GRUPO ARCANO is one of New York City’s newest and hottest Salsa bands. Drawing much of its influence from Salsa greats, such as El Gran Combo and Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Grupo Arcano has created a unique sound that sets them apart from most other Salsa bands. This is the first part of Grupo Arcano’s founder and director interview. Ladies & Gentlemen, Salseros y Salseras …. Mr. George Velez, Jr.
Tell as a few words about the band, how did it all began?
Well Nikos, this is a fairly non-conventional story (I think). Back in the summer of 2006, my father and I were playing with a plena band, my dad on trombone and me on sax. We had a gig in Central Park for a Puerto Rican Folkloric Festival. That day, after we dressed up at my dad’s house, both my mother and my wife expressed that we should put a band together. My dad has played trombone for over 40 years with local salsa bands and I had played on and off again since 1995. We both had our fair share of dislikes with similar behaviours in the salsa scene and our wives thought that if we had our own band, we could do things differently.
Since I have 5 kids, the idea was not the best in my mind because of the amount of time away from home that might be required, but I did like the idea of playing in a band with Dad. So, I decided to give it a try and began looking for music to transcribe. The band was originally ONLY supposed to play cover songs and perform at birthday parties, sweet sixteens and weddings, nothing more.
When it came time to choose songs, I figured that I wanted to do tunes that were hardly played by the other 500 bands in NYC. Almost all of them playing the same popular songs and thus making every band basically the same. So, I opted for difficult tunes that displayed the caliber of musicianship I had wanted to have.
I started with some Spanish Harlem Orchestra tunes, ha ha ha.
What wound up happening because of this was my father deciding not to play trombone and just sing chorus and play guiro or maracas.
Anyways, we had our first rehearsal in May of 2007. After two rehearsal, and a few musicians NOT showing up, namely the bass player, I decided that I did not want to deal with all of that kind of stress and choose NOT to rehearse that band anymore.
The idea of a band had become dead, until February of 2008. At that time my closest friend, Danny, gave me a call. Now Danny and I had a Heavy Metal band when we were younger. I was on the drums and he would play guitar and/or bass. So, he calls me and asks if I still had thoughts of continuing the salsa band. After many years of not liking salsa he finally caught a liking to Hector Lavoe and many others and he was interested in giving it a try. I also received a phone call from Ray Torres, another long time friend who I had asked to sing for my band the year before. He also wanted to help this band move, so, I asked both of them to help me out and in doing so, I made them ‘co-founders’ of the band. We began rehearsing again in April of 2008.
Why did you choose to be called Grupo Arcano (mystery group)?
Ha ha ha, this is one for the books. Not a lot of thought went into this one.
When I finally decided to start a band, I began to consider different names, but the one thing I refused to have were names like these, “George Velez y Su Orquesta” or “Los Velez”. Any name that would set myself, or my father, apart from the rest of the band I did NOT like. So, I decided finally that I will go visit my father and the moment I see him I will say to him, “Dad. Give me a name for our band,” and whatever came out of his mouth as a response THAT will be the name of the band.
I get to my Dad’s house that day and I walk over to him while he happened to be reading through a Spanish Dictionary and I asked him. He responded, “Arcano!” “What’s Arcano?” I say. He replied, “That’s the word I just finished reading.” And so, ARCANO it was.
But I didn’t like the name La Orquesta Arcano or El Conjunto Arcano, so I ended up with Grupo Arcano.
What’s the idea behind the group, what do you hope to accomplish with your music?
Well the initial idea I think I expressed earlier. It was just to play a few gigs here and there. Right now, the idea is to really try to bring something fresh to salsa music. Not really ‘invent’ something new, but just to make what we have and love sound refreshing. Something vivacious. Something simple, yet at the same time a little complex. I want dancers to dance & musicians to really love what they were playing. I hope Grupo Arcano can make the change from the local scene to a bigger scene. I hope we can reach as many listeners and dancers as possible. I hope we can be invited to perform for them, wherever they are, all the while gaining respect and giving respect to everyone we deal with.
“Desde El Otro Lado Del East River” was released earlier this month. How would you describe the album?
How would I describe the album? Wow. I LOVE IT! The album is a hit from track 1 straight through track 8. I know I have a bias to MY music, but I can be objective, too.
Desde El Otro Lado Del East River is exactly what I hoped it would be, an album where the music did not have a kind of ‘generic’ quality that I feel, sadly, many productions over the last decade or so seem to have. I am not criticizing those albums, so please do not misunderstand me. But, what I wanted is what I think we were able to deliver here, music that is evidently classic in its sound and at the same time, NOT trying to recreate that classic sound but giving it new life. It was one of the hardest things for me to finish, too. We started recording on April 3, 2010 and finished recording in April 2012 with the mastering of the album finished on June 28, 2012. And that was only for 8 songs!
I really believe we have a good production here. All of the songs are full of life. None sound too similar to each other. Great arrangements by Harold Gutierrez and I’ve been told that my arrangements are good, too.
Could you tell us a little bit about the song writing and the recording process?
That’s another loaded question, but I like that.
