By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Art by Gustavo VargasIT'S A GORGEOUS SUNDAY IN FEBRUARY, AND ALAN Geik is on the air at KXLU (88.9 FM), busily spinning records and dishing out opinions in between taking calls and making announcements. He's leading up to the big finale of the afternoon, when he'll read off Alma del Barrio's most important nonmusical item: the weekly calendar of upcoming events that covers everything in local Latino culture from live music gigs to art openings, and music workshops to readings. Though he's never met most of his regular callers over the years, he knows their voices, Geik says before launching into a set that includes tracks by Rolo Martinez, Los Van Van, Cachao, Marvin Santiago and Orquesta Broadway, and asserting afterward that Cuban piano maestro Chucho Valdés is one of the 20th century's great bandleaders.
Geik's time slot (alternate Sundays, 2 to 6 p.m.) specializes in Cuban, old and new, with some New York salsa and a dash of Latin jazz. "That new pretty-boy salsa romanticapop doesn't do anything for me -- it's way too lightweight," he says. "The piquete -- a very special, direct, one-on-one relationship between musician and dancer or listener which was once explained to us by Eddie Palmieri -- just isn't there in that new romantica stuff. We try to keep that extremely personal piquete interaction with our listeners."
Funded by Loyola Marymount University and listener donations, Alma del Barrio first went on the air in late 1973, featuring bilingual hosts presenting an all-Latin music format. At 25 years old, it's one of the longest-running noncommercial radio shows in L.A. Originally a one-hour weekly program, Alma gradually expanded to an amazing 12 commercial-free hours a day on Saturdays and Sundays (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.), more hours of salsa programming than any other station in the USA, and all lovingly delivered by a team of fanatic unpaid volunteers whose listeners are a diverse mixture of Latinos, plus 30 percent or more Anglos and other non-Latinos combined.
"Sometimes I have to spell out letter by letter every word of the song titles and artists' names to non-Spanish-speaking callers," says Geik, "but that's what we're here for -- to be an information service as well as a musical outlet."
So if you're overwhelmed by the music's sophisticated terminology and can't figure out charanga from son, sonfrom songo, guaguanco from guaracha, descarga from danzon, a mambo from a rumba, Alma's current committee -- which includes Guido Herrera, Vanessa Sulam, Albert Price, Nina Lenart, Eddie Lopez, Gustavo Aragon, Angela Fajardo, Julio Vigoreaux and Sergio Mielniczenko -- will patiently fill in the confused newcomer. Even if your Spanish is abysmal.
GETTING ALMA DEL BARRIOON THE AIR WASN'T AN easy sell at the beginning. Raoul Villa and Enrique "Kiki" Soto, two Loyola freshmen, had discovered that each had tried to launch a radio show at KXLU the previous year but had been put off by faculty heads. The two decided to work as a team to make a Latin-music program a reality.
Resistance to so-called "minority programming" was a reaction to '60s revolutionary social developments. Affirma-tive action and radical movements for racial equality were the big phobias. The MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) movement was at its peak, and many Latino students were identifying with Chicano activism. Loyola faculty feared that the proposed show would become a radical activist platform.
But Villa and Soto were able to strike a bargain: Since KXLU had an all-classical format, a volunteer group consisting of Villa, Soto and a growing posse of supporters agreed to engineer classical programming in return for one hour of airtime every Sunday to broadcast Latin music. Loyola insisted on another proviso -- the show had to be prerecorded.
Villa and Soto's vision was to go bilingual, with a playlist combining contempo Latin rock bands such as Tierra, Santana and Malo with cool boleros and hot Latin rhythms (the pre-salsa grab-bag name for all music built around the clave), plus a few classic Cuban orchestra leaders like Machito and Johnny Pacheco to appeal to the older generation.The name Alma del Barrio was inspired by a Tierra track titled "Barrio Suite," but Villa and Soto discarded that name because they thought the word suitewould be misheard as sweet. The two wanted the word barrio (neighborhood) in there somewhere, because it sounded Puerto Ricancool; they opted for Alma (soul) del (of the) Barrio.
Hector Resendez, in 1973 a reporter for Loyola's student newspaper, had heard about two Chicano radicals who wanted to start a radio show: "Excited, I ran over to the station to get the story, and there was this tiny room jammed wall-to-wall where Raoul Villa and Enrique Soto were running down their concepts and goals. I remember them talking about quality music, production values, community, and providing an outlet for artists you couldn't otherwise hear. It all sounded great. All I wanted to do from then on was get involved somehow."
Within a year, Resendez, now producer and co-host of Canto Tropicale, a Latin-music show he launched nearly 13 years ago at KPFK (Saturdays, 8 to 10 p.m.), had joined â Alma to help Soto with announcing and programming, while Villa concentrated on the engineering side. After Soto left and became a professional DJ at KKGO, Resendez took over as music director.