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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 11, 2002

Hot salsa: It's music and dance – with heat

By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Staff Writer

The music and rhythms make Nerella and Roberto Vargas Jr. dance salsa with passion at Rumours nightclub. Salsa has a much-debated history, as a handful of Latin cultures claim some degree of influence on its evolution. Salsa was born in Cuba during the 1940s as an offspring of the Afro-Cuban song and dance music called son.

Photos by Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Salsa hot spots

Planet Hollywood: El Fidel presents Latin dancing, with DJs and dance lessons, 9 p.m.-2 a.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; smoke-free events; for 21 and older; 924-7877.

Players Sports Bar: DJ Franky Villalobos, featuring salsa, Latin house, merengue and more, 9:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Wednesdays; for 18 and older; 488-8226

Rumours, Ala Moana Hotel: Salsa After Dark, featuring Latin music and videos with DJ Ray Cruz, Latin Lady DJ Margarita and DJ Rod, 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Thursdays; for 21 and older; 955-4811

Zanzabar Night Club, Waikiki Trade Center: Hot Latin Tuesdays, with DJs Frankie, Alberto and Latin Lady DJ Margarita, 8 p.m.-4 a.m. Tuesdays; for 18 and older; 924-3939

Check these web sites

dalionproductions808 .bigstep.com/events.html
cityguides.salsaweb. com/hawaii

Could it be that the Honolulu salsa scene has finally caught up with Rolando Sanchez?

For 17 years the city's champion of caliente, the singer/percussionist/bandleader has worked tirelessly (and, for the most part, alone) to make sure live Latin music and dance maintained a regular presence on the local club scene. From his first solo gigs at Compadres Waikiki in 1984 to a stint with Anna Bannanas regulars Malasada Electrica in 1986 to the formation of current band Salsa Hawaii in 1989, Sanchez has mostly had little company or competition. Until now.

In the last couple of years, a handful of promising new Latin bands such as Salsa Aloha and Swing Ca–a Latin Band have tried their hand at regular work on the club scene. Several promoters have launched successful weekly salsa nights such as Rumours' Thursday night Salsa After Dark and Zanzabar's Hot Latin Tuesdays for a growing number of Honolulu residents taking pau hana salsa lessons. Even Sanchez held court over his very own salsa club for a few months early last year.

"You're never going to see a sad person at a salsa place," said Sanchez, with a wide, confident grin. "It's all about people coming by to do the salsa, the cha-cha, the merengue." He pauses for emphasis. "Dance, baby! It's all about dance, dance, dance and more dance!"

Honolulu's collection of weekly salsa events may not have the hip cachet of, say, W's Friday night Wonder Lounge or Maze, but is probably a nightclub scene of generational diversity like no other in town. A fiftysomething Japanese couple showing off the glorious results of their three-times-a-week salsa classes with the cooler-than-thou downtown worker drones of W? Not likely. A pair of 19-year-olds fresh from two weeks of community college salsa instruction seen with the last-days-of-disco crowd at The Hanohano Room? No way.

But you'll likely find both — and a range of couples in between — comfortably comparing dance moves at any one of about a half dozen or so (and growing) weekly salsa nights at clubs and restaurants about town such as Players, Planet Hollywood and Banyans at Pearl Harbor.

"I like to tell anyone who asks that I have students from age 7 to 71 in my classes," said Greg Henry, a dance instructor specializing in salsa dance with Art of Dance Studio. "Age doesn't matter. The music is fun and playful and has a big band sound that pleases the older folks, but also a great bass beat to it that attracts younger people."

Salsa was Henry's most requested dance instruction when he began teaching four years ago. It still is, and requests have since tripled. He has even started holding dance seminars in community centers from the North Shore to Hawai'i Kai to Schofield Barracks.

"They come from all over, and all ethnicities," Henry said. "They've seen movies. They hear about how much fun it is. A lot of times they don't even know what exactly salsa is. But they want to do it."

