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Alex Wilson, The Musical Face of UK Salsa

Alex+Wilson+by+Michael+Valentine-1Alex Wilson is best known for his smooth Salsa hits like “Ain’t Nobody”, “Show Me” and “Inglaterra”. We’re pleased to say he’s back, working alongside Edwin Sanz on the album “San Agustin” which is due to be released in just a few weeks. He’s a brilliant pianist, composer, producer, arranger and educator respected for both his own work and also the work he does alongside other huge artists like Rodrigo y Gabriela, Cheo Feliciano, Adalberto Santiago, Tito Gomez, Tito Allen, Maelo Rivera and Edwin Sanz.

We caught up with him direct from his home in Zurich to find out all about the new album with Edwin Sanz ,  his personal tastes in music, the challenges of being a modern musician, and how he sees the Salsa scene of today.

Here’s what he had to say.

Thanks for talking to us today Alex. Firstly, can you fill us in on the details about the new album?

Certainly. It’s not actually my own album although I have played a key role in it. The percussionist Edwin Sanz and I have been working together on the album; I’ve contributed as a producer, arranger and also a performer. We have know each other for a long time and I’ve worked with him for many years on Salsa projects and World music projects like my “Mali Latino” album and my last Salsa album “Salsa Veritas“. He was also the drummer on the Rodrigo y Gabriela tour that I performed on. We toured all over the world including America. For that reason and also the fact that we both live in Switzerland, he approached me to work with him on this album. He really is a talented musician and has worked with all of the Salsa greats. The album has ended up coming out on my record label. The album is named “San Agustin” and it’s a contemporary Salsa album. There’s some Salsa Dura, a Salsa Soul number in there, a Salsa Rap track with a rock guitarist and there’s a rock bachata in there as well. We were lucky to have a fantastic Cuban rock guitarist come on board and do two tracks. You can find a sample of the album on Soundcloud.

Do you remember the first time you ever heard Salsa music? How did you fall in love with it?

I think the very first time I heard Salsa was whilst I was at university in California and living in a Mexican area. I think I heard Salsa from ‘just across the way’ and started becoming more aware of it and more ‘into’ it. It’s likely that I had heard Salsa music before then but hadn’t registered before that. I was around 19 or 20. Then I really fell in love with Salsa a good 20 years ago now when I moved down to London as a young ‘whipper-snapper’ who wanted to be a musician. Those were in the ‘golden days’ of Salsa when there were bands playing on a regular basis. I got on the scene and I was gigging regularly and just got hooked really.

Do you ever get to see Salsa or Latin bands in your own free time?

There are always bands on before and after we play at the summer festivals,  and I do manage to listen to them. I go to gigs in my free time as well, especially if they come to Zurich. It’s not as much as I could though- if I had more time…Most of my time is spent being creative and doing my music. I do l try to make time to go to shows as well because you can always learn something new from other people.

Do you have any personal favourites both within Salsa and generally speaking? I know it’s very hard to narrow it down!

It’s hard to choose. I like what Alexander Abreu is doing. And Los Van Van is an all-time favourite of mine. There’s also some really good Colombian Jazz I’ve been listening to recently by Milton Salcedo. It’s not Salsa but it is just amazing stuff. Well I also listen to musicians like Herbie Hancock and Kenny Barron,the jazz pianist. Papo Lucca was a big influence on me. And of course I love Eddie Palmieri’s 80’s period. My biggest influence in Salsa is Sergio George because he produced the greats like La India, Marc Anthony, all of that Salsa Moderna. He inspired a whole new generation of fans and he remains popular with Latins too. “Yo No Se Manana” was one of his tracks too. He was a hit-maker, wasn’t he.

Do you dance Salsa yourself?

Yes I do! Although I don’t have chance to go out as often as I used to. At the beginning of my career, I used to go out dancing quite frequently. I do still  try to go out and dance because it’s good to keep in touch with how danceable your music is. By dancing, you get an impression of what the dancers have to go through when they listen to your track.Then you can remember to show them some respect and not make it too long, or too fast, all that sort of thing.

Are you able to spend much time in the UK now?

