Elsten Torres’ Éxitos Acústicos and Interview
(Los Angeles) American Latin Music (ALM) is the fusion sound created over the past two decades in California by Latinos who were raised in the US as children, spoke Spanish at home and listened to cumbia, ranchero and other music from Central and South America but spoke English at school and listened to rock/rap/blues/pop and are now creating a new genre.
Another kind of ALM evolved in New York and Miami, one that added the distinct music of Cuba to the mix. Pioneering that revolution is Elsten Fulano Torres, brought to New York at the age of two, surrounded by Cuban music at home but followed Elvis and rock in high school. Fortunately, he later absorbed the music of his native Cuba in his twenties and set out on a career to make a new contemporary music mix. That career now includes six albums, two Grammy nominations, a #1 song on Billboard and songwriting credits with Ricky Martin and Oscar D’Leon and other superstars who have recorded his new music. In his latest album, Éxitos Acústicos, Torres brings you five songs made famous by artists ranging from Julio Iglesias, Jr. to David Bisbal, but done his way, plus an original song, recorded in Spanish and Portuguese that chronicle the changes in life and music.
Torres assembled the album with his Grammy-winning producer Rodolfo Castillo to try and recreate the hits recorded by international Latin stars in an organic acoustic way to give them the feel and emotion that energized their creation. In this way, Torres and Castillo hoped that these songs will be rediscovered and re-embraced as widely and joyfully as they were when they were originally released. Torres and Castillo need not worry on that score; if anything, Torres’s hits, stripped of the superstar production and presented in a simple authentic Latin style, feel like part of the family. They settle into your conscious, your blood and your life regardless of what language you speak or country you sprang from. They are comfortable friends, a joy to meet and welcome into your home and play over and over again.
Éxitos Acústicos opens with “Caramelo,” originally recorded by multiple Grammy-winner, Alejandra Guzmán, known as “La Reina del Rock” for 16 rock albums reaching 10 million sales. Where Guzmán recorded and performed “Caramelo” in her hard rock style with female backup vocals and hard driving drums and guitars, Torres brings his song to life with jazz-like Cuban brush drum beats, rhythm guitar and what sounds like a vibraphone or xylophone. His smooth voice moves your body along with the verses while bringing just the right amount of angst to the chorus, Caramelo, tengo el major, Caramelo cualquier sabor. If there were not more songs to go, you would just put this one on repeat and bounce sweetly through the rest of your day.
But there are more, starting with ‘Los Demás,” originally recorded by Julio Iglesias, Jr., with a steady snare beat and electric guitar down strokes. Torres brings a softer rhythm guitar and subdued Cuban jazz drums while loading emotions into the song with a voice so infused with concern that it tightens the muscles in your stomach. Again, hit replay.
“Por Una Mujer” is Torres’ musical ode to the powerful women who shaped his life – and all of our lives – his strong-willed mother. Originally recorded in 2009 by Latin Grammy-winning Puerto Rican singer/actor Luis Fonzi with an all-girl band as a pop-rock dance tune, Torres gives it a happy lilt. It feels like a memory of skipping on the beach with your partner, singing her praises as the joy of the relationship starts a day of sunshine and love. He sings in Spanish, You transform life… and breathe, breathe… the new perfume every day/everything is gone, everything is forgotten, old wounds by a woman, and we all smile and agree… and wish we were there.
“Si Aun Te Quieres Quedar,” released by the Latin Grammy-winning Spaniard David Bisbal as a gentle- to-soaring rock/ballad sung with Cuca Roseta, “If You Want To Stay” in Torres’ deft hands gives it a comfortable feel, almost resigned to whatever the answer is, but with an aching need burning in the lines, just hold me please/do not leave me with the pain.
“Todo el Año,” fifth song on the album, written for Obie Bermudez in 2004, is the essence of Latin heartbreak and Torres’ stripped down version lets you feel not only the sadness of this song, but the sadness that lurks in the heart of every Latin man as he contemplates a year without love. Of all the songs on the album, “Todo el Año” gives Gringos like me the best look into the fire and embers of the Latin heart.
“Celos,” written in 2003 and a finalist at the Benidorm International Song Festival, sounds almost Mexican with an accordion, jazz brush drum and melodic progression. Like other songs in the album, although the subject is dark (jealousy), the delivery is comfortable and feels like an old friend. Or maybe that is just what jealousy is.
