Salsa, that most emblematic of Latin musical genres, has rarely been a top seller in the United States. So, whenever a new salsa album creates a noticeable blip on the radar, we ask, "How did that happen?"
During the week ending July 1, young Puerto Rican trio N'Klabe debuted at No. 2 on Billboard's Top Latin Albums chart and No. 1 on the Tropical Albums list with "La Salsa Vive" (Nu Life/Sony), a live set covering hits popularized by salsa greats of different eras. Earlier, lead single "La Banda" topped the tropical airplay chart. The album moved nearly 3,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and scored the highest chart debut for a salsa recording since Victor Manuelle, Luis Enrique and Tito "El Bambino" each debuted at No. 2 with studio albums in the spring of 2009.
"There's a huge salsa movement right now," says Jose Diaz, president of N'Klabe's label and management company, Nu Life Entertainment. Echoing the beliefs of other salsa supporters, including Latin superstar Ruben Blades (Latin Notas, June 16), Diaz says, "This No. 1 shows that this thing has a life."
While salsa reigns in Colombia, Venezuela and Central America, it's hardly huge in the States, nor has there been any recent domestic trend or "new salsa"-type movement. Instead, N'Klabe has likely found success because it has a look, feel and sound that's different from other Latin acts, as well as a smart marketing campaign.
"I attribute the group's success to its vitality and visibility," says LP Marketing & Promotions president David LaPointe, who has been working with the group since last year. "N'Klabe is seen as more than a tropical act. A little bit too, it represents the heartthrob kind of thing, comparable to Prince Royce and Chino y Nacho, but in its own genre."
N'Klabe formed in 2003 and first topped the tropical airplay chart in 2005 with "I Love Salsa!," an homage to the musical style set to an ultra-fast beat. Though the group was founded by Felix Javier "Felo" Torres, two original members departed between 2008 and 2009, with various new singers recruited from contests and other means through the years.
The act scored several chart hits, but didn't reach the top spot again until last winter with the Christmas album "Aires de Navidad," whose title track reached No. 1 on the Tropical Airplay chart. The hit qualified the group as a finalist for the Billboard Latin Music Awards, and label chief Diaz considered the nod an important touchstone. He took out an ad in Billboard promoting the nomination, referring to the act as "the missing link between the past and the future," to show the industry that salsa had commercial viability.
Along with a gig at the Billboard Bash, N'Klabe was suddenly in front of tastemakers including MTV Tr3s, which later put its videos in rotation. By then, N'Klabe had already recorded La Salsa Vive during a live performance in the Dominican Republic that aired as a Telemundo special in Puerto Rico. That show, coupled with several appearances on other Spanish-language TV shows including "Sabado Gigante" and "Despierta America," put the group in front of an even larger audience.
The week the album was released, it catapulted onto the charts with help from various promotional efforts. "What I like about this project is that it wasn't a two-week plan [but] a year-long plan," LaPointe says. "This is an artist crossing boundaries that are very hard to cross."