Puerto Rican producer Eli Omar Rios (aka El Bles) didn’t expect inspiration to come in the form of a YouTube upload. Yet one six-minute video ended up deciding the fate of his new EP I Am Latin Soul.
The Orlando-based artist was up late one night, googling videos of his father’s band Clave Tres. The Afro-Caribbean conjunto was popular on the island in the 1980s, and there’s a bit of old footage from some of their live sets roaming around the Internet. Unexpectedly, El Bles’ search uncovered one rare recording: A grainy, washed-out clip of the band jamming out in a crowded music hall. At the end of the video, the camera abruptly flickers to the audience and zooms in on a mysterious-looking man in sunglasses speaking into a microphone.
The man on the mic is Ray Barretto, the Grammy-winning Latin jazz musician who quite literally drummed up fame across New York City with his renowned conga skills. El Bles had no idea his father had met Barretto, and yet there the superstar is in the video, praising his dad and the members of Clave Tres for their set. “This is about love. This is about faith, and this is about authenticity for our culture and our humanity,” Barretto tells the musicians.
“I always told myself I wanna be the J Dilla.”
El Bles says his mouth dropped open.
For years, he had been thinking about remixing Barretto’s legendary album Acid, released on Fania Records in 1968. With its compelling combination of pachanga, salsa, and jazz, the recording was undoubtedly ahead of its time. El Bles had been nervous to take on such an everlasting piece of musical history, but suddenly he had this video clip in his hands — a strange, portentous sign that seemed to be urging him to move forward. Barretto’s little speech encouraging culture and tradition seemed to be a dispatch from beyond the grave, and the final push El Bles needed to begin updating Acid.
“It’s like he saved that message just for me, like he knew I was going to use it 15 years later,” El Bles says.
The Boricua producer pays homage to the prescient YouTube moment by splicing audio of Barretto’s words into the last seconds of “I.A.L.S. (I Am Latin Soul),” one of the tracks off his eponymous EP. The six-song release is a sturdy collection of tightly crafted tracks, all derived from Acid and injected with El Bles’s hip-hop sensibilities and meticulous analog production. After three years of work, the project is finally here.
I Am Latin Soul reads like the next logical chapter from a salsa-loving producer who previously crafted hard-hitting boom-bap beats. El Bles was born in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, to a family of musicians; he picked up drumming in his teens after experimenting with violin and piano. He moved to Orlando at 18 and made his production debut with music for the late rapper Mexicano 777 and for Cosculluela’s El Principe. Since then, he has turned heads through instrumentals that play with both old school Latin rhythms and hip-hop thuds.
“I always told myself I wanna be the J Dilla, I wanna be the Just Blaze, I wanna be the Madlib that grabs Latin samples and flips them to reintroduce them to the new generation,” he says.
That’s what’s happening on I Am Latin Soul. El Bles chops up Acid and serves it like a deconstructed dessert. The project opens with the pounding “Ajá,” a primer that bridges El Bles’ signature percussive style with the jazz-fused salsa on Barretto’s album. From there, the music descends into more experimental territory. You can hear El Bles fiddling with buttons and dials as he slowly reveals the layers that went into “Soula,” a track that purposefully exposes all the sutures that go into the producer’s creative process. The drone-y “Que Gozen” is a slowed-down sample of “El Nuevo Barretto” that buzzes like it’s being reluctantly launched into space. It all works as an ode to Barretto’s own unpredictability and penchant for surprise, and El Bles adds impeccable rhythmic interplay to each track.
El Bles isn’t alone in his fascination for the Fania catalog; a new school of DJs and throwback aficionados have started reinvigorating the classics — Fania even released Calentura, an album in which a small arsenal of handpicked electronic artists reinterpret some of the most iconic songs in the Fania trove. The impetus for revisiting the canon lies in a generation of young people looking back at their own cultural legacy and hoping to connect with the past in a contemporary context.
El Bles is wary that too much nostalgia might not always do tradition justice.
But in an era of reproduction, El Bles is wary that too much nostalgia might not always do tradition justice. The onslaught of remixes occasionally makes him nervous — after all, he poured three years of energy ensuring every scratch on I Am Latin Soul was careful and deliberate.
“When you’re grabbing a piece of historical music, you owe it some respect and you shouldn’t treat it as any other music,” he says. “You gotta treat it right — and a lot of people are doing it a disservice if they’re just adding a nice little downbeat and not putting in that much work.”
El Bles works through these feelings by trying to keep anything he touches authentic, he says. He explains his larger mission is to bring the Latinx community together and raise the profile of lesser-known aspects of Latinx culture. “The more important message to put out there is to say there’s some cool-ass Latin music that we’re currently not exposed to,” he says. “I feel like I have a purpose in life to keep the culture alive, and if this is the best way to do that, I’ll keep doing it.”
If he ever sounds grandiose, El Bles tempers any hints of bluster with his approachability and sense of humor. He tends to crack jokes after making passionate proclamations (“I’m so bad at these interview things,” he laughs at one point after going on a tangent), and he makes sure he’s always connecting with people at a local scale. In fact, he’ll celebrate the release of I Am Latin Soul at an open mic party that’s part of an ongoing creative series he started for the Orlando community after the Pulse shootings this summer. El Bles opens up his studio for weekly “Let’s Create” session, where he invites residents to make music, art, or any creative endeavor that inspires some sense of hope and connection.
“There’s a lot of momentum in Orlando, and I’m fortunate to be right in the middle of all of it,” he says.
El Bles’ I Am Latin Soul EP is available now via SoundCloud or cassette on ElBles.com. If you’re in Orlando, you can pick up a cassette exclusively at Uncle Tony’s Donut Shoppe. Check out El Bles’ EP release party at Arte Borikua Cultura Viva this Friday. For more info, click here.