Beneath a sea of cowboy hats, the designer fades carved into the back of men's haircuts carry geometric designs and lettered phrases like "100% Mexican-made." They are as well-groomed as the turf at Cary's Koka Booth Amphitheatre, where thousands have turned up for the fifth broadcasting anniversary of 96.9 FM La Ley. Clearly, it's been another good year for the Curtis Media-owned regional Mexican station, which serves Spanish-speaking listeners from Lumberton northward to the Virginia state line, and from Burlington eastward to the coast.
Local bands, a tangible Chicago presence, and headliners from Texas, Puerto Rico and Mexico shape the all-day festival's entertainment. Central North Carolina's own burgeoning Mexican-regional scene yielded the three opening acts: female-led Raleigh durangense band Karen y La Rebelion, Goldsboro's accordion-driven five-piece Bravo Norteño, and Durham's own big brass-and-synthesizer combo La Tropa de Tierra Caliente.
Durangense's high energy, hip-swaggering popularity is still driving trends, which could be heard in the sounds of Chicago visitors Los Kapsi and Los Dezatados. Led by crooner brothers Gerardo and Roberto Correa, the former puts a more romantic twist on the Chicago sound. Los Dezatados (or "Unleashed") adds flavors of Zacatecas and Michoacan's southern banda, powered by tuba and horns and the versatile rock energy of drummer Sergio "La Yoyes" Flores.
Reggaeton's staying power may come as a surprise in light of this largely Mexican audience, but Puerto Rican duo Angel y Khriz performed its de rigeur club hits to undulating adoration, its hip-hop style and stage presence briefly breaking the day's steady flow of cowboys in matching suits.
Headliner Grupo Control, a cumbia band pumped up not only by a great accordion player but by four satin-and-spandex male linedancers, arrived so late after its van took a wrong turn somewhere in Alabama that Tropa took the stage a second time to keep the crowd warm. When Control finally went on around 9 p.m., they dished out good clean fun for dancers who'd been going at it all day, as well as kisses to select front-row fans.
Under the programming hand of Julie Garza, La Ley has made it a point not only to bring blockbusters within arms' reach, but also to be a platform where local bands can connect with a fanbase. They've given airplay to artists like Rey Norteño, whose song "Raleigh" became a hit for La Ley in 2006, leveraging some national airplay as a result. Passing that legacy on to hopefuls, La Ley invited back the band's leader, Fred Huerta, to judge an on-air singing contest earlier this year.
"Radio La Ley has been supporting us," says Tropa de Tierra Caliente leader Chuy Velazquez. The band submitted its first demo for airplay just last August. Spreading its rep in Durham, Tropa will join indie rockers Schooner, Caitlin Cary and others for the Benefit for the Coalition to Unchain Dogs in Central Park Saturday, Sept. 6.
More and more, young bands see North Carolina—rather than Miami, L.A. or Chicago—as a valid jump-off for getting a foothold in the Latino market. Increasingly, Hispanic growth in the Triangle makes it a tempting home base for artists trying to break into the transnational market.
Goldsboro's Bravo Norteño has succeeded with this model. The band tours from Florida to Michigan five days each week. Its "weekend" consists of Mondays and Tuesdays off, when members return home to their families in Goldsboro.
"A lot of people ask us, 'Why here and not Miami or L.A.?'" says accordionist Transito Aguilera. "When we came here, it was very peaceful. We brought our families here. We liked it here. And now that there's the radio and TV in Spanish, we have everything we need to promote our music."
George's Garage is packed with elegant diners, all gazing toward a stage where Licelott and Kelvin, two world champion mambo dancers from Puerto Rico, execute acrobatic lifts and turns with the ease of Olympic gymnasts. Clearing the rafters is a real concern: The pair is, literally and figuratively, head and shoulders above its audience. That's saying a lot, as this crowd is made up of mambo obsessives, professional dance teams, and instructors gathered here from as far as Boston and Chicago.
"This is exactly what North Carolina has been waiting for," says emcee Eric Baez, after the thunderous standing ovation. Baez is a Florida dance pro who emcees salsa events all over the world. Indeed, tonight's fourth annual N.C. Salsa Festival, hosted by The Cobo Brothers Dance Company, is a measure of the strong international culture for Latin dance that has taken root in rich Piedmont soil.
"The Triangle's is the biggest salsa scene in the state. There's a lot going on here," says Betto Herrera of Durham company Mambo Dinamico.
The term "salsa" is a bit of a misnomer for the festival, since most of the practitioners here tonight specialize in the showy, "on-2" mambo style. While salsa is the catchall phrase, salsa and mambo as dance and musical styles are generally understood to be two distinct things. But at the end of the day, they are kin or, to borrow a phrase, like two wings on the same bird. That the question of style even needs addressing indicates how much diversity has developed here over the last two decades.
Addressing the George's crowd after his performance, Milton Cobo emphasizes cooperation by thanking other local instructors who teamed up to make the festival a success: "We've all done a lot to build the community individually," he says, "but now we're trying to work together, and it's making a huge difference."
Sylvia Pfeiffenberger, an award-winning Latin Music columnist for the Independent Weekly, now blogs at ondacarolina.blogspot.com. Photographer Lisa Brockmeier also blogs at ondacarolina.blogspot.com, where you can see more pictures and video of La Ley's festival.