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volume 2
july 1999

Latin lovers: salsa musicians and their audience in London


  A small dance boom, or in defence of the trivial
  by Vincenzo Perna
  In September 1996 the European Music Office published its report on "Music in Europe". The second part of this study was titled "Music, Culture and Society in Europe" and edited by Paul Rutten. It contains six critical essays and five case studies on the cultural value of music in the European Union. This critical contribution by Vincenzo Perna takes a closer look at the salsa world trying to assess the reasons of the trivial, attached to popular music as dance music.

  "Tumbaito" is one of London's popular multi-national salsa bands, playing experimental Latin dance music from the streets. It is led by Venezuelan percussionist Williams Cumberbache (right). Formed in 1994, the 11-piece band is dedicated to presenting the tougher, urban face of salsa and Latin jazz fused with funk, rap, Afro-Caribbean rhythms and "descarga" (Latin jamming). Based on a series of interviews conducted in spring 1996 with musicians and other members of the salsa scene in London, this paper tries to ascertain salsa's popularity in the modern urban context.
1 A growing interest in salsa. Although Latin music is virtually absent from the press, radio and tv and from the music charts, the interest in salsa across Europe in the last few years has steadily grown. In the UK this year has seen the tour of a number of international salsa stars, and a series of Latin-American festivals held in London during the summer. Several local salsa bands cater for the dancing crowds in Latin clubs and bars which are springing up everywhere. This interest in Latin music could be dismissed as a short-term fad of summer music, but it can perhaps also be seen as offering a different experience of popular music.
  Salsa is usually filed under world music, a controversial music category often criticized as a form of musical neo-colonialism, a quest for the exotic Other. Although this attitude is not absent from the salsa scene, the situation here looks somewhat different. At the moment salsa in Europe is a trend without megastars, where the focus is rather on music and dance. The world of salsa shows strong ties with Latin-Americans resident in Europe. What is then the relation between music and Latin identity, what are the chances for integration through music and dance? The decision by many European enthusiasts to go and take salsa classes, on the other hand, represents a radical departure from the Western rock and popular music canon, where formal learning and dancing in couples is non-existent.
  This paper, based on a series of interviews conducted in spring 1996 with musicians and other members of the Latin scene in London, take a closer look at the salsa world trying to assess the reasons of the trivial, that is popular music as dance music.
2 The long march of Latin music. The interest in Latin music, and in salsa in particular, has greatly increased in the 1990's in Europe as part of a wider Western fascination with non-Western musics. The appeal of Latin music, however, has a long history which goes through all the century along with tango, rumba, mambo, bossa nova. [1] In more recent times well-known Western pop musicians have flirted with Latin rhythms (D. Byrne, L. Anderson, P. Simon) and, from a different angle, there has been an increasing interest in Latin jazz, a loose category ranging from bossa nova to Cuban Irakere. The vagueness of meaning of the term "Latin" is itself discouraging: musically this confusion has been expressed by using the label Latin music to cover an enormous variety of styles, from Carmen Miranda's film songs to Perez Prado's mambos; from Gipsy Kings' flamenco-rock to S. Getz's version of the Girl from Ipanema, from tango to salsa.
Broadly speaking, salsa "was born out of the encounter of Cuban and Puerto Rican music with big-band jazz in New York." [2] Salsa is a particularly interesting case because although it is certainly Latin music it was born in New York, the product of a diaspora of a diaspora. It is a music with many roots, or, so to speak, the product of many uprootings and transplantations. The name salsa, indeed, meaning "sauce", very appropriately expresses the variety of influences behind it. The term became widespread during the 1970's to define a style of playing mainly Cuban and Puerto Rican tunes with smaller ensembles that took the place of the old big-bands of the mambo era.
