This past weekend Puerto Rican Salsa musician Gilberto Santa Rosa, known to the Latino community as El Caballero de la Salsa, released a concert special through HBO Latino celebrating the past 40 years of his career in music.
Released on September 14th, the hour and a half long special entitled Gilberto Santa Rosa, 40… y Contando, or Gilberto Santa Rosa, 40 Years and Counting, is now available across all of the channel’s platforms, including HBO GO, HBO NOW, HBO’s television and streaming partner platforms, and free On Demand channels.
For Salsa fans, the television special is considered momentous. It honors not only Santa Rosa’s fruitful career in Latino music, which includes both Grammy awards and the most number-one albums ever on the Billboard Tropical Albums chart, but also the work of other influential Puerto Rican and Latino Salsa singers. Well loved artists such as Luis Enrique and Víctor Manuelle also make appearances in the concert, filmed exclusively for HBO.
Santa Rosa to many Latinos across the Americas represents the ever-evolving genius of Latin music. Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, he is considered a global music legend and an inspiration to many who wish to break onto the Salsa scene. The Knockturnal had the opportunity to catch up with Santa Rose at HBO headquarters in New York City to discuss inspirations and personal highlights from the past four decades. Topics at hand include what the television special means to fans new and old alike, and what Salsa music represents to Santa Rosa’s native Puerto Rico leading up to the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s landfall.*
“Salsa has been a cultural bridge, and has also been a platform for many Puerto Rican and Latin American talent to develop. The biggest influence of my career was El Gran Combo of Puerto Rico and later Cheo Feliciano and Tito Rodríguez,” says Santa Rosa. “A singer by the name of Chamaco Ramírez was one of the most influential artists of my career, but maybe he did not have the recognition of others,” he adds, chalking up Ramírez’ lesser known status to music in the pre-Internet era. “I can make a long list, but those basically were my inspirations. Tito Rodríguez, too, who I always listened to his music, and I liked his style and his way of doing it.”
While he is considered one of the best Salsa singers in the world, it’s a title Santa Rosa doesn’t take lightly. Although his own art pays homage to the late greats of Latin music, he is still humbled by the accolades. “It’s a great honor. If the work I do can be considered like that, there are very many other Salsa singers, and very good ones. I respect them all so much, so it is a privilege for me that someone can put me on a list of the best.”
On the history of Salsa following his breakthrough in the 1970s, Santa Rose notes, “Some of us started more or less at the same time, others later on, but without a doubt I think that we have influenced each other.” In an effort to capture years worth of Salsa music, he invited his contemporaries to come on stage and participate in the concert filming. “In the case of Luis Enrique and and Victor a little later, I recognize that they were very important for certain moment of Salsa music, and I participated in that. It was like paying tribute to a generation of artists.”
(Gilberto Santa Rosa and Victor Manuelle onstage)
Through those generations Santa Rosa has seen Latin music and especially Salsa change, but not in the ways you’d expect. “Basically music always has some change in the sonority, in the styles, but the most significant thing is how that music is spread, how music is marketed,” he says. “The styles are nuanced differently, but basically the most dramatic change is how to bring music to the public with all these advances, all these technological things.”
Gilberto Santa Rosa, 40… y Contando highlights many of these changes, in addition to showcasing some of the most important venues and cities of Santa Rosa’s touring career, one of the earliest being New York City’s Copacabana Nightclub. “I have many memories of that place, but more of the original venue,” he recalls.
“At the beginning of my career I was able to sing there, with my own orchestra. Then at the new Copacabana, I did a lot of work there. But the Copacabana has been likened to places like Palladium or later the Corso, or Broadway in 1996. They were all iconic places for music lovers here in New York City.” Even today, the Copa continues to be a symbol of the city’s Latino music scene, as it also caters to the largest demographic of Puerto Ricans in the United States outside of the island proper.
For those more familiar with the new Copa, or even newer names in Salsa, Santa Rosa says the HBO special is for them, too. “There is a very nice dynamic between the other artists and myself, I think that is the most significant thing that they will see.”
Although this dynamic is something the audience can see, what the concert special cannot show is the healing power of Salsa music for not only Santa Rosa upon return to the island post-Hurricane Maria, but for all Puerto Ricans in its painful aftermath.
“It was time to return home, we had started the tour long before September. It was a time to return home, and a moment to see that your music serves a bit not only to heal, but to excite people to keep going.”
*Interview translated from its original Spanish and amended for clarity.