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So Long, Salsa?

Latin Clubs Reflect Ever-Evolving Melting Pot


April 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

Back in the mid-'90s, the West Dade club La Covacha was one of the centers of the Cuban and tropical night-life scene. But these days it's more like a center for the whole Latin world.

On a recent Saturday night, Venezuelan DJ Toto Gonzalez is spinning across the Latin American continent, hopping from Mexican rock to Colombian cumbia-pop, Argentine reggae-rock to Dominican merengue-house. Crowded in front of him are a group of friends -- Honduran, Cuban-Mexican, Venezuelan, Colombian, Puerto Rican and Mexican-American -- laughing, dancing and posing for pictures in a happily squealing group. It's the OAS on champagne, jumping to a multilateral beat.

''I try to make this like you're at a party in South America,'' says Gonzalez, who produces these Saturday night events.

The crowd is a mix of Colombians, Venezuelans, Argentines, Chileans, as well as Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans, and he tries to appeal to all of them. ''Radio in Latin America plays a little of everything, and that's what I try to do,'' he says. ``The filter is much wider now. A pure Cuban club? I don't know where that is anymore.''

''Miami is more and more a melting pot,'' says Puerto Rican-raised Jemilly Castro, at La Covacha with fellow boricua Nelly Lopez, and her Venezuelan boyfriend. ``Before it was just Cubans. Now there are more South and Central Americans. The Latin sound is a mix of everything now -- rock, salsa, cumbia. Whatever has a Latin rhythm and comes out of the Latin community, if I can move to it, I will.''


In the past two years, a new Latin sound has been surging up in Miami-Dade. The influx of recent immigrants fleeing political and economic turmoil in Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela and elsewhere in South America is making itself felt -- and heard -- in the music and night-life scene. Where Caribbean Latin genres such as salsa, son, merengue and bachata used to dominate, the groove now is international Latin pop and rock flavored with Latin and ''tropical'' dance rhythms, especially cumbia, ska and reggae.

Salsa's complex poly-rhythms are being left behind for a more generic Latin beat that anyone can dance to, sprinkled with national favorites like classic Argentine rockers Soda Stereo or Colombian vallenato-fusion singer Carlos Vives who appeal to individual nationalities.

Immigration is one factor in this musical and cultural paradigm shift. But so is the changing nature of pop music and culture. The younger ''generation ñ,'' Cuban-Americans who rediscovered their roots and drove the mid-90s Cuban nostalgia trend that spawned son revivals and designer guayaberas, has moved on to the pop-rock explosion -- or into adulthood and out of night life.

Many of those who flocked to learn the intricacies of casino-rueda style salsa have also moved on, as salsa music has stopped developing, stultified by conservative radio formats that favor a handful of longtime stars and formulaic, sound-alike songs. Even in Puerto Rico, one of salsa's native homes, reggaeton (a style which blends hip-hop and dancehall), rap and rock are replacing the island's traditional music.

Colombian Kike Posada, a pioneering Latin rock promoter who hosts a show on Salsa 98 (WRTO 98.3 FM), says radio is largely to blame for choking off new salsa. But he says the change is also natural as people look for something new.

Salsa 98, despite its name, now plays a lot of the new Latin dance and pop-rock music. Posada notes that it's now common practice for record labels to remix a song in multiple versions: ballad, salsa, cumbia, bachata, ranchera, pop, merengue, house, trying to appeal to as many Latin groups as possible.

''It's all about making [music] look like it's representative of all cultures now,'' Posada says. ``The big flag here is international night -- wherever you're from, there's something for you.''

Cuban-American and former model Aurelio Rodriguez has kept La Covacha popular since he opened it in 1989. ''It's hard to cater to the Latin market with just salsa now,'' he says.

His Fridays now feature tropical and dance music, Saturdays have Latin rock in one area, tropical in the other -- although at the moment, with Carlos Ponce's pop-rock song Mujer con pantalones (A Woman With Pants) booming on the tropical side, it's hard to tell which is which. A Colombian couple moving over from the rock side is dancing in exactly the same way.

Things have changed a lot since the early '90s, Rodriguez says, when all things Cuban were in style. ''People got tired of cigars and bored of salsa,'' Rodriguez says. ``These days you gotta figure out how to cater to Argentines or Colombians.''


Numbers for the new South American immigrants are difficult or impossible to come by, say demographers and planning officials. The 2000 Census showed that Hispanics who were not Cuban, Mexican or Puerto Rican increased by 78 percent in Miami-Dade, and nearly tripled in Broward. But the recent crises in Argentina and Venezuela that have driven people to emigrate have been largely in the past two years.

Most come on tourist visas and then drop out of official sight. For example, the Argentine consulate has estimated that as many as 100,000 Argentines may be residing in South Florida though the U.S. Census only counts 19,000 in Miami-Dade and 5,000 each in Broward and Palm Beach counties. And the violence in Colombia has also spurred a recent but still uncounted surge of newcomers, say some experts; a 2001 study by Florida International University estimated that there are 350,000 Colombians in South Florida, half undocumented.

But the change is apparent at events like a recent Argentine bailanta party at Bayside Hut, a funky marina bar and club in Key Biscayne. At midnight, the place was empty except for a few grizzly American boat-lovers. But at 1 a.m. -- the time when Buenos Aires night life kicks off -- several hundred young Argentines seem to materialize out of nowhere into a line that stretches into the parking lot.

It feels like a college party, right down to the identical peer-pressure fashion, the girls in tight hip-hugger jeans or white pants, with long, straight hair, the boys in rocker T-shirts or untucked button-down shirts.

Bailanta is the generic name for the cheerful, cumbia-and-merenguelike working-class dance music of Argentina, and DJ Abel Ramos has over 20 CDs of cumbia remixes. Instead of couples moving in the smooth syncopations and complex steps of salsa, people dance in bouncing clumps and circles, screaming and leaping with enthusiasm for Soda Stereo or a bailanta hit like Alza Las Manos, by Damas Gratis.

''I feel at home here,'' says blond-haired Alumine Belone, 19, leaning at the bar with girlfriend Alessandra Garcia, 17, both of whom moved from Buenos Aires to Westchester with their families a year ago. ``You find what you have in Argentina -- people wear the same clothes, they move the same, they cut their hair the same.''

Fellow Argentine Dario Puebla, 26, who's been living in Little Havana for two years, shrugs at the idea that he's in the traditional home of Cuban immigrants. ''There's not that many Cubans [in Little Havana] now,'' he says. ``It's mostly Argentines.''

That influx is influencing those who are already here. ''There are new people in Miami, so people are more open to other [Latin] cultures now,'' says Argentine-born Ramiro Yustini, 22, who works with Posada.

Yustini is standing in the DJ booth at South Miami's Club Steel, which recently launched a Saturday Latin rock night, waiting to introduce Brazilian rock band Prato Principal to a crowd of Argentines, Central Americans (promoter/DJ Abel Ortega is from Nicaragua), and Brazilians. Salsa 98 has just started doing live broadcasts there on Saturday nights.

Like the twentysomething Cuban-Americans who rediscovered Cuban style in the '90s, Yustini, who has been in South Florida since childhood but has ''Argentina'' and ''Buenos Aires'' tattooed on his arms, is newly enamored of his roots. ''I'm supposed to be an American,'' he says. ``But instead I feel more Argentine than ever.''

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