Salsa de la Bahía”, a collection of Bay Area Salsa and Latin Jazz.
THE LAST MAMBO
For several years now, Dr. Rita Hargrave, a psychiatrist and hardcore salsera, has been working on a documentary about the San Francisco Bay Area Salsa scene. Collaborating with cinematographer Paul Kealoha Blake, co-director Gerald D. Brown and Wayne Wallace, the noted trombonist, bandleader, educator, and producer, Dr. Rita is in the final stages of her video production that she calls, “The Last Mambo.”
“I began incubating the themes for "The Last Mambo" when I first visited the Museo Nacional de la Musica in Havana, Cuba in 2000,” writes Dr. Rita. “The richness of their musical tradition and commitment to cultural preservation resonated with me and convinced me that the Bay Area's contribution to Salsa and Latin Jazz needed to be told.”
Due out in 2014, the documentary traverses the resident Salsa world from its roots to its current state. A passionate cast made up of musicians, entrepreneurs, DJ’s and dancers, tell the story of how Afro-Latin based music made its way to the SF Bay. “The Last Mambo” explores the diverse cultural landscape, social history and future of the San Francisco Bay Area salsa music and dance community,” adds Hargrave.
This collection - Salsa de la Bahia - is the musical companion to “The Last Mambo” and showcases some great unsung hits heard only on local radio and in nightclubs. These pieces are sterling reflections of the state-of-the art that Salsa musical artists in the Bay Area have culled. “Rita and I chose the songs with the idea of this CD being a dance record that showed the musical diversity of (what) the Bay Area scene (has to offer),” comments Wayne.
There is no better person for the task of producing the soundtrack for “The Last Mambo” than Wayne Wallace. From playing to the pen, Dr. Wayne, a title bequeathed to him by the great Pete Escovedo, is a student of Cuban music with impressive Salsa and Latin Jazz credentials which include being musical director of the Pete Escovedo Orchestra, John Santos & The Machete Ensemble, and Conjunto Cespedes as well as numerous sideman gigs with luminaries like Tito Puente and Manny Oquendo & Libre.
The musical spectrum of this 2-disc set shows the kaleidoscope of Afro-Latin musical colors seen and heard around the Bay Area. Complimenting this rich collection are three original pieces recorded at an all-star session in 2012.
“Everyone understood that this was an opportunity to make a collective musical and artistic statement about the music we have played for years,” explains Wayne. “We spoke of the lineage of Cal Tjader, Carlos Federico and the many musicians who helped create this music.”
“Several of the younger players remarked at how Benny and Pete ‘Just grooved’ when they played. It was that tacit mentor/student relationship that you can't learn from a book or the Internet that sticks with you for life.”
“Salsa de la Bahia” truly honors those who have dedicated their careers to playing and advancing Salsa and its Afro-Caribbean off shoots and the people that surround the scene to dance, listen and cheer thee hometown heroes. It pays due to a scene now recognized internationally for the caliber of its musicians and dancers but that is still largely ignored for its artistic merit by the mainstream media
HOW THE SF BAY GOT ITS SALSA GROOVE
In the early 1970s, the fledging Fania Record label (founded in 1963 by flutist Johnny Pacheco and attorney Jerry Massucci) reinvigorated Latin music in New York City with a music and dance phenomenon they branded, “Salsa.” Once again a new generation was enthralled with Latin music much like the days of The Palladium Ballroom had done a generation before when folks came to dance Mambo, Cha Cha Cha and Pachanga.
Masucci was the business and Pacheco was the musical architect and together they came up with something unique and the word “Salsa,” which means sauce, was a catchy way to describe it. To further tell the outside world about this emerging scene, they produced a movie - “Our Latin Thing” – in 1971 that they filmed at the now defunct Cheetah nightclub in mid-town Manhattan. It sky rocketed Salsa beyond its NYC confines and much like what Saturday Night Fever did for Disco, “Our Latin Thing”, did for Salsa.
In the Bay Area, the Salsa age begins at Cesar’s Latin Palace. Run by pianist and entrepreneur, Cesar Ascarrunz, he was a self-taught pianist who was deeply into Latin music. He arrived in the Bay Area from Bolivia in 1960 to study at UC Berkeley and in 1961 started his first band, Cesar y Los Locos Del Ritmo. They packed places like Zack's in Sausalito and Lucky Pierre's in San Francisco. In 1964, he opened a five-night-a-week night club in San Jose, before moving in 1968 into a basement club on Green Street in SF's North Beach
He named it Cesar’s Latin Palace and played there for ten years with a band that included heavies like Joe Henderson, Luis Gasca, Hadley Caliman, Carmelo Garcia, Julian Priester, Armando Peraza, Francisco Aguabella, Benny Velarde and many others passing through. Jose Feliciano even sang there.
