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ANTHONY BLEA Y SU CHARANGA
"VIRGEN DE LA CARIDAD"
WHEN DID YOU FIRST START THINKING ABOUT MAKING THE CD VIRGEN DE LA CARIDAD?
I started thinking about it 1998 or 1999. The band has been playing for about 3 years and we were just playing cover tunes (music previously recorded by other artists). The band members started saying “We need to make a recording and we need to get some original songs." I had not even thought about recording when I started the band. I really had just wanted to start playing Latin music again. I wanted us to be more than just another salsa band. I wanted us to play the music with respect for its history and using first class musicians.
WHICH BANDS INFLUENCED THE SOUND OF YOUR BAND ANTHONY BLEA Y SU CHARANGA (formerly known as Charanson) ?
The last Latin music band I played with before I put together Charanson was Charanga 76 in New York. I played with them for 4 years and it was a great band. Before that I was with Batachanga (a San Francisco based charanga lead by John Santos) for 4 years and we recorded 2 albums. The sound of Charanson which for this recording is named “Anthony Blea Y Su Charanga” is directly related to Batachanga.
WHAT WASS UNIQUE ABOUT THE BATACHANGA SOUND?
Back then all of us had looked to New York for the charanga sound since New York had all the top charanga bands like Orquesta Broadway, Tipica 73, Tipica Novel and Tipica Ideal. We used to play a lot of the cover tunes from those bands. When the bands came out here to perform, we would all go see them and I got a chance to sit in and play with those bands. The New York charangas had a special hard driving, disciplined sound that all of us admired.
Batachanga which played from 1980-84 was a continuation of Tipica Cienfuegos (an earlier Bay Area band lead by John Santos) —using many of the same musicians. There were aspects of jazz and elements of Cuban folkloric music in our sound since we used the bata drums. There were some songs with John Santos that are pure Cuban folkloric music. Just John playing bata drums, him singing and a little Bass in the background. There are some selections where John took a rumba and made it into a song. I incorporated some of that feel into my band.
HOW DO CUBAN CHARANGA BANDS SOUND DIFFERENT FROM NEW YORK CHARANGAS?
The Cubans play a very traditional, old styled charanga. The difference in the sound is even reflected in the way the music was recorded. It has a more acoustic sound. It is hard to describe how the two sound different but if you hear a Cuban charanga and a New York charanga you will recognize the difference. Another important difference is that In the Cuban style of charanga, the coro (vocal chorus) was performed by a group of 3-4 voices singing in unison. That is a very particular sound. In Charanson we don’t have that type of sound. We more voices singing harmonies, solo voices and lead vocals. A lot of the Cuban charangas don’t have lead vocals. They just have 3 or 4 voices singing together all the time.
I was a big fan of Tipica 73 which to this day I think was one of the greatest bands I have ever heard. They had an all-star line up of musicians. They were really on the cutting edge in terms of being very progressive with their sound. They could play traditional charangas because Alfredo De La Fe, on violin, was with them They could also turn around and play Latin jazz with Mario Rivera playing saxophone and flute. The trumpet and saxophone players were incredible. They had a big horn section—trumpet, trombone, saxophone and flute. They also had bongos, timbales and congas. Orestes Vilato (Bay Area legend who currently plays with John Santos and Machete Ensemble) on timbales was one of the original members. What set them apart was the range of music they played, the style of their arrangements and just the swing that the band had.
So a lot of my ideas for Charanson go back to Tipica 73 –such as using the power of the driving violins and the aggressive horns section.
ONE OF THE SONGS PEOPLE ARE REALLY NOTICING ON YOUR CURRENT CD IS TUMBA RANDY. IT IS A REALLY EXCITING AND UNIQUE TUNE. CAN YOU TELL ME MORE ABOUT TUMBA RANDY?
It starts off as a rumba, a guaguanco. Right away Alfredo comes in with a “Call”.The call is commonly used in rumbas. For example rumbas start with the drums and then the lead singer comes in with a musical phrase to set the key of the song. Then the number goes into the verse performed by the singers. But on Tumba Randy instead of the lead singer delivering the call, Alfredo plays it on the violin. This is something I had never heard anyone do before. I have heard the call played on a trumpet or performed by a singer. Alfredo really makes his violin sound like a voice. He does the same types of calls that the rumberos sing. Since I grew up playing congas and performing rumbas, I had listened to all those calls. It was a natural thing to include rumbas in the music and it turned out really great for him to play that tune. Originally I was the only violinist on the tune playing a long solo instead me trading solos with Alfredo. I think the concept of alternating solos makes the tune more interesting. It is a long song but because it has a lot of sections it does not seem that long. It was truly an honor to play with him.
WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THE TITLE TUMBA RANDY?
The song was written by Junior Terry and I think he had friend named Randy for whom he named the song. I don’t even know this guy Randy. I was thinking about changing the name but it kind of grew on me.
Alfredo De La Fe
A LOT OF THE MUSIC IS COMPOSED BY CUBAN ARTISTS ELIADO OR JUNIOR TERRY. WHAT DO YOU FIND APPEALING ABOUT THEIR COMPOSITIONS?
