Happy Birthday, Alma del Barrio

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 romantica pop 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, son from 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 BARRIO ON 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 suite would 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.

The show was an instant hit with young Latino students, and because of the bilingual commentary, many non-Latino students tuned in, too. Households within a 15-mile radius of campus were also able to pick up the tiny 5,000-watt signal.

Alma's rise proved fortuitous for Eddie Lopez, who'd been inspired to start a radio program with a similar format at Pepper-dine before he transferred to Loyola in 1976. Alma was then being offered more on-air hours, so more staff was needed. Lopez, now also an editor at Channel 52, joined Alma as a DJ-announcer in 1976. After Resendez left in 1985, a rotating pool of music directors took over, until Lopez was elected by the committee in 1991 to the position he holds today.

IT HADN'T TAKEN MUCH LONGER THAN A year for Alma to expand to four hours, after the school became unhappy with the reliability of the previous Sunday programmers. The trouble was, nobody wanted to hang around campus on weekends, so students working at the station frequently flaked on their duties. But to the fiercely committed Latino students, engineering the classical-music programs was just doing whatever it took for Alma to stay on the air.

Impressed by this eagerness, school officials offered more time to the ambitious Alma crew. By this time, Villa, Soto, Resendez and Lopez were firmly at the helm. They experimented with bilingual news, and Eddie initiated The Brazilian Hour, which was subsequently syndicated to NPR. Little by little, the Alma collective was offered even more airtime, until finally they'd bagged the entire weekend, Saturdays and Sundays. All day. Open programming. Commercial-free. Live. It was a DJ's dream come true.

With the increased need for more volunteers to cover two 12-hour days, Alma evolved into a training camp for students who wanted to break into broadcasting. More than 100 volunteer DJs have been involved since the program's beginning. Alumni include Argelia Atilano, now a reporter at Channel 52, and Bernardo Osuna, sports anchor for KMEX Channel 34.

In the wake of Alma's success, and way before the dawn of College Music Journal, a slew of other college radio shows with similar bilingual-commentary and all-Latin-music formats sprang up, most notably at Cal State Northridge, Cal State Long Beach, UCLA, USC and Santa Monica College's KCRW.

"WHEN I FIRST JOINED, WE WERE URGED not to use the term salsa, which was just coming into use in New York and Miami," says Lopez. "Some fans openly disliked it, so we decided to continue calling the music 'Latin jazz,' since hardly anybody out here even knew what salsa was anyway. Since then, of course, Latin jazz has become a subgenre in its own right, and salsa is now . . . salsa."

Salsa became the required term for new Latin music in the mid-'70s, which was a period when a "third wave" of touring Latin dance orchestras hit L.A. The first era had come when mamboists Perez Prado, Desi Arnaz, Xavier Cugat and Rene Touzet (the cha-cha king) played here in the '50s alongside hip mambo-jazz coolsters like Cal Tjader. A second wave in the early '60s brought Machito, Beny More, Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente, among many other greats.

Alma organized ticket giveaways for a series of amazing salsa shows at the Palladium in the mid- to late '70s. Puerto Rican bands such as El Gran Combo, Fania All-Stars and Dominican merengue stars like Wilfrido Vargas made this third African-Latin-Caribbean wave an unforgettably fun time. Shows also featured New York/Miami stars such as Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Willie Colon, Oscar deLeon, Eddie Palmieri and Panama's Ruben Blades.

While continuing to work at Alma, Eddie Lopez also became co-host, with original founder Jorge Madrid, of KCRW's Latin Dimensions. When Madrid left the show in 1979, Lopez asked station manager Ruth Seymour if he could continue, and she assented.

The strain of working both shows became too much for Lopez, however, and within a year he brought in two non-students, Alan Geik and Bill Strauss, to help out. Strauss suggested Nina Lenart, who came aboard a couple of months later. Geik and Lenart also joined Alma in 1981, and the two continued to work both shows until Dimensions was finally yanked off the air for the last time in 1987, after several confusing cancellation-reinstatement-cancellation episodes with Seymour.  


WHILE NO RADIO STATION IN MIAMI IN THE '80s dared to play Cuban music for fear of violent reprisals and bomb threats from the island's exiled bourgeoisie, who were convinced that punishing artists from their homeland was an effective way of getting back at Castro, Alma continued broadcasting vintage and new Cuban releases throughout the '80s and '90s. Lenart, who had begun playing newer Cuban music on Latin Dimen-sions in 1980, became friends with Emilio Vandenedes, a young Cuban-immigrant music fanatic who joined the Alma team in 1983. With the support and involvement of everybody on the committee, Lenart and Vandenedes were largely responsible for the Cuban influence that became a new chapter in Alma's saga.

Vandenedes, who died at age 41 from leukemia last year, was a deeply respected DJ and in-house encyclopedia of Cuban music during a six-year tenure at KXLU, when he gave now-renowned bands such as Los Van Van and Elio Reve their first radio exposure in L.A. In his second role, as underground record distributor, Vandenedes has come to be canonized as a pioneer in the dissemination of Cuban music in the USA. Once, he even scooped a copy of the latest Los Van Van album before it was out on the island itself.

Lenart: "Back in the '80s, Emilio and I were playing more Cuban artists than ever, because he was getting us all the latest imports before anybody else. We were asked a few times by irate callers why we were supporting Castro, and we'd reason back: How was exposing Cuba's musicians and major classical composers on the radio supporting Castro?"


AS A YOUNG BRITISH IMMIGRANT WHO'D stumbled into L.A. in the mid-'70s, one of my fondest memories of this city is accidentally discovering Alma del Barrio and hearing exotic Latin orchestras beating it out every weekend, even if I couldn't understand a word of what they were singing about. In my beloved little rock & roll world, glam was a dead joke, since even Bowie had moved on to R&B, and Bolan had long ago lost interest. Disco, reggae and punk were still a while away. There was no college radio; there was nothing on the air except Elton John and the Eagles. Poor old Jerry Brown was being written off as a kook for advocating scary things like "global consciousness," yet here was this little bilingual radio show that seemed to be intuitively producing something exactly along those lines by turning people on to music they had no chance of otherwise hearing. That hasn't really changed in 25 years. Thanks, guys, for the enrichment, and . . . happy birthday.

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