What would happen if one of the legendary salsa bands from the ’70s in New York City wrote a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song? This is the kind of question that Williamsburg Salsa Orchestra bandleader and arranger Gianni Mano posed to himself one day. After hearing the song “My Girls” by Animal Collective, Mano was inspired to take the indie rock songs that characterized his Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg and arrange them into the conventions of salsa. What he began to craft is something uniquely contemporary, introducing not only salsa to a whole new audience but indie rock as well.
“It’s interesting,” says lead singer Solange Prat, “because some people that like us a lot don’t know the original songs.”
Listening to the arrangements and performances produced by WSO is completely different than listening to other examples of genre-change cover songs. The way the song has been arranged is flawless, and one may never know that these songs were not always salsa. Their buzzworthy remake of “Young Folks,” for example, sounds more like a distant cousin than a sibling to the Peter Bjorn and John original.
“Rather than just take the song and add a salsa beat, we really dig into the whole arrangement,” says Mano. “We have to figure out how to reflect the story of the song through the conventions of salsa, 100 percent.”
To start this process of salsa-fication, Mano and Prat look for songs that have interesting lyrics, a strong point of view, a lot of rhythm and, most importantly, they both really have to enjoy the song. One challenge that arose in the rearrangement of indie rock songs was that the salsa genre has a section called soneos, a verse where the singer improvises lyrics over the band as they play repeated figures. So when choosing the songs they perform, Mano and Prat have to find material that has enough depth and suggestion so that they can expand on the story.
“Rather than just take the song and add a salsa beat, we really dig into the whole arrangement" — Mano.
An excellent example of their methods is WSO’s version of Fucked Up’s “Black Albino Bones.” It is fascinating how the band took a metal-leaning punk song and turned it into flawless salsa. It is particularly ironic considering the original music video for the song features the band hanging out on a street corner and not really doing anything. Yet, Mano and Prat took this song and placed it in a genre where all you want to do is move.
“Fucked Up is such an interesting band,” says Mano while discussing his arrangement choices. “The song is so incredibly well written and features really deep lyrics. When I read them, I couldn’t believe it! I thought this is poetry right here. The way the verses all reflect each other by using the same metaphors like some sort of Shakespearean sonnet. I knew I had to do the song. I just had no idea how to do it. I wanted it to have the same energy as their song, to have that incredible punk energy. There’s a genre called salsa dure—hard salsa—which is what we tend to do in our arrangements, that really worked perfectly in taking this song into the world of salsa.”
The song features very overt references to cannabis, something that the band does not shy away from discussing. Tremendous overlap exists between cannabis culture and salsa culture, especially when discussing salsa musicians.
“There’s a friend of mine who’s one of the old salsa players from the ’70s,” describes Mano. “He once told me, ‘Man, when I was playing the ’70s, we would never go on stage without smoking.’ And I think you would be hard pressed to find any musician who plays groove music—any genre that is basically for dance—who hasn’t had a cannabis-influenced revelation about music. It really does open the doors of perception, the way you perceive time, which is everything in music.”
Prat echoes these notions, especially in regard to how she improvises live at every gig in Spanish.
“When improvising the parts in Spanish—the soneos—it’s almost like rapping. To say something with meaning and rhymes on the fly, it’s hard,” she admits. “With the use of cannabis, I found that there is a whole new way to improvise. You’re not just going to go to the common places. It’s a completely different mindset, all the different ideas and new ways of approaching the song that I can get. It has been an amazing tool for exploration. It just gives performers a new freedom.”
“When musicians are playing different patterns that are fitting together, you can hear every little thing on a whole other level when you are just a little bit high,” adds Mano. “It’s amazing how the growers have refined the strains of cannabis for different situations. Some are great for playing music, some are great for listening to music, some are great for going out and some are great for staying home. You can choose your weapon. I think cannabis culture needs to do what we are doing with salsa, to hit the reset button and say, ‘Ok, I can be an intelligent sophisticated member of society and have a vape pen in my pocket.’ It’s ok.”
Their approach to salsa is with immense respect to the conventions, even though the songs are, for the most part, in English. By utilizing the soneos tradition, they add a level of authenticity as they contemporize the genre. When Prat flows in Spanish, she bridges the two worlds of English and Spanish, giving a universal appeal to the band. Mano describes the genre as being in a sort of museum-like state. When one experiences a salsa band today, they pretty much know what they are going to get. With the WSO, he wants to bring it into the 21st century by using the source material of indie rock songs. And sometimes this doesn’t work.
“We have a lot of stuff that we’ve tried that doesn’t work out,” he notes. “The process is unique to every song. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and sometimes we’ll find a killer song, and it will be done in three or four weeks. Sometimes we try a song, it doesn’t work but then we go back to it six months later, and it’s like the idea has gelled or we’re ready for it. We really put our soul into the arrangements so it’s not just playing covers, it’s communicating something deeper. It’s not just about producing great dance music for us.”
“When improvising the parts in Spanish—the soneos—it’s almost like rapping. To say something with meaning and rhymes on the fly, it’s hard" — Prat
In NYC, the band has been able to tap into multiple communities that would appreciate their music, from dance lovers to indie rock, salsa and beyond. Intersecting this diverse nature of the city allowed them to build a following, but the location itself adds a kind of texture to their music. After all, their name is at once an ironic joke—Williamsburg, the land of the hipster and salsa together?—but it also gives the band a true sense of place and history. Still, they are ready to take on the world.
WSO is currently working on their second studio album, which will feature a Japanther’s song in all its salsa-fied glory and Black Key’s “Lonely Boy,” the video of which is out now. Later this year, the band will leave the Eastern Seaboard for the first time to play shows in Los Angeles.
“I think that salsa is ready for a rediscovery,” says Mano. “I think that people who listen to other dance music like EDM and people who listen singer-songwriters would really enjoy salsa. I think that people would just freak out when they discover how fun it is.”
“I think it’s happening slowly but surely, and we’re happy and excited to be part of that,” adds Prat. “We’re excited to spread the music everywhere.”
“But we’re not like any other salsa band,” continues Mano. “If you’ve heard 50 salsa bands, you still haven’t heard us. I guarantee you haven’t heard Animal Collective [like this].”