Eddy Ortiz, an Adopted Son of Salsa
Eddy Ortiz didn’t grow up listening to salsa music. He was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, where the prevailing sound leans more to mariachi than son. But Ortiz, whose Son Mayor Orchestra plays the Autry on Thursday, July 21, learned early to respect Cuban music and its history.
“Cuban music is so vast,” Ortiz told me at Steven’s Steakhouse last Saturday, July 16, where Son Mayor was the evening’s entertainment. “I used to play in a charanga band. If you get into charanga, and all you do is charanga, it’s endless, the styles and the bands and everything. Then you get into son or rumba. That’s what’s beautiful about Cuban music. There’s just so many different styles.”
Ortiz got his first taste of salsa at age 12, when he arrived in Los Angeles.
“I was already playing music then,” Ortiz said. “But it wasn’t salsa music; it was Mexican music. We used to call it conjunto …. It was more like for weddings and stuff like that. Four- or five-piece, maybe six .… You play ballads, you play rancheras, you play cumbias — Mexican-style cumbia as opposed to Colombian. I didn’t get the full impact of the salsa until I came here. But when I heard it here, that’s when I thought, ‘That’s where I gotta be!’”
Now, after 20 years of playing together, albeit with breaks in between, Son Mayor has built a niche for itself in the salsa scene.
“We are known as the Mexican salsa band,” he said. “As, say, Tabaco y Ron is the more Puerto Rican band, we are the Mexican band. But we are all playing salsa. The Peruvians, which is Octavio Figueroa, he’s got the Peruvian bunch .… In salsa it doesn’t really matter where you’re from. It really doesn’t. It matters that you can play it. “
Ortiz has become a true student of salsa music, always on the lookout for new influences coming from Cuba. One trend that intrigued him recently was timba, which came out of Cuba after 2000.
“Timba is like a combination of rhythm & blues, jazz and salsa,” Ortiz said. “We kind of jumped on that because we loved it; as musicians we loved timba. It was a new sound coming out of Cuba.”
Ortiz says Son Mayor tried playing it for a while in Los Angeles, but the audience didn’t react well to it because they didn’t know how to dance to it.
There is also changüí, a much older style of music that only recently has become well-known outside of Cuba.
“Changüí is a music style from Guantánamo,” Ortiz said. “It’s like son but older than son. The son actually came from changüí. It’s more like roots music. It’s more African, and they utilize other instruments.”
Among those instruments is the marímbula, a type of box with metal “keys” that the player plucks, and a gourd shaker made of metal. As for mentors, Ortiz found his in that charanga band he started in, the singer Perico Hernandez.
“He was like a gold mine for me, of knowledge, of styles,” Ortiz said. “In Cuban music, to really sing a guajira, you have to know your stuff. You can’t just get up there and do it. And he knew it. It wasn’t so much his sound and his vocal technique. It was more of a knowledge.”
He said that focus on history, culture and soul is something not often present in American music.
“American music is very focused on the sound, on the technique, perfect intonation. It’s all about polish. It’s like Lawrence Welk. And it’s cool, it’s fine. But Cuban music is not so much about that. Cuban music is more about groove and knowledge. Of course, you have to have the ability to do it.”
That’s why artists from Latin America often have generations of fans and continue singing for decades, Ortiz says. For example, Celia Cruz (1925-2003), who began her career in Cuban radio stations in the late 1940s, had a full house when she sang in the Central Park SummerStage on July 16, 2002, one year to the day before she died, at age 77, of a brain tumor.
“That’s the one thing I really love about salsa, not just salsa but the whole genre of Cuban music,” Ortiz said. “It’s not just that you have to be a good performer. You have to be a wise performer. You have to know what you’re performing about.”
And Ortiz says dancers can tell when a group hasn’t done that kind of homework, when they haven’t gone to the university of salsa.
“There’s bands out there that haven’t done that, that haven’t gone into the roots of Cuban music. So there’s always something missing. When they sing, you can tell. They can sing fine, but you know when they have no knowledge of the roots.… It’s more like a language, a cultural language, and when you listen to it long enough, the good stuff starts to make sense to you.”
As a non-Cuban, Ortiz has always known he would be under extra scrutiny by a knowledgeable audience.
“Being Mexican, I wanted to do it right. I played with Cuban guys. I wanted them to know I know what I’m doing, out of respect for the music, really. And working with Perico was the best schooling that I could have gotten.”