Salsa band makes music sound ‘Excelencia!’

excelencia3“It’s not about what you have.  It’s not about how you dress.  It’s not about the language you speak. It’s about music.”

So proclaimed La Excelencia at the beginning of their second Nashville performance.  The concert was held as part of Vanderbilt’s 2012-13 Great Performances season on Friday, Oct. 12 at  Ingram Hall.  La Excelencia, an 11-piece Latin salsa ensemble, is known for its driving beats and socially conscious lyrics.  All of this, along with much audience enthusiasm, was shown at the Vanderbilt performance.

The ensemble was founded in New York City in 2005, but quickly gained a national reputation.  That reputation was well-deserved.  Their unity as an ensemble and their love for their craft were evident from the very first song.  Their style of playing revived salsa dura, an older form of salsa music from Latin America.  Salsa romantic – characteristic of the late 20th– century – focuses primarily on singing. Salsa dura, on the other hand, emphasizes horn playing and percussion.

The ensemble included cowbell, timbales and other Latin percussion instruments, as well as two trumpets and two trombones.  These formed the core of the sound, with strident piano and bass accompaniment.  The horn players performed with ferocity and verve.  They demonstrated their skill not only in dynamics but in range, with the trumpeters taking their instruments astonishingly high.  The multiple percussionists created dazzling polyrhythms that flowed in and through the rhythmic horns.

There were also numerous opportunities for solos.  The trombonists played particularly well, stretching into high ranges and making ample use of rapid turns and grace notes.  The trumpets also had stage time.  Characteristic of the wider genre of Latin jazz, they played with a swinging and passionate rhythm.  Others also played individually.  Early in the concert a guest guitarist led the opening of a song with a solo reminiscent of classical Spanish guitar, brought firmly into the 21st-century era of dance.  Toward the end of the concert, the percussionists played a bravura set leading into the last song.  They rose to the occasion and gave the audience much to clap about with their complex and immensely fast rhythms.

Though salsa dura does not have the voice as its central focus, La Excelencia is known for its singers.  This is entirely appropriate.  The band writes and arranges all of its music, and there was hardly an instrumental to be found.  The songs covered topics as diverse as the troubles of immigration, life in the barrio, and the importance of heritage.  The three singers sang with passion and flare entirely in Spanish.  Though the Spanish-language songs were not accompanied by subtitles, the singers did an admirable job of conveying the reality and emotion of their social message.  They did this not only through their singing, but also through their engagement with the audience.  Their leader was the MC and explained the songs to the audience, which was eager to join in the exuberance.

This review would be incomplete without a mention of the audience participation.  Though La Excelencia played on a stage normally attended by classical musicians, the performance assumed the atmosphere of a communal event.  The audience was part of the show.  Salsa music is meant to be danced to, and everyone knew it; the dance floor was packed and swinging.  The ensemble engaged with the audience in between songs, and it was evident that it was a part of the performance they highly valued.  At the end of their concert, the audience shouted “otro!”, the Spanish equivalent for encore.  The band was happy to oblige.  Though they have a national status, they were extremely down-to-earth, staying behind to sign albums and to talk to audience members.

La Excelencia lived up to its name: they were musically and emotionally excellent.  More than this, however, they lived up to what they had promised.  They persuaded an audience of varying ages and ethnicities that it isn’t about what language you speak or how you dress.  It is about music and the power it brings to tell stories, to give hope, and to bring unity.

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About Kelby Carlson

Kelby Carlson is an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music working toward his bachelor of music in voice. In addition to ArtsNash he also writes articles for the Vanderbilt Torch, a politically oriented magazine on Vanderbilt's campus. He hopes to pursue a master's degree in vocal performance or a law degree after undergraduate school.