Soneo: Street and Elegant

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Choco Orta, 48,  has been changing the game of salsa for over two decades as a singer, percussionist, actress and dancer. Orta’s originality and love for her island have taken her to serve as a Puerto Rican ambassador of culture all over the world. Old Town School of Folk Music and are honoring Orta at the 5th  Annual Tribute to the Improvisational Singer on November12th. Omar Torres-Kortright, Aguzate’s founder, chatted with Orta about the history of the sonero tradition, the role of women in salsa and her upcoming album, Choco Orta…Ahora Mismo produced by Gilberto Santa Rosa. ¿What does being a sonera mean to you?

Choco Orta: There are two definitions to the word “sonero” or “sonera”.  There is the sonero from Santiago de Cuba who sings “son” (traditional Cuban music). There is also the more popular definition that refers to the person who sings to a Latin American rhythm and develops it making improvisations within the body of the song or steps out of  it, singing about what is going on at the moment. In my case, I see a sonera like the person who sings about the everyday. Its not like the trovador jibaro who sings decimas using “el pie forzado” (a forced end.) The soneo is a verse of eight syllables where the rhyme is less strict.

Cuando soneo I react to my childhood in the barrio. When I soneo, I answer with an involuntary fury to what is around me. My voice is the vehicle and the soneo is like a punching bag to take the impulse. Soneo should be street and elegant at the same time.

ЯE: There are a lot of salsa singers who like you, where also percussionists. This is the case of Ismael Miranda, Cano Estremera, Ismael “Maelo” Rivera, Tito Rodríguez. ¿How you would you describe the importance of the connection between the singer and the drum?

CO: This is  the first time I get this question. I didn’t know that Miranda y el Cano were percussionists You can say that we have more sense of the calve. The sonero who uses their sense of rhythm is more free. We can play with the time and arrange more words within a phrase.  The words game of  Maelo is a good example. The repetition has a direct relation with the percussion. Some times we use made up words that replicate the sounds of the drum.

ЯE: ¿How do you compare the album you’re recording under the direction of  Gilberto Santa Rosa (Choco Orta… Ahora mismo) with your two previous albums (La Reina del Sabor and Sentimiento y Sabor)?

CO: ¡Muchacho, that’s a completely different thing! I trust this will be the CD that takes me to the next level. Its for the generation that’s 30 years or older. There are no blank spaces in this CD.  Its all corcheas y semicorcheas. There are no silences. Its full of emotions that appeal to ones feelings, reason, and to the dancers. You can say its a homage to what music use to be at its essence. Time has gone by and things should be better and of more quality.  This production is very well taken care of. My sound engineer, Ray Peña, is known as “el sonero de la consola”. Hes a dear friend.

The CD is different from my others but not in it’s discourse. The discourse is the same…bien fuerte. I hit men hard with my lyrics and I have noticed they don’t like it. Women feel very identified with me, men complain until I tell them that all the lyrics to my songs have been written by men.

ЯE: ¿Who has helped you in the field of music? ¿Who opened doors for you?

CO: Without Gunda Merced I wouldn’t be myself or be where I am today. Today, I feel fortunate to be working with  Gilberto Santa Rosa.

ЯE: ¿What can you tell me about women in Salsa? ¿ How has the road been that you and others who came before you like Celia Cruz y La Lupe been forged? There are those who think the world of salsa is very machista.

CO: Sometimes when we talk about women in salsa we  forget many names. The first to shine were Celia, La Lupe y Graciela who are considered to be the pillars. But we also have Albita, Omara Portuondo, Ruth Fernández, Sophi, Yolanda Rivera, Son de Azúcar (Colombia), La India, Brenda Kay Star, Cita Rodriguez (daughter of Pete El Conde) y María Teresa Vera who’s an excellent Cuban composer.

There are also improvisational singers of other genres like Victoria Sanabria who sings jíbara music. I remember one time when Gilberto Santa Rosa interviewed me on the radio show called, “Camínalo”. The other guest was Victoria and I remember telling him “do not ask me to improvise with her because I don’t know if I’m so brave”. Then he said “Don’t worry I’m not that brave either”. Victoria Sanabria… no she’s a real improvisadora.

When I see what classic singers  accomplished I think of Celia who triumphed because of her enormous talent and because she had the protection of Pedro Knight. La Lupe was more rebellious than Celia and also had much success. People love her because of her style and passion with which she sang. Those two women would have been perfect to answer your questions since they lived the more difficult times of women in salsa.

Its interesting to google the word “salsero” and “salsera”. “Salsero” gives you famous male salsa singers but “salsera” gives you female salsa dancers. The word  “sonera” doesn’t appear much on the Internet. In the future I would like my name to be associated with this word on the Internet.

¿Do you believe salsa is in a good moment or do you agree with those who say that salsa is in crisis? Who are the innovators of the genre?

CO: I think salsa is at a good moment thanks to the magnificent work that salsa dancers have been doing. The phenomenon of the Salsa Congress’ are the one the things that have really helped. When speaking of innovators, we have to talk about about Víctor Manuelle, La India, Luisito Carrión, Maelo Ruíz y Héctor Giovanny. I also feel that we need to mention some reggaetón artists like Tego Calderón y Don Omar, who have always recognized that  they are salseros at heart and always return to salsa music to innovate their work. That tendency of theirs says alot about salsa. That says that salsa is just as classic as tango and jazz.

See Ocho Orta Live for one night only at the Old Town School Of Folk Music this Wednesday, November 12th.