It’s Lavoe’s salsa, but not quite his recipe

Times Staff Writer

There’s a scene in “El Cantante,” the controversial biopic about salsa singer Hector Lavoe starring Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, when a sudden downpour washes out a sparsely attended concert intended to boost the tragic star’s sagging career. A distraught Lavoe then throws himself off his hotel balcony in a botched suicide attempt that left him physically and spiritually shattered until his death from AIDS complications in 1993.

Like a curse that channeled the singer’s bad luck, the storm that swept through Los Angeles on Saturday after months of drought threatened to drown out a tribute concert to the beloved salsa icon at the Greek Theatre. But just before showtime, the clouds parted as if on cue, setting the stage for a joyous, star-studded celebration that evoked (though barely at times) the excitement of the ‘70s salsa explosion that had been led by Lavoe along with his co-writer and bandleader Willie Colón, who made a rare local appearance as Saturday’s headliner.

The tribute tour -- which also featured Lavoe contemporaries Ismael Miranda, Cheo Feliciano and show stealer Oscar D’Leon -- was conceived as a response to the fiercely denounced movie produced by Lopez, who stars as Lavoe’s dysfunctional late wife, Puchi. Critics, led by Colón, complained that the film focuses too heavily on Lavoe’s heroin-induced excesses at the expense of his artistry.


A hint of the animosity leaked out when singer La India, a fellow New Yorker and former collaborator with Marc Anthony in the 1990s, referred disdainfully to “esa película” (that movie). Otherwise, nobody mentioned the film or its makers by name.

Yet somebody should have thanked Marc Anthony and Lopez for sparking a revival of interest in Lavoe’s career and salsa in general. It was their movie that made the concert possible.

The current economics of salsa normally prevent promoters from bringing big salsa bands to town, as they did almost monthly in the old days. On Saturday, a potent, 15-piece outfit led by pianist-arranger Isidro Infante backed a parade of singers who took turns performing Lavoe’s hits.

But for a concert designed as homage to an artist nicknamed “the singer of singers,” it was disappointing to see how few of the featured soloists actually came close to Lavoe’s skills. La India brought passion to her segment, but her R&B; style was out of sync with the polyrhythmic demands of salsa. And 72-year-old Feliciano, the dean of salsa singers, exuded a warmth and charm that failed to compensate for his voice, sadly debilitated with age.

D’Leon, the veteran Venezuelan singer-bassist, was the only one who achieved the swing, spontaneity and sheer exuberance that are hallmarks of salsa at its best. His set was the highlight of the night, a quick-witted and fleet-footed performance that betrayed no symptom of his recent heart attack.

Colón closed the show with songs he and Lavoe made salsa standards, such as “La Murga” and “Mi Gente,” that once again brought the house down. Colón’s never been known as a great vocalist, but his wide-ranging musical vision was largely responsible for Lavoe’s success. The trombonist and arranger put an original, pan-American stamp on salsa and an all-trombone lineup gave him his signature sound, replicated for the show to thrilling effect.


Colón and Lavoe were just teens when they first took Manhattan, then the world, with their brash, socially revealing salsa. Today, nostalgia is all we have left because to this day Latinos in the U.S. have failed to produce a comparable musical movement that would give us another folk hero like Hector Lavoe.