La Excelencia returns to Nashville on Friday, October 12 as part of Vanderbilt University’s Great Performances series. The world famous New York City salsa dura band will perform at 8:00 PM in Ingram Hall. A community salsa class free to all ticket holders will be taught at 6:30 prior to the show by Nashville’s Global Education Center resident teaching artist, Steven Damo of Sentir El Ritmo.
Salseros who attended last year’s National Folk Festival held in Nashville will remember La Excelencia’s electrifying Friday performance that blew out the lights behind Capitol Hill. Band members jumped off stage into the crowd playing, while the audience, still dancing, never missed a beat. The next night the band played up a storm again—this time, literally—so that festival officials had to end the performance early due to dangerous weather.
I asked founder/owner Jose Vazquez-Cofresi how his 11-piece orchestra feels about Music City’s Hispanic Heritage Celebration month culminating with their concert. He replied: “ EXCITED! We got a taste of Nashville last year and had a great turn out, but by the 3rd or 4th song the rain started pouring down and we did not get to finish the show. La Excelencia is, however, very blessed that we are able to return to finish the job thanks to Vanderbilt University!”
The band known and enjoyed internationally as “The New Generation of Salsa Dura” has been featured by the BBC, The New York Times, Latin Beat Magazine, So You Think You Can Dance and in motion pictures. Grammy-winning producer Aaron Levinson says of the group: “La Excelencia represents something very significant, a return not just to the classic formula of salsa but to the virtues of it. They are going back to the more eclectic period when salsa was street music, playing with spirit and integrity and writing socially relevant music again.”
Jose says of their worldwide tours: “ It is a great feeling to see over nineteen countries support La Excelencia in a big way by coming out to the shows. It feels even better to return to those same countries and more through the years and see even more people turn out!”
The journey that led to the band’s formation in 2005 began when its leader was born to Puerto Rican parents on a military base in Biloxi, Mississippi. Musical mentors to “Iron Hands,” as he would later be called by vet musician Luis Arona, include Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaria, Coltijo, Kako, The Fania Allstars, and Santana. Jose started playing music at “Parrandas,” a Christmas tradition in Puerto Rico where musicians play from house to house. Jose recalls:
“I picked up things here and there from the elders that played percussion. I started taking drumming lessons at the age of 11, mostly snare drum and bass drum in classical and marching. At the age of fifteen I met Willy Mena, a conguero who worked with the Who’s Who in salsa in NYC and lastly with KC and the Sunshine band. He gave me private lessons and helped form me into a professional conguero.
I moved to New York City in 2001 after being offered a contract to a record label. The label and I disagreed on the approach and style they had on salsa, wanting somewhat of a salsa boy band to sing romantic salsa. I wasn’t for that. Years passed and due to our differences I left the label and by doing so lost the name… I had to create a new name and start from zero. I already had the band and original music I was working and decided to name the band La Excelencia and start recording the band in 2005 on my own label: Handle With Care Productions Inc.”
Jose says the band’s greatest accomplishment to date has been the release of three CDs that required teamwork: “Salsa Con Conciencia,” (Salsa with Awareness/ Conscience), “Mi Tumbao Social,” (My Social Drumbeat) and “Ecos Del Barrio,” (Echoes of the Neighborhood). No Boy Band here, they take on socially relevant issues. When I asked the band leader and writer/composer of most of the group’s music to name their top culturally important songs addressing discrimination and poverty, he named “Dale Otra Oportunidad,” and “La Economia”.
The band Jose calls “family” began with core members Edwin Perez (vocals) and three musicians Jose met through the Boys Harbor at music school in Spanish Harlem: Charlie “Swing” Dilone (timbales), Willy Rodriguez (piano/musical director), and Ron “Renissance” Prokopez (also a professional salsa/mambo dancer). Later joining La Excelencia were Jorge Bringas (bass/backup vocals), Yuniel Jimenez (tres guitar/backup vocals), Jonathan Powell (trumpet), Michael Engstrom (trombone), Dennis Hernandez (trumpet), and Nestor Villar (bongo/cowbell).
What’s next for the group? Jose says: “We would like to do a tour through Asia, the Middle East, and South America. We are currently working on our fourth album with arrangements by Jorge Bringas and compositions/songwriting by vocalist Edwin Perez and myself.”
Tickets for the Great Performances series are on sale at Sarratt Student Center. Full information on discounts for students, seniors, Vanderbilt faculty and groups can be found at www.vanderbilt.edu/greatperformances . Tickets range from $5 for Vanderbilt students to $30, $35, and $40 for the general public. Information is also available at the Sarratt Student Center open Sunday–Saturday 10 a.m. – 8p.m, by calling 615.322.4230, and at all Ticketmaster outlets.