Calling Oscar D’Leon a salsa superstar doesn’t do justice to his stature in the world of Latin music. Over the course of his 36-year-career, the bassist and singer has acquired more nicknames than the late James Brown.
“Mr. Salsa,” as the 64-year-old has been dubbed, is not just the “Lion of Salsa” but its “Tiger” as well. In addition to being the “Greatest Salsero,” as salsa performers are known in Spanish, he’s also the “King of the Soneros,” the Latin equivalent of a free-style rapper — a singer who improvises words to fit the music and context.
Now that Brown has gone to that great stage in the sky, D’Leon may be not only the hardest-working man in salsa but in all of show business. A dynamo onstage, the Caracas-born entertainer still tours relentlessly, despite having suffered several heart attacks. Singing and dancing, it seems, are just what the doctor ordered.
“I love what I do so much that I will never give up on or draw back from the position I have reached, come what may — although everything in life does come at a price,” he says by e-mail ahead of his first Japan tour in 15 years.
D’Leon stands out not only for his talent but also for his heritage. He hails not from one of the salsa powerhouses — New York, Puerto Rico and Cuba — but from Venezuela, a relatively minor player overshadowed in the genre by nearby Colombia and Panama.
“It’s not a question of a particular country and even less a case of a scene; it’s a question of talent,” he says. “Artists are born, not made.”
Though often described as a late bloomer because his professional career didn’t take off until he was pushing 30, there’s no doubt D’Leon believes he was born to be a star.
“I started out from the time I was in my mother’s womb. What arrived when I was 28 years old was the success to go with it,” he says. “Success can arrive late or early in life, but the important thing is that it arrives.”
Like every great showman, D’Leon, with his bald pate and flamboyantly bushy mustache, cuts a larger-than-life figure. The stories about him are legion, and he doesn’t mind admitting that some have been embellished along the way. As one oft-recited tale has it, he paid his bills — and honed his skills — driving a taxi until he got his big break. Word of his talent spread and an eager public was soon forming lines, hoping to hail a ride with the crooning cabbie of Caracas. It’s an entertaining yarn but one with no basis in fact.
“At the end of the ’60s, I lost a job outside the music biz due to personnel cuts. I decided to buy myself a car and work as a taxi driver since it would let me dedicate much more of my time to music,” D’Leon recalls. “The rest of the stories about this period are nothing more than pure legend.”
What’s true is that he first made his mark in the early 1970s with a band called La Dimension Latina. During the four years he spent with the group before going solo, he recorded his best-known hit, 1975’s “Lloraras (You Will Cry),” a song that’s still a staple in salsa clubs.
A self-taught bassist with an instinctive feel for a groove, D’Leon is known as the “Dancing Bass” for his habit of cutting the rug with his instrument, a white standup model that has made some dramatic entries at his concerts. While other musicians are content to have their instruments handed to them by a roadie, D’Leon has been known to have his bass lowered to him from an overhead lighting rig. He makes no apologies for his showmanship.
“That’s a question of style — and mine is to combine the two languages of the aural and the visual,” D’Leon says.
D’Leon is also no slouch as a singer, though some accounts have it that he only reluctantly stepped up to the microphone after his first group’s vocalist had to be dismissed.
“I always wanted to be a first-class musician. Being a singer came later,” he says. “These days, I can reconcile these two aspects with the same amount of energy and pleasure.”
On his latest disc, 2006’s Grammy-nominated “Fuzionando,” now available in Japan as an import, he reconciles some disparate strands of Latin music. The title, Spanish for “fusing,” hints at the original meaning of salsa: a “sauce” unified from various ingredients. Like a chef, D’Leon deftly blends salsa with other musical styles, including flamenco and reggaeton, which is itself a mix of Panamanian reggae and Puerto Rican hip-hop.
Elsewhere on the record, he takes a more conventional approach that acknowledges his musical debts.
A lifelong fan of Cuban music, D’Leon has been influenced by such artists as singer Beny More. Though he might seem predisposed to take the Cuban side in the debate over where salsa originated, D’Leon believes the sound is Nuyorican in origin, created by Puerto Rican immigrants to New York in the 1950s and 1960s.
“The salsa movement was born in New York,” he says, before hedging his bets. “But it is the granddaughter of Cuba.”
D’Leon’s tour kicks off Aug. 9 in Tokyo and culminates at the two-day Isla de Salsa festival, to be held Aug. 18-19 on Fukuoka Prefecture’s Nokonoshima Island. Now in its 11th year, Isla de Salsa is staged by Tiempo Iberoamericano, a Fukuoka-based nonprofit organization that promotes understanding of the cultures of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world. The lineup also includes Diamantes, a Japan-based Latin pop group led by Peruvian-born singer Alberto Shiroma, and France’s La Vieille Ecole, a hip-hop “melting pot” with North African and Latin influences.
Though it’s been ages since D’Leon toured Japan, he’s not surprised that this country has produced some credible salseros. After all, he was on the bill at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1991 when Tokyo-based Orquesta de la Luz, who’d earlier created such a sensation overseas that their 1990 debut album stayed at No. 1 on the U.S. magazine Billboard’s Latin Salsa Chart for 11 straight weeks.
“The Japanese aren’t from Mars, you know,” he says, adding: “(As for Japanese Latin acts), it’s just a case of being sufficiently professional and having the necessary curiosity.”
Though D’Leon acknowledges that salsa’s performers and fan base are more diverse than ever, he rejects the notion that it now has a larger following outside the Latin world than in it.
“This will never be the case,” he says. “The Latin community was born and lives for its music.”
Oscar D’Leon plays Aug. 9, 7 p.m., at Shin-kiba Studio Coast, Tokyo; Aug. 10, 7 p.m., at Nagoya Bottom Line; Aug. 11, 6 p.m., at Namba Hatch, Osaka; Aug. 12, 3:30 p.m., at Shichigahama Kokusai Mura, Miyagi; Aug. 13, 4 p.m., at Isesaki-shi Bunka Kaikan, Gunma; Aug. 15, 7 p.m., at Hiroshima Club Quattro. Tickets 5,000-6,800 yen yen. Call Tiempo Iberoamericano at (0120) 466-774. He plays Aug. 18-19 with Diamantes, Pe’z, La Vieille Ecole and more at Isla de Salsa at Nokonoshima Campground, Nokonoshima Island, Fukuoka. Aug. 18: 1:30 p.m. start. Aug. 19: 12:30 p.m. start. 4,800 yen in advance. Call Tiempo Iberoamericano at (0120) 466-774 or (092) 762-4100 or visit isla-de-salsa.jp. For more on all shows, see vivela.jp
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