How Many Times Has Colombia Won The World Cup Salsa Music, Lifeblood of Cali

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Salsa Music, Lifeblood of Cali

You step through the dark entrance, leaving the tropical night behind. Suddenly, sound waves crash over you like ocean surf. Breaking out in a sweat, your heart pounds to the rhythm of the bass, bongos, bells and brass. The walls seem to be beating. The pungent smell of sweat mixed with perfume assails you. As your eyes adjust to the darkness, punctuated by the hypnotic flashes of the multicolored strobes, you realize that what surrounds you are not walls, but dancers–scores of dancers circling, weaving and swirling , arms and legs flaring, hips thrusting in quarters– the beat of time. You fill your lungs with the spicy aroma, tighten your belt and dive in. Welcome to Chango’s in Cali, Colombia – one of Latin America’s hottest Salsa nightclubs.

Cali, a modern, festive city, lies in the middle of “the Valley.” when Colombians say “the Valley” they mean the valley of the Cauca, the Garden of Eden which is no less than fifty miles long and some fifteen miles wide between the mountain ranges of the coast and the Central Cordillera. Until the turn of the century, this valley was little more than a rural outpost.

Then, with a population of about 15,000, the Cauca Valley was largely cattle country, divided into large tracts among the “haciendados.” These were proud men, almost magical, who raised cattle for leather and beef. Some plantations of sugar cane used to produce the “panela” had a sweetener and distilled the crystal-clear but strong “aguardiente” that is still sipped today. Life was slow, steady, patriarchal and unchanging.

It has been said that the Cauca region is to Colombia what the South is to the United States. Indeed, there are similarities. In days gone by, hidalgos walked the unpaved “calls” in coats of velvet or scarlet broadcloth embroidered and buttoned with gold and silver, their waistcoats of flowered silk, and the wrinkles of their shirts were of the best batiste,” says Kathleen Romoli, author. from Colombia: Gateway to. South America. And like the Southern states in colonial times, a large number of slaves were imported to work the fields and serve the gentlemen.

Time has brought many changes. Today huge sugarcane plantations still carpet the Valley. The mechanized production of cotton, rice and cattle has turned the Cauca Valley into Colombia’s most important agricultural area, after “King Coffee”. And with economic growth has come industry. A laid-back colonial town in 1900, Cali has grown into a major manufacturing center with more than a thousand industries at last count

Salsa is in the air

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

The most impressive thing about Cali today is not the plaza that houses the government buildings and rows of taxis, along the boulevards of large palms, or the suburbs with their modern villas, and churches, whose bells singing tunes instead of clanging like Bogotá, or the busy factories. A pervasive air of cheerfulness almost gaiety Not that it is a city of many amusements; Cali is gay not because of commercial facilities for organized diversion but by the grace of god.

Cali attracts travelers from all over; tourists, businessmen, backpackers, scientists, and students. And, of course, salsa fans and salsa artists. There are plenty of recording studios, “rumberias”, “discothèques” and “viejotecas”.

What is the appeal of Cali? The lively atmosphere of the city? The spectacular sunset? The natural beauty of the high Andes? The terrifying beauty of her daughters? Maybe it’s the climate where it’s always June. Or could it be its amazing cleanliness? Many Colombian towns are clean, but Cali is so clean that it stands out. Or maybe it’s the trees and flowers – the crimson and purple bougainvillea that fall in abundance from the walls, the cup of gold that drips from the eaves, the waxy bells of the trumpet flow, the poinsettia bushes, lovely gardenias, the trees with magenta leaves and carmine flowers or others with feathery green – white flowers or pale clusters of pink – the wild extravagance of flowers among hummingbirds with brilliant green bellies fluttering even in winter.

No Salsa No Dates

Cali has all of these. But undoubtedly 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 the two million plus Caleños. On every bus you will hear Salsa. Go for a walk, to school or shopping there’s salsa in the air. And, of course Salsa is on almost all of the more than two dozen local radio stations. All over town, 24 hours a day, Salsa blasts from speakers on the streets, in parks, in shops, from cars, portable radios and private homes. Cali lives and breathes Salsa. But why Salsa? Many musical traditions, styles and other forms of folk music flourish in Cali (including the traditional Cumbia, where machete-wielding dancers stomp around full-bodied women in frilled skirts). What is so special about Salsa? After all Vallenatos, a brand of folk music that has its roots back to the days of the Spanish conquistadors, is still hugely popular – especially as sung by Colombian Grammy award winner Carlos Vives. Boleros (check out Luis Miguel’s “Inolvidable”) and Merengue continue to have strong followings here.

