News Column

Steps growing for salsa scene

August 24, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 24--Sacramento has never been a city known for having a vibrant salsa music scene, but that means there's room for growth.

At least, that is the contention of local DJs, musicians and arts presenters, who believe an audience exists for the music, at dance venues as well as in concert halls.

"The scene is not like what you find in San Francisco, but it has been growing," said local salsa DJ Omar Torre.

The 37-year-old Torre has been DJing in Northern California for the past 20 years. These days he is the salsa turntablist at the Station in Roseville on Thursdays and Saturdays.

Torre said that when he started DJing, the only place to listen to salsa was at La Conga, a bar on Watt Avenue.

"Back then you had to wait a whole week before you could hear salsa again," Torre said.

Today there are more choices, such as the the Grad in Davis.

"Lately, I find I have more DJ work, too," Torre said. "Back in the day there were only two DJs devoted to salsa, me and Cesar de la Salsa."

Torre sees other DJs bringing salsa, as well as bachata or cha-cha, to their varied playlists, which might account for the reason he's seeing a new crowd at his gigs.

"Now I see more Anglos and Filipinios," he said. "And it's more of a friendly scene now. It's not like before, when you went to salsa, and you brought your wife, and it was like 'no, you can't dance with my wife,'" said Torre. "Now, it's really different. Now people go out to dance, and it doesn't matter if they dance with your wife, your husband -- it's just about dancing. Plus, now a lot of people do it as a form of exercise."

The scene has not necessarily grown, said Leon Reyes, who for 17 years has broadcast a bilingual show devoted to salsa on KVMR (89.5 FM) on the first and third Sundays of each month, from 3 to 5 p.m.

On his radio show, Reyes said, he is changing with the times and is incorporating other styles of Latin music that people are clamoring for, such as bachata.

"I don't know why bachata is so popular now," he said. "It's a nice style of music, but personally I don't think it has as much impact as salsa music."

Reyes believes salsa, as well as Latin, is currently in a dormant period.

"The last 10 to 12 years, salsa music was given a good showing, but it has probably run its course, temporarily," said Reyes. "It was played quite a bit. But I think people got salsaed out."

From his perspective, it's cyclic.

"It was like that if you look back to the '30s, '40s and '50s. Especially if you look at the mambo craze that lasted for a number of years, and then it just dropped off the map. About 15 years ago it started picking up again," Reyes said. "Will salsa die? I don't think so. I think it will come back, but differently."

The local scene offers few opportunities for the salsa musician, said salsero Aaron Routtenberg, who plays the timbales, bongos and congas in several bands, including the popular Bay Area-based Orquesta Borinquen.

Routtenberg has learned the hard way -- as frontman for his own band, the Taino Salsa Orchestra -- that working in Sacramento is a rare event.

"There aren't too many local venues in Sacramento that do the live-band thing steadily," said Routtenberg. "Once in a while we do a gig. But for the most part, we play in San Francisco."

He averages three performances a week in the Bay Area and said he believes the lack of Sacramento venues for live music has everything to do with money.

"Honestly, I think the salsa crowd is just into dance music. Dancers just want to dance and have fun. They don't care whether it's to a live band or a DJ," said Routtenberg.

And when they dance, Routtenberg contends, they do not drink like the crowds at hip-hop nights.

"These people are dancing and sweating all night. They're not buying alcohol. The majority of places will not make any money off the bar," he said.

One bright spot in the salsa scene is the popularity of well-established national and international salsa acts that perform in blue-chip concert halls.

At the Mondavi Center at UC Davis, Latin artists including salsa acts such as the Spanish Harlem Orchestra have been popular.

"Along with classical music and jazz, Latin artists from around the globe generally draw the biggest audiences here," said Jeremy Ganter, director of programming for the center.

Ganter believes a strong audience exists for salsa music.

"For me the question is not where this audience is, but what is it they want from a given performance?" Ganter said. "A big part of the answer is found in the critical connection to dance and movement that salsa has."

At the Harris Center theater at Folsom Lake College in Folsom, salsa and Latin acts have sold well, if not sold out altogether, said David Pier, executive director of the center.

That venue recently presented Havana D'Primera for two concerts -- on short notice. That effort spurred the center to look more closely at the audience for Latin music and what it wants, and spurred the center to provide a dancing area in front of the stage for the concert, he said.

"This turned out to be quite popular," Pier said.

After doing some digging, Pier said, he encountered a vibrant salsa scene in the region, and one that keeps a low profile. He considers the members of that scene an untapped audience.

That realization has proven no small matter to the center, which has booked the Pacific Mambo Orchestra, with Tito Puente Jr. in November, and the Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band, with Joe Locke and Alfredo de la Fe, in December.

"I feel there is significant interest in Latin jazz and salsa music in the region, as well other forms of Latin music," said Pier.

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(c)2013 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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