Salsa was thus born at a confluence of forces, stretching between its perceived "roots", represented by Cuban rhythms, and a "modern" drive expressed by the adoption of jazz and pop idioms. Several authors have underlined the musical ambiguity of the term salsa. Colombian journalist H Calvo Ospina has observed that:
  "Salsa has never defined itself as a specific musical genre, but rather a broadly based libertarian and pluralist sound. (...) Since it is such an amalgam of styles and such a free, unregimented kind of music, salsa is able to go wherever it wishes, paying tribute to all gods but submitting to none, since its ultimate objective is always dancing, a profane, wild enjoyment." [3]
3 Latin strands across the London scene. In spring 1996 in London, skimming through Time Out magazine listings during the weekend, one could find between 30 and 40 Latin nights (live music and disco). Some of these places offer a generic mix of "Latin" music mixing salsa with Spanish rock and Flamenco, Brazilian and African music. Some other specialize in salsa. Unlike its forerunner lambada, this is not just a disco trend: today in London there are no less than twelve salsa bands, with at least three top-quality big bands (La Clave, Tumbaito, Roberto Pla). There are also two established all-female (Candela) and mainly-female (Salsa Y Aché) groups. There is also an increasing number of smaller groups.
The London Latin boom has some precedents, often related to the jazz and dance scene. Afro-American and even African musicians were already active in Latin music in West End clubs around 1935. In the 1950's Edmundo Ros, a well-established musician active in London, ran a Latin music program on BBC radio. [4] The present salsa scene is related to the arrival of Latin-American immigrants (mostly Colombians) between the 1970's and the 1980's. Around 1985 there were already three salsa bands active in London, Barricada, Barrio Latino and El Sonido de Londres. [5]
The early 1980's saw also the re-emergence of Latin jazz as a dance music, mainly thanks to the activity of few cult DJ's. In the opinion of a Colombian salsa dance teacher, [6] the fashion of salsa started after the Brazilian lambada craze faded out in the early 1990's. Although very much a "disco thing" (with few bands around playing it), the lambada fad opened the interest of UK audiences for Latin sound and dance culture, putting Latin music on the map. But the salsa boom really took off because of the connection dance classes-clubs, when clubs started to offer salsa classes before their Latin nights.
4 Voices from the salsa world: the sound of London. Musical models and innovation. In march 1996 I interviewed some musicians of two London salsa bands (La Clave and Salsa Y Aché). [7] These two bands mainly play other people's music. As a pan-Latin style, salsa has many reference points and national variations. For La Clave the classic salsa sound they take as a model is represented by 1970's New York-Puerto Rican sound, although they occasionally play some merengue and cumbia. [8] Salsa Y Aché started as well with a repertoire mainly made of cover versions of New York-Puerto Rican songs, adding cumbias and merengues and then starting to write some original material. It is a feature common to many London salsa bands. The necessity to establish themselves as proper salseros, to gain confidence playing the "traditional" repertoire and to win the respect of their audiences pushes bands towards what they perceive as the authoritative models. As a consequence of this imitative approach, the current repertoire of London salsa bands does not reflect contemporary Latin music on the other side of the Atlantic.
  This may not be important for the less knowledgeable UK audience, but it does matter to Latin-Americans living here. Talking about the small Cuban community in London, Rosselson said:
  "Cubans would like to see a modern Cuban-style salsa band, which there isn't ... I think Cubans get very frustrated with the style of salsa that they play here, because that doesn't bear relation with what's happening in Cuba now. ... I think is a bit passé, ... they're just yearning to hear what they used to, and they cant' hear it unless a Cuban band comes over ..."
  This was also pointed out by London-based Cuban trumpeter Alema-i:
  "Basically the bands here play music that was made 10 or 15 years [ago], music that you can listen everywhere in the world, not the new salsa, not the hits of the moment."
However, London bands have made some efforts to develop an original repertoire, and now perform few pieces written by them. La Clave, for example, has now in its repertoire an original song called Mi Ciudad the text of which specifically deals with Latin-Americans in London. Contrasting with the (at least initially) imitative approach of British-led bands, there are some more adventurous groups. One of these, called Tumbaito and led by Venezuelan Williams Cumberbache, presents what a reviewer described as "the tougher urban face of salsa and Latin jazz, mixing it with rap, funk and heavy percussion breaks". [9]
In the words of the DJ Tomek:
  "Williams is a self-taught, street black boy from Caracas who wants to come to Europe and to create his own mythology, and therefore to do crazy things with the music." [10]
One important aspect for London salsa musicians is the necessity to keep in touch with current developments on the transatlantic scene. A simple and effective way of doing that has been devised by Club Bahia, which often invites well known international singers to be backed by London bands. The band receives the music scores beforehand, then rehearses and performs with stars from New York and Puerto Rico, apparently with excellent results. [11]
5 "Yo tengo màs swing que tu, yo vivo en el Sùr!" La Clave has in its repertoire a song called Mi Ciudad (My City), written by one of his singers, a Latin-American naturalized British. The song refers to London, and to the condition of Latin-Americans living there. It proposes a vision of identity and integration into British society where Latin-Americans are portrayed, through music and dance, as proudly different.
