Over the years, Vicki Sola and I collaborated on various projects on and off the air. Having worked closely with her, I can confidently say she is a consummate professional, a relentless advocate for Latin music and its established and emerging creators. Vicki is also an author, podcaster, recipient of numerous awards, and a fearless advocate for animal rights.
TP: I am speaking with Vicki Sola, a cultural warrior who has dedicated her life to the promotion and perpetuation of Latin music through the use of radio and print. Welcome, Vicki.
VS: Thank you for having me.
TP: Before we begin, let’s put an end to the rumor of your impending demise.
VS: Rumors of my untimely death began in 2008 when I lost weight due to complications of Celiac disease, which stems from sensitivity to Gluten. During an event in my honor, at La Fonda Boricua in East Harlem, Marc Quiñones (of Ocho y Mas) hugged me and said, “I am so sorry,” and I thought to myself, “Huh?” Later, I learned through (flutist) Dave Valentin there was a rumor circulating that I had cancer. The story made it to Miami!
TP: Hopefully, this will put the vicious rumor to rest. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s delve into your musical journey.
VS: I always loved Latin music. I became serious about Latin music in high school, where I met Ray Barretto’s son, Raun. We became good friends, and I went to his house, where I met Ray Barretto and his (then) wife, Kathleen. Ray’s family became my family, and I got deeper into the music. Ray was like my other dad. I remember listening to the album, The Message (1972) on his stereo. Ray’s sound became the standard by which I measured everything I heard.
TP: Tell me about your family, your upbringing.
VS: My maternal grandfather, Samuel Blanc, came to the U.S. from Kyiv in Ukraine in 1914. He put himself through Columbia Architectural School and made his living as an architect. He was also a painter, a sculptor, an inventor, and a violinist. His dream was to become a musician, so he sent my mother, Hedda Sola-Blanc Whitehead to the Julliard School of Music, where she learned to play the piano.
TP: Your father was a physician.
VS: My father, Salvador Felix Sola MD, came to New York from Santurce, Puerto Rico, in 1920 at the age of five, speaking no English. He thought the words to the Lord’s Prayer were “And lead us not into Penn Station,” and used to pray, “Hail Mary, full of grapes.” He always confused the words “kitchen” and “chicken.” He came to the U.S. during a time when influenza was rampant and contracted the disease. He was bedridden for two years and, at times, near death. So much so, a priest was asked to administer the last rites. During his illness, he read a lot and decided to become a doctor. He graduated from De Witt Clinton in the Bronx and Columbia University. By the time I was born, he was the second deputy at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx and on the staff of a variety of other prestigious medical institutions. He died in 1978 at the age of 63.
TP: Did your father influence your love for music?
VS: He could cut a rug! On his last birthday, he danced to the music of Ray Barretto and Eddie Palmieri, and he gave a woman half his age a run for her money!
TP: You majored in English and Communications at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey.
VS: Yes, my father was a significant influence. He gave me a respect for writing. At the time of his death, he was working on a novel he never completed. He also gave me a deep respect for life.
TP: Before you were a journalist, you were a radio show host.
TP: I read somewhere your early years in radio spent, “Guzzling black coffee, eating cold pizza, and walking into walls.”
VS: I said that in the “About the Author” section of the book (“The Getaway that Gotaway”).
TP: How did you start out?
VS: I returned to Fairleigh Dickinson University part-time. Shortly after that, I received a card in the mail asking, “Are you interested in radio?” It was a lark; I filled out the card, mailed it in, and thought nothing of it. For the audition, I was asked to read news copy. Sometime later, the General Manager said, “I think we could use you.”
TP: What year was that?
VS: I began my training in August of 1981. One day someone didn’t show up for work, and I was asked if I would like to be “baptized.” I wasn’t scared. The first time I heard my voice over the headphones, I felt very comfortable.
TP: Do you recall the name of the show?
VS: I think it was called “Tuesday Afternoon Jazz.”
