The Williamsburg Salsa Orchestra was conceived with one genuine intention in mind: to “have fun.” Of course, since music, or more specifically salsa, was always at the utmost passion and heart of their interest, performing in a band sufficiently satisfied such conditions and quickly became more than a pastime. In a year, the Brooklyn-based collective went from local cult heroes to topping the iTunes charts, all the while enjoying the ride in its most basic submission. They are more than merely a Latin band as their name suggests; they are an enigma. Embracing a uniquely symbiotic alchemy of sound, the group is able to remain true to the heritage of traditional salsa through compositions, but still uniquely celebrate modernity by interpreting indie rock hits in the arrangements.
And, as is the case with most musical sorties, it all began as an experiment.
“After my last band ended, I had some time on my hands and knew I wanted to play traditional salsa,” explains founding frontman, Gianni Mano, who himself is Italian and Russian. After experiencing the too common creative “rut,” Mano found himself listening to Animal Collective’s record, “My Girls” and was inspired, “I thought it would be really cool as a Yambu-style arrangement.”
So, he gave it a shot. “My Girls” came out as Cuban Rumba, and incidentally, it sounded fantastic. Mano opted to try out a few more, pulling tracks from some of Williamsburg’s trendsetting rockers and spinning them in various styles of salsa. Afterward, he released his demos online—again, just as a test—and before he knew it, the music went viral.
“It kind of blew up,” explains Mano. “The music was picked up on really high profile blogs like Free Williamsburg and Fader.”
People asked – who are these guys? Mano played the fool, feigning a band when it was really only him and the clever work of his recording equipment. Then, incidentally, the ‘band’ booked a gig. That’s when he knew it was time to find a group.
Says Mano, “There are 11 people total now. Five horns, three percussionists, a baby bass and vocalists.”
Williamsburg Salsa Orchestra has come a long way over the course of a year. After taking up a brief residency on N. 6th Street and Bedford (essentially, the Times Square of Brooklyn), the group booked a more high profile residency at Brooklyn Bowl, where the likes of ?uestlove, Talib Kweli, Grouplove, Beirut, and Oh Land have all recently performed. It’s the neighborhood hot spot, bringing in artists from all avenues and cities to give music’s snottiest boroughs a run for their money.
“There’s really no place in New York with this crowd,” notes Mano, in a sort of ‘make it hear, make it anywhere’ tone. “I really feel like we’re changing the game… It’s this huge, beautiful dance floor, half filled with Latinos, half with indie music-loving hipsters.”
Now that the band is serious, the tides have changed and their original goals expanded. Mano would love to establish a new strain of salsa, or, as he describes, a subgenre where typical structures and chord progressions are thrown out in favor of something more atypical. Though the group tends to gravitate towards purist Moomba and Rumba didactics, their spin is to bring in rock, jazz and classical along the way. Their shows and music are familiar yet revolutionary. One glance at their album suggests music you’ve heard countless times; tunes by the name “Young Folks,” “I Turn My Camera On,” “L.E.S. Artistes” and “Wolf Like Me.” Assuredly though, they’re like nothing you’ve heard before. It’s Rent meets West Side Story; “La Vie Boheme” fused with “America.” Same vibe; same tale; 21st century Brooklyn.
Truth be told, Williamsburg Salsa Orchestra is a hit, and not only in their home fort but abroad. Last week, the band hit #10 on the iTunes Latin chart in Japan with little to no promotion whatsoever. It’s a fact Mano has trouble understanding, though he’s thrilled to say the least. He attributes this rise potentially to the band’s recent vinyl release, which shopped noticeably well in the Asian market.
Plus, the music’s pretty awesome (he hopes that’s the primary contributing factor).
Like many artists these days, Mano recognizes both the nostalgic and marketing power of vinyl.
“Every time you spin a record on vinyl it sounds unique,” he comments. “It’s because you’re taking the natural wave form of music and amplifying it; it’s real audio, not turned into 0s and 1s, which we’ve gotten away from these days. t’s also about the ritual. I mean, CDs and iPods are great in their own respect, but the ritual of cleaning and spinning the record, the subtle differences each time you play it, music becomes more sacred.”
It’s clear both Mano and his orchestra have a profound love for their craft. The passion is there, and the success is progressing accordingly. The artists are a true testament to the infinitely quotable motto deemed by Field of Dreams, “if you build it, they will come.” They are tuning their craft around music’s centerfold, and the audience is following closely.
Given the chance, Mano says he’d like to meet those who paved his way. “I’d love to go to the Hollywood Palladium back when Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez were battling every night. Those were the real rock n’ rollers. I’d love to grab a beer with them and pick their brains.”