  The text refers to London as "my city", and while there is no mention of one specific nationality of the narrating "I", it points at a generic Latin American identity. The central part of the song has a refrain that goes: "Yo tengo màs swing que tu, yo vivo en el Sùr" ("I've got more swing than you have / I live in the South"]. The song constructs a sort of pan-Latin anthem, reinforced by the music which is, by definition, a form trans-national Latin music, and commenting not only on a general fact or assumption (although they might be poor, Latin people have more swing and more fun than non-Latin ones), but also using the persons who are actually dancing on the floor in front of the band as a piece of rhetorical evidence. Identity in this case is not just celebrated by the adoption of a musical style (salsa, "our" music) or simply singing "about" Latin-Americans, but is explicitly represented in musical terms through dancing and through the verbal text ("yo tengo màs swing que tu").
  Two ragga sections in the central part help to bring in a more contemporary sound. This is not an invention by La Clave, but its use here is remarkable as an attempt to challenge salsa conventions. As ragga and rap are perceived as eminently urban styles, the use of these vocal sections has the function of constructing together with the text an image of urban excitement and streetwise culture, of "modern" integration into British society ("this is my city, I will stay here until I die") and at the same time diversity, through a distinction between "us" as Southerners and "them" as Northerners, be that a reference to South/North London or South/North of the world.
6 "Learn the most exciting & sensual form of dance for men and women". The dancing crowd. [12] There is no doubt that the current salsa boom has been heavily influenced — if not fuelled - by the circular relationship salsa clubs — dance classes. What is particularly interesting here is that as soon as people get "hooked" on salsa they decide to take dance classes. Today in London all Latin clubs offer cheap packages of dance class and admission to the club night. These classes have a rather open structure, and to join them you just turn up, pay and follow the teacher. There are also more structured courses held in places like community centres or dance schools, organized according to different levels of proficiency. In the last two or three years some well known teachers have even produced teach-yourself videos.
  Dancers gave several reasons for their interest in dancing. People interviewed pointed out that dancing is for them a way of relaxing and keeping fit, but also, perhaps more importantly, that salsa classes provide an occasion for socialization. Salsa is one of the few contemporary dance styles danced in couples (at least in the West) and requiring body contact, and several salsa club-goers I've spoken to underlined the excitement and pleasure of dancing in couple as opposed to the "impersonal" way of dancing to Western pop. The pleasure of dancing is often explicitly articulated by salsa lyrics, and the meaning of salsa's stylized rite of courtship and sex can be learned through dancing.
  The value of salsa as a dance style, in other words, is seen in its opposition to the rock-pop Western canon, which has generally ruled out couple-dancing since the 1960's. It is worth noting how dancing in couples, which few years ago was seen as a typical bourgeois, old-fashioned and boringly conventional thing (as opposed to free-style, individualized dancing), is now interpreted in a completely different key.
Malou Schuller, a German woman who has travelled extensively in Latin America, said:
  "First of all, I got really bored with white British kind of (music) ... Every place I go to now which doesn't play that kind of music [salsa], I just find it so boring, it doesn't make me move, people don't seem to really enjoy themselves, they are all kind of on ecstasy ... and ... everybody for themselves. I think ... to dance with somebody and to interact with people in dance is very new, I think, to us, quite young, Western people. ... it's a way of dancing with people, it's almost like a therapy also, ... it opens you up, you really are physically communicating with whoever you're dancing without any obligations." [13]
  Formalization plays an important part from the expressive point of view. Dancing does not just represent for the dancers a key to enter salsa culture: the relatively rigid framework of formalized dancing (which in reality has in Latin-America many national and regional variations) provides dancers with a structure for individual expression.
