By George De Stefano
(Edited from Descarga Newsletter, March 1993)

…Fiol has been called “idiosyncratic” and a “maverick independent” by critics, and it’s those qualities that paradoxically have both limited his audience and make him worth hearing. Half-Italian (he looks a bit like Robert De Niro with a mustache) and half-Puerto Rican, he understood Italian before he learned Spanish as a teenager in high school.

This living example of multiculturalism plays an updated version of classic Cuban son montuno, or “son moderno” as he sometimes calls it. His provocative lyrics, which often depict harsh urban realities, couldn’t be further from the insipidity of today’s salsa romántica. Fiol’s sound and sensibility flout the salsa mainstream, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

A trained artist (he has a degree in fine arts from Hunter College), he became a musician in the early 70’s. For several years he played conga and sang coro with several New York salsa groups, and in 1974 he co-founded the band Saoco.

After two LP’s, several hit singles, and a gig at Madison Square Garden, Fiol split from Saoco. For several years after, he recorded on the SAR label founded by charanga singer Roberto Torres.



Fiol’s SAR recordings include the superb Fe, Esperanza y Caridad (1980), El Secreto (1981), featuring such stellar musicians as trumpeter Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, pianist Alfredo Valdés Jr., and tres player Charlie Rodríguez, and La Ley de la Jungla (1983). In 1983 Fiol started his own label, Corazón, and over the next three years issued as many albums. With Corazón, Fiol enjoyed artistic control, but he lacked adequate distribution for his recordings.

Frustrated by his struggles with the Latin music industry, he disbanded his group and took a year off from the music scene. But in 1987 the New York-based independent label El Abuelo contacted him, and in 1989 he released Renacimiento. Fiol and his son Orlando, a blind, classically-trained prodigy who won the Itzak Perlman Prize in 1988, played all the instruments, except for the horns, and performed lead and backup vocals.

With Sonero, a compilation album released on Virgin/Earthworks, the best material from his Corazón LP’s got international distribution for the first time. Critics raved over the album, with one noting that “in a just world, Fiol would sell a thousand copies of Sonero for every one of the latest from Ruben Blades.”

Henry Fiol’s music carreer is mainly the result of two happy accidents. Although his father used to play Latin records at home, the young Henry wasn’t moved by the sounds. Not until he visited his relatives in Puerto Rico when he was a teenager and attended a performance by Rafael Cortijo’s group, with Ismael Rivera on vocals. “They were in their heyday then,” says Fiol, “and they really knocked me out. After that, I really started getting into Latin music, buying records, and going to the Latin clubs.”

But the real turning point came when Fiol heard an old record in a Cuban bar in Tarrytown, New York.

“I was eating lunch in the bar, and somebody played this record on the jukebox, and I hear this (sings, sum-da-dum-ding-ding), and it was like somebody hit me over the head. Wow, what is this?!--- this is funky, I never heard nothing like this.”
This head-spinning ditty was El Carretero by Guillermo Portabales, a Cuban country singer.

“All it was was two guitars and a conga, and him singing. Not even a guiro. Everything stripped down to the bare elements. I really liked the guitar work, and the way this guy sang sounded so sincere. His way of telling the message was so deep. Each word he was savoring, and he was singing with a rubato, behind the beat.

I started doing research, getting all of these Cuban country records: Portabales, Ramon Velóz, some Punto Cubano, which is real old-fashioned Spanish-based guitar music in 6/8 time, and also some Pio Leyva recordings. I liked the way these guys phrased when they sang and also the emphasis on the message in the lyric. I related to that and tried to incorporate it into my style.”

Fiol developed a sound that married Spanish-derived “guajiro” (country) styling with urban black rhythms.
"My music is son montuno," says Fiol. “I don’t use timbales, just conga and bongo, that’s conjunto. And the conjunto bands base themselves after the Sonora Mantancera, Arsensio Rodríguez and Chapottín. That’s a very urban, black Cubano sound. I use an element of that, but I use more of that white Spaniard country kind of stuff. That’s where my vocal style comes from. So I’m taking the country music and making it hipper by putting that funky, black, urban conjunto thing in it.”

Fiol uses the standard conjunto instrumentation---trumpets, piano, guitar, conga and other percussion, and bass---but he adds an unorthodox element, the tenor sax, which imparts a sultry, sophisticated, urban feel to his típico sound…

…Besides having a unique sound, Fiol is that rare thing in salsa---a true auteur who controls every aspect of his musical production. “I’m really an anachronism because most other salsa artists don’t write the tunes. They usually don’t even select the tunes; the producer does that. Most of the singers aren’t even present when the music is being put together, the producer is taking care of that. They come in, learn what they have to sing, sing it, and they’re done. Sometimes they’re not even there for the mix.

“But I write most of the tunes. And I never just send my arrangements out to an arranger; I’m always involved in it. I might not do the actual voicings of the harmonies, but I give the arranger the bass line, the horn lines, the piano riffs, the guitar licks, etc.”

Although Sonero introduced him to a broader audience, Fiol’s following still consists mainly of Latinos. He regularly tours most of Latin America, and is especially popular in Colombia where his recordings are best-sellers…

…“I look at myself as an artist, you don’t judge an artist on one painting, it’s the entire body of work. So you gotta keep on creating so that when you die you can say, I left a body of work, for whatever it’s worth. Some albums are better than others, some songs are better than others, but it’s not for me to judge. I guess the people will judge.”

In this fan’s judgement, Henry Fiol, New York’s Italo-Rican urban guajiro, is an essential artist, a true original whom no real aficionado of Latin music can afford to pass by.


The Problem with Henry Fiol

"I'm a New York kid. The idea of me living in a private home and mowing a lawn is just ridiculous. I was born on the streets of New York, I've lived here all my life, I'm an apartment dweller, and I just identify with the city. Native New Yorkers are like a different breed, and that's just who I am." ""

<<Read More>>

The new Interview

To read an in-depth Henry Fiol interview done by British music journalist John Child please visit the link...

<<Interview at>>


Henry Fiol