El Camino Review By Aurora Flores-Hostos
They say the road, “el camino,” back home is never easy. For William Mendoza that “camino” lead back to musical roots, routes, and revelations. After decades separated from the music he learned in public school and mastered on LES streets, William ventured North from Florida to care for his mother in the winter of her years. From her heavy shroud of loneliness, his love of music renewed even as her heartache wounded his when she called her constant companion — Doña Soledad.
Composed by Miguel Rodriguez and Arranged by the late Ray Santos in one of his final efforts, the haunting melody is sensitively expressed by Julio Salgado; the lush and pastoral string section eye welling as mother and son converse on the constant that is solitude – currently an alienation spread world-wide through a virus that has stopped and paused the world today.
Like a miner drilling for oil, William, driven by inner pain, found joy and jubilation within the hard-working life of his orphaned father in Mi Padre. From his verdant Island of Puerto Rico to the dark salt mines of Utah, Luis Mendoza wielded a two-fisted fifty-pound sledge-hammer onto steel. Buoyed by Joseph Natale’s bari-sax, and Richie Viruet’s wonderful melancholy sonorous bouncy brass lines soar over the orchestra tugging the toes in a foot-stomping ode parroting a coro that literally hammers in his father’s –and every immigrant’s—legacy of dedication, dignity, and a better future for his family through back-breaking labor.
“Rivington Street” is where William’s journey starts and his “camino” begins: the Lower East Side—between Bowery and Chrystie—some 47 years ago where he reluctantly played the cello in school until he was recruited to play bass in a Latin music band. In the basement of The University Settlement House where they rehearsed a steel drum maker went from artisan turned teacher to bandleader. William went from steel drummer to conga lover. The beat was on. To the rhythms of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra on television every night, his recently arrived uncle shook empty Clorox bottles filled with beans. Every day William listened to the Afro-Cuban recordings of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Los Papines, and Tata Güines while Yolanda, who already played in the all-girl Orq. Fuego taught him the conga basics during JHS homeroom. His “ah ha” moment: the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Watching the various floats, William dreamed one day he’d play this carnival cavalcade with his own orchestra. Meanwhile, local musicians called until he landed in the Latin/rock band Malo.
He was there two years before he turned 18 and the family moved to Brooklyn. William also moved on to adulthood, marriage, and a social service profession that took him from N.Y. to Florida until his mother’s call to Connecticut. By 2004, William Mendoza’s Orchestra became the house band of a 1,500 seat Connecticut establishment before cruising up Fifth Avenue at New York’s P.R. Day Parade. The reception was overwhelming. El Regreso (The Return), his first recording, dropped in 2014. For this second CD, William reached out to and worked with his friend Lino Iglesias for the title track that paints his Camino back to Latin dance music of the ‘70s featuring a deft piano solo by Adan Perez. A Chino Nuñez arrangement Asi Es La Vida pays homage and gratitude to life. A spirited dance number written and sung by Salgado “that’s life” is punctuated by a spine-tingling Maximo Rodríguez bass solo worthy of creating its own boogie. Unidos en Una Sola Voz not only calls for unity among humanity but also unites musical virtuosity under a rhythmic foundation that pulls you out of your funk and onto the dance floor. The final chorus crescendos into a forward movement of children’s voices heralding a better, more diverse future.
La Calle Rumba pays tribute to the New York streets that saw the rise of “salsa” dance music. You can’t get more street than the popular Frankie Vasquez who shares vocals on this track skillfully improvising with Salgado, a tune sure to burn the dance floor. Nayibe sumptuously duels with Salgado in No Hay Amor a dance grinding duet on fading love reminiscent of that big band Puerto Rico style. A bitter-sweet tale, her expression is heart-tugging as they sing of breaking up while the musicians marry up their collective talents in a polyrhythmic swing.
A transformational tune in Adios Viejo Ser, Salgado bids farewell to the old self detailing the life-changing effects of breakups. Dropping the negative for a renewed positive view of love, the tune is an upbeat celebration of romance that moves well on the dance floor.
Another Salgado number, Aunque No Sea Tu Dueño belies the delicate words of love and devotion he serenades as a testimony of gratitude and admiration. As I admire how Natale’s gut-busting bari-sax aggressively lifts the band into second gear leading musicians through the mambos and over the three brass moñas. Timbalon’s beats bring out the bottom; Adan’s comping blasts into a piano roll; Pete Nater follows blowing smooth yet prudent arpeggios gingerly tapping the high trumpet register before Salgado rejoins the line-up flexing his Maelo muscle as the band stops, on a dime, like a Latin heartbeat.
A tribute to friendship, the final cut again turns loss and sorrow around in the upbeat story of a #1 pal: Mickey Abreu. With an encyclopedic knowledge of Latin music and trivia, when William couldn’t find a copy of King Nando anywhere, Mickey found it for him. His parting words: “I’ll Get Back To You Tomorrow.” The musical eulogy opens with a full, fat big band sound broken by a smooth trumpet solo followed by a confident ‘bone, called for best buds. Congüero Eddie Montalvo, timbalero Oreste Abrantes, bassist Luques Curtis, Saxo Ivan Renta, ‘bone Charlie Garcia, batá drummer Nicky Laboy,–William marshaled their talents into the studio for this magical mix of genres climaxed by a mystically entrancing sax over the intricate beats of the batá drums for Mickey’s poignant adios.
So when old school buddy from Latin music days Willie Rodríguez reached out raving about the Latin Heartbeat Orchestra, I knew. He found that old-school excellence that makes people dance, makes people think, and makes the soul move to a Latin Heartbeat.
Written by Aurora Flores-Hostos, music historian, BMI composer, producer, bandleader.