La Palabra - Musicholic
The story of La Palabra is a bolero of invention and reinvention, an explosive fusion of music and multi-culture, and of triumph over adversity. As an arranger, composer, singer, player and innovator, he is the living, breathing embodiment of a soul afire in the dancing flames of music. With his cherubic smile, shiny bald head and a satchel full of songs that make people want to…do things, La Palabra has set many a day and night to rhythm. It is this generous, jubilant spirit that makes his latest offering, Musicholic, more than lightning in a bottle. The daringly eclectic 11-song CD – incorporating American blues and rap, Brazilian bossa nova, merengue, tango, paso doble and more - marks the culmination of a man’s life and dreams. That gentleman is Rodolfo M. “Fito” Foster, a.k.a. “La Palabra” (Strength, Art, Knowledge and Mysticism) - the indisputable originator of the tropical soul musical style dubbed “Salsa Romantica.”
“Musicholic is the CD I want to be recognized by the world for the way I have pushed the boundaries of Salsa and Latin music with my integration of Rhythm & Blues and Jazz,” La Palaba states. “It’s the way I conceive the sound in my head. Throughout my career, all I’ve ever wanted is to make the music grow.”
The legendary Stevie Wonder recruited Rodolfo for Phoenix Rising, a band he was producing that never quite got off the ground. However, joining that group brought a hungry Rodolfo to Los Angeles where he swiftly became in-demand as a bandleader.
Spanish male crooners such as Roberto Carlos were selling boatloads of records on several continents with lushly orchestrated love songs. All the while, Rodolfo’s fingers played the radio dial as deftly as they played a piano as he excitedly observed the trends. Co-leading Orquesta Versalles with fellow singer/arranger Jesus “El Nino” Alejandro, Rodolfo (then “Fito Foster”) whipped up an arrangement of the Emmanuelle hit “Todo se Derrumbo” for the b-side of a 45 on Omega Records. That number outperformed the A-side and would become the inaugural example of “Salsa Romantica,” which Palabra himself was then calling “Ballada en Salsa.” However, an established record company with major distribution hastily hired two musicians to capitalize on that sound by recording an entire album titled Noche Caliente of songs arranged in a replica of this style. Subsequently, those men were erroneously dubbed the innovators of what Fito had organically conceptualized from the heart.
Luis Enriques, a Nicaraguan bongo player who, as a member of Palabra’s band, begged the master to tailor an arrangement that featured him as a vocalist.
To some, Salsa Romantica is a song or a style. For me, it is my life. Losing that sent me down a dark path…”
In 2000 with Orquesta La Palabra and the triumphant CD On Fire, scoring THREE hits with refreshed recordings of “Todo Se Derrumbo” and “Lady,” plus the new song “El Sabroso Son” featuring a fiery solo by all-time master timbalero Tito Puente. People were buzzing on several continents about the return of the man who started a sound sensation. Three years later with the follow-up Breakthrough, La Palabra was cultivating loyal audiences as far as China! It was a deliciously sexy number titled “El Tun Tun (de Tu Corazon)” – on which Palabra dashingly wove a flirtatious rap into his Salsa Romantica - that caught on in Colombia in 2006, was #1 at radio for 12 consecutive weeks and was so popular it stayed on the chart long into the next year. La Palabra toured Latin America and Europe behind that hit, thus setting the stage for Musicholic.
La Palabra the keyboardist and arranger is at long last making room for La Palabra the singer and star to emerge. “I think of my music as a perfect storm,” La Palabra elaborates, “one that engulfs the listener with vibrations of sound from all directions…an experience that blends the soulfulness of R&B with the excitement of my Caribbean roots.”
Musicholic begins with his special rendition of country music star Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance.” It was the optimism for the youth of the world at the heart of her original version from the year 2000 that touched him. La Palabra knew at one this song was ripe for a Latin reinvention, a great number to open his album, and the perfect song to reflect the resilience that ever animates his spirit.
From there Palabra plunges straight into the sexy stuff! “Tu Pasion (Desafia Descripcion)” sets the sound of lovemaking to music with the dynamic push and pull of the horns, strings and rhythm. He sings and raps the three-part story of a woman whose passion is sooo deep…it defies description.
