In the business that is the music industry, it is no mystery that the tales and paths navigated by those working in it vary from person to person. Musicians are most certainly not immune to this sort of thing. And depending on who you encounter, some either have no musical legacy to speak of or come from a long lineage of players and instrumentalists.
“I was fortunate and very blessed to know what I wanted to do in my teens,” explains Orlando-based producer-songwriter El Bles:
I already decided that I wanted to pursue music. In order to do this, I needed to relocate. For some reason I just felt that I had a calling in the United States. Up until that point I had been born and raised in Puerto Rico. I had already learned the language [English]. So I had decided I need to go to the United States of America and see what life is like and pursue my dream.
The move for El Bles came at a time when he legally was an adult — 18 years old — but by most standards he would not be considered one from a maturity standpoint. El Bles, born Eli Omar Rios, packed up his possessions, his music gear, and moved from the lush 3-D terrain known as “La Isla del Encanto” to the flat land of sunny Orlando. He was now living in a town where the only depth comes from a park where an imaginary rodent resides with many of his pals. “There’s mucho sazón where I’m from, and coming to Orlando everything was so organized, clean and so cookie-cutter that it was a bit disturbing for me. I literally felt like I was on another planet,” El Bles laughs when describing the initial culture shock he experienced immediately after his move to “The City Beautiful” in the late 1990s.
Eventually El Bles would make due and hit his stride. In 2004 he made his production debut working on more than a few tracks for the late Puerto Rican rapper Mexicano 777, an artist whom he grew up listening to back home. Five years later he released his debut instrumental venture, “BlesTruMentals.” Last summer he broke through releasing the hip-hop and son monturo-fused single “La Gente Pide,” which has been viewed as a bit of a musical triumph for the veteran musician. Yet with the march towards success, El Bles still hasn’t forgotten where he started and where he came from.
Born in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico but raised in Carolina, adjacent to a public housing complex, El Bles grew up in an extremely musical family that is also tightknit. His grandparents are still a functioning bolero guitar-singing duo that travels the world, and both of his parents are musicians. In fact, he was formally introduced to music at a very early age by his father Eligio Rios, a classically trained violinist and pianist who played with La Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico.
The elder Rios taught his son how to play the violin from age four to nine. In addition to his classical work and teaching duties, Eligio Rios would play countless piano gigs with the seminal salsa outfit Clave Tres. This would serve as a musical foundation for El Bles as his father worked with the likes of Ray Barretto, Cheo Feliciano, Sonora Ponceña, Willie Colón and Bobby Valentín—the very artists who would serve as sources of inspiration providing a solid foundation for him to build upon musically. He would eventually pair his love for Latin soul with classic hip hop of years past. The affinity for the latter genre would come via his private education on a military base where he was able to immerse himself in the American pop culture of his youth.
What attracted me to it was just the beats. The percussion. That boom bap. The snares and the kicks. This really resonates. It hits home. And around that time I started play drums in the [school] band. It just made sense to me. That American culture really grew on me. We would have cyphers in high school and I discovered the art of beatboxing. I was always that guy in cyphers that dropped beats.
This time around it looks like all the hard work El Bles has put in over the years is paying some solid dividends and everything is coming full circle. His latest effort, I Am Latin Soul, is a tribute of sorts to the late great Ray Barretto’s 1968 crossover classic Acid. The EP contains some very trippy yet soulful tracks such as “Soula”, “Oyeloj” and “I am Latin Soul” which accentuate the perfect marriage of the two musical gernes El Bles has presided over for the past decade and a half. It’s safe to say that I Am Latin Soul has garnered some well-deserved praise and recognition for the music producing veteran. El Bles has even earned a spot playing at this year’s SxSW conference in Austin, Texas as part of SOL LIFE SxSW. The showcase is being billed as a platform to spotlight progressive sounds and the Sacramento, California-based Sol Collective’s new cooperative label and model grassroots touring network. The show will be held on Saturday March 19 at Speakeasy Austin.
As for the EP and its layered influences, El Bless offered the following:
The more I started admiring and loving Fania music, the more I started picking out who my favorites were. Kind of like you’ve got Wu-Tang and you’re all ‘Ghostface, that’s the guy! Hands down.’ They were all superheroes to me. They were all like X-Men. And I was playing congas at the time and I wanted to know who the conguero was, and Barretto was that dude. The more I studied his records, the more I loved how this man reinvented himself. Every single record would sound totally different. As much as I loved the Willie Colons and Hector LaVoes I was like ‘Man, I’m Barretto! If I was in La Fania I would love to be Barretto.’
I’ve been working on my sound for over 10 years. I wanted to develop a sound that would pay homage to that era, but at the same time sounded relevant to today’s music but still keeping the essence of what that music was, the soul that the music has that I feel it doesn’t have nowadays as far as Latin music. Find a void and fill it. I still felt like I needed to do it. I feel like I had a calling to do it.
Daniel Rivera is a host and entertainment reporter from New York City. Many know Daniel as media jack of all trades who has an all-out hustle, immeasurable knowledge of pop culture and geeky charm. Follow him @DanielRiveraTV.