Footloose! (Chapter II): Tropical Music in the Nineties in NYC

A Tropical Party Rainforest

At the end of the last century, the tropical music scene in Manhattan was like the Yunque rainforest- hot and lush. There were regular concerts where you could catch anyone from the OGs of mambo and salsa dura, to the chart toppers, and increasingly to Cuban musicians, both of traditional Cuban music and of more modern songo and timba. There were tropical parties sprouting up constantly all over the city, and you didn’t even have to go above 14th street if you lived in Brooklyn like me. Venues like SOB’s, Bayamo, Nells, el Vacilón at the Ave. C social club, Veracruz in Williamsburg, the Parkside Lounge, Gonzalez & Gonzalez, Kaña, and La Belle Epoque all had either live or DJed tropical music parties. There was a lot of variety in music, venues, and people that went to the parties. If you wanted mambo, you could find a mambo party. If you wanted salsa on 2, you could find that party too. Cuban music in particular had a resurgence in the city, and it became increasingly easier to listen to, see live performances of, and even get dance lessons for rumba, son, songo and timba.

Going to one of those parties not only meant that you’d have a great time, you’d also learn about music, another party, a band or DJ that you had to go check out. More importantly, you would meet cool people that you would bump into regularly at other parties. When I wasn’t living in New York, I’d come back to visit and go to a tropical party out of the blue, and I was sure to see a friendly face that I had met or danced with at one of the parties.

Happy Feet

One of the people who helped me connect a lot of dots during this period was Karim Noack. At the end of the nineties I was an OK salsa dancer, I was great at keeping the beat and improvising steps, but I wanted to be a better dancer. In particular, I wanted to learn some of the fancy turns that I saw everywhere around me. A friend recommended Karim, who was giving salsa classes. Karim was a perfect tropical dance teacher. She could lead better than most guys, so she could teach me to lead and at the same time give me a woman’s perspective on my dancing. She taught moves but she also encouraged us to develop our own personal style. She was patient, positive, and had the right perspective about dancing: there was form and structure, but ultimately dancing was about going out and having fun on the dancefloor. I only took a dozen or so classes with her, but besides salsa she gave me a couple of rumba classes and even a couple of rueda classes, in a period where she was one of the only dance instructors who was teaching rueda in New York. It was a real privilege to have learned from her and hung out with her at these parties.

When Karim’s students went to a tropical music party, they were people who might have studied salsa, rumba, or rueda with her- they didn’t just want to hear one style of music. It was my first experience with a dance teacher and I assumed that this was normal. Since then I have been disappointed to realize how common it is for salsa dance students to only learn one style, and often to be intolerant of anything different. A tropical dance student often doesn’t know any better. A lot of times they start taking classes with a vague notion as to the music, and they learn about the music during class. If the teacher doesn’t expose them to different styles of tropical music (worse yet, if the teacher tells them that other tropical music is bad), they only learn how to dance to one thing. They are stuck going to parties where only that particular style is played, usually within a certain range of bpm. The minute the DJ plays a different style, they don’t know what to do. And it’s not that I know the “right” way to dance the different styles of music that I like. Although I took a couple of rueda classes with Karim, I didn’t take enough to learn and it didn’t stick. When I listen to timba, I dance the way I dance to most other music I listen to: a variation on my salsa step. It may not be the right step, but I’m keeping the beat and I’m having fun- not sulking in the corner waiting for the DJ to switch to salsa.

The World Rediscovers Cuban Music

By the nineteen nineties New York had been associated with salsa for many years. It was one of the birthplaces of salsa, many of the most famous salsa musicians were from here, lived here or had lived here at some point, and the city had some of the world’s best dancers. But there comes a point in any serious salsa fan’s life that he starts to realize how many of his favorite salsa songs were originally Cuban songs. I had been listening to Cuban music since I was young but by the late nineties I appreciated it more than ever before. It was around this period that I started seeing the band Mo’ Guajiro.

Mo’ Guajiro was another one of the axes around which my tropical social scene spun. I started seeing them at the El Vacilón parties at the social club on Avenue C. Mo’ Guajiro was not your typical Cuban band. One of the singers and the tres player were not Latin American. The other singer/conga player was from Puerto Rico. The bass player was Colombian, the bongo player was Venezuelan, and the horns were from all over the world. But they were playing Cuban music that was tight, authentic and super danceable.

There were many reasons why the world was finally (re)discovering Cuban music. Several record labels were putting out amazing Cuban albums and compilations, including Discos Corasón. This included the awesome two-disc compilation “Septetos Cubanos, sones de Cuba,” which came out in 1993, and featured bands like Septeto Típico Oriental, Septeto Nacional, Cuarteto Patria, among many others. I got to know several of the classic sones thanks to Corasón. But only tropical and Cuban music fans were hip to this kind of stuff, until Ry Cooder put out the Buena Vista Social Club CD. It brought together some heavy-hitters of traditional Cuban music in a package that was accessible to the whole world, and vastly expanded worldwide awareness of Cuban music.