Why is this one style so deeply rooted in the culture? For aficionados the answer is simple: “I love salsa music.” Whatever the reason for its universal popularity in Cali, Salsa is more than just music, more than a dance. It’s an indispensable social skill explains my friend, Carmenza, “No salsa – no dates.” You can’t meet others if you can’t dance.” And that’s why there are salsa dancing schools all over the city. You pay for lessons by the hour. Prices range from $2 up to $6 an hour for more private, one-on-one instruction. Group classes ‘up quickly. Salsa classes are not only a place to go to learn, but to practice and perfect your moves or pick up new ones. They are a “fan “good meeting for the residents of the neighborhood.” It’s important to dance really well or you’re boring,” says Sofia, an avid Salsa fan.

Cali calls itself the “Salsa Capital of the World,” a title borrowed from post-Fidel Cuba and often shared with New York City. But even those who might take exception to the “Capital of the World” will agree that Cali is certainly the “Salsa Capital of South America.” Top Latin salsa performers, like New York’s Jerry “King of 54th Street” Gonzalez, regularly fly in to strut their stuff. At any given time you can see all the famous names in salsa, artists walk “Queen of Salsa,” Celia Cruz; guitarist, singer and songwriter Juan Luis Guerra from the Dominican Republic; Frank Raul Grillo, the Cuban American also known as Machito; Reuben Blades, the popular Panamanian singer, songwriter, actor and politician famous for his innovative musical inventions as well as traditional Salsa; Willie Colon; Oscar d’Leon, and others.


And you don’t have to go far in this city of dancers to hear all the different styles and variations of Salsa. Juanchito, with 120 of the hottest dance halls, is the beating rhythmic heart of the Salsa Cali nightlife. Every week throughout the year, two hundred thousand locals pour into this eastern suburb to party. Cali is full of discos and “viejotecas” for the young and the not so young. Latinos of younger generations usually prefer a smoother, more sentimental music called Salsa Romantica, popularized by bandleaders like Eddie Santiago and Tito Nieves. Popular international salsa singers of the 1990s included Linda “India” Caballero and Mark Anthony. The orchestra from Puerto Rico “Puerto Rican Power” is another hot group with devoted fans in Cali and Puerto Rico.

Although it’s exciting to hear famous Salsa music performers from abroad, don’t forget Cali’s own many excellent groups and famous Salsa musicians blending the old with the new. The classic and the innovative. It’s worth a trip to Cali just to hear the lively non-traditional sounds of Jairo Varela and the Grupo Niche. Or other artists like “Son de Cali,” the all-female “Orchestra Canela” and Lisandro Meza who also inject new blood into Cali’s Salsa scene. These and the intoxicating classic Salsa sounds of Kike Santander, Joe Arroyo and Eddy Martinez thunder through the air and flow in the veins of “coca-colos” (late teens to early 20s) and “cuchos” alike in discos, salsatecas and even in viejotecas that attract the over 35 crowd.

When I arrived in Cali 1995, I thought my salsa was fine. After all, I had made some smooth moves from a variety of Puerto Rican beauties during a summer in San Juan. Even back in my home state of Pennsylvania, there were opportunities on Friday or Saturday nights to slip out and mingle with Latinos at our local Hispanic watering holes. I had perfected a quick double step in a rectangular pattern as well, and added swirls and twists to the heavy beat. I had no trouble getting, and keeping, dance partners. Then in Miami, during a Labor Day weekend retreat, I met a Latin cutie. I invited her to dinner and dancing later that week at “La Cima,” one of the best Salsa clubs in the city, to show off my moves. She was impressed. A year later we got married and after another couple of years we moved to her native Colombia.

Colombian salsa is a different beast. The style, rhythm and beat are similar elsewhere but it’s a different story on the dance floor. My feet knew the beat, but behaved as if 1 were wearing Bozo’s shoes. For a while, 1 stuck to downtown places like “Cuarto Venina,” lying on the banks of the knee-deep, brown Cali River. It’s just listening, no dancing here. The music is so quiet that you can continue to chat over empanadas and a cold “Costeña”. It can be just the right touch for a Sunday afternoon. These days, my Latin cutie and 1 are considered “cuchos” (the over 35 set). It’s been ten years. Well we’re still here though, still dancing Salsa. And I’m still showing my moves.

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