When we decided to start giving the whole original music a try, which was in the Fall of 2009, I pulled out an old arrangement that I had written in 1997 for Ray Torres (who was Arcano’s singer in 2009). The song was ESA MUJER. Ray had also given me lyrics back then that I didn’t finish makin the arrangement to, PREGUNTALE. That was our starting point. I ended up asking Harold (Arcano’s pianist) to arrange that song. And he did a phenomenal job. I remember hearing the midi playback, which he sent to me around midnight on Thanksgiving (of 2009). I couldn’t sleep. I woke up Danny and passed on the music to him. We were really excited. I had never heard an arrangement like that. He captured something in that tune that, to me, became the goal for all future arrangements we would work on.
Shortly after, Harold recommended a few tunes he had written in Colombia years ago and from that group of tunes we chose ARY. My dad had written many lyrics when he was younger (before I was born) and of those LLUVIA VIENE and LA MAYA were chosen, with Harold tackling Lluvia Viene and me giving my first try to a Son Montuno in La Maya.
The ideas behind RUMBA EN MI BARRIO and UN TIPO SALA’O were suggestions given to me by my wife, Amarilys, and I passed on the idea of Rumba to Ray and Sala’o to my dad. And I think they did great jobs, with my father writing a lyrical masterpiece in Sala’o. Later, dad would suggest lyrics he wrote in honor of a long time friend, Andy Colon, named EL TRAVIESO MAYOR.
NOW, the recording process was LONG. Recording an album is expensive. Recording a GREAT album is even more expensive. I was adamant about NOT trying to use the musicians that you find on almost all of the modern recordings and I really wanted to use the actual band members (which lead to some changing of staff, sadly). But, recording was fun. We tried to keep as many of the pairs together. What I mean is that we did not record one instrument at a time. Grupo Arcano is a big band using 6 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones and 2 saxophones. So, the trombones recorded together at the same time in the same room. So did the saxophones, trumpets, percussions, etc.
We also wanted to leave a few human ‘errors’ that you might find or hear at live performances, though we didn’t make many, ha ha ha. We also used a real piano as opposed to a keyboard. During the piano solo of LA MAYA, you can hear Harold stomping on the piano pedals if you listen closely, that was awesome. We just wanted to have fun, still being serious and playing as professional as we could possibly play.
Which is your personal favorite song of the album and why?
It’s hard to pick a favorite since I really do love them all.
I think all the arrangements are fun to dance to, fun to listen and fun to perform, each one has its own distinct flavor yet somehow they each capture something similar, and that’s particular to Grupo Arcano. It’s our sound, our style. Sorry. Ha ha ha
Although I very much like all the tracks from your album, “La Maya” is the one tune I can’t stop listen to, will you like to share with us the story behind this song?
My dad would definitely give you the better story behind it, since he ties the story into an incident he remembers of his older brother, Pedro (r.i.p.), but I’ll share what I can. The first thing I will say is that the lyrics were not meant to be a pun, or to have a double meaning. In the lyrics we hear the singer describing a plant. And that’s exactly what the song is referring to. La maya (properly spelled, malla, but I like the ‘y’) IS a spiny, prickly plant that grows in most of the Caribbean Islands (Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, etc). It’s very similar to a savila plant (google it), but it also tends to grow like a net or vine low to the floor.
So, the song begins with the singer mentioning how in his town (barrio) he’s considered a tough guy and everyone is scared of him and when people see him, they runaway. But then he expresses that everyone is also aware that HE also has a fear. While everyone is scared of him, he is scared of a plant, la maya. The rest of the song continues with the singer expressing his fear of this plant and eventually gaining the courage to overcome his fear by destroying the plant. he last ‘soneos’ expressing fear but the desire to overcome them is sung right before Anthony takes his congas solo, and this is what my father sings (translated of course):
“Listen to me, I’m scared of it (la maya).”
“Because of the maya, I can’t even walk into my house”
“That maya plant, Im gonna cut it down, I’m gonna roll it and I’m gonna smoke it!”
This arrangement was fun to write and what I did in the music was try to convey a few things to compliment the lyrics. I wanted to convey a sense of walking down the road (in the intro and elsewhere). I wanted to convey a sense of “oh no!” and fear, which you can hear in the horn harmonies. I wanted to mix both of those emotions in the mambo right after the piano solo. And a sense of relief from the congas solo to the end of the song with a small hint that maybe the fear isn’t completely over which we hear in the very last horn section to end the song. I hope I conveyed that, whether or not you know what the song is about lyrically.
…TO BE CONTINUED!
Grupo Arcano is…
George Vélez, Sr.-Vocals , Anthony Almonte-Vocals/Congas , Harold Gutiérrez-Piano/Coro , Daniel Diaz-Bass, George Vélez, Jr.-Alto Sax/Coro/Director , Jacob Teichroew-Tenor Sax , Ricardo Cox , Jr.-Trumpet/Coro, Larry Nissman-Trumpet , Michael Engstrom-Trombone , Nadav Nirenberg-Trombone, Juan Gerena-Timbales and Frank Almonte, Jr.- Bongo