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Tales of the Unheard

"Salsa callejera, what's that?" I ask Durham musicians Dave Martinez and Juan Carlos Rodriguez, of the local Latin band Samecumba. "Street salsa!" they answer en coro. In Puerto Rico, where they grew up, salsa started out as street party music. During the 1980s, salsa moved into middle-class dancehalls and became a symbol of Puerto Rican national pride, as well as an international product spun in clubs the world over.

The "gentrification" of salsa has had both good and bad consequences for the music. In the plus column, salsa romantica launched the successful careers of singers like Frankie Ruiz and Gilberto Santa Rosa (called simply "Gilbertito" by fans), and as a result salsa has spread its roots to every continent except possibly Antarctica. In the minus column: Romantica lyrics have trended inexorably toward pop, the face of salsa has been "whitened," its Afro-Caribbean aesthetics and values largely sacrificed. Elements like the Santeria religion (or any religion for that matter), live improvisation, and hard horn textures and rhythms have all dropped out of earshot. Salsa made its satanic pact with the commercial mainstream and grew up like a tree, only to throw shade on its own roots.

Thank Yemaya there's a minor renaissance of "street salsa" going on (aka salsa dura) among New York's old guard and young lions alike. Piano legend Eddie Palmieri tries to recapture his inimitable '60s sound on the recent album La Perfecta II (and about half the songs succeed). Underexposed keyboardist Wayne Gorbea and his band Salsa Picante show that they know how to put on a street party with their latest effort, Fiesta en El Bronx. An astonishingly wonderful release, Un Gran Dia En El Barrio, came seemingly out of nowhere this October from The Spanish Harlem Orchestra, a supergroup made up of some of New York's finest underrecognized talent. One critic hopes it will do for salsa what the Buena Vista Social Club did for son: Reveal the commercial potential of salsa's living roots. One can only hope.

In the meantime, one can hear and feel the excitement of homegrown salsa callejera right here in the Piedmont. Local salseros Samecumba began by recreating classic 1970s arrangements of Willie Colon and Ray Barretto for live audiences a year-and-a-half ago. According to bass player Martinez and lead sonero Rodriguez, who also share songwriting duties, this 10-piece Latin band is poised to enter a new creative phase.

"The first year [since our premiere at Chapel Hill's Fiesta del Pueblo] was about building a repertoire," Rodriguez looks back. Now, after a few personnel shuffles and some creative settling down, "we are moving toward writing original music."

"We don't see this as only a commercial enterprise," Rodriguez says. "We want to share our music on our own terms, we don't want to be constrained by the logic of the salsa market." Balancing artistry with business acumen, Martinez adds, "but at the same time, we don't want the market to take advantage of us."

With several original songs in hand--salsa, as well as a Puerto Rican plena--the band is currently producing their first demo with the hope of getting it into the hands of deejays and clubowners all along the East Coast.

"Word of mouth is good but it's not enough sometimes," explains Rodriguez. "You should call this interview, 'Tales of the Unheard!' Talent but no demo," he jokes.

Even without a demo, word of mouth has taken them on the road as far away as Winston-Salem, where they will play again next March for the Hispanic League of the Piedmont Triad. Over the summer, they brought their brand of salsa callejera to Durham's Centerfest, Raleigh City Parks & Recreation's Cinco de Mayo Festival, and Smithfield's Ham and Yam Festival, and this fall raised the roof on a packed house at Duke's Armadillo Grill.

Their strategy come January will be to expand beyond private parties and Latin-only venues and locate new audiences among mainstream bar and clubgoers, a formula which has worked for other niche bands like Richmond's Bio Ritmo and Atlanta's Latin-ska-rockers Mandorico.

"We want to try and bring our music to more than just the Latin scene," says Martinez, who hooked up Samecumba with local funk and ska talent for the Berkeley Café's first annual Caribbean Funkfest. "We just want to play anywhere."

At the same time, they believe community is the driving force behind their music. "Playing salsa puts us in direct contact with [other] people who are in need of hearing this kind of music," says Rodriguez, a classically trained singer who left Puerto Rico to attend graduate school at Duke. He and former roommate Martinez, whose musical background straddles salsa and rock, decided music was the way to stay in touch with their roots.

"We wanted to continue some traditions we were involved with before, play the music that we love, and get involved with the community," Rodriguez says about why they joined Samecumba, and it seems to be working. Look for 2003 gig dates and audition notices (the band currently seeks a second singer) on their Web site at www.samecumba.com. EndBlock

Contact Sylvia Pfeiffenberger at santasalsera@aol.com.

  • Tales of the Unheard

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