The Meridian Brothers’ Eccentric Mastermind Is Electrifying Roots Salsa
One day Artemio Morelia, a singer and maracas player for an obscure Colombian salsa band called Grupo Renacimiento, awoke and found himself transformed into a robot. Haunted by visions of HAL 9000, he was suddenly acutely aware of the coldness and the distractions of a constantly plugged-in world. “Memory is dying,” he sings on his band’s new single, “Metamorfosis.” “They’ve already connected the internet to my lung/to my heart.”
Or at least that’s what Eblis Álvarez, an academy-trained Colombian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, wants you to believe with the release of his new album, “Meridian Brothers and El Grupo Renacimiento,” out Friday. Meridian Brothers is a moniker Álvarez uses on many of his albums — “collaborations” with fictional bands, in this case Grupo Renacimiento. Although he plays all the instruments and handles all the vocals on the album, he also performs live with a regular Meridian Brothers Band that features four of his friends from Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá.
For Álvarez, “Meridian Brothers and El Grupo Renacimiento,” the first release on the renowned Ansonia Records in 30 years, is a Latin American novel disguised as a “B-salsa” album — his term for forgotten, B-list salsa performers, or salseros, like Orquesta Kool, who recorded under “precarious conditions.” It’s at once a psychedelic fever dream, a deep dive into salsa’s past, a critique of society’s surrender to technology, and a new musical encounter between Colombia’s sophisticated capital of Bogotá and its rustic Caribbean coast.
“Grupo Renacimiento is like writing a book about the rebirth of a group of artists who fall into vice and re-emerge because of their Christian faith. It’s just a crónicaabout a classic salsa story, like the story of Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz,” Álvarez said in a video interview last month, referring to the classic 1970s New York salsa combo. “This is a record that tries to emulate the ’70s sound of the golden age of salsa dura,” or hardcore salsa.
Invoking the crónica, a Latin American literary genre that combines journalism and fiction — and making a self-produced “mockumentary” that describes his encounter with Grupo Renacimiento in a Colombian church — Alvarez has injected the project with a playfully surreal flavor. According to the mockumentary, the group was formed in a small town called Las Tinas in the state of Magdalena, just a couple of hours down the road from Aracataca, which the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez reimagined as the fictional town of Macondo.
Álvarez can come off like a pedantic ethnomusicologist until he veers off into theories about creating a 3-D space to rescue humans from a 2-D world of information technology, and his search for the salsa groove. Animatedly holding forth from his office in Bogotá, his long scraggly hair was part ’70s rocker and part medieval jester, and his singsong accent — emblematic of a uniquely Colombian charm — was both lilting and dead serious.
Álvarez, 45, has released more than 25 albums since 2005, some as Meridian Brothers and others under other names, all of which have poked, investigated and tried to tease out a sense of authenticity in Colombian music. Some, like “Paz en la Tierra” in 2021, focus on the traditional vallenato genre, a storytelling folk music popularized by Carlos Vives in the 1990s, while others fall into the category Álvarez calls “neo-tropical,” excavating rhythms like champeta, a Colombia analog to Caribbean dembow.
His effort is part of a decades-long Bogotá-based nation-building mission to mine the music of coastal areas, pioneered by artists like Ivan Benavides, once a Carlos Vives bandmember; Richard Blair, a British expatriate who founded his group Sidestepper with Bogotá-based musicians; and Bomba Estéreo, whose keyboardist and programmer Simón Mejía recently premiered “El Duende,” a short documentary about an African-descended family that makes marimbas and lives on Colombia’s Pacific Coast.
“Meridian Brothers and El Grupo Renacimiento” has a stripped-down aesthetic, which is the essence of salsa itself — an uptown, urban genre born after the decline and fall of the flashy big-band Palladium Mambo era, much like punk arose in the wake of grandiloquent British progressive arena rock. Álvarez focuses most of his attention on a dubby, echoing psychedelic electric guitar and tinny keyboards, supplemented by a synched-in rhythm section of timbales and congas. You can hear hints of West African highlife and Congo-derived soukous, a hybrid of Cuban rumba.
With his skanking guitar marking time at the center of the riffs, Álvarez’s lyrics comment on police brutality (“La Policía”), the purity of roots salsa (“Poema del Salsero Resentido”) and concern over nuclear weapons (“Bomba Atómica”). “Descarga Profética,” which imagines a Bogotá salsa jam as an ancient Greek algorithm with African influences, dizzily riffs on the 1930s Cuban classic “El Manisero.”
In the mockumentary, Artemio Morelia says that his bandmates’ interests ranged from vallenato to Italian ballads, but that he felt compelled to play the kind of lo-fi, roots salsa practiced by the ’60s Venezuelan group Federico y su Combo (who released a song called “Llegó la Salsa,” one of the first to mention the term, in 1967). He also cites Ray Pérez, the legendary Afro-Puerto Rican bandleader Rafael Cortijo, and most importantly, Brooklyn’s Lebrón Brothers, a group central to the creation of salsa that evolved from early experiments with English-language, Cuban-derived boogaloo and hit its stride with “Salsa y Control” in 1969, yet saw little commercial success.
“I identify with the rejection that the Lebrón Brothers experienced in their time,” Álvarez said. “I was attracted to their way of playing, the aggressiveness, but also their slowness, their introverted-ness.”
The album’s final track is a cover of a Puerto Rican jíbaro classic, “La Mujer Sin Corazón,” by La Calandria, a.k.a. Ernestina Rivera, who was born in Puerto Rico and died in the Bronx in 1994. Álvarez chose the track to honor Ansonia Records’s vast catalog, one that still resonates strongly for fans of Ramito (Florencio Morales Ramos, known as the king of jíbaro, or Puerto Rican country music); Johnny Rodríguez’s bolero trios; Mon Rivera’s bomba and plena recordings; and Dominican merengueros like Dioris Valladares and Joseíto Mateo.
The label, founded by Ralph Pérez, who moved from Puerto Rico to New York in 1920, was a family-run business with Pérez’s daughter ultimately teaming up with the music entrepreneur Herman Glass, and later his son, Gerard. “I was just fascinated how these musicians, most of whom could not read music, would make music that would touch people so much and make them get up and dance,” said the younger Glass, who grew up listening to Ramito and hanging out at the Teatro Puerto Rico on 138th Street in the Bronx’s Mott Haven.
In 2019, the Glass family sold Ansonia Records to the KCRW D.J. and film music supervisor (“Y tu Mamá También”) Liza Richardson. “We’ve digitized 5,000 songs about two-thirds of the way through, and we’ve released probably 20 percent of that for streaming,” Richardson said in an interview. “Ansonia is a time capsule that is just going to get better with age. There is so much beauty in it. Hopefully we can do a lot more new releases, but right now we think we can afford to do one new release a year.” At the suggestion of her longtime friend Camilo Lara (who records electronic music as Mexican Institute of Sound), she agreed to acquire Álvarez’s new Meridian Brothers project for Ansonia’s rebirth.
In the spirit of Ansonia, Álvarez is hoping not only to recapture the treasured moments of the past, but to slow down humanity’s rush to embrace the artificiality of digital life. “I’m trying to describe a futuristic past,” he said. “It’s not a futurism that owes machines or technology, it’s an acoustic future. When Elvis Presley, in his first recordings with Sam Phillips, tried to create reverb in the studio, they didn’t have corporate technology. They worked with the creativity of the mind and heart.”
The Meridian Brothers will perform at SummerStage Staten Island on Aug. 6; cityparksfoundation.org/summerstage.