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