Spice of Life
story by Liza Simon
photos by Dana Edmunds
It?s Salsa After Dark night at Rumours Nightclub, and out on the floor couples are sinking their hips into the churning percussion of a hot track. My friend Mercedes ? a native of Colombia, where, she swears, you learn to dance no later than you learn to walk ? latches onto an outstretched hand and is led away to the dance floor by a fortyish local Japanese man in the reverse-aloha-print uniform of the Honolulu office world. Unlikely as he looks for the part, Raymond, as he introdu ces himself later, turns out to be quite a performer on the floor. ?By day, I?m a mild-mannered computer technician,? he beams as he accompanies Mercedes back to our table, ?but by night, I?m Merengue Man!?
Well, there you have it: There?s nothing like a night of salsa to bring on a quick change to a bolder, more vibrant you. Originally coined to describe an edgy urban beat that evolved from the cross-pollination of Hispanic cultures in Nueva York in the late 1960s, the term salsa (?sauce?) has come to refer more generally to the whole infectious gamut of contemporary Latin dance music. And just as Hispanic artists like Ricky Martin and Christina Aguilera are topping charts nationwide, Honolulu?s own small but dedicated Latin scene seems to be pulsing with a new vitality.
Just a few years ago, you would have been lucky to find a chance to dance salsa in Honolulu once, at the most twice, a week. Now, there are salsa happenings virtually every night, with weekly salsa events at clubs and restaurants like Rumours, Café Sistina, Planet Hollywood, Zanzibar and Players Sports Bar in Aiea, hosted by local deejays who know that the jaunty two-step of merengue will bring first-timers to their feet, while a cha-cha or a mambo will tempt experienced partners to show off their filigreed footwork.
With the profusion of music has come a profusion of dance, as more and more people in Hawaii are rushing off for salsa lessons. At neighborhood centers and community colleges, instructors like Greg Henry ? a California transplant to Hawaii ? have their followings.
?The secret is to let the women teach the men as much as possible,? says Henry as he sits in the lobby outside Rumours on a salsa night, sharing constant greetings with the dancers going inside. We agree that Anglo men aren?t allowed the social latitude for grace and expression on the dance floor that comes naturally to men in Hispanic cultures. ?My hardest student was a white guy who taught Chinese,? he says. ?But now he?s a great dancer. The point is to let it happen.?
Instructor Roberto Vargas, who learned his moves growing up in the Bronx, says that salsa offers an opportunity to express pride in culture and self: ?You dress up,? he says. ?You present yourself. You have respect.?
And, let?s face it, salsa is sexy. ?Salsa, like sex, is all about passion, rhythm and technique,? says one woman who frequents the clubs and says she may be writing a book about her experiences in the local salsa scene. ?I think of it as vertical foreplay.?
?There is flirtation and wooing going on,? agrees Adela Chu, a musician and dance teacher of Panamanian descent who has long been a mainstay of the local Latin scene. ?But the dance also teaches you spirit.?
The recent growth of local interest in salsa has come as a surprise ? even to those who are credited with helping to make it happen. Chu remembers the night her original group, Electric Malasada, debuted at Anna Bannana?s, Honolulu?s archetypically bohemian campus hangout.
?We had our regulars who would get out on the dance floor and just go for it free-form,? she laughs. ?No hint of steps, mind you, but everyone had a great time.?
Singer Tony Vasquez recalls that when he first came to Hawaii with the Army in 1990, salsa events were only occasional, and Hispanic soldiers always far out-numbered locals. A native of Puerto Rico, Vasquez began to add his voice to local salsa jam sessions, mostly with his countrymen who were members of the 25th Infantry Division Army band. ?I wasn?t really very good back then,? he remembers, ?but I missed home, and I missed the music, so I did it for fun.?
Musically seasoned by the time he returned in 2000 for a second tour of duty, Vasquez ? over a game of dominoes ? accepted an invitation to join SalsaAloha, the latest in a tradition of military-based Latin bands in the Islands. The group plays the edgy new style known as ?hard salsa,? in which singers and brass seem to challenge one another, percussion breaks build, and melodies come in and out in improvised form. Hard salsa had rarely been played live in Honolulu until SalsAloha got their first gig, a half-hour appearance at a neighborhood strip mall. ?It was out of control,? Vasquez says. ?People wouldn?t let us leave. We stayed for two hours.?
The acceptance of SalsAloha?s music is something Vasquez credits to many who planted seeds long ago, like Rolando Sanchez ? an energetic band leader with a knack for bridging into Waikiki showrooms. Then there was Innovación, Conjunto Maya and Sensación ? military-based bands that saw their members come and go as duty called.
Salsa Hawaii bandleader
In fact, the roots of the current Latin wave in the Islands go even deeper. Just ask Ben and Flo Palmeira from Ewa Beach, who will tell you that many raw ingredients of salsa filtered through plantation recreation halls when they were children. The genre of that day, imported here by Puerto Rican sugar workers, was known as kachi-kachi.
