This year’s LA Salsa Congress again features a lengthy list of things to do and see, but the bread and butter remains with its high-profile musical performances.
Dominican salsa singer Jose Alberto “El Canario” headlines this year’s festival, which also features bachata singer-songwriter Toby Love and legendary salsa band Tipica 73.
In an exclusive interview for Living Out Loud, “El Canario” spoke about his beginnings, the act of singing, whistling like a canary, attired, Celia Cruz and much more.
Living Out Loud: You started to sing at what age? Who inspired you to dedicate your life to music as a career?
Jose Alberto: I start in music over 40 years ago, first as a musician and later as a singer. My first job as a singer was with the orchestra of Cesar Nicolas in 1974 and later I did my first recording with the band of the son of Tito Rodriguez. After that I joined the charanga salsa band Tipica 73 in October of 1977. I have dedicated myself to music and singing is what I do best.
LOL: Do you have musicians in your family? If so who were or are they? Do you play an instrument?
JA: No, actually I’m the only one. I have some distant cousins who play rock in the Dominican Republic but other than those relatives, it has been me who has chosen music as a career. Now my mother was a very famous dancer in the Dominican Republic during the 1950’s which was the time of the Trujillo government and was a member of The Ballet Negro. I started playing percussion and it was later that I began singing.
LOL: You are known as “El Canario” because of the way you can whistle to mimic a flute. When did this talent start and how?
JA: This began on stage at a club called Studio 84 in New York City where while performing with a band I would sing and improvise. The DJ at the time would say over his microphone “sing canario” and I also began to whistle while holding my hands to my mouth as if I was playing a flute. Since then it has become a signature.
LOL: You are also known for your improvisations. Can you explain how and when do you start the idea of improvising in a song? Is it by instinct?
JA: It usually happens when I feel really connected to the music and it comes from within. I’ve been and still am a student of this genre of music and my favorite singers have always been the soneros, singers like Pete “El Conde,” Miguelito Cuni, Oscar D’Leon, Celia Cruz and others like them. I would go and see them perform while studying how they would move and improvise on stage. And because the sensitivity to music was already inside me, watching their performances helped my own improvisation skills as a sonero.
LOL: You are known as a great dancer, a showman, always dressed impeccably. Was this always your image?
JA: I have always had this image, and have taken care of myself. We as artists are examples of our societies when we go unto a stage where everyone will see us, we must present our best. In addition, I love elegance, love to dress well which is something I learned from my mother. I also love to dance and become hyper while onstage when I hear the music, so I can’t stand still.
LOL: You were part of the iconic charanga orchestra Tipica 73. When did you start with this group? Where you always their main singer or did you also play an instrument?
JA: Yes, I was always the singer for Tipica 73”and if I played an instrument it was small percussion ones like a guiro, maracas or cowbell. During the 1970’s & 80’s, this band was probably the best salsa orchestra in New York City. One that counted with so many maestros as their members which had come from so many established orchestras and it was my university. Artists of the level of Soni Bravo, Adalberto Santiago, Johnny Rodriguez, Alfredo de la Fe, Mario Rivera and others who had come from legendary bands such as those of Tito Rodriguez, Ray Barreto, Tito Puentes, etc. You can imagine me as a young 19-20 year-old sharing the stage with these musical lions. So as I said before, Tipica 73 was my university without doubt.
LOL: You sang and worked a lot with the legendary Cuban singer Celia Cruz. Can you tell us something of what it was like to work with her?
JA: I had the honor to work with Celia Cruz continuously for 17 years and traveled with her the 5 continents. For me Celia was a mother, teacher, godmother, and she opened many doors and became another school for me. There was no person more disciplined than Celia; she was happiness as her song says “a carnaval.” I never saw her sad, she was always happy. When Celia jumped on stage she transformed herself, she became another person and offstage she was an incredibly hard working person also. During her trips she would write postcards, read, always worried about her public, her career and her family. For us in the world of music and salsa, Celia was like a dictionary of Latin music.
LOL: You were part of the RMM Records Salsa Festival at The Hollywood Bowl during the late 1990’s. How was this experience for you?
JA: Ralph Mercado, the president of RMM Records began mostly a booking agent and I was the first artist he recorded for his new label. He put up the money and I left to Puerto Rico to record with Mario Ortiz and other artists and I chose a song “Sueño Contigo” which was the theme of a popular Latin soap opera at the time and it became a hit. So then Ralph began to sign others artists such as Tito Nieves, Tony Vega and put together a type of Fania All Stars label with a project called La Combinacion Perfecta, which were duets by the principal artists in his roster. I was paired with Oscar D’Leon with the song “Llego el Sabor” and it was at RMM records that Marc Anthony and La Indian first became well known in the world of salsa music. For me it was a fantastic, unique experience and I was happy to be able to be a part of something that happens very few times.
LOL: You are now involved with producer/composer Sergio George and his musical project, Los Gigantes de la Salsa, which won the 2013 Grammy for the Best Salsa Album. Can you tell us a bit about the experience? Is the concert going to come to Los Angeles?
JA: If you fast forward 20 years from my RMM years, I’m involved with a similar project, this time headed by Sergio George called Los Gigantes de la Salsa. Many of the same artists who were with RMM are back together but with more focus on our own repertoire. We have been in Mexico, Miami, Curacao, Veracruz, Puerto Rico and we will be heading to Connecticut, NYC, and other locations.
LOL: Do you have a new project or recording that you can tell us about?
JA: I have a new project that started with a song and an invitation from the Cuban group Septeto Santiaguero for a tribute to the legendary Cuban duo Los Compadres. This collaboration became a huge hit and it was subsequently proposed as a recording to honor them. As you know, salsa music is a copy of Cuban music, the roots come from Cuba and we cannot hide this fact. This group has left an important legacy with so many important compositions that can still be played and a new generation introduced to these masters of the Cuban son genre.
LOL: You will be headlining the LA Salsa Congress on Saturday, May 24. Will there be something special about this presentation?
JA: This will not be a presentation of my songs but more of a tribute to Tipica 73 and the songs I recorded with them after 34 years. It will be a great reunion and I’m looking forward to being in Los Angeles to share these songs and moments.
What: LA Salsa Congress
Where: Westin Bonaventure, 404 S. Figueroa St., downtown Los Angeles
When: May 21-26
Contact: (310) 445-9705 or www.mysalsacongress.com