With a burst of percussion and a sunny blast of horns, Bio Ritmo's new CD opens with a cheerful argument for musical innovation. The lyrics to "Se Les Olvido [They Forgot]" exhort the dancers to forget the familiar hits and their well-practiced genre moves and remember that this music isn't about cool stylistic purity but hot combination. That's why it's called salsa.
For more than two decades Bio Ritmo has been blazing an independent, idiosyncratic trail through salsa music. "Puerta Del Sur" is both a celebration of the salsa tradition and a confident coloring outside the lines.
"This album is the most 'us' so far," lead singer Rei Alvarez says. "We have been evolving from a band that knew nothing about Latin music … to a point where we are comfortable letting outside ideas and influences permeate. Seeking new ways to flower, we've stopped looking and started allowing."
Alverez, who was a Virginia Commonwealth University art student before joining the band, created the record's surreal cover. A giant mechanical percussionist — an incarnation of Puerto Rican folk character Vejigante — in a spikey Japanese monster mask towers over the Richmond skyline, holding high a guiro and scraper.
The album title, "Door of the South," is a tribute to Richmond, to Ponce — the town on south coast of Puerto Rico where Alvarez was born — and to "Gigante Del Sur," a much-admired album by the great Puerto Rican salsa band Sonora Pocena. Such multileveled reference is typical of Alvarez, according to Bio Ritmo pianist Marlysse Rose Simmons.
"Rei is really good with what he writes," Simmons says. "Lots of poetic wordplay and hidden meanings. It's untranslatable, and in Spanish, so many people miss it."
If Bio Ritmo's lyrical cleverness slides over most American's heads, the music's insistent rhythms connect to the hips and the feet. On "Puerta," longtime percussionist Guistino Riccio is joined by Hector "Coco" Barez, a veteran of the reggaeton and alternative Latin music scene (notably Calle 13). Bassist Edward Prendergast completes the rhythmic foundation, with notable local jazz players, trombonist Toby Whitaker, saxophonist John Lilly, and trumpeters Bob Miller and Mark Ingraham, soaring above on horns.
Simmons' brilliantly unpredictable keyboard choices enliven every track. "She's the boss, the leader, the manager," Alvarez says. She was a happy accident, at first just a substitute for a weekend of gigs. "Afterwards we had to figure out how to tell our pianist he was no longer in the band," he says. "She was magic, the missing part of the equation — the band really needed some estrogen, sensitivity, organization."
Danceable adventurousness weaves through every track. A wobbly cinematic fanfare opens "Perdido." And there are brief, focused solos in "Picaresca." Simmons, Alvarez, Riccio and Whitaker, in various combinations, wrote all the songs but one. "Parajo Pio Pio," the cover, is by the Colombian orchestra Los Univox. It's a lighthearted, South American merengue with burbling psychedelic touches and an unusual waltz-time feel. The record closes with the narco-dreamy "Codeina," whose Egyptian melody floats above Latin polyrhythms.
The willingness to cross boundaries may mystify the salsa gatekeepers, but it's made Bio Ritmo a hero to a new generation. "Rei's been called 'the grandfather of indie salsa,'" Simmons says. "He's not that old, but he could be the father of some of the young players that are forging their own path in the movement."
One downside: In music, independent and wealthy seldom go together. There are invitations to tour, notably to Colombia where they have a huge audience, but Simmons is skeptical. "We still haven't made money," she says. "We've been to Europe four times, but we are a 10-piece band. Europe pays well, but not that well. So we save and make things happen, just do what we do. We'll continue to record and if trips happen, great."
Richmond might be an unlikely home for on of the world's best and hippest salsa bands, but that is no reason not to take advantage. "Come hear some Latin music you can relate to," Alvarez says. "Most Latin bands play to Latin people who know the steps to every kind of Latin music. We've spent 20 years playing salsa music in rock clubs. Most people can't understand our lyrics. Our best audiences aren't people who understand the words or count every step. They just want to hear good music and dance."
They've tried to put a label on their approach, "blue collar salsa" or "Latin groove." At this point "Bio Ritmo music" might just say it all. S
Bio Ritmo's all-ages album release party is Sunday, June 29, at 7 p.m., at the Broadberry, 2729 W. Broad St. Tickets are $10. For information call 353-1888 or visit thebroadberry.com.