No, not so much any more. I had to make a distinct career change to try to break out of the cycle that I was in. I was releasing an album every 18 months to my own label so every album cost about £15- 20,000 and because people don’t buy music anymore you don’t make that money back . It’s just debt.  I was doing it because I was driven so artistically, but it was also beginning to destroy me. So I just had to change my career and focus on accompanying other artists, composing and just withdrawing slightly, if truth be told. But  when Edwin approached me I thought it was a great idea as it would allow me to do a little more Salsa without it being as intense as used to be. Although saying that I’m still working really hard on the album and the creation of my own music; it all takes time. You know,  there was a period of a about two months when I’d say to myself “Today I will not work on Edwin’s album”. And every day I worked on Edwin’s album! But it paid off and I have no regrets . Edwin’s album is a chance for me to reconnect with the Salsa world, and create some more music.

Do you think people don’t buy music at all now?

They do still buy music but much less and in a vastly different way to before. How do people listen to music now? They listen on Spotify and the artists don’t get any money from Spotify.They’ll listen on YouTube and the artist won’t get any money from YouTube.  The best option is iTunes. An even better possible option is if someone buys a CD from us at a gig. If you want to help an artist, buy a CD at a gig. They are probably going to get literally 10 to 100 times more money from that tenner that you hand over than from any other way.

What if people download music? Would you get more from that than if people headed to their local music store and bought a physical CD?

The proportion is more or less the same. However, the problem lies in that fact that people are buying only one track. Instead of your £4 from a £10 CD, you’ll suddenly only get 40 pence from the person just buying their favourite tune and then not buying the rest of the album. Contrast that with someone coming along to a gig and giving you a tenner. Provided the venue is not too greedy you’ll get most of the tenner. There’s the difference between 40 pence and a tenner. Think about the need to recoup that initial investment of tens of thousands of pounds,  and you’ll get an idea of the challenge involved.

How do you see the Latin and Salsa scene in the future? Many speculate that it is shrinking or morphing into something different…

I remember when I started in the 90’s people were saying “Oh well, it’s not like it was before’ as they always do. There’s always a slight ebb and flow between different styles but things remain pretty much constant. There still is a good proportion of people who still want to go out 3 or 4 times a week and DANCE! You know. That’s the positive, that’s very positive. Where the musician fits into that I’m not so sure to be completely honest. Because most Salsa congresses don’t have live bands. And the congresses that I have been to with a live band are largely ignored. Although saying that,  I went to see Victor Manuelle at the Zurich Salsa Congress and they didn’t ignore him!

Many salseros say that they want to hear live music but often when they have the opportunity, they don’t go, or they buy tickets really late, and the event struggles. It’s quite a strange situation.

Of course it will be more expensive for people to go and see a live show. It’s a case of how much do they want to see it, that’s the question. There are also festivals like the Glastonbury Festival who can swallow the costs and they don’t need one brave promoter to take all of the risk.

You’ll be appearing live in many places during the summer, won’t you? Can you tell us where we can find you?

We will first be at AfroLatina in  London on 27th June, we’re at the Salsa tent at the Glastonbury Festival on 28th June 2014 and then in Bristol at the Summer Stunner All-Dayer on 29th June. Essentially they’re Edwin’s gigs and we will be playing loads of stuff from the new album. In the middle of the performances I’ll also do 4 or 5 of my own tunes-the more well-known ones like “Ain’t Nobody’, ‘Show Me’ and all of the tunes that have been popular on the dance-floor.

Also, I’ll also be in Paris for the whole summer appearing in a show called “Do you Speak Djembe?”. It’s a fantastic theatre show. I’m ducking out of that to play the shows and then I’ll go straight back to Paris.

Can you tell me a bit more about the show? It sounds really interesting.

It’s an interactive African music show. As well as having top jazz world musicians performing, they also give every member of the audience a djembe. The audience then can along at key moments in the show. I’ve not done a show yet, but apparently it’s so motivating and inspirational for everyone.I’m really looking forward to it. There’s going to be 6 shows a week for 6 weeks so things will be busy!

Which direction do you see your music going in for the future?

Yes! I’m really enjoying the way that my career is going at the moment. I love producing, accompanying other artist and also creating my own compositions. It’s going really well, both with the commercial side like writing for television and also the artistic creative side of things. You might have heard one of my compositions of the TV series “How to Look Good Naked”- the chachacha track was mine.  Working like this seems to be a healthy balance for me.

So the new album with Edwin Sanz is out on the 16th of June, is that right?

Yes- the new album: Edwin Sanz  “San Agustin” is out on the 16th of June 2014  and will be available everywhere and at all of the gigs of course.

Thanks much for sharing your thoughts with us today Alex. It was lovely to talk to you.

Likewise. I look forward to seeing everyone at the gigs in June.


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