TP: You also worked for a commercial radio station.
VS: Yes, 1380 WBNX AM. The format was Salsa and Merengue, and the legendary Polito Vega was the “biggie.”
TP: Your bio says you worked at a “faraway local station that played Oldies and broadcasted fishing reports.”
VS: That was WRAN, which was somewhere near the Delaware Water Gap in 1986. The salary was $6.00 per hour, and I had to be up at 2 AM to be at the station by 5 AM on a Sunday!
TP: While we are on the topic of commercial radio, what’s your take on the radio today?
VS: The commercial radio scene gets bleaker by the year. To ensure its survival, we must support non-commercial programming and give whatever we can to keep Latin music on the airwaves. We must educate our children and grandchildren and provide exposure to the next generation of artists, who we hope will continue to carry the torch forward.
TP: My “beef” with commercial radio is the stale, dated programming, and the lack of opportunity for emerging Latino artists. How did Que Viva La Musica come about?
VS: I was hosting a jazz show on WFDU in 1981. Little by little, I added more salsa and Latin jazz into the mix. Finally, I proposed the concept to Carl Kraus, the station manager, and he gave me his blessing. It’s hard to believe the show has been on the air for almost 31 years.
TP: That’s quite an achievement. By the way, your theme song swings!
VS: The credit goes to David Santiago and Latin Affair.
TP: I admire the connections you have with the artists and your audience. Also, you give everyone an opportunity, occasionally at your peril!
TP: I’m sure you’ve had some magical moments with your guests, on and off the air.
VS: During one of our fundraisers, Tito Puente announced everyone who donated one dollar would receive a CD. Luckily, no one took him up on it. Ray Barretto was a guest on the show numerous times. During the fundraisers, if the phones didn’t ring, he would stop the music. When I was hosting the jazz show I interviewed Dizzy Gillespie. He wore a midnight blue velvet jacket and he lit up a cigar in the studio, which the station manager grudgingly allowed. Milt Jackson came by to pick him up. Mario Bauza came to my house wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. We had a few beers and he helped me carry my records to the station. Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros was a guest. His English and my Spanish weren’t too good, but we communicated. After the show, we went to a local bar in Teaneck (New Jersey) called the WigWam, where we had a few drinks and lots of laughs. Chico O’ Farrill, his wife Lupe and son, Arturo, appeared on the show. The love and respect they had for one another is amazing. I am very honored that many of the bandleaders choose to “break” their new products on my program. Thanks to Nelson Rodriguez, I was the first to break Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri’s “Obra Maestra” on the air.
TP: Readers should be aware, Que Viva La Musica is a community service, neither you or anyone involved with the show receives compensation.
VS: I am in it for the love of the music. I love the communication between my listeners and me. Also, I love the way the music unites us and uplifts us. There have been times when I felt like walking away, but the music won’t let me.
TP: WFDU’s signal goes out to the greater New York/New Jersey metropolitan area. What’s the current size of your listening audience?
VS: A long time ago, Arbitron measured 140,000 listeners on any given half-hour. Now with WFDU.FM on the web, we have listeners from all over the world: Germany, Japan, Colombia, Peru, and Puerto Rico, among other countries.
TP: You wrote the following passage about New York’s Latin music scene: “The club scene has changed drastically. The New York-metro-area is home to a good percentage of Latin music’s most talented musicians and bands. But there remain only a handful of venues available to showcase such great talent. And gone are the times when we could breeze through Manhattan wishing we could see all of the bands performing in clubs and hotel dances on any given night. Gone are the evenings we walked down Westchester Avenue in the Bronx, as Salsa, Charanga, and Latin jazz hit our eardrums from all directions.” The New York salsa scene has seen better days. What can we do to ensure that the music and the artists who create it, survive?
VS: In order to ensure the survival of the music, it is critical that we support live music by CDs and downloads. Also, we have to expose our children and grandchildren to the music and hope that they will carry the torch forward.
