Salsa Music, Cali's Blood of Life

You tread through the darkened entrance, leaving behind a tropical night. All of a sudden, the waves of noise crash over you Iike as you browse the ocean. Bursting into a sweat, your heart pounded into the rhythm of bass, bongos, bells and bronze. The walls seem to pulse. The strong smell of sweat mixed with perfume attacks you. As your eyes adjust to the darkness, broken by the mesmerizing flashes of colorful pillars, you realize that it is not walls that lock you in, but dancers – a number of gyrating, weaving and swirling dancers, flashing limbs, slipping into quarter – beat the time. It fills your lungs with the spicy aroma, tightens your belt a notch and dips. Welcome to Chango & # 39; s in Cali, Colombia – one of Latin America's hottest Salsa nightclubs.

Cali, a modern, festive city, lies in the heart of the "Valley". when the Colombians say "Valley" they mean the Cauca Valley, a not-so-small garden of Eden one hundred and fifty miles long, and about fifteen miles wide between the coastal mountain ranges and the Central Cordillera. By the end of the century, this valIey was little more than a rural road.

At that time, with a population of about 15,000, the Cauca Valley was largely a land of cattle, scattering in large tracts among the "haciendados". These were proud, almost haughty men who raised cattle for skin and beef. Some had sugar cane plantations used to produce "panels" sweeteners and to distill pure, yet powerful, crystal "aguardients" inhaled today. Life was slow, discreet, patriarchal and unchanging.

It is said that the Cauca region in Colombia is what the South is for the United States. Indeed, there are similarities. In the old days the "hidalgos strolled" unwavering "calls" in velvet coat or red embroidered and buttoned up with gold and silver, their blooming silk robes and their shirt clutter were among the best lawns " , says Kathleen Romoli, author of Colombia: The Gate to. South America. And like the southern states in colonial schemes, large numbers of slaves were imported to work the fields and serve the zeal.

Time has brought about many changes. Today, extensive sugar cane plantations still rug the Valley. Mechanized production of cotton, rice and livestock has made the Cauca Valley the most important agricultural area of ​​Colombia after the "King Coffee". And with economic growth has come the industry. A colonial leisure city in 1900, Cali has grown into a major manufacturing center with more than a thousand industries in recent times.

There’s Salsa in the air

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

The most surprising thing about Cali today is not the imposing square of government buildings and rows of taxis, along the streets of giant palm trees, nor the suburbs with their modem villas, and the churches whose bells ring melodies instead of climbing as it is Bogotá, not even the busy factories. The air of widespread joy is almost guaranteed Not a city of many amusements; Cali is not gay because of the convenience of organized diversion but by the grace of God.

Cali attracts travelers from all over the world; tourists, businessmen, packers, scientists and students. And, of course, salsa fans and salsa artists. The recording studios, "rumberias", "discothèques" and "viejotecas" are numerous.

What is Cali's appeal? The city's sensational atmosphere? Spectacular sunsets? The natural beauty of the flying Andes? The stunned beauty of her wives? Maybe it's the climate where it's always June. Or could it be her extraordinary purity? Many Colombian cities are clean, but Cali is as clean as it stands. Or maybe it's the trees and flowers – the green bushes and purple bougainvilleas that fall from the walls, the golden cup that drips from the eyelashes, the trumpet wax bells, the stone bar bells, the wonderful gardens, and so on. magenta leaf trees and candy or other feathery green flowers – white flowers or pale pink clusters – the wild extravagance of blooms among which drowsy birds with iridescent green lilies fly in winter.

No Salsa No Dates

Cali has it all. But admittedly for many, the main attraction that draws them to this charming city is Salsa music. The sensual, tropical rhythms of Salsa permeate the lives of two million plus Kaleños. On every bus you will hear Salsa. Go for a walk, school or shopping there is salsa in the air. And, of course there are Salsa in almost all more than two dozen local radios. Across the city, 24 hours a day, Salsa bursts from street talkers, parks, shops, cars, portable radios, and private homes. Cali lives and breathes Salsa. But why Salsa? Many other musical traditions, styles and types of folk music flourish in Cali (including the traditional Cumbia, where dancers juggle pet around full-bodied women in bare skirts). What & # 39; s so special about Salsa? After all Vallenatos, a popular music brand rooted in the days of the Spanish invaders, is still hugely popular – especially as sung by the likes of Colombian Grammy Award-winner Carlos Vives. Boleros (see Luis Miguel's "Inolvidable") and Merengue continue to have strong following here.

