Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


GUAYACÁN, Orquesta

A Colombian salsa band which in the 1990s began to rival the success of Jairo Varela's Grupo Niche, who during the previous decade had transformed Colombian commercial music with a confident, sassy sound aped by countless others. A contributing factor to Guayacán's success was that they dared to be different: 'Guayacán's sound is rootsier, more apparently fixed in the structure of the Cuban guaguancó and montuno, sparser, darker, with stripped-down arrangements,' said UK salsa disc jockey Tomek. Named for a type of wood typically used in Colombia by the coastal blacks to build their houses on stilts, Guayacán embody the musical concept of Alexis Lozano, the band's director, trombonist, guitarist, tres and güiro player, arranger and producer, who is obsessed about the need for a musical philosophy, and harshly judges those who lack one. Lozano was born in the mid-'50s in Quibdó, the capital of Chocó, the Pacific coastal area of Colombia, with a hard-core salsa following; the son of two teachers, he had already led small groups at the age of ten. Studying in Bogotá he met Varela, who had just been released from prison and offered him a job; he became co-music director and co-arranger with Niche. Following Niche's first New York project '83 (Niche, aka Directo Desde New York), Lozano left to start his own band, but had to school his own musicians: back in Bogotá he gathered a group of young men into a workshop and trained them for nearly three years. Their debut album was Llegó La Hora De La Verdad ('The Moment Of Truth Has Arrived') '86; the personnel included co-founder and co-leader Ricardo 'Richie' Valdés on lead vocals and his brother, William 'El Niño' Valdés, on timbales. Musicologist/teacher 'Maria del Carmen' supplied lead vocals to one of the standout, albeit uncharacteristic, tracks, 'Mi Herencia'.

On the next album Que La Sangre Alborota '87 the mould of Guayacán's instrumentation was set, comprising trumpets, trombones (two to three of each), tres guitar (Lozano later added a conventional guitar), rhythm section (timbales, conga, bongo, güiro, maracas, bass and piano) and lead and coro (chorus) voices; it marked the debut of Alexis's brother John Lozano singing coro, and Bogotá-based Puerto Rican keyboardist Israel Tanenbaum, who also acted as co-producer and co-arranger on this and Guayacán's '90-1 and '95-6 albums (Tanenbaum only records with the band and does not gig with them). Success with the cognoscenti was substantiated by Willie Rosario's recording of Richie Valdés's composition 'Falso Amor' (from Que La Sangre Alborota) on his Viva Rosario '90; Lozano regards Rosario's as the only band to emerge from the late '80s/early '90s era of salsa monga (flaccid, saccharine romantic salsa) with integrity, his original sound intact. After their third album, Guayacán Es La Orquesta '88, Guayacán went into crisis; they could not get enough work, and Varela poached Richie and William Valdés for Grupo Niche. A childhood friend of Lozano's, Niño Caicedo (b 10 July '58, Colombia), a metallurgical engineer by profession and a composer since an early age, came to the rescue, writing the monster Colombian hit 'Cocorobe' as well as the hit title track for their next album La Más Bella '90, and the band have not looked back since.

Commencing with La Más Bella, John Lozano was moved to the front row as a lead vocalist, though still contributing to the coro. Caicedo became Guayacán's manager and co-ordinated their fifth anniversary project 5 Años: Aferrados Al Sabor '91, arguably their best to date, and the '92 blockbuster Oiga, Mire, Vea, supplying over half the songs on the first (as well as lead vocal on one of them), and all eight cuts on the second, the title track a massive hit in the salsa market. Lozano greatly admires veteran bandleader Ray Barretto, whom he regards as a mould-breaker; he contracted Nicaraguan vocalist Cali Aleman, who performed with Barretto in the mid-'80s (as well as having worked with José Fajardo, Javier Vázquez, Johnny Pacheco and Eddie Palmieri among others) to share lead vocals with John Lozano on Guayacán's '93 hit Con El Corazón Abíerto. Again, Niño wrote all the tracks, including the international hit 'Torero'. After performing on Grupo Niche's Sutil y Contundente '89 and Cielo De Tambores '90, William Valdés returned to play timbales on the '93 album; Aleman left Guayacán and made his solo Cali '94. Caicedo took executive producer credit on Con El Corazón Abíerto, as well as the follow-up A Verso y Golpe released late '93 (one track omitted and two new songs added for USA version A Puro Golpe '94), John Lozano's last. Again Niño composed all the album's tracks, but inspiration was spread thin this time and none of the songs matched the band's preceding successes. Caicedo's ten new compositions on Marcando La Diferencia '95 included several gems; various notable musicians sat in on the session including guest pianist Papo Lucca, timbalero Jimmy Delgado, trombonist César Monge, others; Aleman returned to contribute coro vocals. Sadly the barrel of inspiration was scraped with '96's lacklustre Como En Un Baile -- 73 Exitos, which assembled 73 hits into ten medleys, each devoted to a different Latin style; Monge was there on 'bone and as co-arranger. Besides Alexis, the only original member remaining with Guayacán on Como En Un Baile -- 73 Exitos was bassist Julio César Valdés. Guayacán made their UK debut at London's Equinox '92 and also appeared in Paris. Tomek maintains that Guayacán's live performance did not approach the quality of their recorded work, the sound of which 'is fascinatingly different from Niche's ... Lozano is not afraid of, indeed appears to relish, slower, mid-paced numbers. This is ambitious, bringing with it the problem of having to hit the groove just so ... [and] also burdens the singers, as it leaves them exposed to carry the tune and demands serious control.'