?When I was a boy, I had such fun watching the old folks dance,? says Mr. Palmeira, who sits outside a Waikiki club on a Friday night, ?drafted,? as he says, to help collect tickets for tonight?s salsa band, which features his daughter Pamela on keyboards under the direction of Rolando Sanchez. ?Local people were open to this type of music then,? says Pamela?s mom with a proud smile. ?And it?s the same now.?
Two major waves of Puerto Rican migrants arrived in Hawaii in 1900 and 1921, brought in by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters? Association after federal laws of the day mandated a reduction in immigration from Asia. About 10,000 Puerto Ricans came to Hawaii, but it was as if they amounted to 100,000 musicians, declares Dr. Norma Carr, a retired University of Hawaii Spanish instructor. Their folk music ? played on hand-fashioned instruments such as the scraper-like guiro, was one of the few things that could lighten the long, hard days of labor. In fact, it was their Japanese coworkers who gave the percussive rhythms the name ?kachi-kachi? ? partly in imitation of the scratchy sound of the guiro, and partially in reference to the legend of Kachi Kachi Yama, an otter who learned to make fire on Mount Fuji by striking sticks together.
Four generations later, the best place to hear kachi-kachi today is not a nightclub but rather the United Puerto Rican Association of Hawaii?s social hall. Located in a simple basement in the blue-collar Honolulu neighborhood of Kalihi, the UPRAH social hall is a gathering place beloved by many.
?When I first walked in there, it was like falling into a vat of love,? recalls DJ Margarita, a.k.a. The Latin Lady, hostess of salsa nights at Waikiki?s Planet Hollywood. ?The women were all like my aunts,? says the Mexican-Puerto Rican transplant, who moved here last year. ?They expressed the same love and concern I had known all my life, even if they didn?t speak Spanish.?
At a UPRAH holiday celebration just after Christmas, whirling fans circulate the aroma of the yellow rice, red beans and roast pork that is being dished out by ladies dressed in a lot of red, gold and cat print. On stage is Second Time Around, a favorite band at the social hall. Only one member of the band is less than a half-century old, and all have bloodline ties to the originators of Hawaii?s kachi-kachi, the instrumental focus of which is the cuatro, an old-fashioned guitar whose melodies echo back to the Iberian Peninsula. ?This is the music my grandfather told me about,? exclaims Rafael Lopez, conga player for SalsAloha. ?You don?t find kids who want to play the cuatro these days.?
Like so many other Hispanic soldiers who come to Hawaii, Lopez did not expect to find much his of homeland?s culture ? much less an original treasure like Hawaii cuatro player Joe Rios. The discovery, in fact, spurred Lopez to put more effort into his musical pursuits, which he?d regarded only as a hobby, relegated to occasional jam sessions.
The cross-cultural and cross-generational blending of Latin styles has not been without its awkward moments, however. Members of SalsAloha say the first time they played an UPRAH event, people were riveted to their seats ? a bad thing in salsa. No one danced. ?We played; they stared,? says one member. ?I don?t think they had heard live salsa before.? But UPRAH supporter and local salsa deejay/promoter Nancy Ortiz says it only took a few more exposures before local ears adjusted, followed shortly by freely flowing hips and shoulders.
Of course, the roots of salsa itself go even farther back, to the days of slavery in the Caribbean. ?Everything started when the African drums mixed with the music of Spain,? says Hawaii?s premier Cuban dancer, Rosie Lopez, who performed for ten years at the prestigious Copacabana, the historic nightclub that has been preserved in the Castro era as an academy and showcase stage for Cuban culture. In the 20th century, with the migration of Hispanic people mostly to New York, the folk music of the old country was reborn with a jazzier, urbanized edge. Latin music began to exert gigantic influence on the American musical mainstream, whether it was the big-band mambo of the 1930s and ?40s, the souped-up cha-cha-cha of the 1950s, the nascent salsa of the ?60s and ?70s or the Latin pop boom of today.
In fact, with the popularity of salsa worldwide never stronger than it is now, many here say they are actually grateful for the intimacy of the Honolulu scene. ?In Puerto Rico, salsa is big business, serious business,? says SalsAloha?s Vasquez. ?It?s so competitive, you can never relax. Here in Hawaii, I get to play out of love.?
The situation in the deejay booth sounds somewhat similar. On her Alma Latina radio program, Nancy Ortiz can be heard pulling music from all over the map, from mariachi to merengue, in response to dedications and requests. It?s the kind of down-home community radio that has been programmed out of existence in most major markets.
While many Latinos in Hawaii may miss the intensity of salsa back home, and many locals might yearn to take what they?ve learned one step higher, Rosie Lopez offers this advice: ?When you dance with someone, no matter how they dance, be open to what they give. In salsa, everyone has something to share.?
And, as more and more people in Honolulu are starting to realize, the seductive passion of salsa can speak to anyone, no matter their heritage. ?When I first started on radio here,? says pioneer Island salsa deejay Ray Cruz, who is celebrating his tenth year as host of ?Sabor Tropical? on Hawaii Public Radio, ?I used to wonder why I would get so many calls from non-Hispanics. What kind of message are they hearing in the music if they don?t speak Spanish? Now I realize that salsa offers everyone the chance to reach out and connect with others through touch and sound. Latin night is about realizing the connection we all share.?