Blazing a trail by playing some of the hardest hitting and far reaching modern salsa for 23 years now, Bio Ritmo have grown into one of the most intriguing and influential Latin dance bands of the last two decades. They are true rebels who have defied being pigeonholed. They have helped pioneer a new generation of musicians (aka nueva generación) that thrive on the spirit of experimentation that once defined the 70’s Latin sound that came to be known as ‘salsa’. From hipster rock clubs in Brooklyn to ‘salsa bars’ in Cali, Colombia, Bio Ritmo keeps the bodies on the dance floor with their nitty-gritty, vintage grooves while turning heads with their experimental synth tones, innovative harmonies and thought provoking lyrics. They convert the skeptics who only know the overly commercialized, tacky veneer of Latin music and challenge the purist who hitherto believed the genre died during the 90’s. They have a fierce, almost punk rock DIY ethos that pervades their attitude and style, releasing their records either by themselves or on indie and hip hop labels like Merge, Fat Beats and, Electric Cowbell. They cite Stereolab and Brazilian psychedelic music as influences in the same breath as name-dropping Ray Barretto, Roberto Roena and classic Fania records. It’s no surprise that their new record, “Puerta Del Sur,” (Vampisoul LP & CD release: June, 24, 2014) is coming out on a Spanish label whose mission is to resurrect ‘lost’ Latin music.
“Our mission from day one was to write original music in the classic salsa style,” states Bio Ritmo’s lead singer and composer Rei Alvarez “and experimentation is as much a part of the tradition as the wide-ranging Afro-Cuban genres that it’s based on.”
Alvarez, a self-taught musician and artist, spent his formative years in 1970’s Ponce, Puerto Rico. His strong opinions about aesthetics and style have undeniably shaped Bio Ritmo’s look and sound thru the years. “Working on ‘Salsa System’ (2006) with the legendary engineer Jon Fausty (Fania Records) was like going to salsa boot camp,” Alvarez says. This experience boosted the group’s confidence and gave them the vision to persevere and embrace their identity. “On ‘Bionico’ (2008), we stopped trying to be a salsa band,” he adds. That is to say, the group realized that it wasn’t about proving themselves as much as they simply wanted to be authentic to themselves. Then on ‘La Verdad’ (The Truth) (2011, Electric Cowbell) with veteran producer Aaron Levinson (Spanish Harlem Orchestra) it all came together. Cited as “one of the most life-affirming albums of the year,” by PopMatters.com, it launched Bio Ritmo on a European festival circuit – including an invitation to The Republic of Georgia – and inspired a ‘salsa bar’ outside of Cali, Colombia to name themselves after the hit song “La Muralla” (The Wall).
“This album is more Bio Ritmo because it’s more and more ‘us’,” says Alvarez.
The title of the record, “Puerta del Sur,” which translates to “Door to the South,” addresses Bio Ritmo’s unique and seemingly incongruous placement in the locale of Richmond, Virginia. It’s a cosmic coincidence that has nurtured the group for its entire career. “This is the evolution of a southern band. It’s still a novelty to be a band like us where we live that helps keep things fresh and allows us to be creative in more relaxed conditions.” Alvarez posits. His collage art for the album cover also features the Richmond city skyline being invaded by modern day “Vejigante” – a traditional folkloric character unique to Puerto Rico seen during various cultural celebrations.
“The band was born out of this raw, thriving artist community that still characterizes Richmond today,” adds pianist, composer and producer Marlysse Simmons. She stands head strong, with a unique flare and represents one of a few Latin women pianist and composers in the industry who also leads the band and its 9 eccentric male members. “Richmond definitely nurtured us, but we also come from all over the map culturally and musically speaking,” adds Simmons whose mother is from Chile. “But we all share a passion for ‘salsa’ – a music that encompasses so many different styles and influences. It’s rooted in the experimentation of blending rhythms and sounds and this is exactly what we love to do.”
“I sing about my experiences,” proclaims Alvarez.
“Something negative has happened in my life and it gets processed internally and I share the experience. It’s almost like I’m giving advice to myself. I find the songwriting process and working within the soneo sections (improvisations within a call–response format) a healing experience.” Alvarez isn’t the only member who gets healed from the music. Percussionist Hector “Coco” Barez, claims he cures himself with Bio Ritmo. “It’s a detox of everything that’s wrong with music today and also a great workout.” Barez, a Puerto Rican native has clocked years touring and recording with some of the world’s most popular reggaeton and alternative Latin artist such as Calle 13. “It’s a family environment of good musicians. When I was asked to play with Bio Ritmo I jumped at the opportunity.”
“Puerta del Sur really shows the evolution of Bio Ritmo,” says Fausty. “It’s the best yet.”
This album has the most varied musical content to date. Each song taking its listener on a different journey through Afro-Cuban (and other) rhythms mixed with intriguing harmonic movements blended with vintage keyboard sounds, analog synthesizer surprises and sophisticated, stylized horn arrangements.
Of the eight tracks, “Codeína”, the final track, stands out as the most unique and innovative songs on the album. Written in the aesthetic of a Latin-bolero meets 1960’s Egyptian-classical. It features a string section, Farfisa organ and various Arabic percussion instruments. It is a collaboration between Bio Ritmo’s main writers Giustino Riccio, Alvarez and Simmons, who site inspiration from their obsession with 60’s and 70’s Arabic, Greek and Turkish music and reference singers like Abdel Halim Hafez (Egypt), Zeki Müren (Turkey) and Stelios Kazantzidis (Greece).
Bio Ritmo are true Latin music visionaries. The group’s innovative and unique approach to the genre has put them at the forefront of the “new generation” of salsa musicians. Steeped in the classic tradition, they keep experimenting with new ideas and in the process are helping mold the shape of salsa to come. They didn’t set out to revolutionize salsa music, but by operating their sonic laboratories in the most unlikely of places for a working Latin dance band (Richmond, Virginia) they’ve certainly proved that you can make a garden grow anywhere with the right care.
“They continue to represent the past, present, and future of salsa, and the shit sounds like melaza pura. It’s Bio Ritmo’s best album to date. Punto y fin.” – Christian Martir, DJ, founder of Pa’lante! NYC.