Gilberto Santa Rosa: ‘The Lord must have thought Puerto Rico was too small, so He blessed it with talent’

Nicknamed ‘The Gentleman of Salsa,’ the veteran bandleader is touring Europe and shared his thoughts on the current boom of Latin music

Gilberto Santa Rosa
Gilberto Santa Rosa in Madrid; February 27, 2023.INMA FLORES
Pablo de Llano Neira

When a new, more sensual wave of salsa emerged in the 1980s, Gilberto Santa Rosa decided he preferred the traditional romantic lyrics of the genre. That’s what earned him the nickname “The Gentleman of Salsa.” Santa Rosa and his band are on a European tour with five stops in large venues in Spain. We interviewed him on a cold afternoon in Madrid about his long career in an enduring musical genre now experiencing a revival ignited by the boom in Latin music. Puerto Rico is all about perreo these days, a dance and party music style associated with reggaeton that emerged in the late 1980s. But Puerto Rico is also the classic voice of this sharply-dressed six-time Grammy Award winner who likes to wear a pocket square.

Question. You were already singing tragical boleros at the age of six. Pretty heavy for a kid.

Answer. My maternal grandmother liked to listen to those. She took care of me while my mother was at work.

Q. Why did music captivate you at such a young age?

A. One reason was that I was very shy and realized it was easier to express myself by singing than by speaking.

Q. Celia Cruz once said about salsa, “It’s a little bug that gets in your eyes and ears, and when it gets into your heart, it explodes.”

A. Or it gets into your heart and goes to your feet.

Q. What defines salsa music?

A. The rhythm, the drumbeat. Rubén Blades said it’s the only genre that pays tribute to our African heritage.

Q. How would you describe the current state of salsa?

A. It’s in a strange place right now. We were the stars of the 1970s and 1980s, but not anymore. At the same time, all these devices and technology have broadened the genre’s reach. We’re here in Madrid talking about salsa, something that would not have happened in the past.

There’s salsa being played in Israel – Israel! And some guys making urban music are playing salsa. It gives me hope.

Q. Do you dislike reggaeton and that stuff?

A. I’m from the last century, and some things are hard for me to handle.

Q. Like what?

A. Some of the things those guys sing about... I’m not criticizing it, but I don’t do it because it doesn’t resonate with me. I come from another musical tradition. I’d have an entire symphony behind me if I could. Music today is all electronic and technological.

The singer Gilberto Santa Rosa, on Monday in a hotel in Madrid.
The singer Gilberto Santa Rosa, on Monday in a hotel in Madrid.INMA FLORES

Q. There are gadgets in every country, and yet a disproportionate number of stars come from your island.

A. Yes, it’s a gold mine. Puerto Rico has produced salseros, rockers, balladeers and pop artists. The Lord must have said, “This island is too small, so I’m going to bless it with talent so it can hold its own.” There is a saying there that even the stones sing in Puerto Rico. And it is true – they sing whatever, but they sing.

Q. The boom in urban music seems to have benefitted other genres of Latin music.

A. No doubt about it. Most of the prominent urban music artists I’ve met are salsa fans who promote us in a certain way. Never forget those who paved the way.

Q. Who paved the way?

A. People like Johnny Pacheco and Fania Records. Or Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe. If a Martian landed on Earth and demanded a salsa record so it could understand the music, I would give him El Juicio (Fania Records, 1972) by Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe.

Q. You’re proud to be Puerto Rican.

A. Yes, sir – 100%. I was born and raised there, and it’s still my home. Our cultural heritage is our most valuable asset. We are still Puerto Ricans despite our long and close relationship with the United States.

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