Salsa Picante

Richmond’s Bio Ritmo returns home for a benefit concert.

For almost three decades, Richmond’s Bio Ritmo has been the hardest hitting salsa band to come out of Virginia, inspired by the classic NuYorican sound as made popular by New York’s Fania label all over the world in the 1970s. They have released more than a dozen albums and singles, but in more recent years many of the group’s members have focused on other projects. On Dec. 28, Bio Ritmo will reunite for a rare live show at Richmond’s HofGarden to benefit relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. We checked in with bandleader and pianist Marlysse Simmons.

Bio Ritmo has been blazing the trail for almost 27 years, but you have played less in recent years. What have you been up to?

Yikes, has it been 27 years now? We never had our 25 year anniversary party, darn. We are still around, just currently attending more to our other lives and projects, but I emphasize we are still around. Last time we performed in Richmond was in September with the Richmond Symphony, which was an amazing honor for us all. I’ve been living in Brooklyn for the last year, so it’s been difficult to have any regular gigs but I’ll come down as needed. Next year we should be releasing our 2003 self-titled album on vinyl and also perhaps the live album I’ve been talking about for too many years. Everyone is super busy with other projects plus many members are now with kids.

A lot of members in the band are of Puerto Rican descent. How much of the Puerto Rican sound is in your music?

Puerto Rico is dear to our heart. Half the band is actually with blood ties to the island, but we all feel very personal ties to this amazing place. We are influenced by so many genres of music but our roots and biggest influences are from Puerto Rico.

Did Hurricane Maria affect any of you personally?

Rei’s [Alvarez, lead singer] parents are still without a steady flow of electricity and running water. As they are up in the mountains, it’ll probably be a little while before their situation is totally back to some type of normal. Their house is fine but lots of trees are down and tons of debris are still being cleaned up. Coco’s [Barez, percussionist] immediate family and Jorge Negron [Bio Ritmo’s founder] are ok. They are with electricity since they are in the city. Basically everyone says they are okay, at least who has a roof over their head, a way to get food, water and all, but there are so many areas that are struggling hard to get the essentials. Cell phone service isn’t back for many either and that causes lots of issues. Going to the store is an all day affair. It takes Rei’s mom hours to get into the parking lot, hours to get into store, then the shelves are mostly empty. The official aid is slow and wrapped with lots of red tape. What seems to be working best are the smaller non-profits and community organizations that have been personally delivering supplies and working with individual communities. There are lots of organizations in cities across the USA, collecting and getting supplies into the hands of people.  In Richmond there is RVA For Puerto Rico and in Washington, D.C., there is Unidos Por Puerto Rico.  

Much of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure is lost, but is the spirit of the people broken?

Their spirit is definitely not broken but people are tired. Yes, many people have left, but I see many of the younger generation actually opting to stay because they know they are the future and the ones who are strong enough to make the island thrive again. Especially among the artist and musician communities.  

On Dec. 28, Bio Ritmo will play a benefit show for Puerto Rico at the HofGarden in Richmond. How do you plan to help? 

Our show will benefit The PRIMA Fund [Puerto Rico Independent Musicians and Artists] which is organized by a mix of folks between New York and Puerto Rico including a friend and colleague, singer and songwriter Ani Cordero. To be an independent musician and artist already presents enough hurdles, so I can’t imagine how difficult it is after Maria, with venues closing, festivals being cancelled, studios without electricity, funding disappearing. We will be donating the full door charge after our cost to rent the sound equipment and of course 7 percent performance tax that goes to the city. HofGarden has been very generous to donate the space and will also donate 10 percent of the bar sales. We’ve asked for $15 minimum donations and will send one check to PRIMA, and if people want to make a larger tax deductible donation directly to the organization they will be able to do that as well.

After almost three decades as a group, it’s difficult to always find something new. How do you keep things fresh?

As it’s been a few months since we played, things will definitely be fresh at the show on the 28th. And in general to have everyone focusing on their own thing for a little while I think helps us not get sick of each other, so when we are back to more regular rehearsals and performances we’ll have a new inspirations.

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