If Willy Chirino wins his first Grammy, the award will probably go right next to the concrete block the Latin-music singer keeps in his home to remind him of another life-changing moment.
The block is a memento of a rescue Chirino pulled off in 1976. While driving to a gig, Chirino saw a car careen into a canal, with two men trapped inside.
Instinctively, Chirino dived into the water, and then used a concrete block to bust out the vehicle’s rear windshield — freeing the two men. Some time later, the men gave him the concrete block as a gift of appreciation.
More than three decades into his career, the Cuban-born Chirino has received another form of recognition — his first ever Grammy nomination.
“To get a Grammy after 35 years of a career, it says a lot about the artist,” Chirino says. “If there is something that is hard in our industry, it’s to be able to maintain a long career and to cross several different generations.”
Chirino’s album, “Son del Alma” (“Song from the Soul”), is nominated in the salsa/merengue category in Wednesday’s Grammy Awards gala. It’s been a long time coming for an artist who toiled in Miami’s nightclubs before building a repertoire of gold and platinum records and an array of songs that include several anthems for Cubans, both on the island and abroad.
Part of the Miami sound
Since the 1970s, Chirino has built a career of danceable, crowd-pleasing tunes by mixing traditional Cuban music with rock and Brazilian rhythms to carve his own niche in tropical music. Many call it the “Miami sound,” a style made more recognizable by the influence of Gloria Estefan’s Miami Sound Machine, which performed in Spanish before crossing over into the American pop world. Other members of the “Miami sound” include Hansel y Raul and Carlos Oliva.
Chirino, who sings in Spanish, points out that today’s tropical pop — led by Ricky Martin, and including Paulina Rubio, Shakira, Marc Anthony, and others — has its roots in the 1970s. Chirino was fusing rock and roll with tropical rhythms before it was popular.
“Back in the early days, if you did what I did ... not only the record companies but the radio stations didn’t know what to do with your music, where to place it, because everything was so stereotyped,” Chirino says. “You were salsero, merenguero, ballad or rock. That’s it.”
“If you look at the beginnings of tropical pop, you will find it in our music in Miami.”
His song “Un Tipo Tipico” (“A Typical Guy”), is an example of such fusion, partly because it references John Lennon and may be the first Spanish-language song ever to use guitar licks from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” Chirino, who played rock music as a young drummer, says he borrowed guitar rhythms, bass lines and horn licks from the masters.
“I am a Beatles maniac,” Chirino says. “The Stones, the Kinks, Hendrix, of course Led Zeppelin, the Who ... great bands.”
Still, while the rock influence is significant, where Chirino really scores is by making songs that get your feet and hips moving.
“If I’m writing, I start dancing myself to the song to make sure it has the qualities for a dance song,” Chirino said. “Whatever I do has to be danceable. Your feet can’t get stuck.”
The ‘salsa poet’Meanwhile, Chirino’s lyrics remain honest, moving, eloquent and revealing. He’s been called the “salsa poet.”
“If you have the opportunity to talk about your life in a song, you can save a lot of money on psychologists and psychiatrists,” Chirino says.
One of his most popular songs is “Soy,” a tune that has been recorded by several other artists. As in many of his songs, Chirino bares his soul, singing in Spanish: “I’m also a liar, vain and a good actor/But I’d like to be lucky in love.”
Much of Chirino’s inspiration comes from his personal experience as an immigrant. Chirino, like hundreds of thousands of others, fled Cuba after Fidel Castro assumed power, coming to Miami in the early 1960s. He learned English on the streets, which also taught him about life in America.
Chirino, like many Cubans, despises Castro. He considers him a tyrant who deprives his people of freedom while driving a wedge between exiles and their homeland. Chirino reserves a sliver of hope that one day he will be able to return to Cuba.
“I tell my kids that to me, the pain and suffering of the Cuban people is my own pain and suffering. It is frustrating and painful and very bad experience,” Chirino said.
His “Nuestro Dia Ya Viene Llegando (“Our Day is Coming”, with lyrics such as “I’m lucky to feel Cuban to the death, to be a lover of liberty,” has become an anthem for Cubans everywhere.
His Grammy nomination for “Son del Alma” marks how far he’s come, from his childhood in rural Cuba to the life-saving rescue in 1976 to his days playing Miami’s famed Tropigala nightclub.
But it’s all part of a life’s work that, Grammy or no Grammy, proves rewarding for Chirino each time he hits the stage or makes a new record.
“I’m not saying I have achieved greatness, but every time I go on stage people seem to have a good time and people enjoy themselves,” Chirino says. “If you can touch different emotions within a performance or a record, you have achieved the real reason for an artist to exist.”