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Thursday, 5 April, 2001, 09:36 GMT 10:36 UK
UK's taste for salsa
Cubanismo
Cubanismo: Virtuoso Cuban dance music
A Latin music festival at London's Royal Festival Hall is bringing the world's great Latin acts to British audiences.

Not long ago it would have been almost unthinkable, writes BBC News Online's Alex Webb.

Britain was slow to catch on to Latin fever, and while salsa music was establishing itself in New York, Puerto Rico and across South America during the 1970s it was rarely heard on this side of the water.


What we're living now would have been a fantasy back then

Bandleader Roberto Pla

When Latin superstars like Tito Puente and Celia Cruz did tour in Europe, they usually came no nearer than Paris.

Britain's first taste of the real thing came in 1976, with a concert by the Fania All Stars at London's Lyceum ballroom with pop singer Stevie Winwood guesting on vocals.

Fantasy

Soon afterwards, a Colombian percussionist called Roberto Pla arrived to see if he could make a musical living in London.

"What we're living now would have been a fantasy back then," he told BBC News Online.

"When I arrived in 1979 there were no venues, no Latin bands - and no audiences for them.

"The first Salsa band in London was Valdez, which I formed with the English sax player Stan Rivers - he had the melody and I had the rhythm."

Platform

The style-conscious 80s saw the beginnings of a new interest in Latin music, fuelled by Cuban jazz at Ronnie Scott's club in Soho and salsa nights at a new venue, the Bass Clef in London's East End - founded by jazz bassist Peter Ind.

Salsa dancers
Salsa classes spread over the UK

"The Bass Clef is the venue we have to be grateful for - that was the platform," said Pla, who played at the venue with many British groups and Latin American visitors.

In the 1980s Pla formed his own salsa group, the Latin Jazz Ensemble, which has now been together for 14 years and tours internationally.

Inhibitions

The taste for salsa started to spread to other British cities as did another phenomenon - salsa dance classes.


I don't even want to talk about the weather

Bandleader Jesus Alemany
Once people could dance to the music, British inhibitions were left behind.

"The dance classes definitely helped a lot - people aren't shy anymore," Pla said.

During the 90s British Latin bands multiplied, sounding ever more authentic - La Clave, Cayenne, Salsa y Ache and Robin Jones' King Salsa among them.

There was also an increasing interest in Cuba, the island which had originally created most Latin dance music but which culturally had been almost cut off from the West since its 1959 revolution.

Career

Cuban trumpeter Jesus Alemany visited Britain with the group Sierra Maestra in 1991 and decided to stay here.

"The main reason was professional - wanting to leave Sierra Maestra and start my career as a soloist," he told BBC News Online.

"It was the right place, so many things were happening - I remember at that time African music was popular here and I saw how things were getting bigger and bigger in the Latin scene here, how people were starting to give dancing lessons."


This is a big place with a lot of music and a lot of cultures

Bandleader Jesus Alemany

Alemany founded his own group, Cubanismo, which has recorded four albums of virtuoso contemporary Cuban dance music and tours extensively abroad - and will be playing at the La Linea festival on 25 April.

It was a British record label which initiated one of the most remarkable stories of Cuban music - the worldwide success of the collective of musicians known as the Buena Vista Social Club.

Two weeks

World Circuit boss Nick Gold was looking for a new context to record guitarist Ry Cooder, while in Havana Sierra Maestra bandleader Marcos Gonzalez was thinking of how to bring some of Cuba's great musical names out of retirement.

Marcos Gonzalez
Marcos Gonzalez: the man behind Buena Vista

In just two weeks in 1996 Cooder and Gonzalez, with superannuated singers Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, pianist Ruban Gonzalez and others had recorded three albums which went on to sell millions around the world.

A haunting, grainy film documentary by Wim Wenders was also an international hit.

Both Omara Portuondo (12 April) and Buena Vista bassist Cachaito (14 April) are playing at the La Linea festival.

Now Britain boasts Salsa classes in every town and more Latin club nights than you can shake a drumstick at.

No regrets

Latin-pop stars like Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan have big followings and London is a stop on every Latin superstar's tour itinerary.

Jesus Alemany certainly has no regrets. "I found a lot of opportunity here - you can go in the direction that you want, whether you want to play jazz or Latin or classical, whatever you want to play.

"And this is a big place with a lot of music and a lot of cultures - so many things happening all the time."

There is one aspect of British life that Alemany still finds hard to accept, however.

"I don't even want to talk about the weather."

See also:

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Postponed MacColl series airs
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Born Romantic
09 Dec 00 | Americas
Castro the 'Lennonist'
18 Aug 00 | Entertainment
Estefan slams 'terrorist' Castro
04 Nov 99 | Tango
Forever Tango
12 Jul 99 | Entertainment
Going 'loco' for Ricky
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