  Several persons have pointed out to me how that framework also encourages a dimension of virtuosism and, some say, exhibitionism. According to Colombian teacher Frans G. the competitive element is very marked in salsa dancing in London, although it is not clear whether this has to do with the people who pioneered salsa teaching in Britain. This competitive dimension is probably an integral part in the process of construction of Latin-American identity-difference. It is indirectly illustrated in the fact that soon after discovering salsa most people, in order to be accepted as members by the dancing community, start taking dance classes.
  Some salsa lovers, however, do complain about this:
  "I like the dancing, but I think there is lot of pretentiousness going around. People are like 'the better you can dance, the better you are'. ... And I hate that, I like people who ... go there because ... they enjoy themselves dancing. But then there are certain [mainly Latin-American] people who are really good dancers, and they're just really arrogant because they are so good. ... And everybody is sitting around and 'Oh, I'm not good enough, I can't dance because they are all so good, and it is not what it's about, not really!" (Schuller)
  Nobody would challenge the fact that salsa is eminently a dance music, but the relation between dancers and salsa bands is sometimes seen as difficult by musicians. As D. Rosselson — who, before starting her own group, has been one of the first salsa dance teachers in London — put it:
  "I think a lot of dance teachers have done a disservice to live music, because they don't educate the students to listen to good music, because ... there's good and bad salsa, and I've got the feeling that a lot of the teachers are using very poppy, rubbish salsa, actually. So when people go and listen to live bands and they're not like the records, I think they get a bit pissed off ... and I know that's why there is a bit of a conflict between musicians and the dancers. (...)"
  Although the conflict dancers-band is potentially always present in musical situations with two different focuses, the dance floor and the stage, sometimes it comes dramatically to the fore:
  "... I still believe there is a lot of people who go to classes and go to clubs and they still haven't seen a live band. ... [for them live bands] are definitely an obstacle: once in a club in Stoke Newington called Bar Lorca ... they had a Brazilian band ... and the dancers actually wrote a petition saying that they didn't want any more live bands, they wanted just records, and they gave it to the management. I could not believe that, but it's true! ... this is the audience, these are the dancers who go out dancing ... it's a bit scary!" (Rosselson)
7 Latin music and its community. The last twenty years have seen the arrival in the UK of a significant number of Latin-Americans. Data from the 1991 population census provided by the Office for National Statistics give about 43,000 Latin-American resident all over Great Britain and 17.500 in London (the biggest single national groups are here Brazilians and Colombians). These data are not totally reliable, as they include only people who filled in the census form and do not include illegal residents. All this results in striking disagreements between different sources about the number of Latin-American people resident in London. While the Colombian consulate estimated the number of Colombians to be at least 60,000, [14] some people talk of 50,000 Latin-Americans in total living in London, and a journalist of the newspaper Cronica Latina even told me that his own estimate was between 250,000 and 400,000. [15] In terms of composition by nationality, the biggest national group seems to be the Colombian one, followed by Brazilians, Venezuelans, Peruvian and Chileans. [16] It is also generally acknowledged that a big part of Latin American residents in the capital live in South London.
  Although it is impossible to extricate oneself from this incredibly wide range of figures, what is interesting here is the contrast between the data available and the subjective perception by most Latin-Americans, their own self-representation as a huge group. Even the perception of a Latin American community may have some mythical contours. According to Nacho G. who has helped to establish the London Latin-American House, it is difficult to speak of a clearly identifiable community, as Latin American people are fragmented and divided along social and national groups.
  However, there are now at least two Latin-American (Spanish-speaking) periodicals published in London (Noticias-Latin America and Cronica Latina) and whatever the real number of Latin-Americans in London, their presence has become much more perceivable. In the last few years during the summer in the last few years there have been several outdoors Latin American events and festivals organized in south and central London. These events do not necessarily prove the size of the Latin population, but surely improve the visibility of Latin-Americans and contribute to construct their identity as a community through music and dance.
The crucial role of music as a collective, group-building, emotionally-charged experience has often been underlined. [17] Salsa, as a Caribbean-Southern American musical esperanto offers a sense of shared pan-Latin difference with a modern, cosmopolitan edge. It is quite common to see, at outdoor events, the MC asking the crowd to clap the clave rhythm, according to the "Latin way". [18]
  On the other hand, the interest shown by UK "latin lovers" for salsa as a music and as a dance, the feeling that Latin-Americans have a special human quality or, in other words, the construction of Latin-American otherness by non-Latins, contributes to reinforce the identity in the perceived "Other". In this context salsa represents an occasion where learning how to dance provides the "pass" to enter the dancing community, symbolically crossing the line and meeting the "Other" on its ground.