In kind is the catchy sing-song melody of “Biribing Barabao,” a salsa descarga (“jam”) about a beautiful black “brick house” of a woman. Celebrating her attributes, the horn section roars its approval as the percussion percolates - every instrument in a chatter about a girl who’s got everything on her platter!
Then there is “Beautiful Girls,” a song in English on which La Palabra does what he does best - carefully selecting a hit song from the radio then tricking it out in a tropical whirlwind. “The secret of Salsa Romantica is picking the right song,” La Palabra shares, “a song you can make your own.” “Beautiful Girls,” which was an out-of-the-box hit for young pop-rap newcomer Sean Kingston in 2007, also appealed to Palabra because the bass line was lifted from soul man Ben E. King’s spring of `61 evergreen “Stand By Me.” “That was the first song I ever tried to sing when I came to this country,” Palabra remembers with a chuckle. “When I did, my father made fun of me, but I’ve always liked that ‘soul holler’ that black singers like Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Wilson Pickett do. That’s the kind of singing I wanted to bring to salsa but never felt I could pull off until now. ”
La Palabra journeys down to Brazil next for the seductive “Mi Corazon te Anora,” from the soundtrack of the steamy movie Woman on Top. This marks the second time he has fused rap with Salsa Romantica as he so successfully did on “Tun Tun.” That makes it a sequel of sorts and Musicholic’s guaranteed hit. He reprises the song in English a few tracks later, titled “Unleash Her Heart.”
A fittingly inebriated high is achieved on “MerenBlues” a mix of merengue and blues featuring guitarist Rick Whitfield that our hero describes as “Count Basie meets La Palabra.” He’s been toying with it since 2005, but didn’t like the way he was singing it. “Then I was at Harvelle’s club in Santa Monica and ran into Sir Harry Bowens, an R&B singer from Detroit [and the band Was (Not Was)] who also sings great Salsa. He showed me how to tap into the soul I needed for that song.” You have never heard blues sound like this! Then again, you could say that about most of what La Palabra records.
Likewise, “Pensando en Ti” is the result of a challenge from worldly Colombian gentleman Efrain Logreira, who Palabra encountered in Los Angeles who insisted that he record this song. Palabra didn’t think he could do anything with it, but once challenged, swung the tune in multiple directions, moving from pasa doble into tango into Salsa. The result: one highly danceable bowl of pan-cultural gumbo.
“Caimanera” is a blend of son montuno and oriente that finds La Palabra proudly putting his Cuban hometown on the map in the same way that nearby Guantanamera was immortalized in song. “This is very sentimental to me,” he confesses. “Caimanera is in the mountains where most blacks live. It is also the birthplace of son montuno: ‘The Blues’ of Cuba. I describe the place and things I did there as a kid - flying kites, riding bikes, la balina (shooting marbles), playing tops, baseball with no shoes, postalita (a storybook game that requires one to collect stamps and cards to illustrate it) and the joy of carnival.”
The pan cultural alchemy continues with the title track “Musicholic” where the arena rock intensity of Santana meets merengue meets reggae, and a mean busy bee bass line. It’s followed by the delightful “Rap-a-Salsa ,” a sunny mix of hip hop and cha cha cha on which Palabra indulges in a bit of wordplay. “In English,” he explains, “’‘rap’ is to talk in general or bust a rhyme over a beat, but I’m twisting the term, mixing it with a similar sounding word in Spanish, ‘raspa’ (pronounced in the streets as ‘rappa’ with a hard-rolling r) which translates as ‘the burnt part of the rice’ or ‘the shavings of an Italian ice.’”
From La Palabra’s heart to yours, he has included a bonus a cappella mix of his smash “El Tun Tun (de Tu Corazon)” for DJs to get busy with and for lovers to get busy to….as if he needed to do anything more.
La Palabra is already a highly respected artist, evidenced in everything from his music being used in TV shows such as Ugly Betty, Cold Case, So You Think You Can Dance and the BBC series Happiness, and in movies like The Visitor and Master of Disguise to blowing everyone away at the China International Latin Festival 2008. A dreamer ever in touch with the child in his heart, La Palabra is sizzling, seasoned and deserving of his eminent superstar close-up.
- A. Scott Galloway