Bionic Boogaloo 

Salsa veterans Bio Ritmo assert themselves with an adventurous new album.


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The local salsa champs, Bio Ritmo, have been filling dance floors with twisting hips and sweaty bodies for 17 years. The band's new album, “Bionico,” released digitally Sept. 23 and in stores Oct. 19, finds the nine members exploring a funky hybrid of their traditional Puerto Rican street salsa and electronic dance music, tossing a spacey, 1970s drum machine called the Drum Fire into the sonic wash. Produced locally at Minimum Wage Recording and mixed by multiple Grammy-winning salsa engineer John Fausty, the album documents a confident, veteran band not afraid to inject diverse musical inspirations into a traditional genre. Style spoke with the lead singer and original member, Rei Alvarez, about the album and how far the band has come since the early days.

 Style: How is this album different for you?

Alvarez: I think this is probably the album that has most turned out the way we wanted it.  … We feel like we've grown up within salsa, but now it's almost like we've learned enough of the rules to break them, basically. None of us originally came from the salsa world: Marlysse [Simmons] is a classically trained pianist and had never played with a rhythm section, I came in through reggae-surf punk, most of the cats on horns are coming from jazz — so we've never been a typical salsa band.

 What did you get out of working with John Fausty?

Most of those classic old Fania salsa albums from back in the day either have John Fausty or Irv Greenbaum as sound engineer. We first worked with John on the 2006 EP [“Salsa System”]. … Of course, since he was a famous guy we could only afford to do three songs, but that was like salsa boot camp for us. I think that was when we finally let go of trying to be a hard street-salsa band. We learned so much with John that we came out of it with a lot of confidence — especially when somebody like that gives you their seal of approval.

After that, we went to Puerto Rico and got a huge, awesome welcome there: radio interviews, got invited to play live on TV. One of the top music writers over there is friends with Jorge [Negron, an original Bio Ritmo founder who now lives in Puerto Rico]. He wrote a big article, creating a lot of interest, and lots of people and radio deejays came out to see us.

Another big moment was playing Central Park in New York a few years ago and opening for one of the greatest salsa bands ever, Sonora Ponceya. The crowd went crazy. I can still remember turning around on stage, like: Really? It was awesome.

All of these things led up to this album: Now we know we're a salsa band, we've passed the test. We've learned so much over the years, stylistically speaking. But we still can come back to that street style, because that's the flavor we like in all music — rock, jazz, soul — the pioneering eras.

 Why not translate your lyrics in the liner notes for gringos like me?

Most songs are poems. But with any language, when you hear them translated they just aren't as poetic. I'd rather give you a little paragraph on what the song is about.

You've said that you were in a more positive mind frame on this album. Can you elaborate?

All the songs are ultimately positive because I'm seeing the light through all the pain that I'm writing about. I've had my share of dark years having to do with personal things, but being who I am, I'm constantly trying to dig through the dirt and find the drop of water, or beam of light, or whatever it may be.

 You were an original member and rejoined the band in 2002 after a break: What brought you back?

They were in a very experimental mode. They had a guy, Jose, who was singing and rapping — very versatile. So it attracted me back to the band. Rene [Herrera] had left the band and the style that I wasn't a part of was gone. The slate was clean and I thought we could take it back to where we were when Jorge [Negron] and I left, more of a Puerto Rican street style of salsa, or we could just experiment. I had a bunch of songs in my head for a long time. The final catalyst for bringing that stuff together was Marlysse, and she is a big force in terms of arrangements and writing stuff out. The band has changed slightly since the rebirth in 2002, but since then it's been back on track for us being the original Bio Ritmo idea: street-experimental salsa.

 The band has a fairly cosmopolitan sound — have you ever considered moving to New York or Miami for better regular gigs?

We've definitely talked about it, but it's never been a serious consideration because we love this town so much. I love a little bit of city, and not city. Richmond has that, and we have a great music and art scene, and also great food, which for me, is a big draw. We all have side jobs and do our thing.

 Are you pigeonholed to the salsa circuit outside of Richmond?

They appreciate that we play salsa and play it well. But the worldwide salsa community is a tight thing. There is a select repertoire of classic and modern salsa songs that we don't play. The Latin crowd-audience really want to hear those hits. So we've never fit into that circuit of music and have always played different kinds of clubs. If we could play Pizza Hut, we would've probably played there too, [laughs]. S

 Bio Ritmo holds a CD release party at the Capital Ale House Music Hall downtown Saturday, Sept. 20, at 10 p.m. Tickets are $12. 643-ALES.



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