Bobby Valentin’s “Bronco” and “Va a la Carcel” 40 Years Later


In 1975, Puerto Rican bandleader Bobby Valentin left Fania Records to start his own records label, and released his debut double-album “Va a la Carcel“.

Bobby Valentin; A Star in Fania since 1966

After growing up in Puerto Rico until his teenage years, Bobby Valentin’s family moved to New York, where Bobby continued studying music. He had learned to play the guitar from his father, but picked up the trumpet at New York. It was as a trumpet player that he worked with greats like Tito Rodriguez, Willie Rosario, and others.

In 1965, the then 23 year-old formed his own band, and began recording with brand new Fania Records label. He would continue to record a total of 9 albums with Fania (his very first album, “Ritmo Pa’ Goza, El Mensajero” was edited by Fonseca Records).

Bobby Valentin was part of the Fania All Stars from the start of the group, and would make many arrangements for this group as well as for many artists under Fania.

Valentin Creates Bronco Records

Bobby Valentin in "Va a la Carcel" cover art
Bobby Valentin debut recording for his new records label Bronco, “Va a la Carcel” was a huge hit for the Puerto Rican Salsa bandleader.

It was 10 years after forming his band, and 8 years after joining Fania, that Bobby Valentin became perhaps the 1st of the principal Fania Records artists to jump ship and create his own record label.

The debut album for his newly formed record label would be Bobby Valentin “Va a la Carcel“, an album recorded “live” at the Oso Blanco State Penitentiary in the outskirts of San Juan. The concept of the album, although intriguing, was not original. A few years earlier (1972) Eddie Palimieri had recorded a live album at the Sing Sing Prison in New York.

The main difference between Valentin’s “Va a la Carcel” and Palmieri’s “Sing Sing” was that Bobby’s album was of brand new songs, while Eddie’s was mostly a concert made of his previously recorded hits. This was a significant difference.

Va a la Carcel, Vol. 1

The timing was impeccable for “Va a la Carcel“. Bobby Valentin’s band was very popular after the hits with Fania, particularly “Soy Boricua“, “Pirata de la Mar“, “Aqui No Me Quedo“, and “Safa Diablo“, all from his last 3 recordings. Bobby Valentin’s last recording for Fania was “In Motion” (1974 – which we can only wonder if it had a subliminal message of leaving Fania), in which he brought back his previous lead singer Frankie Hernandez to join Marvin Santiago, who had replaced him in 1971.

Bobby Valentin's Salsa album "Va a la Carcel" inside photos
“Va a la Carcel” was recorded “Live” at Puerto Rico’s “Oso Blanco”, which did not provided the best acoustics for the recording, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!

The combination really exploded in “Va a la Carcel“. Both singers were now seasoned singers and had entered their respective peaks as vocalists. To reinforce the band, Valentin brought in master trombonist, and fellow Fania All Stars member Barry Rogers, Puerto Rican trumpet master Juancito Torres, and added Paquito Guzman on coro. This proved to work exceptionally well, as Barry provided a potent sound in the trombone and his solos where some of the best he recorded.

Vol. 1 starts with an introduction by Bobby Valentin, thanking the personnel involved in the recording, and presenting the 1st song, “Prestame Tu Caballo“, a fiery Salsa that showcases Marvin Santiago’s at the time still potent, if always raspy, voice, and his wonderful ability to sing around the clave, with witty “soneos”.

Here’s “Prestame Tu Caballo“, with a humongous trombone solo by Barry Roger. Seems like the echo on the place actually made the trombone sound bigger!

In “Dos Soneros”, Frankie Hernandez joins Marvin in a shared song that is precisely about two singers of “son”. If Marvin continues to dazzle with his witty “soneos” playfully around he clave, Frankie proves he is not just a pretty voice, and is equally up to the task of going one-on-one with streetwise “soneos”.

These songs are followed by the bolero-guajira “Cuando Seras Mia“, before giving way to Frankie Hernandez singing solo in the catchy “A Panama“, once again proving his chops as a “sonero”. Vol. 1 end with the Latin Jazz “Maiden Voyage“.

Va a la Carcel, Vol. 2

Vol. 2 contains 7 songs, compared to the 5 in Vol. 1, and my highlights are “El Jamon“, sang by Frankie Hernandez, and “Tu No Haces Na“, sang by Marvin Santiago, and perhaps the next best song in the recording after “Prestame Tu Caballo“, again with Marvin hitting it out of the park with his agility and wit in the “soneos”.

Here is the song “El Jamon” with Frankie Hernandez, with a short solo by Barry Rogers on trombone and another by Juancito Torres on trumpet.

The recording ends with the Tito Puente standard “Separala“, where Frankie Hernandez not only ends the recording, but also his stay with Bobby Valentin’s band. Frankie would go on to join Carmelo Rivera’s Impacto Crea, while substituted by Johnny Vazquez in Valentin’s next album “Afuera“.

Bobby Valentin in "Va a la Carcel" Vol 2 cover
In “Va a la Carcel Vol 2” Bobby Valentin brings out the atmosphere of the penitentiary with “Poema – Filosofia de un Confinado”.

