Victor Manuelle Talks Spicing Up His Salsa on '25/7' With Latin Urban Sounds

Ethan Miller/WireImage
Manuelle onstage at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas during the 2016 Latin Grammy Person of the Year concert honoring Marc Anthony.

At a high school graduation party in Puerto Rico in the spring of 1986, salsa star Gilberto Santa Rosa introduced the young man who would become his protégé. Standing offstage, Victor Manuel Ruiz, age 17 and wearing braces, practically trembled with stage fright.

Once onstage, however, he was transformed into Victor Manuelle, a star-in-the-making with a piercing tenor voice and the improvisational finesse of the classic Puerto Rican soneros he had listened to while growing up.

“El sonero de la juventud!” (“The sonero of the youth!”) declared Santa Rosa when he introduced Manuelle to play with his orchestra that evening.

“I never expected to hear what I heard,” Santa Rosa later recalled. “I was struck by his capacity to improvise. I heard a very catchy voice with a natural capacity for improvisation. He dominated the style and the stage.” Recalls Manuelle: “It was an amazing night. I just thought it was a dream come true.”

That night began one of the most prolific and enduring careers in contemporary tropical music. In the 25 years since the release of his debut album, Justo a Tiempo, in 1993, Manuelle has placed 11 albums at No. 1 on Billboard’s Tropical Albums chart, starting with Ironias in 1998 through Que Suenen los Tambores in 2015 -- a feat topped only by his mentor, Santa Rosa, with 12. Manuelle also has racked up 28 No. 1 singles on the Tropical Airplay list, tying Marc Anthony as the artist with most No. 1s on the chart. 

His consistency as a hitmaker “is my biggest source of pride,” says Manuelle, now 49, during a conversation at the Gibson Guitar Showroom in Miami. But that reliability hasn't stopped him from taking risks. On March 23, he will mark 25 years as a professional artist when Sony Music Latin releases one of the edgiest studio albums of his career. Titled 25/7 (an allusion to both his career anniversary and commitment to his craft), the album features collaborations with Bad Bunny and Juan Luis Guerra, as well as solo tracks overseen by a wide range of producers -- some of whom hail from the reggaetón and urban worlds and have imbued Manuelle’s salsa with a contemporary sound.

For Manuelle, the release of 25/7 will be bittersweet. It is the first new music he has put out since the death of his father, Victor Manuel Ruiz Rivera, in January after a long battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. “This is the first album in 25 years that I release without my No. 1 fan: my dad,” he says. “He loved seeing me onstage. He loved what I did. That’s a great motivation for me to celebrate my 25th anniversary.”

Only an hour before this meeting, Manuelle had flown back to Miami from Puerto Rico. He had been on the island caring for his father during his final weeks, even after Hurricane Maria hit the island last September.

Manuelle thinks back to the night of his debut performance and recalls what his father had told Santa Rosa. “He said, ‘If this atmosphere is going to spoil the son I know and raised, I’d rather his career begin and end today.’

“Those words defined my sense of responsibility,” says Manuelle, the father of three adult children. “I need to continue to be what my dad taught me to be. It’s not just music. It’s getting up early, being responsible, being well-mannered, being considerate. Seventy-five percent of who I am is what my father taught me. The other 25 percent is making music.”

Salsa recently has been overshadowed by reggaetón and urban beats. Has it been difficult to continue to work in the genre yet make it sound fresh?
Yes, it has been a challenge, but I’ve been flirting with new sounds for the past few years. And if I’m going to reach a new audience, I have to appeal to a new ear. It’s very important to reach younger fans and convince them salsa is an important genre. I can’t pretend that a 15-year-old will love salsa when it hasn't been part of his generation.

Did you set out to strike a balance?
Yes. It’s still risky to say, “I’m going to do something different after 25 years.” There’s a fine line between not sounding repetitive yet being so innovative that you alienate your fans.

25/7 includes a collaboration with Bad Bunny. Do you worry about traveling outside your lane?
The artist may be urban, but the beat is salsa. I’m not going against my genre. I worked with composers of urban music who think in a different way than I do, and the fusion generates a sound that’s salsa but sounds urban. I wanted to make an album of where I imagine salsa should be heading in terms of sound. I very much respect traditional salseros like El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, who are my good friends. But no one expects El Gran Combo, who’ve been around for 55 years, to do something like this. I’m in between generations. I want to reach a 22-year-old who can listen to Bad Bunny and Ozuna and also listen to salsa.

Talk about the Bad Bunny collaboration. It’s a first for him to sing salsa.
It wasn't forced at all. The track [“Mala y Peligrosa”] was recorded months ago, before he broke out in a major way. When we reached out to him, he said he was a big salsa fan, and I told him, “Whatever you decide to do, be careful with your language!” It’s a very catchy song, but the sound is still very traditional salsa.

What do you listen to today?
I’m a fan of traditional salsa. Everything by Rubén Blades, from his Fania [Records] days to his solo career. I think Rubén is an exceptional singer. Everything he does has influenced me. Gilberto Santa Rosa is the best sonero of his time. Cheo Feliciano ... But I’m always a fan of what’s playing now, like Bad Bunny or Ozuna.

You started your career with Sony, and you’re still with the label. But you took a break to launch your own imprint.
And I did OK. But you need a big team to ensure everything works well at an international level. There were times where we didn't cover all the bases and I returned to Sony, where I needed to be. But I’m not sorry. You have to make mistakes in order to improve.

You also have been very involved in the reconstruction and recovery of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
I was there during the hurricane, and it was a very tough experience. My father was very sick, and we didn't have the option of leaving. We spent 75 days without power. There are still people without power. So I’ve seen firsthand the change in my country. We went from being a country where some had more or less, to suffering a hurricane that touched us all equally. It has forced us to mature, to raise awareness and to get back on our feet, on our own.

Tell me about your childhood. Were there musicians in the family?
My father wasn't a musician, but he was a very musical man. At home, he would always play whatever album was hot in the market. He was a big fan of tropical music. That was back when Fania [the pioneering New York-based salsa record label] was at its height.

When did you discover your musical aspirations?
It started in the school talent shows. I liked to participate. I liked to sing. It was the kind of town where there wasn't a conservatory or a music school. It was the kind of town where, if you wanted to do music, you had to do it yourself.

Was your family surprised when you chose to become a performer?
I’m pretty shy, pretty reserved. I never knew I would be able to be so jovial, so communicative. My relatives always said, “How the heck are you going to be an artist when you don’t like to talk to people?”

What have you discovered about yourself over the course of your career?
I began my career when I was single and had no kids. I had all my goals and dreams before me. I would spend two months on the road and never call my mom because I wasn't a dad yet. Once I grew up and had three kids, it made me reflect on my parents’ role [in my life]. I finally understood why my mom griped when I didn't call. Now I speak with my mother every day. It sounds absurd, but I do. Even if it’s just to tell her I don’t have time to speak. That’s something I learned after having my own children. 

This article originally appeared in the March 24 issue of Billboard.