ROCK / A hot taste of Dominica: Philip Sweeney talks to the Dominican merengue man, Cuco Valoy, and, below, finds there's plenty more where he came from

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The Independent Culture
SABOR - flavour, tastiness - is a word much used by Latin Americans in praising tropical dance music. It is a quality Cuco Valoy possesses in spades. If the culinary equivalent of Juan-Luis Guerra's music (see below) is a souffle - light, clever and international - Valoy's is mondongo, the rich, dark Dominican cowsfoot stew which Valoy relished until recent digestive problems turned him into a reluctant semi-vegetarian.

Although his bands have featured other great singers, no voice in 30 years has been more flavoursome than Valoy's own, whether in humorous jaunty peasant mode or in superbly melodramatic salsa thrillers such as 'Mendigo de amor' (Beggar of Love), where the trumpets and trombones 'cry with emotion' over a hypnotic piano tumbao, stinging 12-string guitar, chanted male chorus and powerful, swooping bass, played by his brother Martin. Women feature prominently among Valoy's 300 hundred or so compositions. Often, as in 'Mendigo de amor', they are betrayers and heartbreakers - key words in a Valoy lexicon would be feminine adjectives such as condenada (accursed), mentirosa (lying) and abusadora (mistreating). In this, Valoy is close to the country-like bachata sub-style known as canciones de amargue (songs of bitterness) - though the maestro's power and intensity raise him far above the average campesino rum- stall lament.

A woman - Senora Valoy the second - answers the phone in Valoy's home in New Jersey, where he has lived for two years. 'Hang on Sweetheart,' she says in English, and in Spanish, off, 'Hey] Papy] A reporter from England] Rapido]' Valoy, courteous and open, affirms that his personal experience is a minor source of inspiration for his lyrics. 'I find it easy to write songs on the bitterness of love gone wrong because it's a part of the everyday life of ordinary people - everybody recognises it.'

Though he describes himself as apolitical, Valoy's early compositions include the nearest thing the Dominican Republic has to the Cuban revolutionary anthem 'Guantanamera'. He was born in Santo Domingo, in 1937, the son of a carpenter, and began his musical career in the late 1950s in a duo, Los Ahijados (The Godsons), with his brother Martin.

Their models were the star Cuban country duos and trios of the period, above all Los Compadres, and the light, swinging blend of the two voices, Martin's metallic 12-string guitar (taking the part of the traditional Cuban double-stringed tres), percussion and bass, is still treasured by aficionados. Re-worked Ahijados numbers have peppered the repertoire of Valoy's subsequent groups, though the political rallying song 'Paginas Gloriosas' (Pages of Glory) has been little heard latterly. In 1965 it was the anthem of the short-lived 'constitutional revolution' which was suppressed by the military government helped by US Marines. 'I was young,' says Valoy. 'I identified with the impoverished and marginalised against the wealthy establishment in power . . . but it was a long time ago . . .'

In 1971, the Valoy brothers first visited New York, and began to mix with Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barretto and other stars of the nascent pan-Latin salsa scene. In 1975 they formed their first full-size band, the 12-strong Virtuosos, which later turned into La Tribu (The Tribe), and finally the current Nueva Tribu (New Tribe), playing a deep, powerful blend of salsa and Dominican merengue.

Cuco's first wife contributed to the boom years of Valoy's reputation. Two sons (out of today's total of 14) became group members: the elder, Ramon Orlando, is now a major Dominican star. And Valoy Senior acquired both a nickname and a rumoured association with the Afro- Christian voodoo cult of santeria as a result of his 1977 merengue hit 'El Brujo' (The Sorcerer). In it a woman with a wayward husband is prescribed a santero potion (a bit of tobacco, a black cat's tail, love oil etc) to bring him home 'tame as a lamb'. 'I don't believe in Santeria much,' comments Valoy. 'But my wife's mother who was a santera used to receive people looking for preparations for their problems.'

Valoy has continued to work hard and successfully for the last few years, playing three or four dates a week across North and South America. A four-month-old album, El Que Sabe, around his fortieth, is selling respectably. The current retro mood in the Latin musical world is excellent news for lovers of the early, tastiest Valoy, however. Young salseros are beginning to pick up old Ahijados songs, and Valoy himself has returned to the studio to record an album, due out in April, of the old Cuban songs he first loved. 'This may be the direction I will take now . . . it's the music which I feel most deeply.'

The only thing to regret is the absence of brother Martin, who returned to Santo Domingo two years ago to sort out 'problems with his papers'. And, one surmises, to get a decent mondongo.

Cuco Valoy and his Nueva Tribu play the Equinox, Leicester Square, London on Sunday 7 March.

(Photograph omitted)