By Donna Herman

Like salsa music, Flaco Navaja was born and raised in New York City, his roots in Puerto Rico, salsa’s too, with an added heavy dose of genetics from Cuba, other Latin American countries and Africa.  In Navaja’s autobiographical, one man with a band show, Evolution of a Sonero, we discover that they were destined for each other from the moment he took the stage in his 3rd grade talent show to sing the English language version of the Menudo song “Because of Love.”  OK, he concedes that singing Menudo got him hooked on performing, not necessarily salsa. Salsa came a couple of years later in his abuela’s living room.

The other thing we learn right off the bat in Evolution of a Sonero, which opened Wednesday night as part of The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, is that a sonero isn’t just a singer of salsa music. A sonero is a master, an interpreter, and, most importantly, an improvisor. As such, a sonero has to be intimately familiar with the structure of a “soneo” or song.  So, the organizing principle that Navaja uses to tell us about both himself and being a sonero, are the elements of a song and how they are put together.

Salsa, Navaja, The Bronx, Hip Hop, Janis Joplin, Charlie Chaplin, poetry slams and Viet Nam.  Evolution of a Sonero is a boiling, bubbling stew that puts out a tantalizing aroma that will have you dancing in your seat, laughing, groaning, humming, and clapping.  Although 90% of the songs are in Spanish, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know the language.  We were told during the introduction to the evening by Jorge Merced, the director, that we would understand in our hearts what the songs were saying.  And he was right.  The stories defining each verse and bridge in a song matched the mood of the song that went along with it and the rhythms that were playing underneath it all.

And besides, all the stories were in English…mostly.  But come on, if you live in New York, you pick up a little Spanish just like you pick up a few words in Yiddish and Italian, and, well…you know what I mean.  If you hear someone say “She’s meshuggenah for schlepping that big bag,” or “Cálleta la boca!” you know what they’re saying.

While it’s clear from the narrative Navaja unfolds that he is a sponge that soaked up everything available to him in the rich cultural incubator of New York City he was born into, he is, first and foremost, Boricua.  Layer onto that some South Bronx, Hip Hop, time served at the Nuyorican Poets Café, some acting, appearances on Seasons 3, 4, 5 & 6 of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, a killer sense of humor, a wicked fast intellect, and a soulful voice, and you have an inimitable, unique sonero. He’s also had the smarts to surround himself with the Razor Blades, an extraordinary band of salsa musicians who seem so in tune with him and each other it’s as if they’re a single organism.

I’ve been to a lot of concerts and a lot of theater in my day, starting with The Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965 as my first stadium concert.  I’ve seen most of the greats, and even more unknowns, in every genre from rock ‘n roll to classical, country to R&B, salsa to jazz.  And I have to say, that while I have probably not been to as many salsa concerts as some other genres, I have never had anything but a great time listening to live salsa.  And Evolution of a Sonero was the single best salsa experience I’ve ever had. I was compelled to move in my seat by the rhythms, moved by the storytelling, educated by the material and charmed by Flaco Navaja.  There are four more performances on Saturday and Sunday January 12th and 13th, don’t miss it.

Evolution of a Sonero Written and performed by Flaco Navaja, Directed by Jorge B. Merced

The Razor Blades:  Carlos Cuevas (Piano); Waldo Chavez (Bass); Gabe Lugo (Percussion); Victor Pablo (Percussion); Hommy Ramos (Trombone)

Lighting Designed by Lucrecia Briceño; developed in part with support from Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater and its Step Up Artists in Residence initiative.  Presented by The Public Theater Under The Radar Festival, 425 Lafayette Street, NYC.  For tickets visit: www.publictheater.org.