Salsa Music, Lifeblood of Cali

You walk through the darkened entrance, leaving the tropical night behind. Suddenly, waves of sound crash against you like the waves of the ocean. Breaking a sweat, your heart beats to the rhythm of bass, bongos, bells and brass. The walls seem to throb. You are assailed by the acrid smell of sweat mixed with perfume. As your eyes adjust to the darkness, interrupted by the hypnotic flashes of multi-colored strobe lights, you realize that it’s not the walls that enclose you, but the dancers, dozens of dancers twirling, zigzagging and whirling, the Limbs flashing, hips thrusting into quarters. heartbeat of time You fill your lungs with the spicy aroma, tighten your belt a bit and dive in. Welcome to Chango’s in Cali, Colombia, one of the most popular salsa nightclubs in Latin America.

Cali, a modern and festive city, is located in the heart of the “Valley”. when Colombians say “el Valle” they mean the Valle del Cauca, a not-so-little Garden of Eden one hundred and fifty miles long and about fifteen miles wide between the coastal and Cordillera Central mountain ranges. Until the turn of the century, this valley was little more than a rural outpost.

Back then, with a population of about 15,000 inhabitants, Valle del Cauca was largely cattle territory, spread over vast expanses among “hacienda owners.” These were proud, almost haughty men who raised cattle for leather and meat. Some had sugar cane plantations that were used to produce the sweetener “panela” and distill the clear but potent “aguardiente” that is still drunk today. Life was slow, measured, patriarchal and immutable.

It has been said that the Cauca region is to Colombia what the South is to the United States. In fact, there are similarities. In days gone by, “hidalgos walked the unpaved streets in coats of velvet or scarlet cloth embroidered and buttoned with gold and silver, their vests of flowered silk, and the ruffles on their shirts were of the finest cambric,” says Kathleen Romoli. , author of Colombia: Gateway to. South America. And like the southern states in colonial times, large numbers of slaves were imported to work the fields and serve the nobility.

Time has brought many changes. Today, vast sugar cane plantations still carpet the Valley. The mechanized production of cotton, rice and cattle has turned Valle del Cauca into the most important agricultural zone in Colombia, after “Café Rey”. And with economic growth has come industry. A quiet colonial city in 1900, Cali has become a large manufacturing center with over a thousand industries at last count.

There’s sauce in the air

However, with all the changes, Cali retains a homely charm, a personality different from other cities, an atmosphere that you might expect to find in the Caribbean. Romoli describes it well:

The most striking thing about Cali today is not the square with its imposing government buildings and rows of taxis, along the avenues of giant palm trees, nor the suburbs with their modern villas and churches, whose bells ring melodies instead of chiming like Bogotá. , nor the occupied factories. It is the omnipresent air of joy almost joy. It is not that it is a city of many amusements; Cali is not gay by virtue of commercial facilities for organized entertainment but by the grace of God.

Cali attracts travelers from all over; tourists, businessmen, backpackers, scientists and students. And of course salsa lovers and salsa artists. Recording studios, rumberas, nightclubs and old clubs abound.

What is the attraction of Cali? The optimistic atmosphere of the city? The spectacular sunsets? The natural beauty of the high Andes? The vaunted beauty of their women? Maybe it’s the weather where it’s always June. Or will it be his remarkable cleanliness? Many Colombian cities are clean, but Cali is so clean that it stands out. Or maybe it’s the trees and flowers: the billowing crimson and purple bougainvillea that falls in profusion from the walls, the cup of gold dripping from the eaves, the waxy bells of the trumpet stream, the poinsettia bushes, the magnificent gardenias, the trees with magenta leaves and crimson flowers or others with feathery green -white flowers or clusters of pale pink-, the wild extravagance of flowers among which hummingbirds with iridescent green bellies flutter even in winter.

No Sauce No Dates

Cali has all of this. But without a doubt for many, the main attraction that attracts them to this charming city is Salsa music. The sensual tropical rhythms of salsa permeate the lives of more than two million Caleños. On every bus you will hear Salsa. Go for a walk, to school or shopping there is salsa in the air. And, of course, there is Salsa on almost all of the more than two dozen local radio stations. Throughout the city, 24 hours a day, salsa is blaring from loudspeakers in the streets, parks, stores, cars, portable radios and private homes. Cali lives and breathes Salsa. But why sauce? Many other musical traditions, styles, and types of folk music flourish in Cali (including traditional cumbia, where machete-wielding dancers trample over full-busted women in frilly skirts). What’s so special about the sauce? After all, vallenatos, a brand of folk music with roots dating back to the days of the Spanish conquistadors, are still hugely popular, especially when sung by artists like Colombia’s Grammy Award winner Carlos Vives. Boleros (check out Luis Miguel’s “Inolvidable”) and merengue continue to have a strong following here.

