January 11, 2002

Salsa - Un Solo Son Style

By Yvette tenBerge

It is just after 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 29 and the dance floor of the Catamaran Hotel's Cannibal Bar on Mission Boulevard is hopping. A spectrum of couples - sleek professional dancers, trendy twenty-something's and even those fresh from their first salsa class - glide, strut and count their way across the parquet floor.  Racial and age differences seem to disappear as the crowd moves to the rhythm of Orquesta Un Solo Son, San Diego's newest salsa band.

Mention their effect to Ivan Torres, the 31 year-old Puerto Rican-born Director and Lead Singer of the band, and his face lights up at the obvious parallel between what happens on the dance floor and the significance of his band's name.

(Left-Right) Alma Gamez, vocalist and Ivan Torres, Director and Lead Vocalist.

"The crowds who come to hear us play are from different places. Our goal is to bring them together. `Son' is the most essential element of salsa music; it's the rhythm," says Mr. Torres, who points out that salsa dancing in California has a big following of Anglos, Filipinos and Asians, as well as of Latinos from an array of countries. "Out of this, we are trying to make `un solo son,' with everyone thinking, dancing and playing into that same goal ­ that same `son.'"

Today's Latin dance oficionados can thank both Cuba and Puerto Rico for salsa music. According to Latin-dance.com, the "son" was the genre of music that succeeded in "fusing equal amounts of white and black derived musical features." It originated in eastern Cuba during the first decades of the century and represented a mixture of Spanish-derived and Afro-Cuban elements.

The richness of Puerto Rican musical culture, however, derives in large part from its ability to adopt elements of Cuban music and combine them with elements of its own dynamic folk and contemporary music. By the 1940s, thanks to New York's Puerto Rican-born community, the Latin dance music scene in New York came to "outstrip even that of the island" with salsa leading the way.

A glance at the make-up of the 12 member band, which includes two singers, two trumpet players, two trombone players, a piano player, a bass player, a conga player, a bongo player, a timbales player and a sound man, tells you that Un Solo Son's ability to break down barriers and to blend peoples does not extend solely to the audiences for whom they play.

Un Solo Son's "gringo" horn section.

John Monroe Johnson is a 21 year-old music student at San Diego State University, a professional piano mover and one of Un Solo Son's trombone players. "Imagine a band of very unique characters who have come from different sides of the world to make music together," says Mr. Johnson. Pointing to the diverse nature of the band, he describes Mr. Torres as someone who has experience in the "salsa music franchise," four other members as Puerto Ricans who have been playing salsa since "they were born" and who require "no written music," Alma Gamez as the 35 year-old female from Mexico who adds a "more sensual singing style" to the band and their horn section made up of SDSU music majors as "all gringos." "There you have it, `un solo son' ­ one unified sound."

Despite Mr. Torres' obvious focus on creating a "tight" band whose energy is centered on making it big in the music business, the road has not been easy. Although Mr. Torres recounts a childhood filled with singing "just for fun," he came to the United States to pursue an education in biophysics. After working in hotels to fund his education, he realized that he wanted a profession that allowed him to connect and deal with people, instead.

In 1996, Mr. Torres joined Zona Nueva, a local merengue and salsa music group. After four years of singing mostly merengue in clubs as many as four times per week, Mr. Torres and two other band members decided to spilt from the band and form a group more focused on salsa music and on making it to the top. In the summer of 2000, the first Un Solo Son was formed, but by March 2001, the group splintered off yet again, and the current Un Solo Son was created.

"By the time I joined Zona Nueva, they had already been out for a couple of years. We were still doing the same thing, going from club to club to club. I felt there was no goal, and no hope of having something bigger," says Mr. Torres, who admits that he has been good at seeing the "big picture" since he was a child. "Although I want to play in clubs because I want to build a following, I want to get out of clubs as soon as possible by building our own music."

Achieving this goal is not easy. Mr. Torres sees his days, which consist of phone calls, a great deal of driving and the sending out of numerous biographies and CD's, as dealing with `one opportunity at a time." "It is trial and error, and I keep at it. You have to keep sending your stuff, keep playing and keep finding ways to improve your product," says Mr. Torres. "It's incredibly hard."

From the reactions of those tearing up the dance floor to the beat of their music each weekend, the hard work and dedication is paying off. Cheo Parrilla is a 47 year-old Puerto Rican musician who came to the Catamaran specifically to hear what Un Solo Son had to offer. "It's the first time that I've been here, but I think that what this band is doing is beautiful," says Mr. Parrilla, who playfully presents his wife, Yvonne, with an illuminated plastic rose before asking her to dance. "They are helping to introduce Latin salsa to the San Diego community, and I love it."

Julio Martinez, 40, is the lead singer of another one of San Diego's four main Latin bands, Los Principes del Merengue. He quietly sits to the right of the stage with his arms folded, absorbing the sounds of Un Solo Son. "They play the notes the way they are supposed to be played," says Mr. Martinez, who has been a musician for the past 12 years. "They are `on' and they have what it takes to make it - charisma."

Orquesta Un Solo Son can be reached at: (619)995-5588.

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