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Call of the congas

Rochester's growing Latin music scene


None of the women in the little club are standing still. Short-skirted and spike-heeled, they risk spilling Sangria as they hip-sway to the relentless Latin beat. Horns wail. Congas throb. Couples dance. Everybody is touching somebody. Tapas, a small club in the St. Paul Quarter, is hot and intimate, its dance floor swelling to capacity, boiling over with the rubbing of black, white, and brown bodies.

            "It's impossible to sit still with this beat," says Madeline, a bank teller from Greece. "And you don't have to have a partner to dance." But it sure makes it nice.

            Some arrive together; some, perhaps, will be leaving together.

            Two dateless guys on the prowl --- and pleading anonymity --- stress their preference for flying solo.

            "A lot of single women come to see these bands," one says. "A lot."

            Those who hold partners instead of drums or horns or guitars are still instrumental in the proceedings, as the line between bandstand and dance floor vanishes. Now this is a night out.

I swear it's a fever. What was once just an expression of Latin culture within its own community has become a nightlife phenomenon. Wherever this music is found, the nightclubs are packed, their dance floors teeming. You'll see couples dancing with fluid sensuality. You'll see women dancing mid-sentence, even if they can't. You'll even see men dancing --- a phenomenon in itself.

            Outdoor events like those at the Public Market and the annual Puerto Rican Festival attract droves of young families. Their children, too young to understand the social significance of the music, shake their little booties nonetheless.

            Whether it's salsa, merengue, Afro-Cuban jazz, mambo, or Latin pop, Rochester's Latin music scene is salacious, infectious, and growing --- big time.

            Already known and appreciated within the Latin community for its flamboyant, hot-blooded undertones, the music of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic is rapidly expanding its fan base, crossing over into mainstream America.

            Some first discovered the dancing, with all its languid flow and subtle sexuality. For others it was the hypnotic lure of the music. Regardless, Latinos and non-Latinos are heading downtown, answering the call of the congas.

"I think it's something that's not common," says conga player and promoter Tony Padilla. "I think it's the dance movement. The music itself is high energy. It's something that makes you want to move. It's the fact that the dancing requires partners, where the guy guides the woman as far as movement."

            In addition to this energy, machismo runs rampant through the music.

            "It's a very ballsy music in general," says saxophonist Josh Rutner. "There is so much testosterone in these bands, minus the girls of course."

            And sure, folks can dance at home by the old Victrola, but Latin music is very live and is best enjoyed that way.

            "Even if the DJ is good, you can listen to the same records at home," says La Orquestra Fama Sin Gafas' keyboardist Relton Roland. "But when you see a live band, it's totally different. You see the performers playing their congas and playing their horns and doing solos, you see the people connecting and jumping and really having fun. It's a symbiotic relationship between the public and the musicians."

            It's as if everyone has an integral part in creating this cacophonous, joyous whole as the dancers' hips and the musicians' hands blend in blurry unison. And it's the dancing that truly brings the music to life.

            "It's just very romantic," says fan-turned-dance-instructor Jonah Inikori. "It's very energetic. It's something that involves you."

Latin music's much-touted comeback isn't due so much to a resurgence but a heightened awareness. What was generally ignored by popular media is now a media darling.

            "I can't say it was ignored," says Roland. "But American media was not interested because it did not have mass appeal. It was not mainstream." And though Latinos like Tito Puente and Carlos Santana surfaced here and there, the music remained ethnically exclusive and therefore, underground. Miami's Latin pop explosion in the mid-80s ignited the fire.

            "I think when Gloria Estefan made that crossover, she was the starting point," says Padilla. "I mean it goes way back to Tito Puente and stuff like that. But his focus was primarily jazz. Gloria made that crossover to pop."

            "There was a scene," he says. "But it just wasn't being promoted right. And it wasn't to the point where enough work was being given to everyone."

            So Padilla sought out musicians throughout the city, picking the cream. He started Prime Time Entertainment three years ago in an effort to better organize musicians and score consistent gigs. And though Prime Time's roster isn't exclusive, the majority of its bands are Latin.

            "What I basically did was take a crew which I used on a consistent basis," he says. "I tried to get the best players in Rochester, and from within that crew I just expanded and changed the vocalists, who get most of the attention anyway."

