American Latin Music is the evolving fusion sound created mostly in California by Latinos who were born here or moved here as children, spoke Spanish at home and listened to music from central and South America, but spoke English at school and listened to rock and rap and blues. These artists – now grown up - are creating a new genre that mixes English and Spanish language and culture with Latin and rock and blues beats and lyric forms. But another kind of ALM evolved on the other side of the country – in New York and Miami, in music that brings the music of Cuba to the mix.
The man who pioneered this revolution is Elsten Fulano Torres, brought to New York at the age of 2 by his mother while his father languished in prison in Cuba. He was surround by Cuban music at home, courtesy of his singer/songwriter uncle, but he rebelled and followed Elvis and rock in high school. The rebellion led to a stunning career which has brought him seven albums, two Grammy nominations, songwriting credits from superstars like Ricky Martin and Oscar D’Leon, a song that stayed at #1 on the Latin Billboard for 5 weeks, and world tours.
He is on tour in the USA now, supporting his newest album, Éxitos Acústicos and he stopped by to chat with us in Los Angeles.
Patrick. Elsten, I don’t know where to start , there is so much to talk about - your tour, your new album, your very interesting history, Cuba. So let’s start with the new album Éxitos Acústicos. What was the concept?
Torres. It is the album that represents all the big hits I have had with other artists who have recorded my songs. I wanted to re-record these songs in my own style and make them more organic and take them back to where I originally wrote the songs, with more of a singer/songwriter approach as opposed to the big productions that the international artists did.
Patrick. There is an attitude in that song, a kind of approach to life, that positively recognizes the ability of love – in this case love of a woman – to wash everything bad away. You sing Todo se va, todo se olvida, las viejas heridas, por una mujer - Everything goes, everything is forgotten, old wounds .for a woman. She must have been quite a woman – or still is?
Torres. Yes all the bad things in the past go away when you have the right person next to you. She is quite a woman, we are no longer together, but she inspired that song, so it’s got to be about her.
Patrick. You may be singing that song tonight at the Levitt Pavilion in Pasadena.
Torres. Yes, I am playing there with my ex-bandmates from Fulano from 20 years ago. It is going to be a fun night. BMI puts it together.
Patrick. You have played the Levitt before, but the one in MacArthur park, which is in a very Latino part of LA. Pasadena is just a little over a quarter Hispanic – low for Los Angeles. Is this concert part of strategic outreach to a larger audience, a non-Spanish speaking audience, or do you have that already?
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Torres I have always had a diverse audience. I have always been both Spanish and very American. I grew up in this country. I appeal a lot to so many in the USA who are bi-lingual. I think Latin music appeals to everyone, especially my music because I mix many different genres’ together.
Patrick. You actually got started in music with rock …what inspired you to reach back to your roots in Cuba for music?
Torres. I grew up in New York around a very musical family, my uncle especially, but I didn’t immerse myself in Spanish culture when I moved to Miami about 21 years ago. When I got to Miami, my Spanish was not good – my New York Spanish was street Spanish. When I moved to Miami, I started speaking and reading and writing a lot more Spanish and my career took off in that world.
Patrick. Your father was imprisoned by Fidel and you didn’t meet him until you were 17. Your first song was a protest song against the Castro regime. Two days ago, a U.S. Marine raised the American flag over a new American embassy in Havana. What went through your head as that flag went up?
Torres. I was sitting at home watching that. It was a mix of emotions. I am right in the middle of what is happening in Cuba. I think it is a positive step forward in the sense that for the last 50 years, it has been the Cuban there who have been suffering, including my whole family who lost so much. So many families were separated by the Castro regime. Obviously the embargo has not worked – the Castro’s are still there and it doesn’t look like they are going to leave soon. I think that with the steps they are taking, by example the Cuban community will be able to see how we live here – not that we have a perfect system – but we have a lot of freedoms here that they don’t have. It is good to see if it happens. Like many Cubans who live in Miami and elsewhere, we want to see that regime disappear.
Patrick. Will you tour in Cuba?
Torres. Before touring I want to go there for a visit. I have family there I have never met. My mother’s sisters, my aunts, are there. I am planning a private trip with my mom just to meet my family and see where I am from. In the future I would like to tour there. That would be a thrill.
Patrick. Your song La vida cambia from the new album, Éxitos Acústicos sounds like a song you wrote for this day of talk between your two native countries. The lines Life changes in a second and we will/You have to struggle, we must follow /Take the good and leave the bad/That is the path to happiness sound like good advice for people with a foot in two countries . I think you were prescient.
Torres. You are hitting it on the mark. I think songs are always open to interpretation by the listener, whoever that is. The general message of that song is to enjoy life as it happens and not to be worried about tomorrow or the past. Embrace the changes life brings you – good or bad . We learn from both, from hard knocks. Cuba is going through that right now in a big change– a much needed change that hasn’t happened for so long. I know firsthand – I know so many families that left on rafts and got to Miami and they survived.
Patrick. Thank you and thank you for your music.
Torres. Thank you.
Patrick O’Heffernan. Host, Music FridayLive!