa Moderna, or Indie Salsa. With 11 pieces, we have a huge sound which is very traditional in timbre, but our music comes across as different as any other band. We stick very close to tradition with our instrumentation - no drum set, no guitars, no samplers or sequencers; but the sound we produce is completely new. It's salsa dura; updated for a new audience who respects tradition yet craves a new voice.
SALSEEK: What elements do you draw upon from other genres of music?
WSO: The biggest elements are song structure and chord changes. The world of indie-rock has no rules - the song structures and chords can be anything under the sun, which can be a big shock to the conservative world of salsa. But I find it liberating. As long as you respect the clave and the genre, you can take anything and make it swing.
SALSEEK: What has been your favorite performance and why?
WSO: Good question. We've got a few. Our record release party in June 2011 was amazing: 500 people at the Brooklyn Bowl, all dancing and amazed at what they were hearing. Also, our show at The Spot (by Remezcla and Heineken) with Fania's incredible Our Latin Thing band was great.
We also just premiered at SOBs and BBKings. They were very special shows since we got to play for many of the people on the NY salsa scene, which I've respected for so long.
SALSEEK: Who would you say has been your idol?
WSO: There's no question that the biggest influences on my concept of the band are Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente. They are the touchstones for me.
SALSEEK: What is the feedback you get from today’s Latin dance and music scene?
WSO: Dancers really respond to a band that cares about their own performance. Our fans love that WE love what we do. There's no sleeping on the bandstand. While the salsa scene is thriving at a certain level, there seems to be room for a resurgence, but it has to be led by the musicians, or it will be the same old tunes over and over again. I constantly hear about how different and high-energy our shows are. With a few more complete bands like ours, maybe salsa in NY can grow beyond its boundaries and have a mini-renaissance.
SALSEEK: Any backstage gossip, or funny jokes within the group?
WSO: Just make sure that Solange has her mate before the show. That's MA-te, the caffeinated Argentinean tea she slurps backstage. She's starting to get us all hooked!
SALSEEK: Where can we see you guys next?
WSO: Our next shows are:
Sunday Feb 12 @ The Brooklyn Bowl, 8pm-midnight
Friday, March 2 @ Columbus 72, 9pm-11:30pm
Friday, March 23 @ SOBs, 8pm-11pm
You can follow us on facebook for more info about our show schedule:
To keep up with The Williamsburg Orchestra, visit www.wsoband.com