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On the Arts: Each city in Colombia dances to its own beat

Sunday, February 01, 2004

By Nate Guidry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

CALI, Colombia -- Latin women -- and many of the men, for that matter -- seem to need very little reason to dance. They'll dance with or without music, alone, with friends or with strangers.

And when the salsa-style music of La Misma Gente, Orquesta La Fuga and Grupo Niche is being piped through the speakers, dancing becomes a symbol of unity and national pride.

To outsiders, Colombia is little more than a frontier zone for drugs and violence. Because of that violence, the U.S. State Department warns Americans against traveling here. Left-wing rebels, who are responsible for many of the kidnappings, use ransom money to fund their four-decade war against the government.

Colombia also is the source of much of the world's cocaine and is a leading supplier of heroin sold in the United States.

Still, I keep visiting there, because to experience Colombia is to know a republic rich in history, culture and art and thoroughly immersed in music -- sweeping, occasionally breathtaking music.

Colombia shares borders with five countries -- Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Panama and Ecuador. There's also an expansive coastline along the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. All these cultures continue to converge, fusing the diverse musical strains that permeate Colombia's musical landscape.

In Medellin, the sounds of cumbia, Argentine tango, merengue, techno-merengue, rock and other hybrids of percussive and sometimes repetitive music can be heard blasting through the speakers of homes, cars and bars. For the past eight years, the city has hosted its annual jazz festival. It's one of the best-kept secrets in South America.

Rock en Espanol and British-influenced electronica rule in Bogota, and the Grammy-award winning Aterciopelados is at the top of the rock music heap.

Near the Atlantic coast, in the cities of Cartagena, Barranquilla and Santa Marta, champeta and vallenato are carrying the beat. Champeta is a form of Afro-Colombian roots music that incorporates other styles. such as soca, Afro-pop and zouk, a style of music more commonly associated with Martinique and Guadeloupe.

Vallenato is indigenous, pastoral, accordion-driven folk music. It is to Colombia what Cajun and zydeco are to southern Louisiana.

For years, vallenato has struggled on the fringes of the Colombian mainstream, but because of the efforts of artists such as El maestro Francisco "Pacho" Rada, Rafael Orozco, Diomedes Diaz and, most recently, the Grammy-award winning Carlos Vives, the music has been exported from Medellin to Miami.

But in Cali, all these musical strands, as well as others, play second fiddle to salsa dura -- hot salsa.

Salsa was conceived in Cuba and Puerto Rico and nurtured in New York by such musicians as Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colon, Ray Baretto, Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco and other members of the Fania All-Stars. But Cali, with its 2 million residents, has evolved into one of the leading centers for its consumption. In fact, Cali considers itself the "world capital of salsa."

And at no time is that consumption greater than during the annual Feria de Cali, a five-day festival that is Cali's equivalent (without the pageantry and decadence) of New Orleans Mardi Gras and carnivals in the Dominican Republic and Brazil.

Christmas in Cali

As always, the festival began on Christmas day with a cabalgata (horse) parade that was followed by bullfights, an aerobics marathon, a chess tournament, cooking contests and a beauty pageant that featured contestants from several countries in South America and the Caribbean.

This year, organizers expanded the musical programming from 18 to 34 events, which included styles ranging from Mexican norteno and mariachi to charango-driven Peruvian music.

Concerts featured local, regional and international artists, including Juan Esteban Aristizabal, better known as Juanes, Colombia's most popular pop star, and a tribute concert to Panama's imaginative Ruben Blades, whose 1970s recording of "Siembra" with the great Willie Colon remains a favorite, as well as Son De Cali, Jerry Rivas, Gilberto Santa Rosa and Charlie Aponte.

There also was rumba electronica for the hip-hop crowd at the Eliptica. Another performance spotlighted Dr. Krupula, a hard-hitting rocker from Bogota, and Pastor Lopez, a cumbia singer who sports more gold than Fort Knox.

In a gone-but-not-forgotten tribute, Rumba Habana and La Gran Banda Calena and Canela, a popular all-female group in Cali, paid homage to the sublime Celia Cruz, the "Queen of Salsa," who died in July. She was 77.

Some folks say salsa's arrival in Cali and much of the expansion of Colombia's music scene in the early 1980s parallel the emergence of the infamous drug cartels. The salsa scene expanded after drug lords began pumping millions into the local economy, building clubs and discotheques, hiring and sponsoring groups to perform for private parties.

I don't know the degree to which the drug trade has had an impact on Colombia's music scene. I can say, however, that the madness and nihilism continue to affect the lives of musicians from all musical genres.

Diomedes Diaz, one of Colombia's biggest vallenato stars, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for his role in the death of his girlfriend, whose body was found outside Bogota. The couple was reported to have been using cocaine earlier in the day.

In the mid-1990s, Jairo Varela, leader of Cali-based Grupo Niche -- one of the hottest salsa bands anywhere -- spent time in jail for alleged business dealings he had with the Cali cartel.

Still, his reputation is intact. The city of Cali remains loyal to Niche, and Varela remains faithful to his music, which is characterized by suave and expressive lyricism, tightly orchestrated arrangements, improvisation and call-and-response horn sections, plus a powerful rhythm section.

In the late '70s, Varela and Alexis Lozano formed Niche, a term identified with people of African descent that means "brother." Lozano eventually left to form his own group, Guayacan.

In the intervening years, Niche has sold more than 15 million records and produced a succession of popular songs, including "Una Adventura (An Adventure)" and "Cali Pachanguero (Partying Cali)."

"Cali is salsa, and Niche and Guayacan are two of the best groups performing salsa," said Dr. Julio Lemas, a Cali native and physician at Louisiana State University at New Orleans. "Niche is trying to change the perception of Colombia through [Varela's] music. If you listen to the lyrics, they are inspiring. There's never any profanity or messages glorifying drugs or drug usage. He and artists like Shakira and Carlos Vives are doing a wonderful job exporting Colombian music to the world."

A Torrid New Year's Eve

The sound of music caromed along Avenida Sexta (Sixth Avenue) threatening to tilt its Christmas-lit landscape. This bustling street that leads to the northern part of the city was spilling over with people dancing, dining and enjoying Cali's festive atmosphere.

In a dark, unadorned club, the pulsating pace of "Mi Negra Y La Calentura," a song by Niche, was shaking the walls.

A young woman ushered her boy-friend to the dance floor. Nearby, another couple eased into something a bit more frenetic. And during a moment of unadulterated sensual expression, a tall, rotund woman with coal-black skin began a series of gushing-like gyrations until everyone in the place took notice.

Later that night, on a basketball court in the Calypso barrio, a huge crowd gathered for a New Year's Eve party. At the stroke of midnight, there were no drugs or gunshots and very little fireworks, unless, of course, you include the torrid riffs of horns blasting through the insistent grooves of salsa music.

A Cali soundbite

En Cali mira, se sabe goza (In Cali, look, they know how to enjoy).
De dia su sol ardiente
(By day its burning sun),
hace que mi Cali se caliente (makes my Cali hot).
De noche sus callecitas (At night its little streets),
con farolitos se ven bonitas (look pretty with their little lights).
Afinen bien las orquestas (Let the bands tune up),
Que esta ano si vamo' a reventa (because this year we're going to explode).

-- From "Oiga, Mira, Vea," recorded by the salsa group Guayacan in 1992

Nate Guidry is the Post-Gazette's jazz critic. He can be reached at or 412-263-3865.

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