Nearly a decade ago, salsa greats Cheo Feliciano and Ruben Blades were chatting with flutist Bobby Valentin and radio programmer Pedro Arroyo at Valentin's home in Puerto Rico. An idea began to brew: Feliciano and Blades would record a new album together, with a spicy twist. Blades would sing material originally popularized by Feliciano and vice versa. Glasses were raised, and a deal was sealed.
As it turned out, however, Blades took up a political post as Panama's Minister of Culture and, for the next seven years, the project simmered. But on May 29, the album - "Eba Say Aja" (a play on "Everybody say yeah," a Spanglish phrase used by Blades and Feliciano in their shows) - finally saw the light of day.
Released just weeks after Arroyo died on April 14, the 12-track album is a moving and exciting testament to the power of salsa, as embodied by two of the most emblematic voices of the genre. It bows this week at No. 14 on Billboard's Top Latin Albums chart.
"Cheo Feliciano was a powerful influence in my development as a singer," Blades says. "I always wanted to thank him publicly, recognizing his art and my admiration for him."
For Feliciano, 76, who still performs regularly but who hasn't recorded an album in more than a decade, the work's importance is both professional and personal.
"I'm honored that he says I influenced him," Feliciano says of Blades. "But Ruben was also good friends with my parents, and I with his. He even wrote a song for my mother, 'Chenchita' - and I recorded it."
"Chenchita" isn't on this set, but other classics like "Si Te Dicen" and "Juana Mayo" are included. The artists hope to appeal to hardcore salsa fans who still love the music, but hear less of it these days on tropical stations overtaken by more popular reggaetón and bachata.
Among the clever marketing strategies for the album is distribution through individual fans. "We often get calls from people around the world who can't find salsa albums, so I'll give them a low distributor price for them to resell it anywhere they want," says album producer Ariel Rivas, who released the set on his own Ariel Rivas Music label, a partnership with Ruben Blades Productions. The minimum order is 10 albums, but, this week, one fan ordered 200 copies of "Eba Say Aja" to be sent to Japan.
In the United States, the album is distributed through Select-O-Hits. Blades, long signed to Sony, went indie several years ago and released his last album, "Cantares del Subdesarrollo," with Rivas, who also books his tours.
"Our infrastructure is humble, but we have the passion to produce the albums," Rivas says. "And because I work with [Ruben] in other areas, we can do business globally."
Just how many copies a purist salsa album can sell in this business climate remains to be seen. But in the live concert arena, there's still strong demand. Feliciano, for example, says many of his annual performances take place at salsa congresses worldwide, "with thousands of young dancers who understand the music competing from different countries."
The genre's endurance is even more palpable for Blades, whose previous "Todos Vuelven" show toured 30-plus cities and sold 1 million tickets, according to Rivas. This year, Blades is playing more than 50 shows across Europe, the United States, Mexico and South America.
"We just played at the Boca del Rio Festival in Veracruz, Mexico," Blades says. "There were over 130,000 people on the closing day, where we played with Luis Enrique. The festival had an average of 100,000 attendees per show. That tells you reports about the demise of salsa's popularity are exaggerated and inaccurate."••••