8 Musicians on their audiences. All London salsa groups perform in clubs but also for community events and festivals. In terms of club audience, La Clave estimated their audience to be about 50% Latin and 50% non-Latin (British, other nationalities). The Latin audience is considered mixed, but with a strong Colombian presence. The reason for the high number of Colombians is explained partially by the sheer number of them in London, and partially by the great popularity of salsa in Colombia today. Salsa Y Aché gave a similar pattern of their audience in London.
Between salsa clubs there are remarkable differences. Some rely mainly on recorded music, while others offer live gigs. Some are mainly targeted at the British-International audience, offering sometimes an odd mixture of Gypsy Kings, salsa and Spanish disco, while others have a more "puristic" approach and feature only Latin music. The Club Bahia is a small club located in South London and open only on weekends. Its manager Galvez proudly underlines that his club — the only such place in London — always features live bands. He stated that his target audience now is mainly British. This was explained by the small size of the London Latin American market, a statement sharply in contrast with the common idea of a huge London Latin community. [19]
  Salsa, it seems, appeals to a mixed crowd. Although it keeps strong ties with the community, salsa is not perceived anymore as a form of "ethnic", "minority" music. Rather, the national mix of salsa clubbers is itself part of its appeal to "Latin lovers".
9 Visibility and the salsa business. The salsa world in London has built a very active and lively network. Live music thrives in spite of the drying up of Arts Council's contributions and limited resources of local authorities. Although Latin-American music has been virtually ignored by the media, its audience at the local level in the last ten years has steadily grown. There are now in London several clubs with disco and live nights devoted to salsa. These events are mainly advertised through leaflets which can be found at Latin clubs, concerts, specialized record shops, and through the Latin-American press.
Salsa is invisible in pop music charts. Indeed, while the market has so far been considered by the record majors too small to be exploited (without considering the traditional resistance to music with non-English lyrics), there have probably been some lost occasions. In the words of D. Buttle, manager of the London specialized shop and record label Mr Bongo, "the British industry has had at least three major chances over the last few years, especially with the merengue superstar J.L. Guerra, to blow the market wide open, but because of lack of vision, poor marketing and promotion they blew it." [20]
  Besides a number of specialized record shops where one can buy salsa records, Latin music can be found today through unofficial channels such as Latin-American-run shops and small, home-based mail-order businesses. London salsa bands have started to release their CD's on independent labels, some of which specialize in Latin-American music (Tumi, Salsa Boogie Productions). Under the name of Latin jazz, salsa has entered the jazz circuit, with Cuban groups like Los Van Van and Irakere playing for weeks at Ronnie Scott's.
  In the past there have been attempts to bring in to London international salsa superstars, but apparently not all of those events have been commercially successful. However, in 1995 and 1996 in the UK there have been successful tours by several Cuban groups. Festival and outdoor events related to Latin-American culture have been held in the last few years all over London, and especially in Clapham, Islington and in South Bank, and have been attended by thousands of people.
  The salsa boom puts some problems to popular music, as it calls into question the meaning of "popular". Popular for whom? And measured by what? Although I do not want here to dismiss the importance of record sales ranking, I think there definitely is a problem when an one sees such a gap between a local phenomenon and no sign of it in the charts or in the media. This is probably a distortion not entirely dissimilar from the case of Asian music. Although sales figures of music like bhangra in the UK are probably remarkable, that music only occasionally appears in the charts as it is produced and marketed outside the established channels. Finally, one might argue that the popularity of a music style is not necessarily fully reflected by record sales.
10 Salsa, European music, popular music. When I decided I was going to write about salsa, one preliminary question was its relevance to the subject of this project. Why focusing on Latin-American music in Europe? Was this European music? After some thought I decided the answer was "yes". This meant challenging the same notion of "European music". Salsa cannot certainly be defined as a style of autochtonous European music, nor it can be seen as a "cultural imperialistic" form.