Why has this style become so deeply embedded in the culture? For fans, the answer is simple: “I love salsa music.” Whatever the reason for its universal popularity in Cali, salsa is more than music, more than dance. It’s an essential social skill, explains my friend Carmenza, “No salsa, no dating.” You can’t meet others if you can’t dance.” And that’s why there are salsa dance schools all over the city. Lessons are paid by the hour. Prices range from $2 to $6 per hour for more private classes and -one instruction. Group classes go fast. Salsa classes are not just the place to go to learn, but to practice and perfect your moves or learn some new ones. They are a good “meeting place” for residents from the neighborhood “. It’s important to dance very well or you’ll get bored,” says Sofía, an avid salsa fan.

Cali calls itself the “Salsa Capital of the World,” a title torn from post-Fidel Cuba and often shared with New York City. But even those opposed to “World Capital” will agree that Cali is without a doubt the “Salsa Capital of South America.” Top Latin salsa artists, like New York’s Jerry “King of 54th Street” Gonzalez, regularly fly in to strut their stuff. At any moment you can see all the famous names of salsa, the artists walk by the “Queen of Salsa” of Cuba, Celia Cruz; guitarist, singer and songwriter Juan Luis Guerra from the Dominican Republic; Frank Raul Grillo, the Cuban American also known as Machito; Reuben Blades, the popular Panamanian singer, songwriter, actor and politician recognized for his musical innovations and traditional salsa; Willie Colon; Oscar d’Leon, and others.

THE WORLD CAPITAL OF SALSA

And you don’t have to go far in this city of dancers to hear all the different styles and variations of Salsa. Juanchito, with 120 of the best dance halls, is the beating and rhythmic heart of Cali’s salsa nightlife. Every week throughout the year, two hundred thousand locals flock to this eastern suburb to party. Cali is full of nightclubs and old clubs for young and not so young. Younger generation Latinos tend to prefer softer, more soulful music known as Salsa Romántica, made popular by bandleaders like Eddie Santiago and Tito Nieves. Internationally popular salsa singers of the 1990s included Linda “India” Caballero and Mark Anthony. The Puerto Rico-based orchestra “Puerto Rican Power” is another hot group with ardent fans in both Cali and Puerto Rico.

While it’s exciting to hear famous salsa music artists from abroad, don’t forget about Cali’s many world-famous groups and musicians who blend the old with the new. The classic and the innovative. It’s worth a trip to Cali just to hear the vibrant non-traditional sounds of Jairo Varela and Grupo Niche. Or other artists like “Son de Cali”, the women’s “Orquesta Canela” and Lisandro Meza who also inject new blood into the Cali salsa scene. These and the heady classic salsa sounds of Kike Santander, Joe Arroyo and Eddy Martinez thunder through the air and flow through the veins of “coca-colos” (late teens to 20-somethings) and “cuchos” alike in discos, salsatecas and even in old bars that attract those over 35 years of age.

When I arrived in Cali in 1995, I thought my sauce was fine. After all, he had learned some smooth moves from a group of hot Puerto Rican beauties during a summer stint in San Juan. Even in my home state of Pennsylvania, there were opportunities on Friday or Saturday nights to go out and mingle with Latinos at our local Hispanic bars. I also perfected a quick double step in a rectangular pattern, and added twists and turns to the heavy beat. I had no problem getting and keeping dance partners. Then, in Miami, during a Labor Day weekend retreat, I met a Latin beauty. I invited her to dinner and dance later that week at “La Cima”, one of the biggest salsa clubs in town, to show off my moves. She was impressed. A year later we got married and after a couple more years we moved to her native Colombia.

Colombian salsa is a different beast. The style, rhythm, and beat are similar elsewhere, but it’s a different story on the dance floor. My feet recognized the rhythm, but behaved as if I were wearing Bozo shoes. For a time, I confined myself to central locations like “Cuarto Venina,” perched on the banks of the brownish, knee-deep Cali River. Here you only listen, you don’t dance. The music is so subdued that you can carry on a conversation while enjoying empanadas and a cold “Costeña”. It can be the perfect touch for a Sunday afternoon. Today, my Latin cutie and I are considered “cuchos” (all those over 35). Ten years have passed. Although we are still here, still dancing Salsa. And I’m still showing off my moves.

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