TP: You’ve got your finger on the pulse of the Latin music scene. Where do the hard-core dancers go?
VS: Jimmy Delgado is keeping the Wednesday night tradition alive at the Taino Towers in Manhattan. There’s also Monique’s 108 Lounge in East Harlem, Don Coqui in White Plains and New Rochelle, the West Gate Lounge in Nyack, New York, and Side Street, and Willie’s Steak House in the Bronx.
TP: You are also an author and an award-winning journalist.
VS: I’ve always been a writer. My first assignment was with the magazine, Que Pasa. That was my baptism. I also wrote for the Descarga catalog and newsletter. Historian and author, Max Salazar was very instrumental in my life. He recommended me to Rudy and Yvette Mangual of Latin Beat magazine, which led to the column A Bite from the Apple. I was a contributing writer for Latin Beat from 1998 to 2013. I also wrote for other publications, such as London magazine. They paid me in pounds!
TP: Congrats on the book, “The Getaway that Gotaway.”
VS: I got my first dog, Sooperflea, in 1969, followed by Flubbub and Dr. B. Gneeecy. I drew pictures of them and make up stories. The main character, Nicki Rodriguez, is a Latin Alice in Wonderland who winds up in another dimension. Gneeecy is an amalgam of various family members, who shall go unnamed, and my former bosses at WBNX. Nicki is I, or better said, my alter ego.
TP: How is the book doing, thus far?
VS: In terms of sales, I am doing better than most. It’s hard to market the work. Today, even authors who have traditional publishers do their own marketing and promotion.
TP: I understand a sequel is in the works.
VS: Yes, Nicki returns to her dimension, but she senses that things are not right. Gneeecy, who is running from the bad guys, visits her dimension. He jumps in her arms and yells the magic words that transport them to a parallel universe, where an alternate Vicki and Gneeecy exist, and they don’t like each other! I would like to see the book become an animated motion picture, with Latin music as the soundtrack.
TP: Speaking of canines, you are a relentless supporter of Animal Rights.
VS: I donate a portion of my commission to the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan. Anytime any innocent being is treated wrongly abused or worse, it sears my soul.
TP: Also, you are a single mother.
VS: My son, Frank, was born in 1991. Eight months later, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which is a form of autism. He also has diabetes and other serious health issues. Frank is an intelligent, good looking young man. He is currently auditing a small business management course and is interested in retail. He has made a lot of progress and has a very bright future. When Frank was born, working outside of the house was out of the question, so I built my work life around him. I also live with my mother, who has serious health problems. Being a single mother is a tough haul, but I feel a sense of accomplishment.
TP: As you should! You have earned and the title, “The Hardest Working Woman in the Salsa Music Industry.” Thank you for speaking with me. Long live Latin music and Happy 31st birthday to Que Viva La Musica!
ABOUT VICKI SOLA
Vicki Sola has served twice as a judge in the final rounds of the AFIM Indie Awards, evaluating and rating recordings in the recently added Latin music category. In 1999, Sola accepted an invitation from the Smithsonian Institution to serve as an advisor to the Smithsonian Institution’s Latin Jazz planning committee, organized by the Smithsonian’s America’s jazz heritage. She assisted in the planning of a traveling exhibition for the Smithsonian Institution’s Travelling Exhibition Service and America’s Jazz Heritage, entitled “Latin Jazz: La Combinacion Perfecta”, she also helped choose the selections included in the CD released in conjunction with the exhibition “Latin Jazz: La Combinacion Perfecta” (SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS RECORDINGS). In the exhibition’s interactive media module, Sola’s voice can be heard along with Tito Puente’s narrating a segment describing the mambo. The exhibition opened in Washington, D.C. on October 19, 2002.
Since the interview, Vicki authored a second book in the Gneecy series titled, “You Can’t Unscramble the Omelet.” Also, she has semi-retired from the airwaves and taken to the internet. Listen to her podcast, “Unearthly Comedy” HERE.