Gia Fu: The First Asian Woman to Produce a Salsa Record

How does a DJ and vinyl collector in Hong Kong become the record producer of one of the hottest salsa releases of the last few years? That’s the question everyone asks about the talented Gia Fu, and how she got involved in Big Band Máquina, a project by composer and arranger Angel Meléndez. First, we must go back to the moment when she fell in love with Afro-Latin music. A story worth telling, dating back to her teenage heyday.

“I’ve always been a dancer since I was very little, ‘cause my mom is a dance teacher. So I was always hanging around in different groups of friends and different kinds of dances,” Gia recalls during an interview for ¡Con Salsa! “By the time I was 15 or 16, I was doing ballet and traditional Chinese dancing, but one of my group of friends was into breakdancing, and they invited me to a street dance battle. At one point, the DJ played a song in a language no one knew what it was, but the whole crowd was singing it when it started.” 

That song was “Que Se Sepa” by Roberto Roena and his Apollo Sound. And that was the first time Gia heard salsa in her life. That was also the first time she understood how music could bring people together. “I was shocked when I saw the dancers singing the beginning of that song, ‘cause nobody speaks Spanish in Hong Kong. We speak Cantonese, Mandarin, and English,” she explains. Since then, her curiosity about Latin culture hasn’t stopped growing. The first thing she did was start studying Spanish.

Gia kept doing research, of course. Later, she decided to major in Hispanic American language and culture at college. “I really got passionate. I was just trying so hard to find something that would relate me to this kind of music… My final graduation essay focused on Cuban films. And I chose cinema over literature just because that way I could talk about the music that sounds in those movies,” says the Hong Kong DJ holding back her laughter. After that, she began to travel frequently to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic to further explore and experiment, especially in terms of dance.

It wasn’t going to be long before Gia Fu crossed paths with Ralph Riley, who would end up being her mentor and co-producer. It was also Riley who motivated her to start DJing at the salsa parties he organized in Hong Kong before covid. “I’ve been a salsa music collector for years. I think that in her relatively short span, she has collected more music than me,” Ralph recently posted about Gia. She now hosts the monthly Mild Mambo Club show on Rinse FM, “spinning salsa, mambo, and everything Latin to get you moving.”

“I realized that a lot of people I know – no matter where they’re from – don’t listen to this music that I love. They say things to me like ‘oh, that’s what my mom used to listen to.’ It’s like it’s just music for older people,” reveals Gia. “One of my goals in playing salsa and Afro-Latin music is to get the attention of younger generations. So the DJ sets that I streamed live during the pandemic ended up being an amazing thing to share.”

It was also during those times of lockdown, and thanks to Ralph Riley, that Gia discovered the music of Ángel Meléndez, a Chicago-based veteran trombonist who leads bands like 911 Mambo Orchestra and had a Grammy-nominated debut album in 2004. Gia connected with Angel virtually and they started chatting. “We were discussing how much we love the big band sound, a sound that’s now a bit hard to hear in the commercial salsa scene. So we were talking and talking, and suddenly the idea of recording an album with a big band came up,” says Gia.

They started the project with two songs that had been recorded long before, “Nuestro Amor” and “Xiomara,” chosen by Gia and Ralph from their large vinyl collection. Those songs were recorded as a test at Rolo’s Studio, on Angel’s trip to Puerto Rico. “Gia brought me these two songs, and right away I pictured them in my head: ‘Oh, this is going to be smoking.’ But when you put these songs in the hands of the best musicians, you see that they have their own inflections, their own style… Oh my god! It turned out to blow me away! It ended up being even better,” says Meléndez.

As musical director, Angel Meléndez brought some salseros from the U.S., such as Herman Olivera and Tito Allen. But he also turned to his friend and great percussionist Juan Picorelli to recruit a selection of brilliant Puerto Rican musicians: Luis Marín (piano) and Carlos García (piano and voice), Richie Bastar (bongo), Pedro Pérez (bass), Sammy García (conga), Jan Duclere (trumpet) and Jorge Díaz (trombone), among others, including more singers like Primi Cruz, Rico Walker and Willito Otero. The icing on the cake was when they invited the legendary pianist Gilberto “Pulpo” Colón renowned for countless recordings, from Héctor Lavoe to Tito Puente to join. Now that’s an all-star big band!

The result was so amazing that they didn’t hesitate to come back for more. “Then we added more songs, and later Angel’s original songs came in,” says Gia, who traveled to Puerto Rico twice during production. She also suggested that piano solos be included on all tracks. “Those moments of improvisation are excellent for the musicians and also for the dancers. There are interesting moments when you are dancing.”

These days, Gia is a bit busy, having one of those crazy weeks. The album Angel Meléndez X Big Band Máquina is still fresh and continues to reap its rewards. But what’s next on her independent label Kong Records? “The next thing will be an EP that will be released under my name… Actually, we are recording today! And I’ll play a guzheng on it,” she says excitedly, referring to a traditional Chinese stringed musical instrument that belongs to the zither family.

Finally, as a DJ and great record collector, Gia Fu gives us her top 5 salsa albums:

  1. Wayne Gorbea’s Salsa Picante – Fiesta en el Bronx 
  2. Mulenze – Mulenze No. 7 
  3. Ray Barretto – Rhythm of Life 
  4. Cheo Feliciano – Sentimiento, Tú
  5. Rafi Val y La Diferente – Rafi Val y La Diferente