Photo: Gina Vergel

Los Musicos de La Verdad keep Joe Arroyo’s music alive

By | 05 March, 2012

The important business of keeping the legacy of Colombian music great Joe Arroyo alive was never the subject of debate for his backing band, now on their own as Los Musicos de La Verdad.

When asked why they chose to form a “new” band, they shot me puzzling looks.

For these musicians, sitting around waiting for family members involved with Arroyo’s estate to settle a dispute over matters including band name rights was not an option, said vocalist Niber Velasquez.

“Playing music — his music, which many of us participated in co-authoring – is what we do,” said Velasquez, one of three vocalists in the group. “We can’t picture not playing this music.”

I met with six of 13 members of Los Musicos de La Verdad in Barranquilla, the port city Arroyo so famously paid homage to in his monster hit, “En Barranquilla Me Quedo”. It was Carnavales weekend and they sat down to discuss their new endeavour before performing at a private Carnaval party in a modest home in the Los Andes section of Barranquilla.

Victor “Wachi” Melendez, a former backup singer with the Latin Brothers, was recruited by fellow Cartagenero Álvaro José Arroyo in 1981. Arroyo, then a member of Fruko y Sus Tesos, was venturing out to become a solo artist. He would need a backing band and formed La Verdad. Melendez would go on to work with Arroyo for 26 years.

Joe Arroyo y La Verdad would gain great success with a unique tropical sound that blended salsa, cumbia, porro, soca, kompa, zouk and other music from the African Diaspora.

They recorded hundreds of songs. Among the most famous were “Rebelion” (Melendez’ favorite song to perform), “Tania, El Ausente” and “En Barranquilla me Quedo”, dedicated to the citizens who would help propel Arroyo to global fame.

By the time Arroyo died of multi-organ failure in July 2011, Melendez hadn’t played with him for six years. But he signed on with Los Musicos because they “are the true musicians” of Arroyo’s famed band, he said.

“We are the ones who always worked with him and we must continue his legacy,” said Melendez, who admitted he wouldn’t be surprised if other “Verdad” wannabe bands may pop up in the future.

As for Los Musicos, Velasquez said they’ll continue Arroyo’s legacy by performing songs from his extensive repertory.

“But we’ll also play beloved songs that weren’t heard so much when Joe was on tour. There is much [of Arroyo’s music] to be shared,” he added.

Los Musicos are a soft-spoken group of professionals who recall their time with Arroyo – and his passing – with great fondness and realism. Arroyo was a huge star and even though they travelled the world with him many times over, they couldn’t just pop into the hospital to see him when he fell ill.

“We didn’t have the opportunity to speak to him right before he died,” said Velasquez. “They rarely let us in to see him. It was limited to only a few family members and we understood that. We thought he’d be back. He always was.”

Arroyo famously struggled with drugs and health issues and had beat death a few times before. His song, “A Mi Dios Todo Le Debo”, is said to be dedicated to God for “blessing” him after rumoured drug-related health complications almost killed him.

Tú papa, tu eres muy grande papa
Eres bendito papa, yo soy testigo papa…

But 2011 would be different.

Most of Los Musicos were in Bogota in July attending an event related to the premiere of the popular RCN soap opera El Joe: La Leyenda, when Arroyo, who suffered from renal issues, was admitted to the hospital.

“By the time we got back, they were burying him,” Velasquez said, recalling how Barranquilla and all of Colombia’s coast mourned Arroyo for what seemed like months.

Did they think he’d recover? Naturally, Velasquez said. “He had some health issues throughout his life but he was always able to perform.”

The thing band members will miss the most about Arroyo is his company.

“He was a very noble man who respected us as peers,” Velasquez said.

“There were so many times where we’d be gathered around as he’d talk to us at length,” added Melendez. “He was very spiritual and very humble.”

Rolan Racedo, a bass player who toured with Arroyo for seven years, said he’d miss his personality. Racedo recalled being on tour in Chile when a bevy of journalists were left waiting for Joe for hours in the hotel lobby.

“They were visibly angry and some even threatened to write negative stories about how he refused to do media. But when Joe finally came down and started talking to them, they loved him,” he said. “He was that kind of guy. Charming, magnetic, happy.

“He took care of us. He would insist we were staying in the same hotel as he was and rode in limousines. He didn’t need to do that and many artists don’t. He was a happy man and those actions only highlighted that. If he had 100 years on this earth, he was fully happy for 90,” Racedo said.

Los Musicos are playing throughout Colombia and have plans to tour the United States and other countries they hit in the past with Arroyo himself.

Do they foresee many challenges?

“We have a huge responsibility to share his music with his fans,” Velasquez said. “This music makes them happy and we must continue playing it.

“As sort of the leader of this band, it will be tough as I am singing some of his most famous hits,” said Velasquez, whose favorite song to perform is “El Chande”.

“My voice is sort of like his because I can hit most of his notes, but I am not him,” he said. “I can only dedicate my performances to keeping his legacy alive.”

Los Musicos plan to someday release original music but will never stop performing songs from Arroyo’s portfolio of tropical hits, Velasquez added.

Los Musicos de le Verdad are:

Niber Velasquez, vocalist
Victor “Wachi” Melendez, vocalist
Nando Malo, vocalist
Luis Padilla: trumpet (and director of the band)
Miguel Marceles: trumpet
Rafael Oyaga: trumpet
Marlon Fontalvo: sax
Yesid Arzuza: trombone
Marcos Robles: trombone
Antonio Molina: pianist
Rolan Racedo: bass
Emil Galvis: conga
Emo Sarmiento: timbal
Tedy Villanueva: bongo

With additional reporting by Lily Vasquez.


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