How can we define European music? Do we mean by that a music with a certified national or sub-national pedigree? Do we mean a style, or a group of styles? If this is true, salsa is certainly not part of European music, but then, not even rock, rap or jazz are. In this case a relevant part of the current renaissance of national and regional European popular musics would be excluded. One could think, for example, of the recent wave of Italian and French groups which have chosen to sing in national languages and dialects on Caribbean-derived musical forms. [21]
If we, instead, adopt a perspective where music is seen as shaping identity through a social process rather than simply expressing it, that would allow us to see as European music not just the sum of musical styles autochtonous to Europe, but any popular music relevant to people living in Europe, thus turning from questions directed towards defining the essential and "authentic" traces of identity "in" music (a question with which much nationalist and essentially racist folklore and ethnography is explicitly concerned) to the questions of how music is used by social actors in specific local situations to erect boundaries, to maintain distinctions. [22]
A quest for musical authenticity would indeed be difficult to apply to salsa itself. Although it certainly has roots in local Latin-American repertoires and practices, salsa is a totally creole music, resulting from contacts between African and European music in the Caribbean and later with American jazz in the US. [23] From there salsa has spread to Latin America, and then to Europe. Salsa has not been exported to the US, but it was born there as a form of adaptation and resistance to white North-American dominant culture. It can perhaps perform a similar function in Europe. What is crucial here is not the purity of Latin music, nor of a mythical European music, but the extent to which salsa will lend itself to a new process of adaptation. Indeed, we are witnessing now to the first attempts of London groups to produce music addressing Latin American audiences in Britain.
Another aspect underlined by salsa, as we have seen, is the fact that the same word refers to a music, a dance and a culture. This social dimension of music (indeed, of any music) as "a wide field of practices and meanings" [24] sharply contrasts with traditional musicological definitions in purely "musical", formal terms. Is salsa as a dance music simply the trivial side of popular music? In the case of salsa I have tried to point out some of the social and artistic implications underlying a style which is stubbornly grounded in the dance floor. A look at salsa points at out the inconsistencies of genres distinctions and hierarchizations along the art/entertainment axis: salsa is dance music played in clubs by jazz-trained musicians for "ethnic" and European crowds. If we do not attempt to track down an impossible authenticity and musical purity of the Volk, and by European music we simply mean musical and cultural practices taking place in Europe, then we might find a more meaningful definition of music, and maybe a more tolerant view of the "Other".
11 Conclusions. I have tried here to give an idea of the dense underground world of salsa in London, showing the vitality of a form of Latin music in a European capital and pointing out at some of its ties with the Latin American community on one side, and the dance and jazz scene on the other. Salsa is now increasingly popular in other British towns, and across Germany, Holland, Switzerland, France, Spain. Back to my town in Italy in summer 1996, I discovered that La Clave, one of the groups I had interviewed, had just performed there.
  Salsa is now central in shaping the identity of Hispanic Latin-Americans as a community in Europe. It is crucial in marking a Latin-American sense of distinction and bridging the gap with non-Latin-Americans. It provides important occasions for social, cultural and economic contacts. As an economic reality, in particular, it generates income for musicians, DJ's, dance teachers, clubs and bars. For many Latin-Americans it is not just a way of earning a living, but also a way of developing creative strategies to integrate into a new society. The mixed line-up of most London salsa groups provides a metaphor for this integration.
  The particular role of dancing, and the close tie between music and dance, make salsa perhaps a signal pointing out at a new attitude towards popular music. It seems to me that within a framework of codified movements and steps — although maybe expressing a similar need — salsa offers much more room to individual expression than Los del Rios' Macarena, just to name the rage of last summer.
  At the same time, exactly because it is a music and a dance, salsa stands out from other world music fads as her relation to dance and community grounds it into society (and into the body) much deeper than other exotic, captivating but de-contextualized sounds. This does not mean that the experience of dancing to salsa in Europe is equivalent to what it is in Latin America. But it means that the interaction between music, dance, Latin-American community and European audiences can be much richer, deeper and fruitful than any simple consumption of recorded sounds.
  I wish to thank Lucy Duran of Soas, London, for her contacts and her useful suggestions.
