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Uncut Salsa

[whitespace] Orquesta Gitano

Orquesta Gitano fuses salsa styles

By Nicky Baxter

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA is blessed with many Latin-influenced musical ensembles. Too many of the bands play it safe, however, revising old standards. Orquesta Gitano bucks that trend. Formed 17 years ago in Santa Cruz by bandleader and percussionist Bosco "El Gitano," the group plays salsa and much more. Gitano calls it "salsa fusion," which is, among other things, am amalgam of Afri-Latin forms. "We combine Puerto Rican and Cuban salsa," Gitano says. "There's a difference between the two. Cuban salsa is roots; Puerto Rican is more straight-ahead. Cubans tend to use the trap drum set, while Puerto Ricans use the bongo and conga configuration."

Gitano has been studying the genre for more than two decades, starting on the timbales when he was just 14. Growing up in San Francisco's Mission District, Gitano recalls listening to Santana, Tito Puente and Ray Barretto while his peers were grooving to oldies. Gitano is convinced that his 11-piece band (featuring brass, guitar, violin and percussion) is unique. The band has mastered various salsa-related idioms, including rumbas, boleros and batas, and all are performed with an authentic feel. "We're the only band to play true salsa," he insists. "Most other bands [in the Santa Cruz area] just play cumbias and Mexican music. What distinguishes us is that though we have been influenced by all the musics contained within [salsa], we have created our own style."

Considering how long the group has been together, it comes as a surprise that Orquesta Gitano has just two recordings out. Como Suena Mi Rumba was released in 1992 and garnered rave reviews. The newly released Salsa Gitano finds the band continuing to explore salsa and its variants with supreme confidence. Driven by hot, slapping percussion and sensuous vocals, the recording is a virtual how-to seminar on African-Latin music. In addition to uncut salsa ("Vacilar," "Mi Promesa de Amor"), the orchestra also thrashes out merengue and funk-influenced plena. The title track is a high-strung charanga featuring a flotilla of percussion, swinging violins and urgent horns. "Gracias Carlos," a salsa-fied bolero dedicated to Carlos Santana, commences at a leisurely pace and boasts dead-on Santana-style guitar, a songlike bass figure and pensive percussion.

As the interview concludes Bosco Gitano is reiterating his pitch about the band's distinctive sound: "You go out and hear a salsa band, but they're not really playing salsa; when you come out to see us, you're going to hear salsa."

Orquesta Gitano plays Friday (May 29) at 9pm at Gordon Biersch, 33 San Fernando St., San Jose. Free. (408/294-6785.

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From the May 28-June 3, 1998 issue of Metro.

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