Richmond’s favorite salsa band, Bio Ritmo, is back with their new album Puerta del Sur. Released on June 24th by VampiSoul Records, it’s the latest update on their unique and ever-evolving version of a style of music that has existed for ages.
Richmond’s favorite salsa band, Bio Ritmo, is back with their new album Puerta del Sur. Released on June 24th by VampiSoul Records, it’s the latest update on their unique and ever-evolving version of a style of music that has existed for ages. Having been around for over two decades, Bio Ritmo has become a keystone band for Richmond, and a gateway to Latin-American culture as it exists locally and internationally.
The album name, Puerta del Sur, translates into English as “door to the south.” This phrase came from one of the band’s founding members, Rei Alvarez. He had always seen Richmond as a door to the South; not only does it feel like home to Alvarez, he also sees it as where the transition from the relatively anonymous environment of northern Virginia into the true culture of the South takes place. Originally from Puerto Rico, Alvarez is also a big fan of a band from his homeland called Sonora Poncena, who dropped an album called Gigante del Sur (“the giant South”) in 2012. This album also inspired the titular reference to the South, thereby linking his current home of Richmond with his birthplace in Puerto Rico.
Musically, Puerta del Sur is a portrait of the band’s growth and individuality of its members. “This one definitely shows who we are the most,” says Alvarez. “This is the album in which our own individual tastes and influences have permeated the music the most.” Starting originally as a VCU Latin drum group, then collecting members and making the conscious decision to be a salsa band, Bio Ritmo has gradually morphed into its current style. Marlysse Simmons, the band’s keyboard and organ player, divides the group’s career into three previous waves of musical style before it became what it is today. And the group continues to grow and change, as can be heard on Puerta del Sur.
Both Alvarez and Simmons are particularly proud of the last song on the album, entitled “Codeína.” While the group’s normal style–labeled “indie salsa” and “alternative salsa” by Simmons–descends from the Nuyorican movement of Puerto Rican music coming into New York in the 1970’s, “Codeína” is more of a bolero–a slower and more measured sort of music than the salsa sounds Bio Ritmo generally draws from. Indeed, “Codeina” fuses the bolero sound with a style of music that Simmons, Alvarez, and drummer Giustino Riccio are all fans of: Turkish, Egyptian, and Greek pop music. “It’s a slower track that’s got a lot of Middle Eastern influences,” says Alvarez. “It was… Giustino’s idea to do this Middle Eastern bolero style.”
Even the album cover–created, like all of the band’s covers, by Alvarez–is a new take on their usual style. Alvarez usually paints or draws the covers for the albums, but decided to do something a little different this time. The album cover, a collage of artistically touched-up photographs, depicts a monster looming over the city of Richmond, wearing a mask and raising a güiro (Latin-American percussion instrument) over its head. Masks are important symbols to Alvarez. Conveying an aura of mystery and romance, they were a big part of his life when living in Puerto Rico as a child. An avid toy collector, Alvarez owned a toy with an image that closely resembled the vejigante mask, the traditional mask of his village in Puerto Rico. Having taken some pictures of this toy already, he added his arms to the picture of the toy, augmenting them with doll’s arm joints to match the toy-like overall impression. Despite the monstrous figure, the overall impression conveyed by the cover is a fun one, which matches the songs found within.
Message-wise, Bio Ritmo is pretty light-hearted. Alvarez, who writes most of the lyrics, writes about things that people can relate to–life and social situations, as opposed to sappy love songs. However, the first song on Puerta del Sur, “Se Les Olvidó” (“they forgot me”) is a message to some of the admirers of Bio Ritmo who come to their shows. In a totally respectful way, Alvarez, along with Simmons and the rest of the band, wishes to remind their listener that the band is not just a salsa band playing music for people to dance to, but a true creative unit with their own particular spin on the music.
Bio Ritmo’s creative approach to the salsa genre, already an unusual style in this region, has helped them distinguish themselves in RVA and beyond, and they’ve been rewarded with two decades of continually expanding popularity. The variety they put across with each of their new albums is only further expanded by Puerta del Sur. It shows that even after two decades, the group continues to be capable of new delights. May they never grow dull.