That's a rather brusque dismissal--after all, Oscar Hijuelos's The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, the novel on which the 1992 film The Mambo Kings was based, won the Pulitzer Prize and almost universal praise. Then again, Gonzales knows more than most about the subject of these pieces: the rise of Latin beats in New York City. Although he's a generation removed from the protagonists in Kings (he's in his mid-forties), he has been a student of the sound since he was in his early teens. And his collaboration with Oquendo has brought him into close association with a man who's a walking, talking repository of the genre's past and present--and quite possibly, its future. "We're very faithful to traditional rhythms," Gonzales states. "But we are stretching the parameters of harmony and group style. There's quite a bit of improvisation happening. It's been that way from the beginning."
In the beginning was Oquendo, who was born and raised in the Bronx and quickly developed an infatuation for the Latin big bands of the Forties. His skills on bongos and timbales later led to work in orchestras fronted by Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. But he made his biggest impact as part of La Perfecta, the Sixties conjunto group founded by pianist Eddie Palmieri. The act is remembered primarily for its compact size (nine players, as opposed to the fifteen or more employed by its primary rivals) and the use of trombones rather than trumpets for many melody lines.
Gonzales, the brother of well-known trumpeter Jerry Gonzales, loved La Perfecta's efforts and became part of the troupe in 1971. By then, Oquendo had moved on and was busy working as a sideman for a variety of heavy hitters in New York's Latin scene. But Gonzales lured Oquendo back into the fold, and over the next three years they grew close personally and professionally. They also shared dissatisfactions with Palmieri's combo. "We were fairly happy musically," Gonzales recalls. "But businesswise, there were some problems. Like, we'd usually get paid, but it wouldn't be on time. So we started talking about forming our own group."
According to Gonzales, the name "Libre," meaning "free," was not chosen at random. "We wanted things to be a little looser, and maybe with a little bit more of a jazz sensibility. We just wanted to put a different slant on things."
From 1974 on, Libre's shifting membership has simultaneously preserved the legacy established by Palmieri and delved deeper into jazz and Afro-Cuban heritages. A popular touring attraction ("We've been to Europe, we've been to South America and all over the States," Gonzales reports), the band also made five albums through 1983. After that, however, Libre went more than a decade between discs. The reasons, Gonzales believes, have a lot to do with the arcane manner in which business in the Latin-music industry continues to be done.
"We don't get played in traditional Latin markets for various reasons--usually because it's a corrupt situation and payola is still going on," he claims. "In Latin American music, it's just a given. It's not supposed to happen here, but it does. People are just expected to pay up, but we decided early on that we weren't going to play that game. On top of that, we're not the kind of Latin band that's prevalent today. In a lot of salsa ensembles, the emphasis is on the singer, which is just not that exciting to me. I don't really care for it. For us, the singer is there, but the band isn't just an accompanist to the singer. It's an integral part.
"We've been lucky, though. We've always managed to get good airplay anyway, because we've been able to appeal to people who like jazz as well as Latin music. So we haven't had to do anything we didn't want to do."
The jazz connection finally attracted the interest of Milestone Records, which in 1994 released Mejor Que Nunca/Better Than Ever, a vibrant collection that catches Libre at full blare. Oquendo and company aren't purists--among the selections is a cover version of the Marvin Gaye hit "I Want You"--but they manage to counterpoise danceability and ecstatic soloing with the aplomb of the masters they are. "We know what gets over with crowds," Gonzales notes. "After so many years, it's instinct. We've never encountered a dull crowd--ever. Or maybe I should say that when we have been met with a dull crowd, they don't stay dull for long."
Because of his faith in the power of Libre, Gonzales claims not to care in the slightest if Latin music finally manages to make a sizable impact on the mainstream. "I don't think it matters," he says, "because usually what breaks through is a homogenized version of the real thing. Besides, does opera have to break through? Does classical music have to break through? No--they're very well-supported, and they do just fine. And that's the way it is with us. Those who want to get into the music will. All it takes is hearing it."
Cellular One LoDo Music Festival, with WAR, 10,000 Maniacs, the Gap Band, Subdudes, Robben Ford and the Blueline, Storyville, Manny Oquendo & Libre, Terrence Simien and the Mallet Playboys, Freddi-Henchi Band, Nina Storey and the Lost Generation, Durt. 4 p.m. Saturday, July 29, Union Station, $16-$22, 888-