caught a glimpse of what awaits all "good " Salseros once they
depart this earth. So be sure you are kind and courteous to those who ask
you to dance, patient with beginning dancers, and generous with applause
for the musicians entertaining you. The rewards of the world beyond awaiting
deserving Salseros are enormously joyful.
The El San Juan Hotel in the Isla Verde section of San Juan was the site of the Second World Congress of Salsa held July 22-26, 1998. The four-day event would be more appropriately named "Preview of Salsa Heaven" or something similar.
Event organizer, Eli Irizarry skillfully planned and executed a wonderful journey for Salsa fanatics through Salsa Paradise. The voyage included workshops, musical performances by some of Salsa's most legendary performers, staged dance performances by some of the most outstanding artists from around the world, and ample opportunity for the participants themselves to dance.
Approximately 600 participants from countries as varied as Belgium, Columbia, Curacao, Holland, Israel, Italy, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Venezuela, and of course the United States and Puerto Rico, (to name a few) reveled in a spirit of camaraderie that knew no language barriers. Salsa, once again the COMMON DENOMINATOR, became THE GREAT EQUALIZER bringing vastly different people together to express joy.
Mr. Irizarry began each day at noon with four, back-to-back workshops including Salsa history, basic Mambo, partner dancing, choreographed Salsa, advanced Mambo, Mambo combinations, open shines (freestyle footwork) etc. The classes were taught by Masters from several countries; some of whom gave instruction Breaking on One, and others Breaking on Two. The prevailing philosophy being espoused was that it does not matter on what count you choose to break; but rather that the dancer feel the music and fully express him or her self.
The ballroom of the El San Juan Hotel was set with two stages at either end; the one to the right for the musicians and to the left for the dance performers. At 10:00pm each night the music would begin. Another 500 or so people would join the Congress participants to groove to the music, enjoy the performances, and express themselves on the dance floor.
Several times I stood on the landing overlooking the entrance to the ballroom. What was seen was an ocean of people; hands connected and arms in the air executing turn patterns. People were smiling, people were singing, and relating to each other in a way only to be found on a dance floor. Other folks were marveling at the level of proficiency being demonstrated on the floor and getting ideas for their own repertoire.
Between the bands' sets the crowd moved from the dance floor to the theater style seating in order to be entertained and amazed by the dance performers. All the performances were very good, many were terrific, and some were absolutely incredible. Each performance had something valuable to offer. It was interesting to view the many varying interpretations of the music and dance styles.
Three groups were outstanding and gave inspired performances. Los Angles sent several groups but two caught my fancy. Los Rumberos were comprised of three brothers originally from Guadalajara, Jalisco (Mexico). The three Vasquez brothers combined costuming reminiscent of modern East L.A. garb with lip synching and dance drama. The three women who joined them possessed grace, sultry style, and eloquent dance technique.
One of the Vasquez brothers, Luis, is at the helm of a second group called Salsa Brava. This is a large group of totally competent dancers whose energy and enthusiasm immediately transfer to the audience. They employ several spectacular moves that thrill audiences. Salsa Brava was the undisputed "darling" group of the Congress. They are something wonderful to behold.
Feline Planck and his group of four gentlemen were the last performers on the last day of the Congress. Their elegance and artistry was spectacular. Dancing on Two in stately tuxedos, these four electrified the crowd with their amazing footwork and precision choreography. They displayed a control that is hard to achieve; upper bodies still and poised except for the rhythmically placed shoulder shudders while feet were intertwined, twisted and crossed to execute quick staccato beats. Upon completion of the last step the audience jumped to their feet and shouted their approval. We were almost delirious with delight.
Now on to the musical performances by Puerto Rico's finest. I arrived a few minutes late to Thursday night's opener. Standing on the landing looking in to the ballroom at the dancers already on the floor I knew it was going to be a good night because of the music I was hearing. It was a song in a favorite style-- Charanga! Wow! The DJ knows his stuff. Imagine my surprise to realize a band was playing that great selection. The band was named La Criolla. What a way to start the evening.
Next came the legendary Sonora Poncena with piano virtuoso, Papo Luca. It had been a very long time since I last saw them in a performance. Papo delivered his brilliant solos in a variety of Sonora's classic hits. They were certainly a crowd pleaser. Don "Quique" , Papo's father and founder of La Poncena was also on hand. It was good to see him still involved. He appeared in tremendous spirits but a bit frail, which is not surprising considering his age.
Next came a tremendous but not well-known group; a group I've only had the pleasure of seeing once before in Connecticut during the mid-80's-- La Mulenze. La Mulenze is no newcomer to the world of Salsa. They have been around since the mid-70's producing consistently excellent music. For some reason vast popularity has eluded them. They no doubt added many new names to their list of fans after the performance they gave that night. They performed many of their hits; several sung by one of the absolute best voices in Salsa, that of Pedro Brul. For those of you not familiar with Mulenze you owe it to yourself to buy at least one of their albums. All are great. De Regreso, recorded in 1993 is a can't miss starting point. For those of you fortunate enough to get to the Copa in New York (57th St. & 11th Ave.) on August 14th and 15th I guarantee you will be delighted. This is one of their rare U.S. performances.
On Friday a new group, Son by Four, opened the evening's festivities. They are a very young band with a four-man line of singers. Each possesses a fine voice and takes a turn at lead vocals. The musicianship was also at a high level. They have a very fast paced tempo and a more contemporary sound. Son by Four is very enjoyable.
Then came Robert Roena, master bongocero and long-time member of the Fania All-Stars. His group played to and beyond the great expectations of all in attendance. We grooved and sang along to hit after hit made famous by the Apollo Sound. Roena, who is also known for his dancing abilities, showed his stuff both on stage and later on the dance floor. He was in attendance each night.
The great Willie Rosario closed out the evening. The timbalero/band leader has recorded for over 30 years. Gilberto Santa Rosa and Tony Vega made many of his most recognizable tunes famous. Primi Cruz and the other singers did a great job of taking us down memory lane. Willie not only was in attendance every evening but also participated in the lecture on Salsa history.
The bands for the next two nights did an equally great job. It was interesting to note several of Mulenze's musicians playing with many of the remaining bands. (An unfortunate delay caused me to miss The Music Club). However I did see and hear Andy Montanez, Justo Bentancourt y Borincuba, Tito Rojas, Cano Estremera, and the World Congress All-Star Band.
Each band played their hearts out. They reminded us of the abundance of tremendous music that was being produced and recorded years ago. They put down a groove that compelled dancers to stay on the floor. Their sound was remarkable.
All in all the Congress was a Salsero's dream. Great music, great dancing, great performances, great workshops, and a spirit of loving acceptance that is rarely seen.
You now have just under one year to prepare for the next glimpse of Salsa Heaven. It will be held between July 26 and July 31, 1999. See you in San Juan!
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