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Grupo Folklórico regroups three decades later
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Newsday (MCT) - When you mention the name Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino to hard-core Latin music fans, you're invoking treasured memories of the 1970s. It was a moment when some of New York's most talented musicians created a transcendent mix of the traditional and the modern.
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"A lot of us who were playing with Eddie Palmieri's band would get together in me and my brother Jerry's house in the Bronx and just jam," remembered bassist and founding member Andy Gonzalez. "We were experimenting with a lot of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Puerto Rican folkloric music and we had that New York energy, too."
The band, which included the Gonzalez brothers, percussionists Manny Oquendo and Milton Cardona, trumpeter Chocolate Armenteros, tres player Nelson Gonzalez (no relation), pianist Oscar Hernandez, and vocalists Virgilio Marti and Heny Alvarez, was a rootsy Latin all-star band that predated the Buena Vista Social Club by more than 30 years. They put out only two albums, "Concepts in Unity" in 1976 and "Lo Dice Todo" in 1977. Such songs as "Cuba Linda" and "Dime la Verdad" became instant classics. But the members drifted off into other projects, and the band disappeared, until last fall.
"Jose Suero of the Smithsonian Institution asked me, 'Why don't you get the group back together again'?" said Rene Lopez, ethnomusicologist, producer and original vocalist for Grupo Experimental. Last year, the band played a festival in Berlin, this past summer they played again at the Smithsonian-sponsored Folk Live Festival in D.C., and last Saturday they reunited at the Hostos Center for the Arts in the Bronx.
"Some of our members have passed on, like Orlando 'Puntilla' Rios, who we lost this summer," said Lopez. "And Armenteros and Cardona have chosen not to participate. But we've replaced them, and we're very excited about our future."
The idea behind Grupo Folklorico was relatively simple. Put together some of the elder statesmen of the New York scene, like Armenteros, Oquendo, and the late Virgilio Marti, with some younger players, like the Gonzalez brothers and Milton Cardona, and reinterpret the classic sound of Cuba and Puerto Rico. The group was originally called Conjunto Anabacoa after the Arsenio Rodriguez hit that became central to their repertoire. Over the two albums, the band played genres like guajiro-son and guaracha from Cuba, bomba and plena from Puerto Rico, a Brazilian samba, and even a mazurka.
Grupo Folklorico was known for eschewing formal arrangements and sheet music, something that caused a stir when they recorded their first album. "There were 15 musicians, and we showed up with wives and friends," said Lopez. "When I asked them to take out the music stands and separators the studio personnel looked at us like we were crazy."
With its decidedly noncommercial approach, the band developed a natural rivalry with salsa's reigning kings, The Fania All-Stars. "They had a lot of names, star singers," said Lopez. "But there's a certain unity to our group that didn't come from names. They were great players but many of us thought we were better."
© 2008, Newsday.
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