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¡Echale Salsita! 

Latin music in Los Angeles

Wednesday, Jun 23 1999
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Photo Virginia Lee Hunter

Music is everywhere in Latin America. You find it in churches and love motels, empty train stations and crowded coffeehouses, at baptisms and weddings. Reality is experienced with excess. Tears are as bitter as bitter can be. Love is intoxicatingly sweet. Laughter is loud and hearty. Parties go on and on until the early hours of the morning, and there’s always plenty of dancing.

At the end of the millennium, the never-ending wave of immigrants from all over Latin America (and the ensuing creation of a new socioeconomic class: Latino yuppies) has brought Los Angeles as close as possible to being a Latino city. If you’re a recent arrival and learn to know your way around, you’ll never feel homesick.

The late ’90s are an exciting time for Latin music. Records have never been so widely available, and it’s become easier to find masterpieces that before were rabidly sought after by collectors. A Latin music record can be a tender love letter, a hot affair: L.A. is one of the best places on Earth to find a good date with Latin music.

There are four main genres of contemporary Latin music: salsa, pop, regional Mexican and roc en español. Each is a completely independent universe with its own rules and share of pleasures. For those who like what they hear, but still confuse cumbias with rancheras and tangos with merengues, here’s a rough guide:

SALSA

Tito Puente has said it many times: "Salsa is what I eat my spaghetti with, but thanks to a little word that means nothing, we’ve all been able to make a living at it for the last few decades." What the timbalero is saying is that, in reality, salsa is not salsa — it’s something else. The bad habit of calling Afro-Caribbean music "salsa" started in 1932, when Ignacio Piñeiro and his Sexteto Nacional introduced a peppy new song called "Echale Salsita" ("Add Some Spice to It"). From then on, the dancing crowds began asking for more spice, more salsa, to shake their bodies to. Hence the term, which actually encompasses several Cuban dances, such as the guaracha, the son montuno, the mambo, the rumba and the guaguancó.

Salsa’s apex came in New York in the ’70s, from musicians who blended the original Cuban rhythms with big-band jazz and a touch of rhythm & blues. This was street music, volatile stuff, telling stories of criminals in the Bronx and ç openly misogynistic tales of doomed love. At the epicenter of the movement was a record label called Fania. Its three biggest stars were singer-songwriter Ruben Blades, trombonist-producer Willie Colón and the tragic figure of singer Héctor Lavoé, who died in the early ’90s. Together and separately, the three recorded what today is considered the canon of salsa, the very best albums of the genre.

In the mid-’80s, a new style known as salsa romántica was invented, seemingly heralding an end to salsa’s era of artistic ambition. The romántica creators had the charts in mind, and tried to bring the Afro-Cuban as close as possible to mainstream pop, buffing the gritty rhythms with synths and slick production values. It was a miserable time for salseros, but many musicians got rich in the process, and salsa became huge in Miami.

A renaissance began in the mid-’90s with intense new salsa coming again from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia and the U.S. The rebirth was built on the heady creativity of New York salsa, but also reached into other styles, especially the traditional Cuban folk song known as son. When Ry Cooder went to Cuba and assembled a crew of veteran players for a recording project entitled The Buena Vista Social Club, he never thought that the resulting album would wind up selling a million copies worldwide, generating a hitherto-unheard-of craze for Cuban music.

Where To Go:

Until recently, salsa was an underground phenomenon. The best clubs didn’t last long, events of a violent nature often bringing a sudden end to the festivities. A favorite topic of conversation between salseros is to lament the disappearance of this or that club, where a lot of fun was had by all.

The situation changed with the arrival of two key names on the local scene: the Conga Room and Albert Torres. The first is the Miracle Mile club that made salsa trendy, catering to gringos in search of the exotic and, in the process, bringing an outstanding number of quality acts to town. The second is a professional dancer who, on his own and with limited commercial backing, turned himself into the hottest salsa concert promoter in town. Interestingly, he uses his own personal taste as a bailador when deciding which bands to present.

"I look at the rhythm of the music first," says Torres, who alternates between the Sportsman’s Lodge in Burbank, the Hollywood Park Casino, St. Mark’s in Venice and the Boathouse in Santa Monica for his live gigs. "There’s a lot of music out there that has killed the dancers’ desire to dance. When I hire somebody, I always think, ‘Is he gonna be able to keep the dancers on the dance floor all night?’"

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