Vasilis Stamatiou’s radio shows made many people love the Latin scene. Being behind radio microphones and songs’ choice since 1991, he was, without any exaggeration, the person who laid the cornerstone in what is today called Greek salsa audience.
It was a surprising joy and enjoyment to discuss with him about salsa, its past and its future.
Is salsa a creation by Ηector Lavoe and Willie Colón?
Salsa is not the creation of a single person. Rythmically speaking, it already existed in Cuba and it was slowly being shaped in a different form in New York. The same pre-existing base followed a slightly different path stylistically and musically speaking, while some other elements were also added in the mix. However, this did not happen at a particular point or by a particular person.
Who were the artists that joined this process?
Salsa is not the music of an unknown father, in the way that traditional music, like folk songs, is. It is popular music and it has specific protagonists. The names which contributed to its formation, such as Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colón, Cheo Felicianο, Larry Harlow, Ray Barretto, Johnny Pacheco, Ismael Rivera, and others, are known. They formed a music based on Cuban salsa from the ‘60s and before, as well as on the pre-salsa scene of New York, such as mambo, in which the main protagonists were Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, Machito, and others.
Did the people who were the protagonists of New York music scene till then fight against salsa, or did they see it as something supplementary and parallel to their own music?
Machito, who was an important musical figure and kept a low-profile, did not protest. Tito Puente had an exuberant personality and was dogmatic when salsa was brought up. He was negative and part of his attitude was caused by fact that when salsa boomed in the early ‘70s, the audience turned to younger artists. Tito Puente was about 50 years old back then, whereas the new scene was formed by 25-year-old musicians.
Of course Puente was right to an extent, because many of those young artists were of a lower musical and technical level compared to the older ones who were closer to jazz and musically advanced.
However salsa was ghetto music, it had spontaneity and a certain charm, and it was addressed to the ‘70s audience who needed a change.
Therefore, salsa took some of its elements by mambo. What are their similarities and differences?
Mambo has Cuban origins, but it evolved in a different way −and I would say in a more interesting way− in New York. On one hand, it was based on dance jazz and on the other on what we would today call salsa’s ancestor.
Its basic differences from salsa are that mambo requires a big orchestra of minimum 15 persons, and it involved a certain amount of luxury. You could listen to it in nice places, with people who were dressed smart and had another style. It addressed a wider audience of white, black, poor and rich people and it was mainly instrumental music or simpler in terms of lyrics. Of course it had nice orchestrations but the rest of the song, its interpretation and its lyrics, was downgraded. It was the orchestra and the conductor that mattered.
In the ‘70s, all these changed as the audience differentiated and not only New York, but also the population of the city itself was not the same as in the ‘50s. Many members of the audience were second generation Latin American immigrants, who had moved to marginalised areas, like Bronx and Spanish Harlem, and salsa was the underground scene there.
Moreover, the lyrics and the singer started to matter in salsa. The lyrics often transmitted a social message, something which contributed to salsa’s success in Latin America. Hence, we could say that salsa had an underground style, going back to its Latin American roots. At the same time, something important to its course was the fact that it became the expression of city music. This is the reason why the places it is played are mainly in cities, in poor neighbourhoods, in ghettos and barrios.
And when did salsa become global?
There is the creative part, the music. Then, the golden era started in the ‘70s and finished in the ‘80s with a revival in the ‘90s. Some things are due to other factors, too. In the ’70s there was Fania Records which brought all those musicians who contributed to the creation of what we call salsa today close to the public. This course was gradually declining and by the end of the ‘80s, RMM Records managed to gather popular young artists like Marc Anthony, as well as older ones, like Celia Cruz, and built a new empire.
On the other hand, there is the dance part of salsa which has been undergoing a surprising revival. A parallel course, almost independent from the evolution of salsa musical scene, started in the late ‘90s. At first, it was like a hobby – by non-Latin Americans. This is very important because the interest for salsa remains alive even today.
Unfortunately, this interest is almost exclusively focused on old salsa with instrumental pieces and is partly due to technical interest by those who wish to have background music available in order to dance. Thus, the part of music which has to do with lyrics is downplayed. It is an attitude of the Internet generation who is looking for upbeat hits.
Coming back to the present day, do festivals and live concerts take place?
Given that the discography market is now dead as a source of revenues for the artists, what keeps salsa alive is the whole concert and dance club appearances network, mainly in Latin America, but also in New York and now in Europe as well.
Where is salsa widespread today?
Countries where salsa thrives are Colombia, which has important and fanatic audience, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Panama and Peru. Also, there are countries like Chile and Mexico where people almost did not listen to salsa; however, today an important musical trend can be distinguished there.
Who would you say is the salsa audience?
In the past you usually got introduced to this music due to a random event, a friend or a trip. Nowadays, people get familiar with it exclusively through dancing. Of course there is an audience who forms a psychological bond with this music, but they usually see it as a dish in a menu which also includes bachata, kizomba, etc.
Another element is that the audience comes from dance schools. In the past years, one would learn how to dance by imitation, by observing how Latin Americans who came to Latin clubs danced, whereas now practice and technique are required. Teachers are to be held responsible for that, because a dance with typically social characteristics is translated into something made for the stage. The audience is not to be blamed for, because we are all attracted by something fancy, but music is made for the average person. Thus, there is a gap. There is the relationship with the dance partner and the relationship with the music, but there was never a relationship with the others – the outsiders, who look at us.
As a whole, I would like a balance between the musical part and the cultural part that music carries to be there. You have to listen to music and even better to listen to what songs say.
Are there any important young artists today?
Of course there young musicians as well as artists, but salsa is not considered youth music any more, as its audience gets older and it is perceived almost like a retro kind of music. Salsa voiced the concerns of that era. The young artists who appear today do not “carry weight” as older artists did, partly because the conditions have changed and that social or musical momentum does not exist nowadays.
A musician can now present their work more easily, but the total volume of productions is so big that it will be difficult for them to become popular through the radio.
Why salsa is not equally represented on media and why it does not have a remarkable radio presence?
It does not have a remarkable presence in Greek media because no important events take place. There are not many things done by the mere artistic part. In the past, in the ‘90s and in 2000s, there were also bands which played their own music. Then gigs were more important and people went there to see bands which had their own repertoire. But when gigs cannot be sustained, there are no productions and media references.
Which do you consider to be an important personal moment of yours?
Some live concerts I have seen, some people I have met. Something which was really important to me was that I listened live to Rubén Blades at Puerto Rico, but I also distinguish some moments in my radio shows when I felt that what I do had indeed some value and that I offer that to the public.
If you remember, with which the song did you first “feel” this music?
I remember. With “El Ratón” by Fania All Star.
(note: here by Cheo Feliciano)
- Vasilis has been listening to salsa for the last 30 years, without a single break. He used to dig up Pop eleven and jazz rock vinyls and he enriched his collection by ordering discs from London and New York through correspondence.
- He started his radio shows at Jazz Fm in 1991 with 200 discs. Until 1996, when the radio station closed, he had already had 1000.
- He introduced the Athenian audience to salsa music through Kosmos Fm, where his shows where not limited to playlists; he also had stories about the artists, the musicians, the songwriters and the orchestrators.
- You can enjoy his music choices and dance at Palenque.
Stay on the dance floor: Soon a list of five favourite songs by Vasilis.