You step through the darkened entranceway, leaving the tropical night behind. Suddenly, waves of sound crash over you Iike ocean surf. Breaking out in a sweat, your heart pounds to the rhythm of bass, bongos, bells and brass. The walls seem to pulsate. The pungent smell of perspiration mixed with perfume assaults you. As your eyes adjust to the dark, broken by hypnotic flashes of the multi-colored strobes, you realize it’s not walls that enclose you, but dancers– scores of dancers gyrating, weaving and swirling, limbs flashing, hips thrusting in quarter–time beat. You fill your lungs with the spicy aroma, tighten your belt a notch and plunge in. Welcome to Chango’s in Cali, Colombia – one of Latin America’s hottest Salsa night clubs.
Cali, a modern, festive city, lies in the heart of “the Valley.” when Colombians say “the Valley” they mean the Cauca valley, a not so little Garden of Eden a hundred-fifty miles long and some fifteen miles wide between the coastal mountain ranges and the Central Cordillera. Until the turn of the century, this valIey was little more than a rural outpost.
Then, with a population of some 15,000, the Cauca Valley was largely cattle country, parceled out in vast tracts among the “haciendados.” These were proud, almost haughty men who raised cattle for leather and beef. Some had plantations of sugar cane used to produce the sweetener “panela” and distill the crystal-clear but potent “aguardiente” still sipped today. Life was slow, measured, 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 bygone days “hidalgos walked the unpaved “calles” in coats of velvet or scarlet broadcloth embroidered and buttoned with gold and silver, their waistcoats of flowered silk, and the ruffles of their shirts were of the finest batiste,” says Kathleen Romoli, author of Colombia: Gateway to. South America. And like the Southern states in colonial rimes, large numbers of slaves were imported to work the fields and serve the gentry.
Time has brought many changes. Today vast sugar cane plantations still carpet the Valley. 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 leisurely colonial town in 1900, Cali has grown into a large manufacturing center with more than a thousand industries at last count
There is Salsa in the air
Yet with all the changes, Cali retains a homey charm, a personality different from other cities, an atmosphere you might expect to find in the Caribbean. Romoli describes it well:
The most striking thing about Cali today is not the plaza with it imposing government buildings and rows of taxis, along the avenues of giant palms, nor the suburbs with their modem villas, and churches, whose bells chime melodies instead of clanging as it Bogotá, nor the busy factories. It is the pervasive air of cheerfulness almost of gaiety Not that it is a city of many amusements; Cali is not gay by virtue of commercial facilities for organized diversion but by the grace of god.
Cali attracts travelers from all over; tourists, businessmen, back packers, scientists, and students. And, of course, salsa fans and salsa artists. Recording studios, “rumberias”,”discothèques” and “viejotecas” abound.
What is Cali’s appeal? The city’s buoyant atmosphere? The spectacular sunsets? The natural beauty of the soaring Andes? The vaunted beauty of its women? Perhaps it’s the climate where it’s always June. Or could it be its remarkable cleanliness? Many Colombian towns are clean, but Cali is so clean it stands out. Or maybe it’s the trees and flowers–the billowing crimson and purple bougainvilla that tumbles in profusion from the walls, the cup-of-gold that drips from the eaves, the waxy bells of the trumpet flow, the poinsettia bushes, gorgeous gardenias, the trees with magenta leaves and carmine flowers or others with feathery green–white blossoms or pale clusters of pink–the wild extravagance of blooms among which humming birds with iridescent green bellies flit even in winter.
No Salsa No Dates
Cali has all these. But undoubtedly for many, the principal attraction that lures them to this charming city is Salsa music. The sensuous, tropical rhythms of Salsa pervade the lives of the two million plus Caleños. On every bus you’ll hear Salsa. Go for a walk, to school or shopping there’s salsa in the air. And, of course there’s Salsa 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 stores, from cars, portable radios and private homes. Cali lives and breathes Salsa. But why Salsa? Many other musical traditions, styles and types of folk music flourish in Cali (including the traditional Cumbia, where machete wielding dancers stomp around full-busted women in ruffled skirts). What’s so special about Salsa? After all Vallenatos, a brand of folk music with roots back to the days of the Spanish conquistadors, is still hugely popular–especially as sung by the likes of Colombia’s Grammy award winner Carlos Vives. Boleros (check out Luis Miguel’s “Inolvidable”) and Merengue continue to have strong followings here.
Why has this one style ingrained itself so deeply into the culture? To aficionados the answer is simple: “I love salsa music.” Whatever the reason for it’s 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 dance schools throughout the city. You pay for lessons by the hour. Prices range from $2 up to $6 per hour for more private, one-on-one instruction. Group classes fu up fast. Salsa classes are not just the place to go for learning, but to practice and perfect your moves or pick up some new ones. They’re a good “meeting place” for neighborhood residents. “It’s important to dance very well or you’re boring,” says Sofia, an avid Salsa fan.
Cali calls itself the “Salsa Capital, of the World,” a title wrenched from post-Fidel Cuba and often shared with New York City. But even those who might take exception to “World Capital” will agree that Cali is certainly the “Salsa Capital of South America.” The 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 hike Cuba’s “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 renowned for his musical innovations as well as traditional Salsa; Willie Colon; Oscar d’Leon, and others.
SALSA CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
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 throbbing rhythmic heart of Cali’s Salsa nightlife. Every week throughout the year, two hundred thousand locals pour into this eastern suburb to party. Cali teems with discos and “viejotecas” for the young and not so young. Latinos of younger generations typically favor a smoother, more sentimental music known as Salsa Romantica, popularized by bandleaders such as Eddie Santiago and Tito Nieves. Internationally popular salsa singers of the 1990s included Linda “India” Caballero and Mark Anthony. The Puerto Rico-based orchestra “Puerto Rican Power” is another hot group with ardent fans both in Cali and Puerto Rico.
While it’s thrilling to hear famous performers of Salsa music from abroad, don’t forget Cali’s many own outstanding world class groups and musicians of Salsa fame blending the old with the new. The classic and the innovative. It’s worth a trip to Cali just to hear the vibrant 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 adolescents) and “cuchos” alike in discos, salsatecas and even in viejotecas that draw the over-35 crowd.
When I arrived in Cali 1995, I thought my salsa was OK. After all, l’d picked up some smooth moves from a bevy of hot Puerto Rican beauties during a summer stint in San Juan. Even back in my home state of Pennsylvania, there were opportunities on Friday or Saturday nights to slip out and mix with Latinos at our local Hispanic watering holes. I’d perfected a double-quick step in a rectangular pattern, too, and added whirls and spins 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 for dinner and dancing later that week at “La Cima,” one of the city’s top Salsa clubs, to show off my moves. She was impressed. A year later we married and after a couple more years we moved to her native Colombia.
Colombian salsa is a different beast. The style, rhythm and beat are similar in other places but it’s a different story on the dance floor. My feet recognized the beat, but behaved as if 1 were wearing Bozo shoes. For a while, 1 stuck to downtown places like “Cuarto Venina,” perched on the banks of the brownish, knee-deep Cali River. It’s listening only, no dancing here. The music is so subdued you can carry on a conversation over empanadas and cold “Costeña”. It can be just the right touch for a Sunday afternoon. Nowadays, my Latin cutie and 1 are considered “cuchos” (the over-35 set). It’s been ten years. We’re still here though, still dancing Salsa. And I’m still showing off my moves.