From Carnegie Hall To Colegas

Arts and Media January 2021 PREMIUM
Gilberto Santa Rosa’s Musical Trajectory Was Purely Magical

Affectionately known to his millions of fans as “El Caballero de Salsa,” - which translates to “The Gentleman of Salsa” - this internationally acclaimed performer, who started his professional singing career at the age of 14, described how his extraordinary journey skyrocketed after his memorable one-night at the legendary Carnegie Hall.

Although this wouldn’t have been the last time he performed at this historic venue; nevertheless he described how that show (with his beloved parents and family in attendance) helped define his musical brilliance for years to come.

The date was March 23, 1995. This sold-out show was released as an album entitled Gilberto Santa Rosa - Live from Carnegie Hall. During that concert, he performed his signature song “Perdóname” and to this day he laughs because his fans want to hear it - in his improvisational style - exactly as the song was recorded a quarter of a century ago. He even memorized those particular lyrics. Santa Rosa commented how that concert was one of the proudest moments in his 40-plus years in the entertainment industry. 

As he sat comfortably in his beautiful home in Puerto Rico, I asked this Santurce native, during our casual conversation, to slowly close his eyes. 

I said, “Just imagine it’s 1995 and once again you’re standing on that iconic New York City stage. What are your recollections from that unbelievable moment?”

“It was an incredible moment but what really comes to my mind was the Latino community in New York City. It wasn’t just their applause but how this community embraced my entire performance,” said Santa Rosa who shared those recollections over the phone.

Twenty five years later, Gilberto Santa Rosa, 58, a married father of four children and a proud grandfather of three, described what that seminal performance felt like and I could sense the emotions in his distinct voice. 

And even picture his infectious, radiant smile that has graced theater marquees around the world.

Not only is he a six-time Grammy Award winner and the first Puerto Rican of tropical music to perform inside that historic New York City edifice, but he reflected on a childhood filled with eclectic vocalists, supportive parents, life-changing personalities and a maternal grandmother who simply loved to dance.

But I asked him if he could pinpoint the moment where he knew he had the ‘gift’ to sing and was there a particular song, he definitely knew what legendary Puerto Rican group immediately grabbed his attention. 

“I couldn’t tell you of a specific song but I know it was seeing “El Gran Combo” on television. I remember that perfectly and that’s what impacted me,” Santa Rosa said.

The early years in Carolina

Gilberto was in second grade when he discovered his voice while learning the dance steps of his favorite Puerto Rican orchestra. From my own childhood, I think back to certain songs and singers who left an indelible mark that carried into my adult life. Although I grew up in a Puerto Rican household and can vividly recall my father’s vintage albums, my own harmonious selections were geared towards non-Latino artists. One of my regrets is that I wouldn’t discover the beauty of our music till later in my adult life. 

But that wasn’t the case for this future salsero who chronicled his early years with close friends in the town of Carolina, Puerto Rico where they created rhythmic beats with found objects.

“We made music with empty paint cans, plastic, garbage pails and with chopsticks struck them as if they were timbales. We performed on top of cars. In Puerto Rico, we didn’t celebrate Christmas but for Three Kings Day we would ask for an instrument as a gift. I sang but also played the tumbadora (conga) so this would be my present,” stated Santa Rosa on how his future bandmates eventually formed their musical group.

One day, the late Mario Ortiz, a prolific Puerto Rican trumpet player, bandleader, arranger for numerous musicians, told his son Mario Jr.,who also played with Gilberto in their group, he wanted to give his dear friend an opportunity to record a song. Since that unforgettable day, Gilberto has always credited Ortiz who he described as “my musical father” and the first professional to open the doors of his career.

Although Santa Rosa enjoyed numerous performers throughout his formative years, there was a Puerto Rican singer known for his memorable ballads throughout the 1940s and ‘70s he wished they could have recorded an album together. To this day, he still idolizes Tito Rodríguez, the renowned singer remembered fondly as “El Inolvidable,” (The Unforgettable One) and because of that idolation has amassed an unbelievable collection of Rodríguez artifacts (including the former home he once owned in Puerto Rico).

He even has an extremely close relationship with his only son, Tito Jr. who he nicknamed “Miles.”

Although Rodríguez died in 1973, Santa Rosa emulated his style of singing and yet was honored to perform alongside another future bolero/salsero who ironically helped set up the bandstands for Tito Rodríguez’s orchestra in the late 1950s.

This brilliant salsero, Cheo Feliciano, who was a founding member of the acclaimed Salsa group the Fania All-Stars, eventually graced the stage with Gilberto.

It was purely magical.

“For me, Cheo was like “receiving an award.” Every salsa singer was an admirer. He was very kind to me and we developed a close relationship. To have that moment to sing with someone we all wished we could be, it was a privilege in my career.”

He added: “Cheo was working on a new project and invited me to sing. Thanks to the producer of the album and we did a popular song together. I will never forget that.” Sadly, in the San Juan suburbs of Puerto Rico, Feliciano died tragically in an automobile accident in 2014.

