Seeing the face of Che Guevara on a t-shirt in Echo Park is about as common as seeing hotdogs wrapped in bacon. It’s downright iconic. But seeing the revolutionary’s familiar image with a red bar running through it and the words, “Criminal – Murderer – Rapist, NOT A HERO” well that’s seen a lot less around here, and on most days might even be a quick ticket to royally pissing someone off.
But Sunday was different. For twelve years the Cuban Music Festival has celebrated the country’s independence from Spain, achieved on May 20, 1902, while also being somewhat mournful – at least in the t-shirts – of Castro’s seemingly endless reign. But sorrow had little place in the music today. One big band after another took the stage near the Jose Marti Plaza at north end of Echo Park in front of the lake, while a few thousand people danced, ate, and admired each other’s guayaberas and Cuban-flag regalia. There was no admission cost, no alcohol, and no police. Grandparents danced with their grandchildren, the sound of drums filled the air along with the intermingling smells of espresso, pork and cigars. A little rum would have been nice, but the beer tents and thousands of Budweiser signs that would have come with a liquor license were not missed.
Most of the bands were part of the Dimelo Records roster, and if the differences in the kinds of salsa played by each were slight, no one seemed to mind. Chino Espinoza fronted nearly a dozen musicians early in the afternoon, having little trouble getting a few hundred people dancing in front of the stage. “Viva Cuba!” Espinoza shouted from the stage, getting the same words echoed back at him a thousand-fold. “Viva Puerto Rico!” brought the same response. Then, to make sure no one was excluded, he called out “Viva los Latinos!” which brought the biggest cheers.
I don’t normally spend a lot of time listening to Cuban music, but I do eat a lot of pork. I did a quick scan to determine which food stands served pork (most), how many kinds they served (mostly just one), and which had the longest lines, ‘cause that’s where the best food will be.
Luckily the place that served three distinct pig-infused foods also had the longest line. I wasn’t disappointed. After a plate full of lechón asado, fat-dripping deep-fried chicharrones, plantains, black beans and rice (and several scoops of my wife’s arroz con pollo and yucca, which we had brought with us), I realized I was not even going to be able to eat my jamón y queso empanada. Right then, I felt that I had let Cuba down, just a little.
Orquesta Tabaco y Ron – another energetic twelve-piece dance army – quickly persuaded me to forgive myself. The members of the group come not only from Cuba, but also Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Mexico. The salsa tunes were fast, catchy, and I’m guessing, joyful, though I couldn’t understand more than a couple words here and there. More people danced, more people smoked cigars, and I watched a woman throw another huge slab of fatty white pig-meat onto a grill. This was going to go on for hours.
Dancing at the Echo Park Cuban Music Festival