The final three songs are the album’s highlight. “La Vida Cambia – “Life Changes” is a new original song by Torres, presented in Spanish and Portuguese. Torres uses a bossa nova-like sound for the first two versions, then ends the album with a rendition in a rock solid Cuban conga beat. Regardless of the language or the beat, the message is the same – one that pervades all of Torres’ songs, even the heartbreakers: You have to enjoy, you have to laugh/You have to, You have to cry…Live the present and forget what was.
Good advice for anyone caught in our swiftly changing lives. The best antidote to the vagaries of modern existence may just be putting Éxitos Acústicos at the top of your playlist, set it for “replay” and absorb the philosophy of Elsten Torres. I guarantee you will feel better.
Patrick. Elsten, I don’t know where to start, there is so much to talk about – your tour, your new album, your very interesting history, Cuba. So let’s start with the new album Éxitos Acústicos. What was the concept?
Torres. It is the album that represents all the big hits I have had with other artists who have recorded my songs. I wanted to re-record these songs in my own style and make them more organic and take them back to where I originally wrote the songs, with more of a singer/songwriter approach as opposed to the big productions that the international artists did.
Patrick. There is an attitude in that song, a kind of approach to life, that positively recognizes the ability of love – in this case love of a woman – to wash everything bad away. You sing
Todo se va, todo se olvida, las viejas heridas, por una mujer – Everything goes, everything is forgotten, old wounds .for a woman. She must have been quite a woman – or still is?
Torres. Yes all the bad things in the past go away when you have the right person next to you. She is quite a woman, we are no longer together, but she inspired that song, so it’s got to be about her.
Patrick. You may be singing that song tonight at the Levitt Pavilion in Pasadena.
Torres. Yes, I am playing there with my ex-bandmates from Fulano from 20 years ago. It is going to be a fun night. BMI puts it together.
Patrick. You have played the Levitt before, but the one in MacArthur park, which is in a very Latino part of LA. Pasadena is just a little over a quarter Hispanic – low for Los Angeles. Is this concert part of strategic outreach to a larger audience, a non-Spanish speaking audience, or do you have that already?
Torres. I have always had a diverse audience. I have always been both Spanish and very American. I grew up in this country. I appeal a lot to so many in the USA who are bilingual. I think Latin music appeals to everyone, especially my music because I mix many different genres together.
Patrick. You actually got started in music with rock …what inspired you to reach back to your roots in Cuba for music?
Torres. I grew up in New York around a very musical family, my uncle especially, but I didn’t immerse myself in Spanish culture when I moved to Miami about 21 years ago. When I got to Miami, my Spanish was not good – my New York Spanish was street Spanish. When I moved to Miami, I started speaking and reading and writing a lot more Spanish and my career took off in that world.
Patrick. Your father was imprisoned by Fidel and you didn’t meet him until you were 17. Your first song was a protest song against the Castro regime. Two days ago, a U.S. Marine raised the American flag over a new American embassy in Havana. What went through your head as that flag went up?
Torres. I was sitting at home watching that. It was a mix of emotions. I am right in the middle of what is happening in Cuba. I think it is a positive step forward in the sense that for the last 50 years, it has been the Cuban there who have been suffering, including my whole family who lost so much. So many families were separated by the Castro regime. Obviously the embargo has not worked – the Castro’s are still there and it doesn’t look like they are going to leave soon. I think that with the steps they are taking, by example the Cuban community will be able to see how we live here – not that we have a perfect system – but we have a lot of freedoms here that they don’t have. It is good to see if it happens. Like many Cubans who live in Miami and elsewhere, we want to see that regime disappear.
Patrick. Will you tour in Cuba?
Torres. Before touring I want to go there for a visit. I have family there I have never met. My mother’s sisters, my aunts, are there. I am planning a private trip with my mom just to meet my family and see where I am from. In the future I would like to tour there. That would be a thrill.
Patrick. Your song La vida cambia from the new album, Éxitos Acústicos sounds like a song you wrote for this day of talk between your two native countries. The lines Life changes in a second and we will/You have to struggle, we must follow /Take the good and leave the bad/That is the path to happiness sound like good advice for people with a foot in two countries. I think you were prescient.
Torres. You are hitting it on the mark. I think songs are always open to interpretation by the listener, whoever that is. The general message of that song is to enjoy life as it happens and not to be worried about tomorrow or the past. Embrace the changes life brings you – good or bad . We learn from both, from hard knocks. Cuba is going through that right now in a big change– a much needed change that hasn’t happened for so long. I know firsthand – I know so many families that left on rafts and got to Miami and they survived.
Patrick O’Heffernan. Host, Music FridayLive!
Éxitos Acústicos is available at the website, iTunes, Amazon.com and all download sites.