Bio Ritmo’s salsa is as Southern as barbecue

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by Jordan Green

The heavy humidity and broiling sun beating down on West Fourth Street that was ventilated by only an occasional breeze, it felt like summer in the South on the second installment of Second Sundays on Fourth, the monthly free street festival on what local business owners like to call “our little block of awesome.”

The stage was literally and figuratively set for Bio Ritmo, a classic salsa band, whose most recent album is entitled Puerta del Sur. Translated into English, it means “gateway to the South” — which could allude to the band’s homebase in Richmond, Va. or the function of the music as an entrée to the musical culture of the global South.

The Enrichment Center Percussion Ensemble opened the block party with a set of dreamy instrumentals that suggested a soundtrack to a pensive indie film. Elderly visitors with portable chairs gradually migrated to the side of the street for refuge under the tree shade as the sun became more oppressive. The short block, bookended with the stage at Cherry Street and bounce castle at Marshall Street, was equipped with a concession by Camino Bakery selling poor-man’s $2 PBRs and more expensive craft beers by the plastic cup — conveniently placed to quench the thirst of a relatively small and intimate crowd.

When Bio Ritmo took the stage about an hour later the heat had begun to break and a racially diverse crowd materialized in the dance area in front of the stage, responding immediately to the irresistible groove. Couples and parents with small children, young and old, they took to the steps of salsa dancing with natural ease, whether they knew what a clave rhythm was or not. And if they weren’t perfect no one seemed to notice or care.

Bio Ritmo proved themselves on Sunday in Winston-Salem to be musicians of supreme ability, an unstoppable rhythm force, and it must be said, confident enough in their abilities and their position after two decades in the business to relax and have fun. They appeared to be psyched for an appearance at a world music festival in France coming up on Saturday, and a block party in Winston-Salem must have felt like a low-pressure gig in comparison.

“This is our very last show before we fly to Europe, so thanks for the good energy,” frontman Rei Alvarez told the crowd after the first song. “Such a beautiful day.”

Dressed nattily in a pink guayabera, straight-leg pants and sharp loafers with a full beard and aviator glasses, Alvarez owned the role of frontman, breaking into a little dance that looked like a tai chi stretch, pumping the energy with call-and-response vocals and displaying a smooth and powerful singing voice.

Bio Ritmo from the side
Bio Ritmo from the side

Bio Ritmo performs an eclectic stew of Afro-Caribbean music, whose primary reference point is the classic salsa sound that emerged in New York City in the early 1970s. But the musical backgrounds of the individual members of Bio Ritmo range from dub-reggae to punk, classical and jazz, and the band has made forays into everything from Brazilian psychedelia to Egyptian classical as it has evolved.

Live, the band, to put it simply, swings, with an unshakable rhythm section, tight horn arrangements and counterintuitive keyboard textures that pivot around a bass groove courtesy of Edward Prendergast that seems to slink around and pop up right where it’s needed. Built around the percussive interplay between Giustino Riccio, whose standing posture on timbales delivers a highly articulated and forward-leaning style — also possessing a sartorial gift to match bandmate Alvarez — and the more organic conga playing of Hector “Coco” Barez, the band almost effortlessly shifted into tightly arranged blasts of brass, represented Sunday by Toby Whitaker on trombone, John Lilley on sax and Bob Miller on trumpet. Marlysse Simmons, who also manages the band, is Bio Ritmo’s primary keyboardist, providing esoteric flourishes of piano along with the occasional burst of synth. Miller also doubles on keyboards, helping Simmons fill out one of the band’s three primary zones of instrumentation.

The band moved smoothly from the laidback swing of “Tu No Sabes” to the multi-part “Perdido,” with traditional Puerto Rican balladry giving way to psychedelic and jazz textures, and on to “Pajaro Pio Pio,” a nod to 1960s Colombian merengue.

The irrepressible Alvarez displayed an endearing habit of warmly greeting the audience repeatedly between songs. “Mucho gracias,” he would say, followed by, “Jazz jazz.”

Enjoying his libations, he held up a plastic cup of craft beer. “Salud, mi gente,” he said, adding, “Don’t worry; I’m drinking water, too.”

The band tried out a new number described by Alvarez as a “new little something we cooked up,” and then closed with “La Vía” a signature from their recent album full of lamentations about setbacks and difficulties, blasts of trombone, eruptions of timbales and cowbell, and Simmons’ singular keyboard playing.

Then it was time to break down and prepare for the journey to the Old World.

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Cary Clifford (left), owner of Camino Bakery