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The Washington Post

A Slow Road To Salsa

By Richard Harrington

August 16, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.

MARC ANTHONY is now the world's best-selling salsero, the master of romantic salsa. But if you'd suggested that possibility to him a decade ago, he would probably have laughed in your face.

Back then, he didn't like salsa, and he didn't even want to sing in Spanish!

"There was a reason for that," says Anthony, who's also carved a pretty comfortable niche in the pop world since his triple-platinum English-language debut in 1999.

It gets complicated, but here's the short version: Anthony, 33, was born and raised in Spanish Harlem to parents who had emigrated from Puerto Rico. Like many New Yorkers, he grew up bilingual.

"But that doesn't mean I liked my mom's music," Anthony says of the salsa that he once shunned. "For me, back then, it was old people's music. It was one thing to be home listening to your mom's music, but once you closed that door and you were outside, you were listening to Gloria Gaynor, Marvin Gaye, Barry White and Donna Summer, anybody and everybody who was hot in the '70s and '80s."

Still, as a youngster, Anthony used to sing with his father, a composer and musician who played bachata, a blueslike, guitar-based music from the Dominican Republic. Traditional Hispanic musics might have been popular around the house, but Anthony had little professional interest in them and started his career in the late '80s writing and doing backup vocals on numerous house singles, many with über-producer "Little" Louie Vega.

In 1990, Atlantic Records signed Vega to do a dance album with different artists. Vega asked Anthony to sing lead on one track and was so impressed he immediately dropped the other singers and asked Anthony to do the entire album. "When the Night Is Over" included a No. 1 dance single, "Ride on the Rhythm," which propelled Anthony out of the studio and onto New York's dance club circuit, where he performed strictly in English.

Then, in 1993, Anthony met Juan Gabriel.

"What happened is I was driving in Manhattan and heard a song on the radio that I absolutely had to sing," Anthony recalls. "I don't know why, and I still don't know why, but I saw my life clearly when I heard that song."

That song was "Hasta Que Te Conoci" ("Until I Met You") by Mexican superstar Gabriel.

"Because he'd recorded it in ballad form, the only way I could do it was salsa, and I just said yes immediately," Anthony explains. "So I signed this salsa record deal and I'm thinking: what the hell am I doing? I don't even like salsa. But I need to record this song. I don't know how I'm going to do it, but I'm going to record this song."

Obviously, Anthony already knew the language. What he didn't know was how well he knew the music. "Eventually, I realized that every time I'd heard a salsa song [growing up], I was being cultured, and so it just came as second nature. It was in me. Once I was in the studio and heard the rhythms, I understood it for some reason and it just fell into place.

Anthony says his new label sent him the whole history of salsa on record. "But I rejected it -- I didn't want to end up mimicking other singers," he says. "I wanted to do it my way, to know if I had something to offer as an artist."

What Anthony brought to the table was eight years' worth of work as a backup vocalist, vocal arranger and producer on more than 300 dance tracks. "I had a lot of experience and all kinds of tricks up my sleeve that I wanted to experiment with," he explains, adding that his own tastes ran more to R&B and rock.

The singer also did away with salsa's traditional dress code.

"I would perform in jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap, which was unheard of," Anthony recalls. "That was sacrilegious, taboo. You had to wear a suit and the whole band had to wear a coordinated uniform. I just rejected that every step of the way.

"And that's when salsa started changing," he says. "For the first time almost, it was cool to hear salsa in your car and these young Latinos in the United States felt more and more like they could relate."

"Hasta Que Te Conoci" was a centerpiece of Anthony's 1993 salsa debut, "Otra Nota," which also produced the hits "Palabras de Alma" and "El Ultimo Beso." Six years later, having become a major star among Latin listeners, he made his solo English-language debut with "Marc Anthony," whose multiplatinum sales were launched by the chart-topping hit, "I Need to Know."

Around the same time, mainstream media began buzzing about a "Latin Music Explosion," which turned out to be a much-hyped, short-lived phenomenon, but a subject that can still rile Anthony.

"It was all BS, to be quite honest with you," he says, "a cute coined phrase that some record company executive came up with to sell records. "I knew what Latin music was and 'If You Had My Love' by Jennifer Lopez is Latin music? 'She's All I Ever Had' by Ricky Martin is Latin music? My own 'You Sang to Me' is Latin music? Absolutely not. I thought it was a sham from the beginning and I was extremely vocal about it. For the first time, I felt like a stranger in my own country."

What Anthony objected to was everything being lumped under the "Latin music" rubric, with no effort to differentiate nationalities, much less musical styles, the very distinctions that are the heart of his most recent salsa excursion, "Libre."

"It was brewing for four years in my heart, in my soul, in my head," says Anthony of the double album, released last October. "In my travels throughout the years in Latin America -- to Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru -- I was fascinated with rhythms that are very, very local. Because I was able to meld all these rhythms [with salsa], this album fills me like no other album I've ever done. It was my life's dream, and it is definitely in tune with what Hector LaVoe brought to salsa music."

Hector LaVoe, known as "El Cantante de los Cantantes," is very much on Anthony's mind these days. He and Jennifer Lopez are set to star in a major film about LaVoe, the salsa pioneer and innovator who, with Willie Colon, defined salsa in the '70s and early '80s. After a series of personal tragedies, LaVoe jumped out of a ninth-story hotel window in Puerto Rico in 1988; he survived, but his health deteriorated and he died in 1993.

Anthony will star as LaVoe and record a soundtrack of classic LaVoe songs. Ironically, Anthony's entry into a thriving acting career -- he now has seven film credits -- came through LaVoe's nephew, the aforementioned Vega. Vega scored a low-budget 1991 indie film, "East Side Story," in which Anthony made his acting debut.

"For me it was a dream come true, but not a very promising project," admits Anthony with an embarrassed laugh, perhaps recalling the scene where he sports underwear on his head.

"I'm extremely proud of my movie career," he insists, noting substantial roles in Martin Scorsese's "Bringing Out the Dead" and Stanley Tucci's "Big Night," as well as the lead in Paul Simon's Broadway musical, "The Capeman."

Acting skills may be coming in handy right now, as Anthony is working despite the July announcement of his separation from his wife of two years, former Miss Universe Dayanara Torres. She's the inspiration for many of the love songs on "Mended," Anthony's latest English-language album. That's particularly true of "I've Got You," written by the team that crafted "I Need to Know."

Torres is center stage in the video for "I've Got You," the inspiration for Anthony's imploring vocals.

Anthony, who has a 16-month-old son, Christian, with Torres, and 8-year-old Arianna from a previous marriage, is not particularly eager to talk about the separation, but acknowledges that fans are pulling for a reconciliation.

"The only issue I've had being on tour is that once the story broke and it became my reality, I felt more exposed than ever," Anthony says. But, he adds, "I'm on my tour bus and my wife is right here and our son is in the other room, so that's a good sign. I'm pulling for me, too."

MARC ANTHONY -- Appearing Thursday at Nissan Pavilion with Joey Vega and Lucca. • To hear a free Sound Bite from Marc Anthony, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703/690-4110.)

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