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Local Latin Grammy-winning producer takes on battle to save salsa music

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From his recording studio in Delray Beach, where he just finished producing Marc Anthony's latest album, Sergio George sees himself winning the battle to save salsa.

George, a pianist and Latin Grammy-winning producer, knows his adversaries: new music genres like bachata and reggaeton that have won over the airwaves and a new generation of young Hispanics, many of whom see salsa as their parents' music.

But George, who has worked with salsa legends like Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, is confident he can put the genre back on the map with several new projects.

This month, he's unleashing "3.0" — Anthony's first salsa album in almost a decade. (Its first single, "Vivir Mi Vida," quickly climbed to the top of Billboard's Latin charts and landed Anthony two shows at AmericanAirlines Arena this August.)

The producer also released "Salsa Giants" last month, a live CD/DVD that features 10 legendary salseros — including Anthony, Tito Nieves and Cheo Feliciano — who came together for a historic performance last summer. The live show, taped at the Curacao North Sea Jazz Festival, also inspired a salsa documentary narrated by John Leguizamo and it may spawn an international tour by the end of the year.

 

Not bad for someone producing salsa, a genre that Anthony flat-out describes as "non-existent."

"There's nobody [in salsa] pushing the envelope," says Anthony in the documentary, filmed by award-winning director Pablo Croce and also named "Salsa Giants."

"And I wish they would," he added. "I wish they would do music for the right reasons."

Many salseros would disagree with the star, especially in South Florida. With a new Grammy winner in their roster, a handful of stellar salsa albums produced here this year and an all-star festival planned for December, the region's salseros are ready to bring the genre back to the glory it held during its heyday a few decades ago.

Just don't call it a comeback.

"Salsa music is not underground," said George in a phone interview. "There are salsa dancing classes everywhere, and it's loved by everyone, because it's sexy and it makes them feel good. But not many people are exposed to it."

According to Guy Lovell, a salsa instructor who opened Nuevolution Dance Studio in Pembroke Pines in 2009, there has been an increase in the number of people who come in for salsa classes — though most don't know much about the music, and are instead inspired by shows like "Dancing with the Stars."

The Puerto Rican-Jamaican instructor said he talks to his students about salsa's roots in places like New York and Los Angeles, and how that history has affected each different style.

"They don't really know about the history or the culture," said Lovell, 43. "They come in and say, 'I just want to learn regular salsa,' which doesn't really exist. They don't realize there's so many styles."

Lovell said there's also been growing interest among students wanting to learn how to dance bachata, a catchy and romantic type of music born in the Dominican Republic. It's genres like bachata and reggaeton — the urban music that swept the world with hits like Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina" — that have overtaken Spanish-language radio stations and currently reign supreme in the Hispanic market.

"That music is very much in style right now," said Frank Nieves, a musician and entrepreneur who organizes the Fiestas Patronales festival in Pembroke Pines every December. "But I think that's going to change soon with a number of new events and albums that are in the works."

This year, Nieves plans to bring to the festival a new salsa heavy-weight: South Florida salsero Marlow Rosado and his band, La Riqueña, who won a Grammy this year for the salsa album "Retro."

Rosado's win was chalked up as a victory against the bachata Goliath: In the Best Tropical Latin Album category, he beat out Romeo Santos, a "bachatero" whom Billboard named the top-selling Latin artist of 2012.

"When I defeated a giant like Romeo Santos, I started getting more calls to do shows, more projects," said Rosado, who lives in Miami. "What I've been trying to say in 20 years, the Grammy said for me in a day."

Still, earning the support from the music engineers and producers who vote for Grammy winners isn't the same as winning over the general public.

"Unfortunately, we're having a hard time getting the support of commercial radio stations," said Rosado, who has dabbled in bachata and reggaeton as a producer and composer.

According to George, bachata enjoys more commercial success, but "there's still not a lot of credibility for bachata, musically speaking, from [the Grammy] community yet, so it's easier for a salsero to beat a bachata artist."

The producer is also no stranger to bachata — having produced two albums for the popular Prince Royce — but he says his heart has always been in educating people about salsa.

"When he was on our label, we had Prince Royce do a salsa song with Luis Enrique, and a lot of people were drawn to salsa because a guy like Prince Royce did [that song]," he said. "You try to pretty much do what they like and not force anything down their throat."

George is also planning to add artists from other genres to bring in different crowds for the "Salsa Giants" tour — which is still in the works, but he says will definitely stop in Miami.

"The near future of salsa depends upon this new Marc record, and 'Salsa Giants,' and us taking it on the road," he said. "It's an important thing to try to keep it alive. If we don't accomplish it now, it won't ever be accomplished."

El Sentinel editor Deborah Ramirez contributed to this story.

mfelix@tribune.com, twitter.com/mj_felix

                                                           

                                                                                                                                                                   

 

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