Moving Salsa Forward: The Life and Times of Carlos “Cano” Estremera

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As if 2020 hadn’t already caused enough pain, a beloved, vanguard of Salsa, Cano Estremera, passed away in a hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico on October 28, 2020 after a long battle with multiple health complications. He was 62 years old and had endured a double lung transplant in late 2018 in response to a diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis. It’s yet another tragedy in a long list of tragedies this year has given us. According to himself and most of the Latin American music scene, Cano was the greatest Salsa improvisor, ever to grace the stage. Singing with the likes of Celia Cruz, Bobby Valentin, Ruben Blades and others, he dominated lyrical improvisation like few ever could.

Before there were rap battles, there were literal salsa duals where singers would improvise lyrics to see who was most talented, who could lob the best insults, who sang the most complex and poetic rhymes. Arguably, Cano Estremera was the best of all time and spent his life raising awareness of Salsa as an art form, especially when the genre was losing notoriety to other musical styles like Reggaeton, Merengue and Bachata.

Born Carlos Enrique Estremera Colón, in Santurce, Puerto Rico, he was raised in Barrio Obrero and the government housing project Las Casas. His parents were too poor to give him a stable upbringing and allowed Cano to stay with a retired Army soldier and his wife, who were childless, and took a liking to Cano, raising him with a strict moral, Roman Catholic code. Even still, because Cano was an albino child in a rough neighborhood, he was bullied relentlessly. For this reason, he often said he was a unique product of his upbringing; an idiosyncratic mixture of moralism, poverty, bullying and an unquenchable curiosity. The bullying, in particular, he felt was formative and instructive, giving him a sense of strength of character until he says he became the bully, which could always be seen in his braggadocio, swagger and confidence on the stage.

Cano wanted to be a neurosurgeon, a doctor, or a lawyer but, in Las Casas, the only avenue available to him was music not higher education. Surrounded by talented musicians in Barrio Obrero, all “geniuses without an education” according to Cano himself, he became part of a revolutionary new group called Los Pleneros del Quinto Olivo and La Orquesta Mulenze 76, bands playing Bomba y Plena with unique percussive arrangements, which included every member of the musical group acting as singer.

By 1978 he met the famous Bobby Valentin, a Puerto Rican bassist and band leader. In his self-titled album, Bobby Valentin made Cano Estremera the lead singer for the band, propelling the group to fame with the hit song “La Boda de Ella”. They went on to record six albums together, which included such danceable salsa classics as: “El Caiman”, “El Muñeco de la Ciudad”, and “Me Quede Con Las Ganas”.

 

In 1984, Cano and Bobby Valentin parted ways after a disagreement. Valentin was in the process of starting his own label and wanted Cano to headline his very own band alongside other acts with the record label. But Cano, who was uninterested in having his own band at the time and felt comfortable with the way things were, disagreed with Valentin. Describing the situation in this 2014 interview while on tour in Peru, Cano said it was due to his lack of faith in Bobby’s logistical capacity for growing a Salsa label that he decided to leave Bobby and finally start his own band. He goes on to explain, in the same interview, that he had noticed his own notoriety was not where he felt it ought to be throughout Latin America and he wanted to sing his own songs, not someone else’s.

It would be two years before Cano’s first solo album, “El Niño de Oro”, came out in 1986, lead by the hit “Viernes Social”. His most popular song with more than three million downloads to date, according to Spotify, is “Amame en Camara Lenta”, a romantic Salsa tune that came out on his “Salvaje! ’88” album released in 1988. Cano would churn out eight albums and various singles, many of them self-produced.

It was unfortunate that he embarked on his solo career at a time Salsa’s cultural influence in Puerto Rico, and Latin American in general, was waning. At a time when Reggaeton and Merengue were taking over Puerto Rican airwaves, Cano fought hard to keep Salsa relevant and was determined, not only to move Salsa forward as a musical genre, but to carve a unique name for himself within its musical space. The combination of an expansive vocabulary, brash fearlessness on stage, and a deep knowledge of Salsa’s Jibaro origins, Cano began to show off his improvisational prowess.

Cano also frequently combined jazz scat singing with his improvised lyrics on live performances. With a conviction that to consider yourself a Salsa singer, one has to be able to freestyle, Cano set out to prove himself the undisputed champion of lyrical improvisation, calling himself “El Dueño del Soneo” (The Owner of Freestyle).

The first time he tried free-styling was in a concert in Guanica, Puerto Rico and when Cano tells the story, he says it was essentially a game, a dare, in which, mostly out of boredom, the band challenged him to freestyle as many unrepeated, improvised verses as he could. He got to 100 verses. At the next concert, 120. Soon he got to 200. He says each time he achieved a new record, he was mentally exhausted from the effort.

He began to challenge other troubadours to lyrical duals where he would often win, though his improvisations during those duals included insults, which caused rifts between him and other artists the way dis tracks in American Hip-Hop or Reggaeton do now. It was obvious controversy would follow Cano, not only because of the content of his improvisations, but because as the freestyle king, he became a target for others looking to take his crown. His improvisations often lead to censures in other Latin American countries followed by apologies.

 At a concert in Cali, Colombia, Cano improvised a few lines that alluded to throwing uncooperative women in a “casa de pique” (an abattoir). Cano was banned from ever returning to the city of Cali due to the public outcry.

Cano Estremera was influenced by the likes of Justo Bentancourt, Hector Lavoe, Cheo Feliciano, Ruben Blades con Willie Colon, Ismael Rivera, y Marvin Santiago. It seemed his life was completely dedicated to the success and elevation of Salsa as an art-form, which to Cano implicitly meant all true Salseros would share in that success as well—so long as he was always the king of the free-styling.

His music often spun humorous stories about difficult subjects, spanning from infidelity to his own condition as an albino man. Drawing from many different influences he tried to impose a rigor on Salsa while knowing that he was constantly experimenting with the form; and he was the first to admit his experiments were far from perfect. Cano said, “We also cannot tie ourselves to traditionalism…I consider myself a vanguard singer and I am conscious of the fact that the greatest errors are the ones I commit because I’m experimenting.”

Cano was able to admit his faults even as he shined a spotlight on every one else’s during improvisations, and he explained how he was able to do this saying, “To get to the point where I can criticize other…you first have to leave your own body, take an astral voyage, look at yourself from the outside, to determine what you truly are, then you can talk about others…”

Over the last three years, he developed a condition common to some albinos, that of pulmonary fibrosis. The severity of his illness left him with little choice but to undergo a double lung transplant in November 2018, which he described as “exchanging one disease for another.” The transplant, performed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was a resounding success. But he was left paralyzed for the rest of his life. After fighting an infection since last May, the 62 year old Cano passed away in the hospital where he had been sequestered for over a week. He is survived by his wife, Yamira Arce, and his three children.

Since his passing, there has been an outpouring of grief all across Latin America—from Panama to Peru, Argentina to Colombia, from New York City to Los Angeles, and most of all in Puerto Rico. Other members of Salsa royalty from Ruben Blades to Gilberto Santa Rosa have expressed their condolences on social media.

Over a 40 year period, Cano consistently had his finger on two different pulses: what the people wanted to hear and what Salsa herself wanted to say. Cano Estremera felt the responsibility of listening to both pulses and doing the best he could to be the best that ever was, “…because sometimes you see yourself in the position of having been commissioned, not because you wanted it, but because it was your fate, and what you do with that responsibility will eventually be weighed by history…” History will credit Carlos “Cano” Estremera with helping Salsa not become folk music, rarely listened to. His bombastic personality not only made him the King of Improvisation but kept Salsa at the top of Latin American music.

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