In August 2004 an impressive group of salsa legends descended on New Jersey’s United Airlines Arena for what’s become an annual all-star bash. The show, billed as Fania All Stars Forever, boasted stars from salsa’s late ’60s/ early ’70s golden age, the era when the legendary Fania Records label reigned supreme.
Back then, salsa was still brash, daring and fresh from the streets, a danceable feast concocted by hip Puerto Rican and Cuban kids from East Harlem and the Bronx who put a hard, uptown spin on traditional Afro-Cuban dance music. More than a few of those pioneers were in attendance in August, too (even if they were a little balder on top and a little wider in the waistband). Singers like Cheo Felciano, Bobby Valentin, Adalberto Santiago and Ismael Miranda; musicians like Ray Barretto, Larry Harlow, Yomo Toro, Alfredo de la Fe and Richie Ray; even pioneering salsa radio DJs like Izzy Sanabria and Polito Vega were all on hand to deliver a scorching set of salsa classics and golden oldies to fans and aficionados of all ages.
Yet among this distinguished group was a brand new face. There, smack in the middle of the coro, was a lanky young cat in a towering afro and oversized shades named Tego Calderon, one of the hottest stars in Puerto Rico today. While there’s nothing remarkable about the Fania All Stars inviting fresh blood to join them onstage—the show also included such younger stars as Jimmy Bosch and La India—what’s impressive is that Tego Calderon isn’t actually a salsero at all. Calderon is a reggaetón MC, a rapper who laces his Spanish rhymes with heavy doses of boricua slang and Jamaican dancehall beats. Musically, it’s a far cry from classic salsa’s improvisational wizardry; but in spirit and attitude Calderon is much closer to the streetwise salsa greats of yesteryear than any newjack salsa romantica pretty boy.
Seeing him take his place alongside salsa royalty at the United Airlines Arena seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
Of course, Calderon is already an established star in Puerto Rico and on Latin radio in the States. He sells out stadiums in Puerto Rico, headlines street festivals in Miami and steals the spotlight from established stars at awards shows, while his signature afro-and-shades are already iconic for a whole new generation of boricua kids. His 2003 debut,
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