Performers for the 2018 National Folk Festival
photo courtesy of artist
Bronx, New York
The members of Orquesta SCC, a powerful 11-piece salsa ensemble from the Bronx, are lauded as “the new kings of salsa dura.” The “who’s who” of New York’s Latin music scene, they are leading the renaissance of driving, socially conscious Latin dance music.
Today salsa enjoys worldwide popularity, but its roots are in New York’s Spanish-speaking barrios. Salsa emerged here in the early 1970s from a blend of Afro-Cuban song traditions, Puerto Rican rhythms, and big band jazz. Along with social movements of the day, the music helped to define an emerging Latino community identity. Commercially popular artists gradually moved towards the smoother sounds of salsa romantica, but Orquesta SCC leaders Jose Vázquez-Cofresi (congas) and Edwin Perez (lead vocals) are part of a younger vanguard committed to reviving the sounds and spirit of salsa dura, or “hardcore salsa”—music that does not shy away from mixing social commentary with driving dance beats.
Jose Vázquez-Cofresi inherited a deep love of music from his family. His grandfather, a Puerto Rican military veteran of Italian descent, sang opera; his father, also a veteran, organized Christmas parandas and other cultural activities on the Air Force base where the family lived. Puerto Rican “old timers” showed Jose how to play their instruments. When the family settled in Birmingham, Alabama, teenaged Jose was mentored by percussionist William “Chilly Willy” Mena, who prepared him to pursue a professional career in the salsa hotbed of New York City.
Born in New York, Edwin Perez was raised by his grandparents in Caguas, Puerto Rico. Edwin excelled as a singer in the church choir his grandfather directed but felt a strong draw to music that spoke to what he calls the “drums in my heart.” He fell asleep each night listening to salsa on his beloved shortwave radio. As an adult, he moved back to New York, where music remained a private pursuit until a chance encounter with a Cuban band while he was dining out turned into an impromptu performance. Soon he was performing six nights a week after working his day job.
Perez and Vázquez-Cofresi were introduced to each other by a colleague at the office building where they both then worked, but on different floors (Perez at ESPN, Vázquez-Cofresi at ABC). The pair first formed the renowned group La Excelencia (2005-2012); in 2013 the ensemble was reborn as Orquesta SCC (Salsa Con Consciencia, or “salsa with conscience”). Grammy®-winning salsa producer Aaron Levinson says Orquesta SCC “[goes] back to … when salsa was street music” by embracing the genre’s traditional elements: propulsive percussion, dynamic brass lines, and emphatic, emotional vocals updated with original compositions that inspire audiences to find both joy and meaning on the dance floor.