The style of music and dance that has become known as salsa comes with a much-debated history, as a handful of Latin cultures claim some degree of influence on its evolution. Although Puerto Rican and Spanish influences have shaped it, salsa was born in Cuba during the 1940s as something of an offspring of the rolling, syncopated Afro-Cuban song and dance music called son.

With rhythms ranging from the extremely fast-paced to the romantically slow, the music was bass heavy and accompanied by piano, brass and an expanded rhythm section that sprinkled in conga, cowbells and timbales.

Still without a name, salsa came to America with the droves of Cubans and Puerto Ricans fleeing their homelands for New York and Miami in the 1950s and early 1960s. In this new metro environment, elements of American jazz and lyrics mostly portraying the immigrants' less-than-savory barrio reality were added to the African rhythms, and Spanish guitar left over from the son, creating an altogether unique sound.

Unfairly labeled "recycled Cuban dance music" by more than a few music wags, the new style is said to have received the name "salsa" from Jerry Masucci, founder of New York-based Latin label Fania Records and an aggressive and successful promoter of Latin music in the 1960s and 1970s.

Salsa dance is essentially a blend of several Latin dance styles — in particular, the mambo. An energetic style placing emphasis on turning, salsa steps are timed to a rhythm that can change from fast to slow, often within the same song.

As a music form, salsa peaked creatively and popularly in the 1970s before losing ground to other emerging Latin styles and its own creative funk in the 1980s. By then, however, salsa music and dance were beginning to gain a solid foothold worldwide.

Though salsa dance and music have been popular with Hawai'i's Puerto Rican community for decades, its mainstream vogue of the last few years is something of a mystery. It does, however, follow a Mainland resurgence in salsa dance fueled by the migration of the dance outside of Latino enclaves like Los Angeles and New York and into middle America. An increased recording scene presence — highlighted by mainstream-accepted Latin musicians such as Marc Anthony placing contemporary pop and salsa-based stylings on CDs — has also led to a creative resurgence of salsa music.

"You don't need a large Latino population for salsa to become popular," said Rob Capili, a Honolulu dance instructor and promoter. "It's taking off in France. It's huge in Italy, Korea and Japan."

A salsa dance instructor for the past two years, Capili recently began bringing in nationally recognized salsa dance acts from New York and Los Angeles for seminars designed to show Honolulu instructors and dancers the latest moves.

"That's one of the best ways to help build a scene," Capili said. "A place like L.A. or New York has such a vibrant scene that there are always new moves coming into vogue. Seminars raise the level of dancing here and add spice and pizzazz to the scene. If people are just learning and dancing the same moves all the time, they can quickly become bored."

Having these professional dancers first show off their moves in free showcases — often in nightclubs and even shopping centers such as Ala Moana and Pearlridge — also help bring new students into local dance studios for salsa instruction.

"That's what first hooked me into salsa," Capili said. "I saw all these great dancers just moving on the floor, so beautifully, I thought, 'Man, I have to do that!' "

Capili is also working with other Honolulu salsa promoters to launch Hawai'i's first salsa congress later this year. The calling card of a city with a true salsa "scene," this think tank for salsa fanatics would bring top dancers and instructors to Honolulu to share new ideas and moves.

A live band provides the music to show off your salsa grooves at Rumours nightclub in the Ala Moana Hotel.
"I think 2002 is going to be the biggest year for salsa in Hawai'i, and if it's not, it won't be for lack of trying," Capili said. "We've finally got everyone — promoters and teachers — focused in the right direction, wanting to make this thing grow. Once you get that kind of unity, it's easy to grow."

As for Sanchez, he's looking forward to the imminent release of CDs of local salsa acts he recently produced. With the bulk of weekly nightclub salsa nights dominated by disc jockeys spinning discs, Sanchez is also looking forward to reopening his salsa club, which closed six months after opening because of a dissolved business partnership.

"Finding a club that I can dedicate to Latin and salsa music seven nights a week is my goal for this year," Sanchez said. "... There are so few places for live bands to play, and so many people who want to see and dance to them. That's why I really have to concentrate on getting my club back."