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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 5, 2000. All rights reserved.

Salsa Steeped in Latin Flavor


Salsa is in the hips — that’s the first thing

that dancers learn — but the same could be said about salsa music

too. "I consider Latin music a type of universal language because

everybody likes it," says Dennis Guevara, the 18-year-old pianist

who leads Latin Flavor, a new salsa sextet from Trenton. "It just

makes you want to get up and dance."

The infectious rhythms of Latin Flavor were first felt last winter.

On Monday nights the band transformed the Urban Word Cafe in Trenton

from beatnik hangout to something like a cantina. This Monday night,

April 10, the band returns to the Urban Word for an evening of salsa

sounds preceded by a dance lesson.

On a typical Latin Flavor evening, couples convene at candle-lit tables

on the edge of the dining room and sip from voluptuous glasses of

wine; shoes are polished, skirts climb above the knee, and men ask

the women to dance — a rare thing these days. Around 9 p.m., Latin

Flavor’s young pianist punches out the first few riffs of its signature

song, and one-by-one, the other musicians add a new layer to the sound

— Louis Diaz, 44, sings and plays bongo; Orlando Colon, 42, on

congas; Ivan Rodriguez, 35, on timbales; Juan Carlos Ramirez, 34,

on bass; and Eddie Rivera Jr., 20, on small percussion. Soon, the

rhythms become so intricate, the music so frenzied, that it’s nearly

impossible to stay seated — by the third or fourth number, the

entire room is gyrating on the makeshift dance floor.

Salsa — that’s Spanish for sauce — is a colloquial term used

to describe a kind of big-band, polyrhythmic fusion of jazz and traditional

music from the Spanish diaspora, from Cuba and Puerto Rico, to Africa

and Argentina. Whether you call it mambo, or just Latin jazz, what

makes salsa "salsa" is something called clave (clah-vay) —

a rhythm set to a two-bar pattern with a three-two or two-three beat.

It gives salsa its distinctive swing.

Latin music has always been a strong undercurrent in

American culture, bubbling to the surface every few years — think

Carlos Santana or Tito Puente. "Latin music was always there,

it’s been there since before Dizzy Gillespie, but the only thing that’s

going on with it right now is it’s being aired, being commercialized,"

says Guevara.

Today pop singers like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez, who have made

the cross-over into the English language, are bringing salsa music

to a whole new generation. It’s almost impossible to find any radio

station that is not playing some spin-off of salsa. Yet Latin Flavor

is not content with plain popularization. It subscribes to the old-school

style of salsa, with a lineage that can be traced back to Latin legends

like Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente.

Today’s salsa has moved too far from its roots, says Guevara. "You

can’t find the clave, they combine it into one, and that’s where it

just kills the music," he says. "I stress the clave. Whatever

the beat of the song is, I stress it so you can feel it’s three-two

or two-three."

"In my opinion, Louis Damon — as a singer he’s good but the

music has got to go. All they talk about is sex, making love to a

girl, how a girl left me. It’s the same routine over and over."

He calls the new music "Salse Monga," or "Love Salsa."

A rabid defender of "pure salsa" today, Guevara would easily

have settled for rap music just a year ago. A graduate of McCorristin

High, and a business student at Mercer County College, Guevara first

took piano lessons at the age of eight, and was pegged as concert

pianist material. Within months, however, Guevara succumbed to the

lures of video games, junk food, and American pop culture, and no

longer had time for lessons.

"I was young and all I cared about was Nintendo," he says.

"My father wanted to kill me. He told me when I was small to listen

to this stuff, but I never appreciated it. It was always his dream

to play piano, but because the economy in Venezuela was rough, he

went to two classes and had to practice on the table because he didn’t

have a piano. Later, he said, `I’ll have my son play it.’ So he’s

living his dream through me, but I also love doing it."

Guevara discovered Latin music and rediscovered his love of piano

at the same moment. At last he started digging into his father’s Latin

albums and returned to the piano, imitating what he heard. "That’s

basically how I began to open up my ear and my mind to Latin music,"

he says. "I listen to something and I just feel it inside of me.

I just let the rhythm go. I guess it comes naturally, I never had

a jazz teacher, but I want one so I can take my music to the next


Since picking up the instrument at 17, Guevara has progressed rapidly,

spending a short time studying under Jose Colon, a pianist in New

York. Within three months, Guevara was promoted from apprentice to

understudy in Colon’s band. His stock went up in his hometown as well,

and last May he formed Latin Flavor.

"They knew my reputation and they consider me the best Latin pianist

in Trenton," he says, "but I don’t like to say that because

I know there’s a lot of people out there better than me. I just like

to play, and I like to express myself. I realize that this is where

I’m at — this is me."

At the Guevara household, a small, yellow Cape Cod in North Trenton,

Sunday afternoons are set aside for rehearsals. Guevara’s electric

piano, a Kurzweil PC-88, sits in the center of the living room —

now promoted to equal footing with the TV. It’s 2:30 p.m., a half-hour

past practice time, but only half of the band has arrived. The bassist

is sick, the timbales player is recovering from an arm injury, but

there will be music anyway.

Guevara’s father, William, a custodian at the Mott School in Trenton

who moved here from Caracas in the 1970s, has just popped in the video

of "The Buena Vista Social Club," Wim Wenders’ documentary

about the re-emergence of Cuba’s older generation of jazz musicians.

Diaz and Colon — both originally from Puerto Rico — flank

him on the couch, captivated. "This song has been around since

the 1930s and you could play it to kids in Latin American and they

would know it," explains Diaz, as his watches the Cuban performers.

"Latin music could come from anywhere." Even Central Jersey.

Homegrown Latin music thrives in Trenton, but it’s rarely heard outside

the Hispanic community. It is mostly performed at Sweet 16 parties,

weddings, and at a handful of Latino establishments. Bands are born

overnight, and like friendships or romances, can dissolve just as

quickly. "We like to keep it in the family," jokes Diaz, who

also leads his own band, Son Siete.

Last fall, a cancellation at the Urban Word gave Latin Flavor their

first break outside the usual circles. Only a few people showed up

for their first performances back in September, including Guevara’s

parents, but at their last gig Latin Flavor packed the house. "They

love it — people have told us this is the best thing going on

in Trenton," says Guevara. "They’re accustomed to getting

live music, but not good live music."

Perhaps it’s also just salsa — its accessibility, flair, and contagious

sound — but Latin music is quickly becoming America’s music, too.

"All the cultures really grab our music," says Diaz. "You

can go anywhere in the world and hear salsa. The music just calls


— Melinda Sherwood

Latin Flavor, The Urban Word, 449 South Broad, Trenton,

609-989-7777. Latin jazz, no cover. Monday, April 10, 9 p.m.

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