            Beneath Latin music's general umbrella, there are roughly eight Latin bands playing the Rochester circuit. Bands like Flor de Luna (Latin jazz, Brazilian), Cachao (Afro-Cuban jazz), Tumbao (instrumental Afro-Cuban jazz), Alla Turca (Mediterranean and Spanish-influenced guitar), Latin Vibes (classic New York style salsa and merengue), Caliente (modern salsa, merengue, Latin pop), Sarahi (modern salsa, merengue, and Latin pop), and La Orquestra Fama Sin Gafas (salsa, merengue, Cuban), are meeting this growing demand to such an extent that a good number of the musicians have banded together.

            Padilla is part of the core, playing 150 to 200 shows annually in seven Latin bands to an increasingly diverse audience.

            "I think right now it's a huge crossover," says Padilla. "You have a lot of people who are interested in learning salsa dancing. It depends primarily on the club. Tapas has a wide variety of cultures --- white, black, Hispanic. And when you get into the Latinos, it's not just Puerto Rican, it's Dominican, Cuban, Peruvian, Columbian. It's a wide array of people and cultures."

            Other clubs like Milestones on East Avenue and Chasers in the St. Paul Quarter frequently bring in Latin music. These are clubs that book a wide range of musical styles and where the vibe is set specifically by the evening's entertainment. The hardcore Latin crowd seems to follow loyally, regardless of the locale.

            And while they started out watching apprehensively from the wings, regulars are slowly but surely turning into fans at these joints, happily dancing amidst the generic neon beer signs and dartboards. Dance floors are filling up weekly with new blood.

            Padilla embraces this fusion. "This is absolutely for everybody," he says. "It's not a color thing or anything of that sort. It's for everybody." This includes the musicians as well.

Jazz saxophonist Josh Rutner falls into the gringo category. His jazz background, education (jazz degree from the Eastman School of Music), and talent make him a regular gun for hire in the local Latin scene. Known more for his work with the hyper-adventurous jazz combo Respect Sextet, the majority of Rutner's work these days is in Latin music thanks to Padilla. "Rutner plays like a monster," Padilla says. "He's a white guy playing like he eats rice and beans for a living."

            "The first set of gigs that I played with these guys was five gigs in two days, which I had never done," Rutner says. "It was ridiculous. This isn't like an hour of dinner music. This is like balls for three hours, especially with the merengue." Virtually every local Latin band today employs Rutner's talent. Though educated and musically diverse, he had to learn the hard way.

            "What I didn't understand were the formal aspects," he says. "No one had really explained it to me, so it was sorta like trial by fire. The first gig, I had no idea. The lead sheet was like four bars of a mambo and that was it, no instructions. After each gig I would ask 'What am I doing wrong? Why does everyone keep looking at me weird when I'm doing these?' And it was hard for them, actually, to explain to me in my terms. I was coming from a music-reading background. These guys don't read music. I'm just honored to play their music without them throwing me out."

Originally from Santa Domingo, keyboardist Relton Roland is "probably the guy with the deepest roots" in Rochester's Latin music scene, according to Horacio DeJesus Martinez, the vocalist for La Orquestra Fama Sin Gafas. Roland's nimble fingers dance purposefully across the ivory keys, offering a light, cascading counterpoint to the drums' thunder and the vocalists' pleas.

            Roland arrived in Rochester in 1967 for "educational pursuits." Soon after he formed Los Impossibles.

            "This group had the fattest sound ever," he says. "It was all percussion, piano, guitar, bass." Some band members' involvement in the local Latin scene dated as far back as the early 1950s, according to Roland.

            "The basic band form in those days was guitarists, like trios," he says. "All guitars, sometimes with timbales and percussion. And they used to play all sorts of music from Puerto Rico, music from the countryside. Basically the market was just playing for the community. Playing at churches, playing for weddings, and maybe festivals. There were always parties, home-based parties or neighborhood parties." Roland didn't see much crossover appeal back then.

            "It was more provincial. We always invited friends and neighbors," he says. "But there were enough people to go and have fun with these bands. And those were real fun days."

            Though the music was fun, these early bands arose out of necessity, a form of cultural preservation, according to Martinez.

            "There was a strong Cuban migration in the mid '60s," he says. "People came here and it was culture shock. So right away what they did is try to group together in order to have a cultural identity."

