Interview: Carlos Toledo from Cápsicum Orquesta
Updated: Jan 21
Mexican songwriter and bassist Carlos Toledo joined us to tell us about his band's latest album Prueba El Sabor, the salsa scene in Mexico and much more...
“You don’t need to speak Spanish to enjoy and listen to the music...”
That said, it might help. This is because Prueba el sabor, Cápsicum Orquesta’s 2017 album touches on themes that make this salsa album unconventional and more appropriate than ever during the coronavirus crisis. As Cápsicum Orquesta songwriter and band member, Carlos Toledo, puts it, dancing is something that is “linked to salsa”, so this intrinsic connection between moving your body in conjunction with the music are part of the story that led Toledo to where he is today. However, 2020 has forced his band to play their fiery salsa rhythms to audiences that are not allowed to dance together, in what seems like a farcical Dantean nightmarish vision of live music.
During Toledo’s early years, like many young boys, he was resistant to dancing at parties. This pained his mother, who unbeknownst to her, opened Pandora’s box, and paved the way for a career in making music, by sending him to dance classes in which he found his passion for the irrepressible sounds of salsa. At dance class, Toledo learned to find his feet as a dancer to the sounds of cumbia and merengue, but what really blew him away was salsa music, which was not so popular in Mexico at the time. He started looking for music akin to that which he heard at those classes, and found himself most impressed by many of the artists on the Fania Records label, including none other than the previously profiled Rubén Blades, who he loved for “[his] very social, very deep lyrics”.
Having found his calling, Toledo made the pilgrimage to Puerto Rico, a feted isle oft regarded as the spiritual centre for salsa music, where he studied at the well-regarded Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico, where he completed his degree in classical music. He also managed to learn the tricks of the trade when it came to salsa, and it was through these formative experiences that he went through a damascene conversion, and set the goal to start his own salsa orchestra. Upon returning to his homeland, Toledo began to connect with friends from his time at school, and other musicians he had met on the road, to form a band that would play covers of salsa classics in salones de baile, before he found the confidence to compose his own music.
“We entered a competition of salsa bands where we had to play something original, one of the pieces had to be original music, and we played one of my compositions,” he recalled with a sense of pride. “I liked the work, I liked the result, and when I went to compose more, that was when the idea of the band as it is now emerged, to be a band that plays original music.”
It wasn’t just the Panamanian superstar Blades who influenced him, he counts among his other key inspirations Bobby Valentín, Ray Barretto, and even some more current artists, such as the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. That said, these other Latin influences do not undermine what is still an intrinsically Mexican album. Cápsicum Orquesta insist on using typical Mexican slang and refrains from Mexican traditional music to identify them to the keen listener as proud Mexicanos. The Mexican feel is made all the more meaningful due to the content of its lyrics. This is because Toledo and the rest of the band touch on a variety of themes, often linked to the darker realities of Mexico’s socio-political landscape. Toledo himself lists violence, drug trafficking, and corruption, to name but a few of the issues that plight the nation of Mexico, and he claims to address these themes in his music that comes from a genre typically associated with unadulterated fun.
“Un mismo son’s theme speaks about the reality of Mexico, about violence and lack of security, and at the same time it is about no longer focusing on the negative aspects, proposing a change.” He continued by saying that “Prueba el sabor’s theme speaks about the traditions of Mexico and the importance that they have in the culture.” Thus, we can see that Toledo is keen to represent a multi-faceted view of his nation. “Mexico currently has many problems, that is true, but it is not all there is”, he said to us. “We try to talk about all the good sides, about the culture, the tradition of the people… and we hope that our music serves to show people in other countries a little of that which is here.” There is an added layer of Mexican-ness to the album. The very name of the band is a reference to the scientific name of the chilli pepper, a staple of Mexican cuisine and a key ingredient in salsa mexicana, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Cápsicum Orquesta are a band of ten men, working harmoniously to produce one contiguous sound. The band features singers Milton Muñoz and Nabiel Bernal, pianist Manuel Ortega, a brass section consisting of Alan Varela, Francisco Becerra, and Dania Ruiz, as well as Sin Bringas on the Cuban conga drums, César Fabián on the kettledrums, David Moreno on the traditional drum-kit and finally the aforementioned Toledo as bandleader, songwriter and double bassist. The album consists of seven songs. Four were written by Toledo, two were traditional, and one was written by one of the band’s singers, Milton Muñoz. Despite the lively, vivacious feel of the album, there was no improvisation, in fact it was all pre-prepared and rehearsed.
When it came to discussing what Toledo wanted to achieve with the album, Toledo became pensive, yet determined, especially when speaking about the history of salsa and the central contradiction at its heart. “It’s a genre that was created by Latin American immigrants in the USA, and they denounced many of its problems and issues, and therefore it has always been a genre that mixes that cheerfulness, that possibility to unite people by making them dance, with expressing what one says and feels. Then also we try to do this, to speak of things that interest us, to speak about the reality that we’re living in Mexico, and that’s what we want to communicate.”
There was another aspect to what Toledo wanted to do with this album; he wanted to put authentic Mexican salsa on the map. Salsa itself is a melange of Latin musical styles, including son cubano, bomba puertorriqueña, and murga panameña, yet no organic Mexican scene had arisen. Mexico of course has a rich musical tradition, but despite bordering the USA where, in the 1960s and 1970s, the nascent genre of salsa flourished in New York City’s cultural confluence, it has yet, according to Toledo, to create a fully-fledged salsa scene to call its own. “There are many orchestras and bands but here generally they play covers… they are very good groups, but there isn’t a movement of original salsa,” he opined. “Therefore, there is no Mexican salsa sound as such. We’re trying to make one in our own way.” He then described the process of doing so: “[We put in] Mexican rhythms, extracts from traditional music, using our vernacular, using our own orchestra style. For example, instead of bongos, traditional in the rhythm section, we have drums. The singers also have a Mexican flair, using lines and phrases from traditional Mexican music.” The change from bongos to a drum kit is a crucial one, according to Toledo, as it allows the band to incorporate influences from Western rock and funk.
Whilst the salsa scene is growing, it is most popular in Mexico City and Veracruz. Yet Toledo’s mission is not just to increase the popularity of salsa in Mexico, but also to show off his nation’s abilities within the world music scene. Last year the band were invited to France to play alongside musicians from across the planet at a world music festival. Toledo stated that salsa is gaining popularity far away from Latin America, as there are growing salsa scenes in France and even Germany. At these festivals Toledo revealed that he particularly loves the sound of Arab music, Balkan music, and music from Cape Verde.
While Toledo might have a dream of recreating such wonderful memories sharing his music around the world, Cápsicum Orquesta will have to wait, and adjust to the new reality that coronavirus has thrust upon us all. Salsa music, as we have said, is particularly associated with dancing with close contact with others, and removing this aspect of the performance has proved tough. However, the band will soldier on, and already have lined up a new and exciting experience as they play at a drive-in cinema festival this month. The band also had the recording of their second album put on hold due to the pandemic, though they remain hopeful that they can go back to the studio to once again spread the joy of salsa across Mexico, Latin America, and the world.