Why is this style so deeply embedded in culture? In terms of the answer, the answer is simple: "I love salsa music." Whatever the reason for its universal popularity in Cali, Salsa is more than music, more than a dance. An indispensable social skill explains my friend, Carmenza, "No salsa – no date". You can't meet others if you can't dance. "And that's why there are salsa dance schools all over the city. You pay hourly lessons. Prices range from $ 2 to $ 6 an hour for more private, one-on-one lessons. Group classes go fast. Salsa classes are not only the place to learn, but to practice and perfect your moves or catch some new ones. They are a "good 'meeting place for neighborhood residents." It's important to dance very well or you're boring, "says Sofia, a keen Salsa fan.

Cali calls herself "Salsa Capital, of the World," a title taken from Fidel Cuba's post and often shared with New York City. But even those who might be exempt from "World Capital" will admit that Cali is certainly "Salsa Capital of South America". Top Latin salsa performers, like Jerry "King of 54th Street" of New York, Gonzalez, fly regularly to get their things done. At any given time, you can see all the famous names in salsa; artists follow Cuba's "Queen of Salsa", Celia Cruz; guitarist, singer and songwriter Juan Luis Guerra of the Dominican Republic; Frank Raul Grillo, the American Cuban also known as Machito; Reuben Blades, the famous Panamanian singer, songwriter, actor and politician known for his musical innovations as well as traditional Salsa; Willie Colon; Oscar d & # 39; Leon, et al.


And you don't have to go far to this city of dancers to hear all the different styles and variations of Salsa. Juanchito, with 120 of the hottest dance halls, is the sharp rhythmic heart of Cali & # 39; s Salsa nightlife. Week by week throughout the year, two hundred thousand locals flock to this eastern suburb to celebrate. Cali spreads with disco and "viejotecas" for the young and not so young. New-generation Latinos usually favor softer, more sentimental music, known as Salsa Romantica, popularized by bands like Eddie Santiago and Tito Nieves. International salsa singers of the 1990s included Linda "India" Caballero and Mark Anthony. Puerto Rican-based orchestra "Puerto Rican Power" is another hot band with ardent fans in both Cali and Puerto Rico.

While it's exciting to hear famous Salsa music performers from overseas, don't forget the many prominent Cali world-class bands and famous Salsa musicians mixing old with new. Classic and innovative. It is worth a trip to Cali just to hear the non-traditional live sounds of Jairo Varela and Grupo Niche. Or other artists like "Son de Cali", the all-female "Canela Orchestra" and Lisandro Meza who also inject new blood into the Cali´s Salsa scene. These and the classic intoxicating Salsa sounds of Kike Santander, Joe Arroyo and Eddy Martinez thunder in the air and flow into the veins of "coca-colos" (late teens to 20s) and "cuchos" alike in discos, salsatecas and even in viejotecas that draws the crowd over 35 years old.

When I got to Cali 1995, I thought my salsa was good. After all, I would get some smooth movement from a light Puerto Rican hot beauties during a summer in San Juan. Even in my home state of Pennsylvania, on Friday or Saturday nights it was possible to slip and mingle with Latinos in our Spanish waterfront. I would also refine a quick double step in a rectangular pattern, and added swirls and spins to the heavy beat. I had no trouble getting, and maintaining, dance partners. Then in Miami, during a Labor Day weekend retreat, I was introduced to a Latin saw. I was invited to dinner and dance later that week at La Cima, one of Salsa's best clubs, to show off my moves. She was impressed. A year later we were married and after a few years we moved to her native Colombia.

The Colombian salsa is another beast. The style, rhythm and beat are similar elsewhere but it's a different story on the dance floor. My feet recognized the beat but behaved as if 1 had Bozo shoes. For a while, 1 stuck in downtown places like "Cuarto Venina", landing on the banks of the Cali River, knee deep. You're just listening, there's no dancing here. The music is so subdued that you can carry on a conversation about empanadas and the cold "Costeña". It might just be the right touch for a Sunday afternoon. Nowadays, my Latin cutie and 1 are considered "cuchos" (set over 35). Ten years have passed. We're still here, though, still dancing to Salsa. And I'm still showing my movements.