A lot of people hated on Ry Cooder when BVSC came out. Before the album, I liked the little I had heard of Cooder’s music, and loved the Ali Farke Toure album he collaborated on. I also knew and loved many of the artists that collaborated on the BVSC album. From what I could tell, a lot of the Cuban music fans who were bitter were really just criticizing people’s reaction to the album. They didn’t like the notion people had that Ry Cooder was the big shot who gave these guys their big break. Many of the Cuban musicians on the album had long, illustrious careers before Cooder came along, but if you weren’t already a fan of Cuban music you probably didn’t know that. Also, the purists could be whipped up into a mouth-frothing frenzy if you called the BVSC album “Cuban son” or even “Cuban music.” They thought Cooder’s musical influence tarnished the purity of the form.

I for one wasn’t offended by Cooder’s participation, although I thought it was weird that he took his son to Cuba to play percussion. The last thing you need to bring into Cuba is a percussionist. But I still thought it was a pleasant album to listen to. It wasn’t very danceable (probably due to the lack of Cuban percussion) but it was nice background music. However, after the 10th time I heard the album I got tired of it. It was such a huge hit that for a while everywhere you went people were playing the album. On repeat. Listening to anything on repeat is torture for me.

However, it was undeniable that BVSC helped bring a renewed interest in Cuban traditional music to New York. This meant that there was a growing audience for bands like Mo’ Guajiro, who played danceable Cuban son, and this was a very good thing.

Pueblo Alegre

I had started DJing during this period at a friend’s radio station during the day on Sundays, and after the show I’d go see Mo’ Guajiro at a place called Louisiana Bar and Grill. It was a creole food restaurant that featured live bands several nights a week, including jazz and zydeco during the week, and Cuban music on Sundays.

The Sunday party at Louisiana was great. They had good creole food, it was conveniently located, and had room for dancing. The only thing it didn’t have when I started going to the parties was a DJ. When the band took a break, the sound technician would play the same two Latin jazz CDs, which weren’t very good to begin with, but more offensively, were the only two CDs he played. This meant that whenever the band wasn’t playing, the dance floor was empty.

One Sunday I told the sound guy that I had a CD wallet full of tropical music, and that I could lend it to him for the evening if he wanted. He refused my offer, but told me that I could bring my CDs the following week and play them myself. That was the start of my favorite party that I’ve DJed.

From the beginning the party had a lot of things going for it. Mo’ Guajiro had a good following at this point; among others, many of Karim’s students were fans. Louisiana also had a decent crowd of people that went there just to check out some quality live music.   It was strategically located on the corner of Broadway and Houston, across the street from Gonzalez y Gonzalez, and a few blocks down from Bayamo, two venues that were also popular with salsa dancers.

El Sancocho

It took a couple of weeks for people to start to realize that there was a DJ now, and that if you wanted a night of non-stop dancing, you could get that at Louisiana. Also, I took the opportunity to play the variety that I had been looking for in the tropical music parties in New York. In addition to the Fania classics that I had grown up listening to, I played salsa from other parts of Latin America, like Joe Arroyo, Fruko y sus Tesos, and Grupo Niche from Colombia, Oscar D’León from Venezuela, Jose Alberto “El Canario” and Raulín Rosendo from the Dominican Republic, and African salsa like Africando and Ricardo Lemvo. I not only played Cuban son, I also played songo and timba at a time when barely any DJs were playing modern Cuban music, stuff like Los Van Van, NG La Banda, Paulito FG, Dan Den, and Isaac Delgado. I would also play an occasional merengue, and even modern salsa like DLG, Victor Manuelle, Gilberto Santa Rosa, and Marc Anthony.

It went against the formula for tropical parties at New York bars or clubs. In a way, it was my version of the house parties that I went to in Philadelphia, where people danced to many different styles of music. Like those parties, the party at Louisiana was a melting-pot (or a gumbo. Or a sancocho). There were young people, older people, casual, dressy, Latin American, international, nuyorican, American, black, white, Asian, people from dance classes, people who learned to dance in Latin America, people who didn’t know how to dance. And they pretty much danced whatever I threw at them. Once the party blew up, the dance floor was always packed. For me, it was bliss.

After Louisiana closed, my brother and I really recreated the Philadelphia house parties by hosting our own house parties in Clinton Hill. We cooked food, had a variety of cocktails, I would DJ tropical and international music in my room, the other roommates DJed different genres in their rooms, we’d get live drummers, and you could practically hear us all the way over at the Clinton-Washington G station, even at four or five in the morning. No one ever called the cops.

A lot of time has passed since then. I’ve moved around, for many years my DJing was limited to my iPod at different house parties. But in the past five years I’ve gone back to DJing in New York. A lot has changed in the city. It’s more expensive, less diverse, and people call the cops at 10pm on a Saturday to complain about parties that are less noisy than ours were. But certain things remain constant. There are still many great tropical parties, with many amazingly talented bands, DJs and dancers. As far as Mo’ Guajiro goes, I am happy to have been able to keep track of many of the musicians in their subsequent projects. Jainardo Batista, one of the singers, and Aaron Halva, the tres player, continue to play together regularly as Nu D’Lux (or The Funky Guajiros), in addition to other projects. Nick Woloschuk, the other singer, sings soul, R&B, and salsa regularly in the city. They all sound better than ever. As for me, I’m still trying to keep everyone dancing to as much variety as I can get away with.

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