            Roland continued Los Impossibles through the 1970s, adding horn players from the Eastman School of Music to broaden his sound. But for some Latinos, interest in the scene was losing momentum.

            "In the '80s I quit because I saw something happening," Roland says. "I noticed people were not dancing like before, especially the guys. They were too cool. And I said 'What in the hell is going on here? Qué le pasa a esos tigres? [What's up with these cats?]' I don't know whether it was the drug culture that was penetrating the community or what. I like to play so people can dance and enjoy themselves." Roland saw this as a cultural breakdown. "The young guys were becoming estranged from the girls," he says.

            Martinez blames homogenization.

            "That was the first generation of immigrants that was born here," he says. "And some of the effects of that was assimilation into the mainstream culture. And some guys, some families, were losing part of their identity."

            Vocalist Johnny Vega moved to Rochester from New York City, where he had been singing with the legendary Raphael Cortijo's Combo.

            "When I got here in September of 1970, the local bands had heard about me," says Vega. "They knew who I was singing with before and they knocked on my door." Before long, La Muralla was formed. The band stayed together for nine years. When they disbanded, Vega moved back to his native Puerto Rico for five years and wrote several hits for the La Fania Records label. Now back in Rochester, Vega is part of the city's renewed passion for real Latin music. Vega proudly takes some of the credit along with his band, Latin Vibes.

            "First off there was a band called The Mambo Kings playing some of the clubs," he says. "But they were not playing the heavy salsa that we do --- the real Latin. They were playing Latin jazz. It wasn't for dancing, it was more for like when you're having dinner."

The lighter bands and the Latin DJs did, however, spark an interest in the clubs. Latin Vibes started playing at Tapas. "Oh man, we blew that place apart," Vega says. Vega doesn't so much sing as he commands --- demands --- with such energy, enthusiasm, and apparent wisdom, that audiences are immediately swept up. He's a master, and they know it.

            Vega also supposes a lot of the resurgence lies at the feet of the dancers. This is a style of dance that can't easily be shoehorned into just any musical setting. It needs that passion and polyrhythmic drive.

            "People would see Latin dancing in movies," he says. "They would take lessons to learn salsa, merengue, cha-cha, mambo, and then have no place to do it." The people were already there, eager for the music to begin.

            Latin dance instructor Jonah Inikori stumbled upon Latin dance, fell in love with it, studied vigorously, and now teaches. It was after seeing two salsa dancers at a Christmas party that the Latin bug bit.

            "I got totally swept away by their presentation," he says. "They had very good stylings. I was really attracted to the romantic, sexual aspect of the dance. It was just so beautiful."

            Inikori began taking lessons and traveling to dance conventions in Los Angeles, New York City, and Atlanta. When he returned to Rochester, none of his dance partners could keep up, so Inikori started giving lessons. And on any given night, if there's a Latin band playing, Inikori's dance card is full.

            Sure it's a gig. But to the musicians it's an answer to a calling, a joyous manifestation.

            "It just completely transforms my personality," says Sarahi vocalist Myrnali Martinez. "I'm usually very quiet. I'm not really that outspoken." Martinez and her singing partners Karen and Eileen Monserrate are heartbreak personified as they shimmy and shake in unison and with hypnotic speed. With their lilting harmonies, energy, and ever-present smiles, Sarahi tend to leave listeners breathless.

            The music is also what keeps Johnny Vega going.

            "It's what keeps me alive," says the 61-year-old Vega. "It gives me that thrill. A lot of the musicians who started out with me, I don't hear from anymore. But I'm still hanging in there because every night that I go and I dance and I sing and I see people laughing, it adds to my life. Oh my goodness, every time they come to me, it gives me another year of life. You know how when Popeye takes his spinach? Well, that's my spinach --- the people."

            "You don't have to understand the words," says Roland. "But if you're touched by the sound and it makes you move, that's the purpose of Latin music."

            For Latinos, it's obviously a perpetuation of cultural identity. For non-Latinos it's something new and exciting, something that requires energy and participation. It's a dash of hot in the lukewarm.

            So maybe it's a knee-jerk response to the plastic sheen of pop music and pop culture. Maybe romance is back. Maybe guys just want to dance with their wives again. Or perhaps couples prefer to meet socially over something a little more substantial than beer pong. Latin music and all that goes with it is something that sounds and feels genuine. Who doesn't want to hang with that?