1. For a review of Latin music fads in the West, see Roberts, 1979. Return to text
2. Broughton et al., 1994, 485. Return to text
3. Calvo Ospina, 1995, 76-77. See also Manuel, 1988. Return to text
4. Stapleton, 1989. Return to text
5. Guillen, 1985. It was from El Sonido de Londres ("The sound of London") that La Clave and Roberto Pla Latin Jazz Ensemble evolved around 1988. Salsa Y Aché and Candela were formed around 1990. Return to text
6. Frans Gonzales, interview with the author, London, 28.3.1996. Return to text
7. In particular, I interviewed La Clave's leader and arranger Jim Le Mesurier, Salsa Y Aché leader and singer Daniela Rosselson, and Cuban free-lance salsa trumpet player Jesùs Alema-i. The interviews were conducted in London in march 1996. La Clave is one of the top big-bands operating in London. They regularly tour England, and have been to Europe several times. Salsa Y Aché are a partially-female London big band with a reputation for spectacularity, and they have just released their first CD.
  I interviewed the manager of the club where La Clave performed on a crammed saturday night, plus the house DJ, two dance teachers and some dance students and customers of various salsa clubs. This sort of descriptive, ethnographic approach, partially due to journalistic reasons, was also justified by the fact that there is almost no literature on the subject. In the following part of my paper I will mainly quote from material extracted from those interviews.
  London salsa big bands are formed by a fairly stable core of leader / arranger-singers, and by a group of other musicians (notably the horn players, bass and piano player) who can vary, and who play with virtually all London salsa groups. These bands have a variable size. La Clave, for example, exists in a full big-band versions (11 members) and in various "abridged" versions. Salsa bands are rather similar to jazz bands, and indeed virtually all their musicians have a jazz background. In terms of national origins, the composition of both La Clave and Salsa Y Aché is mixed, featuring British musicians plus some Latin-American musicians. This make-up reflects the composition of most London bands. Return to text
8. Dominican merengue and Colombian cumbia are becoming increasingly popular in Britain. One of the reasons may be, especially in the case of merengue, the strong, almost march-like 1-2-1-2 beat, and the far less syncopated rhythm. Although musicians tend to distinguish merengue and cumbia from salsa as musical forms, there is an agreement in generically labelling all those (and many other) Latin-American dance forms as salsa. Return to text
9. Peel, 1996. Return to text
10. Interview with the author, London, 26.3.1996. Tomek is a well-known DJ who has been active in the 1980's in London pirate radios and in the early phase of Jazz-FM. He often works in clubs alternating with bands. Return to text
11. "Musicians loves it, because is a challenge for them: they got something a bit more complicated, ... and they do enjoy to play with one guy who is very well known ... All the musicians were queuing to play" (Nacho Galvez, interview with the author, 27.3.96). Return to text
12. The quote is from a leaflet of the Hampstead School of Latin Dance. Return to text
13. Malou Schuller, interview with the author, London, 29.3.1996. Return to text
14. Figure given to me by the information service of London Colombian embassy. They also said that they have a research in progress on assessing the number of Colombians in the capital. Return to text
15. J. Peredo, conversation with the author, London, 20.3.1996. Return to text
16. Brazilians keep quite a distinct profile from Hispanic Latin-Americans. Return to text
17. One can think of national anthems, for example, and of the role played by the music of the Volk in romantic and nationalist ideology in 19th century Europe. Return to text
18. Clave is the basic, asymmetric 1-2-3 / 1-2 rhythm underlying every salsa dance piece, produced by beating together a pair of wooden sticks. Return to text
19. The manager of the club is a Chilean refugee who arrived in the UK in the 1970's after Pinochet's coupe. He has been living in London for almost twenty years, and has been very active in organizing cultural events, for Latin expatriates. His involvement with Latin music has come more out of his political story and his condition as an exile than out of a business attitude. However, he finally opened the Club Bahia as a commercial venture. He sounded almost apologetic about being forced to orientate his business towards a British audience. Return to text
20. Quoted in McLeod, 1994. J.L. Guerra received a Grammy in the US in 1992. Return to text
21. On Italian "new music", see Mitchell, 1995. Return to text
22. Stokes, 1994, 6. Return to text
23. For the concept of creolization, see Hennerz, 1991. Return to text
24. Stokes, 1994, 7. Return to text
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  This essay originally appeared in: Rutten, Paul (ed.), Music, culture and society in Europe. Part II of: European Music Office, Music in Europe. Brussels, 1996, 104-115.
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