RITMO Y COLOR with QUIMICA PERFECTA at the Brigantine Room (235 Queen's Quay West), Friday (July 19), 11 pm. $6. 416-973-4000; SON ACHÉ at Cervejaria (842 College), Friday (July 19), $10. 416-588-0162; and at Lakeside Terrace (235 Queen's Quay West), Saturday (11 pm), free. 416-973-3000.
It's Friday night at Cervejaria, ground zero in toronto's latin music explosion, and Alberto Alberto, the singer described by one bandmate as "the Iggy Pop of Latin music," is transforming himself from mild-mannered crooner into wild-man Cuban showman. Tonight, Alberto is singing with high-energy son montuno orquesta Son Aché, one of a handful of different groups the burly vocalist turns up in. He's at the heart of the current underground swell of Latin music in Toronto, singing with Son Aché, performing with Jane Bunnett and making a guest appearance with Snow.
He also leads his own group. Quimica Perfecta -- perfect chemistry -- play timba, and the volatile sound demolishes contemporary Cuban dance floors.
The eight-piece ensemble has quickly carved out a unique place in the packed Toronto crowd as the only local group to play the sound of 2002 Cuba rather than reflect on the past. But it's just one of dozens of live Latin bands that have emerged on the Toronto club scene.
With all the musicians performing and new clubs like the Lula Lounge opening, there's never been a better time to be a fan of Latin music in this city.
"It's a crazy time here," Alberto nods over breakfast. "There are so many groups doing their own thing. It's very relaxed and friendly, especially compared to Cuba.
"Back home, there are three different classes of bands: rich, medium and poor. The top bands like Irakere, Los Van Van and NG La Banda are always competing for space, and that makes the music better. People from the top look down and they see the guy on the second level's getting better and better, so they have to get better, too. That's the only thing I miss about home."
Cutthroat competition aside, Toronto's thriving scene is as close to the real deal as you can get without climbing onto a plane. There are dozens of different bands, ranging from Quimica and Son Aché to the vintage salsa of Con Cache and Evaristo Machado, Afro-Colombian funk crew Palenke Orchestra, jazz pianist Hilario Duran and the Latin hiphop of MC Bomba.
Most of the musicians know each other, and many play in one another's bands, turning up at Cervejaria, the Lula Lounge and Tuesday nights at Berlin, while fans argue about the merits of timba versus salsa on the message boards of www.tosalsa.com.
Even more impressive is that this scene has flourished despite a lack of support from the mainstream music industry. Each of these bands can pack clubs and fill dance floors with passionate fans, but you won't find A&R reps sniffing around for talent here.
Instead, DJ and promoter Billy Bryans has become something of a champion of the scene, plugging bands like Quimica Perfecta, Son Aché and Palenke Orchestra and even organizing the Latin Jazz Festival as well as spinning underground timba records at his regular DJ nights (see sidebar).
"Right now is the golden era of live local Latin music," Bryans says. "There has never been a better selection of this music in Toronto. You can get a great merengue band, acoustic Colombians, vintage salsa and a load of different Cubans. And every time you think you know everyone, another group pops up."
"There are egos that you have to deal with," Son Aché's Christian Saldivia says, "but most of the musicians in the scene come together at our Cervejaria parties. The room is full of musicians hanging out and talking, and that's pretty inspiring."
"We're like one big band," adds Alberto. Nobody criticizes other bands, no one's a superstar, and we all come out and support each other."
It makes sense that the charismatic Alberto would find himself at the heart of Toronto's Latin scene. Before he emigrated to Canada two years ago, he was in the middle of Havana's action, too. He began singing at the age of five in his home province of Matanzas and enrolled briefly at the famed Instituto Nacional de Arte de la Habana, but it was with the legendary group Irakere, under the tutelage of piano master Chucho Valdés, that Alberto really went to school.
"Irakere is like a university," he explains. "They are the biggest band in Cuba, the one that everyone dreams of being in. When I was growing up, I listened to their records and learned every song, not just the vocals but every instrument.
"Once I was in a television singing contest and Chucho Valdés saw me sing. Later on, the phone rang and this guy said, "Hey, this is Chucho Valdés.' I thought it was one of my friends playing a joke, but he said he wanted me to come and sing for the group. I went down to Havana, listened to the new song that they were playing and just started singing along. We ended up playing the song for half an hour, and when we finished, Chucho said, "I want you to record that song with us tonight.' It was crazy."
In a music scene that often looks to the past for inspiration, Alberto is decidedly modern in his approach. While crooning boleros and stately son rhythms might offer a more established route off the island, instead he began by singing the ultra-modern timba.
"In Cuba, you cannot find the traditional styles of music," he insists. "Nobody plays son except for tourists. Everybody on the street listens to timba."
Whether Canadian Latin music fans are ready for the high-energy dance music is another matter. Coming to Canada for the first time 12 years ago, Alberto saw divisions between Latin music crowds in Toronto that still exist.
"The Latin community here doesn't want to get with contemporary Cuban music," he scoffs. "They just want commercial salsa stuff from Puerto Rico and Colombia that's easier to understand. The timba style is a revolutionary form of music, and it scares people. The Canadian people seem to understand it, though.
"You see, timba's very different from salsa, because salsa is just one thing over and over again. Timba is closer to funk music, and you can adapt it to other things. You can rap in it, you can take Greek music or a mambo and give it a timba rhythm and it's still timba. What's funny is that most of the new generation of salseros in Puerto Rico and the U.S. are actually transforming salsa into something closer to timba."
Alberto's also doing his part to spread the timba gospel, if only by influencing his increasingly wide net of sidemen. The scene in Toronto is so tightly knit that one sound bleeding into another is almost unavoidable.
"In Toronto, everybody plays with everybody else, and that's a good thing," he agrees. "The only problem is that so many bands share members, so you can't always do a show, because your bassist is busy.
"I remember going to the Berlin club once and a band played. The next night a different band played, but the only thing that had changed was the name. Same people, same music," he laughs.
"You'd be killed if you tried to do that in Cuba."email@example.com venues
Looking to plug yourself into the Toronto Latin music explosion? Live bands and DJs spin everything from salsa, merengue and timba to cumbia, son and bachata, and most clubs offer free dance lessons so you can look stylish out on the dance floor.
136 Yorkville, 416-515-0587
Salsa and house Wednesday through Sunday.
2335 Yonge, 416-489-7777
The longest-running Latin night in Toronto features live bands and a salsa DJ Tuesday.
842 College, 416-588-0162
Searing salsa courtesy of Son Aché every Friday year round.
567 Queen West, 416-504-1626
DJ Salsero spins salsa Sundays as part of Nirvana Cubana.
1585 Dundas West, 416-588-0307
Spacious and stylish new Latin club offers live music and dancing seven nights a week.
722 College, 416-537-9292
DJ Billy Bryans drops the hottest timba cuts directly from Havana Tuesdays.
55 Bloor West, 416-967-0000
Even the artist once again known as Prince has been spotted at this bar's Monday-night salsa session.