Vol 2 has 2 songs that help make the recording remarkable because they vividly remind us where the recording is taking place. One is the standard “bolero” “Como Fue“, where Valentin introduces Juan Zenon (not sure where he came from), and as the bolero begins, Zenon tell his audience to fantasize having their woman with them, as he know they are all veterans of doing that.

The other is called “Poema“, which is actually introduced in the recording as “Filosofia de un Confinado” (philosophy of an inmate). It is a poem, declaimed with simple musical backdrop from the band, and it vividly recounts the feelings and thoughts that cross an inmates mind as he finds himself within bars.

A Remarkable Bobby Valentin Recording

Va a la Carcel” is a remarkable recording in Bobby Valentin’s musical catalog. The concept, the setting, the singers, and the band, all make it a great classic of Salsa music. However, it’s worth noting that the recording quality is not that good. There is a lot of echo in the background and band instruments are not all that clearly heard.

But on the other hand, the echo and all the other sound shortcomings that reminds us of the quality gap between live and studio recordings, also serve to highlight the concept of the album. This album would have never been the same if recorded in a studio. A case in point is Marvin Santiago’s “Adentro“. The band for the album was recorded in a studio, but Marvin’s voice was recorded live at prison, where he was serving time. The contrast between the two albums is significant, and although I enjoyed “Adentro” very much, the songs don’t carry the same real feeling of a prison setting as “Va a la Carcel” does.

All-in-all, “Va a la Carcel, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2” is a great recording worth having in every Salsa music lover’s collection.

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  1. Héctor L González says

    ***Bobby has always been a creator of music ,he loves to fuse ,and explore ! Another one from the old school that has never been afraid to try something new. He tried” Va pa la carcel 1-2-3″ and hit pay dirt . He has broken many barriers and opened many doors for others.Very talented without a doubt. A true maestro !

    He’s been around for a long time .An innovator ! A mentor of many musicians and vocalist . A historian of music genres .

    One of the” gang “as Cheo Feliciano use to call the members of the group of musicians that later on became Fania All Stars. They were all great!
    Very few left alive and Bobby Valentin is one of the few of the gang as they use to call themselves jokingly. By the way, so ,was Barry Rogers who worked with Bobby in many musical projects and was also part of La Fania All Stars.. When you talk about Bobby Valentin you speak of one of many of a very exclusive group of musicians .

    ***His true creativeness took off in the 60’s making the sky his limit, with his independence and developing talent. He was really bold ! But nothing new to that group that all became very famous.
    ***Bobby Valentin Va Pa’ la carcel (1)-broke the Ice in many ways , I believe he was the 1st to obtain govt. permission to perform for prisoners in A State penitentiary in El Estado Libre Asociado De Puerto Rico. It was meant to be a charity for prisoners and it catapulted him into stardom that he never imagine. As a prudent and wise musician that he is, he spaced his presentations in the penitentiary Oso Blanco , so that every time he applied for those difficult to get permissions ,he was always granted permission.

    Every time he went there he had what is called in Spanish : “Un Palo !”
    Then came Va Pa’ la Carcel (2) a hit -and (3)- by the way # 3 my favorite because of the sound and performers-and because he managed to get members of la ganga together once again. The best by far , he even integrated Marvin Santiago who was already very ill, again, before he passed. Charlie Aponte, Jerry Zayas, of the Gran Combo and Jovanny Hidalgo, Tommy Thompson sr. , CachiroThompson ,Tommy ‘s son.
    *** Also invited guess and the coro ,was extraordinary; Luisito Carrion, Carlos Santos, Héctor” Pichy ” Perez.
    *** It was Great! Bobby Valentin had made History again!!

    *** To obtain permits sometimes took years. It was the most dangerous prison in Puerto Rico.
    But having his foot in the door all it took was patience. To me #3 was his most productive Visit to Oso Blanco, because of technology , sound , because he was able to get as many of la ganga together for the 3rd presentation in Oso Blanco.

    ***Certainly one to be inducted into in the Salsa hall of fame, if there is such a place that can hold together so many Rumberos . There is no hall of fame that can hold so much talent in place one . They might start a Rumbon! Congratulations Bobby Valentin in all your achievements .

    Thank You! Tocayo Hector for once again allowing me the opportunity and privilege to share my views in Latino café .

    1. Hector Aviles says

      Good points Hector! Well, as I mentioned in the blog, Bobby was not the 1st with the concept of performing at a state prison, as Palmieri did it in Sing Sing in New York. As for a prison in Puerto Rico, he probably was the 1st to record in a prison in the island, but not the 1st to perform in a prison in PR.
      I agree that what you call #3, which is “‘Vuelve a la Carcel is a great album, mostly because of the gust artists, like the ones you mention above. But the thing about “Va a la Carcel” is that he recorded new music, not a collection of his previous hits.

  2. Oria Rivera says

    Bobby está remasterizando Bobby Valentin Va a la cárcel Vol1 y Vol 2 y otras producciones que las necesitan. Recuerda que Bronco Records tiene muchas producciones y se están entrando a las plataformas digitales Poco a poco con una buena calidad. Bobby Valentin es muy exigente con su música.

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