Most working writers have a little file cabinet, either literally or in their minds, of the Story Ideas They Most Want to Tackle if Someone Would Only Let Them. A multi-voiced, large-scale feature article on Bio Ritmo -- the Salsa Machine -- was forever sitting in mine.
Earlier this year, I finally found a home for a story on the Richmond-based band, but it just didn't feel right. The most I could have was 1,750 words and that really wasn't going to cut it. When the assignment got pushed back on the publication's schedule, it was my chance to take it somewhere else. And I'm glad I did because Richmond Magazine -- especially editor Jack Cooksey, also a huge Ritmo fan (they played at his wedding!) -- totally got what I wanted to do. And they knew I needed some space to do it.
This is a long, complicated, sometimes heartbreaking, often funny, certainly inspiring story of a group that has literally willed itself to survive, stubbornly and courageously performing their own unique take on an exotic style of music that is not exactly commercial in the U.S., and finding both success and frustration. And if you've seen them live recently, you know: After 23 years, numerous lineup changes, a major label deal, at least three breakups and eight compact discs (and scattered 45 singles) of energetic, original and playful salsa music, Bio Ritmo may actually be better than ever.
My feature on the group, from the November issue of Richmond Magazine, begins:
Cali, Colombia, has a complex heartbeat. The second-largest city in the South American country, it is the self proclaimed capital of salsa, a Latin dance music that mixes Afro-Caribbean song patterns, the Cuban son montuno tradition, Puerto Rican street beats and jazz. The genre’s distinctive pulse — driven by the “clave” rhythm — emanates from bars like the club La Muralla, named after a song by a salsa ensemble many consider among the music’s greatest: Bio Ritmo, which hails from the unlikely locale of Richmond, Virginia.
The cartoon likenesses of Bio Ritmo’s singer, Rei Alvarez, and timbales player Giustino Riccio adorn La Muralla’s logo; inside, a large poster of Alvarez is seen near a Tito Puente poster. Night after night, DJs in Cali bars blast out Bio Ritmo music on their sound systems — distinctive rhythmic concoctions like “La Verdad,” “Lola’s Dilemma” and “Tu No Sabes” — while fans make their own homemade Bio Ritmo T-shirts.
But while Cali, and parts of Puerto Rico, Italy and even the Republic of Georgia, spin and dance to the sensuous, playful and ever-changing studio recordings of this 10-piece ensemble, there is another scene happening one June night, 2,300 miles away in Richmond.To read the rest of "The Salsa Machine," expanded from the print edition, click right here.
(Photo by the mighty Chris Smith.)
And find out more about Bio Ritmo by clicking this spot.