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Víctor Manuelle: Salsa Musician Against All Odds

One of the greatest salsa singers of all time talks about his new album, Busco un pueblo, which recently received a Latin Grammy nomination for Best Salsa Album.

By: Rodrigo O. Sánchez
Phtos: Cortesía Creative Link

Over the course of his twenty-year musical career, Víctor Manuelle has sold over 10 million albums. He recently sang in front of a crowd of more than 140,000 people in Veracruz, México, the most highly-attended single salsa performance of all times. Ironically, he’s not concerned about sales. What he is interested in is making good music that his audience wants to hear. He feels so strongly about this that even after coming out against piracy, he is the first to admit that if any music is going to be pirated; he wants his music to be pirated, too.

He has built his career around the quality of his music rather than the circumstances of the market. In an industry that bets everything on the here-and-now, he still believes that good music is what makes people buy an album or go to a show. He also believes that discipline is more important than talent, contradicting a culture that seems to believe that celebrity is everything. And suddenly, what at first seemed ironic now seems obvious: for the past twenty years Víctor Manuelle has been one of the most important salsa artists in the world, and he has not needed any other formula for success than consistent hard work. For this reason, his fans have rewarded him with two decades of sold out shows, millions of albums sales, and a steady stream of radio hits.

This steely salsa musician talks to us about this and more in this exclusive interview. “Si tú me besas,” the first single from his new album, Busco un pueblo, climbed to number one on the Billboard Hot Latin Songs list. The album also earned him a nomination for Best Salsa Album at the recent Latin Grammy Awards.

What is the concept of your new album?

Busco un pueblo is a very important album for me. It defines a transition for me and part of my musical evolution. It includes a song also called “Busco un pueblo,” which I didn’t want to go unnoticed, so I decided the album should have the same title. The concept behind this song and the design of the album cover communicates the idea that we are all one, in spite of the government-imposed borders that separate us. Of the nineteen albums I’ve recorded, Busco un pueblo is the first to include a socio-political theme. I didn’t do it before simply because the time to do it came now. Of course this type of thing has always concerned me, but it was as I was working on this album that I decided I wanted to center the production on this concept. Latinos in the U.S. are living in a very complicated time with all the changes in immigration laws and the problems that persist because of things that still haven’t changed. I wanted to call attention to that.

Also, I took a two-year break to record this album and see what I really wanted to do. I was able to work on it very methodically because I didn’t have a deadline to meet. It’s a very complete work in every way, very youthful and danceable, with well thought out lyrics.

Your new album just came out, and all the songs can be heard for free on YouTube. Are you concerned about the way music is consumed today and the lack of compensation for artists?

In a certain way, it’s a benefit to the artist, because the songs get to the entire world very quickly and the message can be shared on a large scale in a simple way. There are different sides to all this technology, many of which are positive. To give you an example, we salsa musicians have been working on winning over the Mexican market for many years. It’s been an arduous task and little by little we have been making headway. Just recently, I played at the Boca del Río festival in Veracruz in front of 140,000 people, making it the most attended festival in the history of the genre in a single day. And how ironic that it wasn’t in Colombia, Panama, Puerto Rico, or one of the other more traditional salsa markets. All of this is due to social networks, how quickly the news spreads about a festival and who’s going to play. Social media has allowed me to get an immediate response directly from my audience the moment I make an announcement. Today it’s difficult for an artist to deceive his audience, because there’s a constant exchange on networks like Twitter. Now there’s no filter.

This technology has drastically reduced the sale of albums.

That’s true, but at this stage of my career I can’t be concerned about how the system works. My concern is creating good music. Piracy has grown exponentially but I can’t fight it. My approach to the situation may seem a little contradictory: I’m not in favor of piracy, but if people are going to pirate music, I want my music to be included. If you, as an artist, walk by a place where pirated CDs are being sold and you don’t see your songs there, that’s when you have to worry. It’s about people wanting to hear your music. I don’t support piracy but I understand that it feeds a market I want to be a part of. My focus is on making good music. It can be sold as CDs, cassettes, MP3s or exchanged on the Internet for free, and that really isn’t my primary concern. I have no idea how or in what format music will be consumed in twenty years. My concern is simply to be part of it.

How did the idea of that cry you make in your songs come about?

That cry doesn’t appear in my first albums. Sergio George was the producer on my third album and he was the one who began talking to me about creating a war cry to establish my identity as a son vocalist. A song I was recording had a brief pause and Sergio told me to say something there to fill it out but I couldn’t think of anything. I thought of this cry but it came out very timidly at first and we worked until it became something natural. Right before the album was released, I listened to the cry and I wasn’t very convinced, but as time went by, I grew accustomed to it and today I even miss it when it’s not there. Every time there’s a small pause in a song, I insert my war cry. The crowd likes it and it’s become a kind of trademark.

With so many trips and commitments, how do you balance your life as a father?

One of the first things I did when I started my office was to make sure to include my family in my schedule. It doesn’t work to put just professional commitments on your agenda and dedicate the time you have left over to your family. When the year begins I jot down all the important dates, like birthdays and graduations, and I plan my professional schedule around those. Also, if there’s a month when I’m away on tour, I plan for the following week to be devoted exclusively to my family.

How did you develop the objectivity necessary to make sound decisions in your very successful career?

There’s a little bit of instinct to that. You have to know yourself and your audience. Other decisions are the risks one takes. But all of this has been the result of very hard work. I’ve made my share of mistakes, but constant hard work is generally able to overshadow the mistakes. I have a very loyal team that understands what I need. There’s also luck, because I’ve had the good fortune of my audience continuing to favor me even at times when salsa music has faded from popularity.

What can you tell me about the balance between talent and discipline?

Discipline is extremely important. I’ve seen extremely talented, super-gifted people throw their talent away by not having discipline. If you have a certain talent, and do things well, with a lot of discipline, it almost always ends up being successful.

When I talk about discipline, it’s as much about the artistic part as the personal. It’s very rare for someone who has a very disorganized personal life to be a good artist. I’ve been asked in some interviews, “What is Víctor Manuelle the artist like and what is Víctor Manuelle the person like?” I don’t believe in that division, it’s the same person. I have to try to fill both roles well. It doesn’t seem normal to me for someone to be an excellent artist but a terrible son, for example.