In 1977, hoping to expand the club, Ascarrunz moved it to 3140 Mission St. His timing could not have been better, as a golden age was flourishing in Salsa. The genre became the soundtrack for urban Latino dance halls as Fania ruled with a roster that included The Fania All Stars, Willie Colon, Johnny Pacheco and "the queen," Celia Cruz. In 1978, Ascarrunz opened the door to out-of-town bands and brought in Orquesta Broadway from New York.
"I hosted some great bands,” recalled Ascarrunz in 2006, “ like Tito Puente, who played there ten times, Ray Barretto, Jose Fajardo, Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe and others. The capacity of the place was 500 people but I used to pack 1,000 in there."
Many people in the Bay Area came to Cesar's to learn to dance and enjoy the music. The Thursday night dance lessons with Margie Terrentino were one of the venue's most popular nights. "Believe it or not," Ascarrunz says, "one of the best dancers who used to visit the club was Bill Graham. He danced so nicely with Ava (Apple)."
NEW MILLENIUM SALSA
Many of the musicians you hear on this collection came of age playing or checking out the musician’s at Cesar’s Latin Palace. It didn’t matter if you were underage; Cesar was notorious for looking the other way. It would eventually prove to be his downfall but Ascarrunz contributed a colorful chapter that uplifted Salsa in the Bay Area and gave opportunity to many to hear high caliber Afro-Latin sounds.
The path for Latin music in the Bay Area is paved with a long trajectory of musicians and bands that played the Latino sounds of the day for an audience that requested them. The Mexican big bands of Merced Gallegos, Juanito Silva, and Sal Guerrero; the jazz vibes combo of Cal Tjader’s Modern Mambo Quintet; Benny Velarde’s combos at the Copacabana on Broadway in North Beach; and the early 1970s Salsa bands like Papo y su Preferida, laid the stones in place for Salsa in the City.
Important for musicians in learning Salsa were the Salsa Workshops that arose in the 1980s. Pros and novices would congregate at places like Finn Hall in Berkeley, The Mission Cultural Center in SF, Eastbay Center in Richmond, Merritt College in Oakland to study with teachers like Carlos Federico, Mark Levine, Dr. John Calloway, Enrique Fernandez and others. Bands evolved from those classes and fueled clubs like Kimball’s Carnaval, Jelly’s, Montero’s, Glas Kat, El Rio and several others.
In the 1990s there was Salsa happening literally every day of the week around the Bay Area. What kept it bubbling were the dancers who came from all walks of life. Today Salsa Dance has evolved from a nightclub social scene to a course of study that combines ballroom dancing with Salsa steps evolved from the Mambo and Cha Cha Cha. In 2001 the initiation of the Salsa Congress by Ricardo Sanchez and Michelle Castro took Salsa to another level and started an annual conference of Salsa dancers that draws into the tens of thousands.
Television shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance are igniting a new found interest in Latin dance that has the local dance studios popping. This has not necessarily translated into more attendance at local nightclubs as violence, drugs and bad manners turn off the more athletic and clean livers involved in Latin ballroom who dance more as a sport than a social activity.
What has disgracefully not changed since the 1970s Salsa age is the rate of pay for musicians. Cats and kitty’s who struggle traveling to gigs, hours practicing and working off hours playing four sets for an average wage of $30-$100. The resilience of musicians playing in Salsa bands today is commendable given the circumstances.
“To me it is tradition, culture and learning the language of the music,” asserts Wayne Wallace. “Many of these musicians grew up with this music as children and some of us came to it later in life. Musicians need the energy of the music and the interaction of an audience to help feed their artistry. The majority of these musicians make their living teaching but are players first and foremost. We all need to get paid but there has to be a balance.”
At first glance the title, “The Last Mambo”, may insinuate that the Bay Area Salsa scene is dying or that the spirit that once nourished it has gone away. But the impression Rita Hargrave is putting together with this documentary shows an evolution happening that is uplifting Salsa beyond its barrio beginnings.
“The title, ”The Last Mambo”, originally came from my experience as a dancer when the closing of numerous popular salsa venues in the past 4 years - Jelly's, Elbo Room, Glas Kat, El Rio - marked the end of a live music nightclub scene. But after interviewing musicians, educators and D.J.s, I began to see that Salsa/Latin Jazz is evolving beyond the night club scene and reaching new audiences.”
This collection, “Salsa Del La Bahia” is a giant step forward for the Bay Area Salsa scene happening today. With the exception of the Machete Ensemble all the bands represented are active on the scene. As Manny Oquendo & Libre always advised: “Siempre Pa’Lante, Nunca Pa’ Tras” (Always Forward, Never Back).