Jesus Pagan is sitting at a wobbly table inside a downtown Holyoke eatery that’s eerily quiet. The owner has turned the volume down on the salsa music that was blaring from the PA system. Not having to compete with the music, the soft-spoken salsa singer, bandleader and composer launches into a professorial lecture on salsa music. Judging by the flimsy table’s back and forth motion, and my tape recorder’s precarious position on it, Pagan’s getting pretty passionate about the subject. It’s almost too perfect – the setting that is, congas to our right, posters of upcoming Latin jazz and salsa shows, the smallish bar with a faux island theme, drop-dead gorgeous chicas ordering take-out, and of course, the music.
Since relocating to Holyoke in the late 90’s from the Bronx, and before that, Puerto Rico, Pagan’s been a fixture in Latin music circles, both locally and abroad. His 2008 solo debut, Salsa De La Mata, earned him critical praise from the salsa establishment and music reviewers alike. Pagan leads a traditional salsa orquesta, or big band, and a smaller conjunto-style band that favors Afro-Cuban rhythms. This summer is especially busy for Pagan, as it’s the season of music festivals and concert series all over New England. This Thursday, he’ll appear at the UMass Fine Arts Center’s “Jazz in July” concert series and over the coming weekend at the Ray Gonzalez Latin Jazz & Salsa Festival in Hartford, CT. Pagan took some time out to answer some questions about salsa music and his work.
On salsa dura: That’s a term for “heavy arrangements” or the “old days” of New York salsa which is the music of the Fania All-Stars (legendary record label with roster of salsa stars too innumerable to go into here) in the late 60’s and early 70’s, or further back in the late 50’s to early 60’s with the sounds of big bands like Tito Rodriguez or Tito Puente. In the 80’s, salsa dura wasn’t really happening anymore. The style that was popular then was called salsa moñga (“romantic” or “flaccid” salsa) which was very commercial. Then back in the 90’s it started to come full circle with a mix of dura and monga. It wasn’t till the late 90’s and early 2000’s that real salsa dura made a comeback with artists like Spanish Harlem Orchestra and the rise of independent record labels. It’s remained this way since with salsa and Latin jazz.
On his style or sonero: My style is a mix of the lyrically romantic stuff, with the heaviness of salsa dura arrangements. I want the dancers to enjoy the rhythm, but at the same time I want the people to enjoy the lyrics. The corro (or the chorus’ “hook”) and the improvisation of the players brings it all to the audience. I’m beyond reproducing what I did in the studio. If you want a playback artist, you don’t want a sonero . If you want an artist who adds to the song in a live performance something more, maybe a three-minute excursion away from the melody and original lyrics – then you’ve got a sonero.
On song arrangements: The arrangements are the key to the magic. It’s what makes the sound and the style of the performance. You can have an incredible song but if the arrangement is not the quality or heaviness of salsa dura, the fans won’t enjoy it as much. I write with the melody in mind but when I turn it over to the arrangers I expect them to make it so incredible and that they have the people who will be dancing to this in their minds. I also expect all the musicians to give everything – heart and soul, to create the magic.
On Nuyorican salsa: Puerto Rico has their style of salsa, Cuba has their style, same with Columbia and Venezuela, but New York, without question has their style. I have to put my style with Nuyorican, or the New York style because it’s a hard-core and in demand right now. I think of the Nuyorican style as one that incorporates more showmanship and performance into the salsa genre. I could sing all night but everyone solos and does their improvisation thing. I like to feature the members of whatever band is backing me at the time, which is very jazz-oriented. Even my back-up singers get to do a song each!
On being a Puerto Rican transplant: I moved to Puerto Rico from the Bronx when I was nine in 1979. I went back and forth many times but finally moved back for good in 1997. Instead of going back to the Bronx, I moved to Holyoke. I wanted to be a big fish in a little pond. I started as a songwriter in Puerto Rico but there wasn’t that much work for me. In New York, it was way too slow for me because I was a beginner, but in Holyoke, I could move forward quickly. I hooked up with a musician in 2005 that I knew from Puerto Rico – Carlos Pabon, who was doing a rehearsal for his small band. He had a singer lined up for the rehearsal and I happened to be hanging out with him that day. I fooled around in the session and the singer never showed – Carlos gave me a gig. From there the singing opportunities just took off.
On recording the debut album, Salsa De La Mata: I was already singing with a lot of bands like the Latin Heartbeats and Komboloko. I wrote a song for Komboloko which went nuts in the Latin music scene and in turn gave me an introduction to the world of composing songs (and eventually the songs for Salsa De La Mata). I started going through the songs I had written with my producer, Hector “Maximo” Rodriguez, and we selected the eight songs which would eventually appear on the album. We brought the songs to a team of arrangers (all famous in the salsa world) and to a group of studio musicians from New York (many from the Fania All-Stars scene). It was a labor of love and perhaps the pinnacle of my work thus far.