Of all the accomplished performers Santa Rosa was privileged to work with, I asked what were some of their idiosyncrasies he observed that helped revolutionize his musical artistry. Santa Rosa stated matter-of-factly it was quite easy to sum up in a few sentences.

“Each one had their own personalities. Each one had their respective styles. Each one had a passion for the music they created. And that’s what impacted me. I learned and inherited it.”

The origins of Salsa and improvisation

Throughout every singer’s professional career, he/she will eventually tour and perform in various cities. And even travel abroad. Santa Rosa has literally flown around the world with stops throughout the USA, Europe and Latin-America but in 2018, he shared his heartfelt recollections on finally arriving on an picturesque island eerily similar to his native home.

“Having the opportunity to perform in Cuba was an extraordinary honor. You can’t imagine what that reception was like. Salsa was created from the basis of Cuban music and was a major influence. It was spectacular. I will never forget it,” reminisced Santa Rosa who also described strolling in certain parts and seeing the warmth of the Cuban people.

Santa Rosa genuinely loves and appreciates his fans and is very cognizant to what he’s looking for when listening to a song for the first time. He describes it as a “special moment and in actuality quite easy” when recording a track.

Gilberto noted, “I pick all the songs that I’m going to sing. As I start listening, I’m looking for a theme, structure and what my interest is at that moment. Rarely, do I listen to a song twice. I usually pick it the first time I hear it. And this has worked well for me.”

Along with selecting the right ballad and what has become so beautifully interwoven within every lyric sung by Santa Rosa during his numerous concerts is the art of improvisation. Similarly like Jazz, which evolved from the deliberate departure of a traditional pitch, Santa Rosa’s unique improvisation has become the norm of what his loyal fandom has embraced throughout his illustrious career. And he would also tell you he learned this self-expressive art form quite early in his professional life.

“I learned to do it by observing things around me and my orchestra. I started reading and learning about different improvisations. Being a singer who improvised opened a lot of doors. And the talent to do this was quite natural.”

Winning a Grammy

As acknowledged on their own official website, the Grammy Awards, describes their most prestigious honor in the music industry “as the only peer-recognized music award” that is much-coveted by celebrity performers and up-and-coming musicians. But Santa Rosa pointed to other gifted members, within his inner circle, who are just as deserving of the recognition.

Since his emergence as a top-selling performer, he credits his devoted parents for instilling an appreciation for others, a trustworthiness and an unpretentious demeanor. And when his proud father has been interviewed about his son’s success and trajectory in the business, Santa Rosa conveyed this rather simple narrative:

“My parents were mindful if I had some kind of success I wouldn’t allow it to get to my head. And always remember my upbringing [and] how I came from a humble home and worked hard to achieve your goals.” 

He concluded: “When my father was asked to share his thoughts about his son he would say, ‘He’s a good singer but a better person than a singer.’ And I’m so proud to hear him say this.”

But, winning a Grammy? Surely, he was absolutely thrilled to hear the news when he won for the very first time ever and yet he was “humbled’’ by the announcement. 

“Firstly, it was a great honor. I’ve always said those awards help to appreciate and share with the people who worked alongside you. It’s important to recognize the people “behind the scenes” of what you do,” said Santa Rosa. “When those awards come and I understand they can be competitive, it’s a great achievement towards what I do.”

During Covid-19 comes Colegas 

Faced with the devastating effects of the 2020 pandemic, live concerts have come to a screeching halt. Not only for singers, but actors, actresses in the broadway/television/movie industry have seen their livelihoods turned upside down. Until everyone is inoculated, fans will have no choice but to patiently wait to see their favorite singers perform in-person again.

But in the digital world of “Zoom,” along with every video conference platform available, the possibilities are endless.

Throughout this global lockdown, “The Gentleman of Salsa” kept himself quite busy and produced a virtual Christmas concert along with the 2020 release of his latest album Colegas in which he described as “a compilation of 19 songs geared towards the truest fans wanting to hear traditional Salsa.”

Gilberto noted, “It was a project in the works for seven years. It was an album I wasn’t necessarily interested in doing. At first, I just wanted to make an album for myself but since it was beautifully done and had an impressive list of artists, I launched it and I’ve received a great response.”

Filled with eternal optimism and the hope of seeing his loyal fans up-close, Santa Rosa, while reflecting on his unbelievable career, can always envision a return trip to that landmark, concert hall in New York City. Along with his family, he can once again drive down Seventh Avenue and if his chauffeur becomes temporarily detoured, he could always pull over and ask a passerby, “ do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

In the gritty streets of New York City, you’ll never know what obscenities could be blurted out by a total stranger or even a practical jokester may quickly deliver this well-known, theatrical punchline: “Practice, practice, practice.” 

And just imagine if Gilberto Santa Rosa was sitting in the back seat and listening to their conversation. He would probably lower his tinted window, smile and reply, “I did and I’m performing LIVE tonight. [laughs]” 

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