An Emerging Giant of Local Salsa

Percussionist Robertito Melendez brings his New York roots to LA

By Les Rivera
Published on LatinoLA: March 20, 2003

An Emerging Giant of Local Salsa

Los Angeles is experiencing an increase in the arrivals of new salsa musicians and bands, as the West Coast continues to carve a serious mark into the salsa world. An exciting new force to be reckoned with is Robertito Melendez, an exotic New Yorker, with roots in Puerto Rico.

At a recent performance on a Thursday night in Hollywood, Robertito and his band , consisting of some artists who used to perform with the late Tito Puente were performing. Walking into the venue that night, one could find a packed house, with an atmosphere and music flavor paralleling those of New York's great Palladium era! Latin people and all-American professionals were indeed hungry for NuYorican Salsa and Latin Jazz.

One medical doctor and one attorney I spoke with simply had one comment? "Robertito and his band is a local giant in the waiting!" Percussionist and band leader Roberto shares his story, while we enjoy and reflect on the emerging salsa scene growing steadily here in California.

Les Rivera: Maestro, the first time I experienced you performing I witnessed a percussionist with so much appeal and immense energy I sat there with the feeling of awe. The full house audience gave you a welcome so spectacular, I could swear the roof was about to fly off. The fairly small venue was intended for a sit-down audience. However, the small space for dancing quickly got crowded with salsa dancers. I've seen a lot of crowd reactions in my 30 years in salsa and boxing entertainment venues. However, I have to think long and hard to come up with a musician reaction paralleling the reception you got that night. What brought you to Los Angeles?

Robertito Melendez: My parents moved here in '77 and I came down to visit. I picked up a gig at a place called Cortijo Restaurant at Los Angeles Airport. That lasted for the summer. Going back and forth to Philly, where I lived at the time, I finally decided to stay in L.A. in 1982.

LR: What instruments do you play?

RM: I play all types of Latin percussion instruments.

LR: How would you categorize your style of salsa music?

RM: I like playing hard-core, old-school salsa like artists Pete El Conde, Tito Puente, Frankie Ruiz, Eddie Palmieri, Conjunto Libre, and others.

LR: What?s the name of your band?

RM: It's called Robertito's 911 Salsa Band.

LR: How did you come up with that name?

RM: By getting last minute calls from different promoters and club owners.

LR: How many band members do you have?

RM: I have various musicians; from a four-piece to a 10-piece band.

LR: What's your most memorable gig on the West Coast?

RM: There are two: One which I had on January 30th of this year at the El Floridita with my Latin Jazz project. Then I had another one in 1991 at the KingKing Club, a jam session for the Mambo Kings, the movie.

LR: Sometimes you perform as a guest soloist with other bands. Who have you performed with?

RM: Poncho Sanchez, Francisco Aguabella, Pete El Conde, Ray Sepulveda. The most recent ones were with Tony Vega at the Conga Room, as well as with El Chicano, Tierra, Bobby Matos, and the Ray Armando Quintet.

LR: You are also a teacher in the Los Angeles school system. What do you teach?

RM: I teach percussion in the public and private school system.

LR: Are you working towards a CD release at this time?

RM: Yes, I am!

LR: Being a NuYorican, do you experience the West Coast salsa scene differently from that of the East Coast?

RM: Yes I do. The salsa dancing and moves here are okay, but I wish dancers would pay more attention and feel the vibes of the music. But, you know, culture is different everywhere you go. I guess you could say the salsa dance here on the West Coast has a unique athletic style that works for them.

LR: When you sign your autographs, you always write the word "ache" after your name. What does that mean?

RM: "Ac-he" is an African Yoruba word that means blessing, power, and cosmic energy. When I write it on autographs or say it to people, I am wishing them good luck, good health and prosperity from Robertito.

LR: What's next for the artist Robertito Melendez?

RM: Next step would be to maintain my own band, to continue teaching and doing percussion clinics, and hopefully have my own teaching facility, where I can have different types of arts and artists displayed.

LR: Except for music, what other interests do you have?

RM: I like to mediate. I read theology, I like listening to old time Latin/Cuban music and Latin/Cuban movies on VHS. Classical stuff.

LR: How can people contact you to find out about your performance schedule and bookings?

RM: They can e-mail me at

LR: Robertito, it has been a pleasure interviewing you. I am looking forward to seeing you perform again soon.

RM: Thank you, and mucho Ache to everyone!

Robertito's classes are as follows:

Saturdays: Ramona Hall Cultural Center, Highland Park, from 12 noon to 3 p.m., (323) 276-3021. Wednesdays: Old Town Conservatory of Music, Pasadena, from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., (626) 577-0049. Mondays thru Fridays: Robertito's Burbank Studio, private Afro Cuban percussion classes, (818) 567-9924.

Contact Robertito for his schedule and performances at venues, such as El Floridita and Tropical Latin Caribbean, Inc?s live Salsa and Latin jazz events.

About Les Rivera:
Les Rivera is a freelance writer, covering New York-Puerto Rico-Cuba style salsa/mambo music, and the sport of boxing. He is also a Los Angeles salsa events promoter. (626) 795-9763, e-mail: His website:

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