I played on their CD Los Terry: From Africa to Camaguey produced by Bay Area producer Greg Landau back in 1997. Greg went to Cuba to record the Terry family playing and he added the John Santos on timbales and me on violin at his recording studio in San Francisco. Years before I had been listening to Eliadio ( Don Poncho Terry) with older charanga bands like Las Maravailles de Florida. They have a very distinctive sound. Eladio plays violin and he is a master at playing chekere. Both of his sons Yunior and Yosvaney are musicians in New York. So in 1998 or 1999 I talked to Eladio when he was in town and I told him I was looking for tunes to record. He said that he had written 5 tunes that had never been recorded. I listened to the tunes, I made some suggestions to help modernize the tunes and Yosvany added the modern touches. I also added some things to give the music our personal touch. Making this CD has been a long process.
Later Yunior Terry contributed some songs. Tumba Randy, Que Vida and Pa Eso are all his works. I think they are three of the best songs on the CD. We puts so much effort in to his writing. At the time Yunior was going to school for music composition in LA and he wanted to experiment and make a new sound. He wanted to get his name out there as a composer.
WHAT ABOUT THE SONG PA ESO?
That song is by Yunior Terry but we added a lot our own flavor to it. Parts of it are reminiscent of Los Van Van with a great groove of the horns playing constantly and the violins chiming in. It has a kind of a Timba feel. The song actually worked out to be a masterpiece and I think it is my favorite song on the CD. It really came together with Yunior’s maturity as an arranger and composer. I want to work with him some more.
WHAT ABOUT THE TITLE SONG VIRGEN DE CARIDAD? I SEE IT WAS WRITTEN BY YOUR VOCALIST ORLANDO. I DID NOT KNOW THAT HE WAS A SONG WRITER TOO.
Orlando says he has composed a bunch of songs. He sang the melody into a recorder and John Calloway arranged it. Calloway is always working and he is a real genius. I trust his musical instincts since we have worked together many times since Batachanga days. He arranged so that it is goes into the coro in the early stages stages of the song. He uses the pedal tone on the bass which gives it a haunting feeling.
WHAT DOES THE TITLE MEAN?
Virgen de la Caridad is the saint of charity. She reaches out to all the downtrodden people who need some loving from above. The song has a lot of meaning for Orlando. Virgen De la Caridad became the title song in part because we needed a concept for the designer who was doing the art for the CD cover. I wanted to use my daughter Ariana on the cover since I think she is so beautiful. So I suggested that we use her on the cover dressed in white dress and make her look like the Virgin. I think the image is creative and beautiful and expresses the wonderful sentiment of the music.
THERE ARE SEVERAL FEATURED ARTISTS ON YOUR NEW RELEASE IN ADDITION TO OUR BAY AREA TALENT. WHY DID YOU SELECT LEGENDARY SALSA VIOLINIST ALFREDO DE LA FE TO BE ON YOUR CD?
Alfredo was one of the few Charanga violinists out there performing when I first started playing Salsa back in 1976 and 1977. At that point I had never heard any Salsa violins. Since I was playing with Tipica Cienfuegos, Santos recommended that I listen to a few recordings of Afredo to get of idea of how violins are supposed to sound in charangas. He said if you want to get some ideas for some solos and improvisations, check out these CDs. So I listened to Pupi Legaretta and Brindes. They called him “El Nino Prodigio” ( child prodigy) even when he was 80 years old. He produced some classic violin solos. I would transcribe those solos and play them note for note. I learned a lot of licks and guajeos just by listening to Alfredo . When I was 18 finally got a chance to meet him and play with him in New York. I was asked to play with Charanga Casino at Columbia University and Alfredo was playing on the same gig. He had a big Afro and we were both very skinny. I used to just get blown away by him. I saw him play with Tipica 73 at the Village Gate. Unfortunately he had to leave the U.S. for 20 years (due to legal problems) and I could feel a void in the music. Though we did not correspond while he was away, people continued to tell him about my progress. So when I heard he came back to the States just a few years ago, I contacted him. When he said he was going to be in San Francisco playing at Café Cocomo, I asked him to record a tune for the CD.
TELL ME ABOUT WHY YOU INCLUDED YOUR OLD FRIEND JIMMY BOSCH ON THIS CD?
I first meet Jimmy (picture on left by Peter Maiden) when I first studied and played in New York in the 1980’s. Every Monday I would go to hear who was playing at the Village. Jimmy was playing with Manny Oquiendo Y Conjunto Libre and sometimes he would appear with Eddie Palmieri. He was also pretty close to my age. I loved the sound of his trombone—Like Alfredo he had an aggressive approach to the music with a lot of swing. He had a lot of energy and stage presence. On stage he was not just standing there immobile like some horn players. He was dancing around, singing the coros and tearing it up. I loved that sound. So I got a chance to meet him. Later when he was appearing in San Francisco, I got him to record with us on the first Batachanga album. That album is vintage Jimmy Bosch—really fresh and raw. He was just a kid then, maybe 21 years old. So I have known him since then. So for this album I wanted to get in the studio and just tear it up on his solos.
SPREAD THE WORD!! THIS VIRGEN DE LA CARIDAD IS REAL GEM. EVERY SONG IS MAGIC.
You can see Anthony Y Su Charanga live at
June 6 El Rio
June 12 The Ramp
June 27 Jelly’s
San Jose Jazz Festival on August 8
San Francisco Jazz Festival -Free Concert in Union Square: Thursday Aug 19
YOU CAN PURCHASE VIRGEN DE LA CARIDAD at CDBaby http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/blea or talk to Anthony the next time you see him. I'm sure he'll be willing to sell you a few CDs.