But this may all be changing. A small renaissance of local bands is on its way, not a moment too soon to feed Triangle audiences' growing appetite for Latin American dance culture. A circulating pool of freelance jazz/Latin musicians has been active in the Triangle for some time, but only a handful of Latin bands have kept a firm profile over the years. They include Carnavalito, headed by Ricardo Granillo, a local DJ (formerly host of WSHA's Saturday night Latin show) and the band's leader and bass player. Another is Camaleon, a Latin fusion band who, up until this summer, performed weekly gigs at Carrboro eatery El Chilango.
About to join the list are emerging bands like La Sexta Clave, and newcomer Samecumba, who is poised to premiere Sept. 16 at Chapel Hill's Fiesta del Pueblo. Samecumba features members from the (now defunct) Grupo Cardí, itself formed from the remnants of Grupo Songo, both projects of Puerto Rican frontwoman Lily Perez. La Sexta Clave, with members from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela as well as the United States, specialize in old-school Afro-Cuban son and salsa dura, and have already been playing out at area clubs and restaurants.
Venues like the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro also occasionally treat Latin music aficionados to touring acts like Afro-Peruvian songstress Susana Baca, El Vez (the Mexican Elvis impersonator), and Richmond-based salseros Bio Ritmo. Private halls like The Ritz in Raleigh and Durham's Salon Mi Pueblo rent out space to promoters and parties, who bring (often pricey) regional live acts from Mexico and Central America.
In the past, promoters and club owners have had to rely on bringing in bands for special events from as far away as New York. Salsa dancers should be able to expect more and better live gigs as the local club scene heats up.
If your priority is to hone your salsa dancing skills, Deejayed dance venues are multiplying too. The oldest such local institution is Salsa Carolina, a traveling operation that rents space weekly from the Back Door on Leigh Drive in Raleigh on Friday nights and the Holiday Inn at Page Road lounge in RTP on Saturdays. Salsa Carolina has been staging dances for more than a decade, back when 25 or 50 people would trickle in; now, any given night, the crowd may number in the hundreds.
Deejayed music ranges from commercial new releases of salsa, to classics from mambo king Tito Puente and the 1970s FANIA label (the Latin equivalent of Motown), as well as music from Colombia, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. All the major tropical genres (read: Latin Caribbean) are represented, including some punta from Honduras, and sets of Latin reggae and house for the younger crowd. Dancers sometimes compete for space on the cozy Holiday Inn dance floor, whereas the Back Door has room to spread out, plenty of seating and even a few pool tables. In addition, Salsa Carolina provides their own excellent, experienced security staff at both venues (the Back Door has additional off-duty officers), and a moderate dress code keeps the crowd presentable. Local instructor Michelle La Rubia gives an introductory salsa lesson at 9 p.m.
Though DJs are the usual fare, a recent Friday night at the Back Door featured live music from La Sexta Clave. Couples had plenty of room to style on the dance floor--the band cooked up typical Cuban dishes, then added some salsa for good measure. The band is half the size of your typical Latin touring band, which can reach 15 or more, but locks in to a nice full sound with upright electric bass, keyboard, congas, bongos, timbales, flute, saxophone and trombone.
The set included covers of Willie Colón's "No Me Llores Mas" and Beny More's "Que Bueno Baila Usted" that got the crowd dancing. By the end of the second set, Salsa Carolina owner Felix Padilla Sr. played maracas with the band, while his wife Tati kicked off her see-through pumps and danced barefoot among the patrons with her son (and Salsa Carolina DJ) Felix Jr.
One guy tried to take a cell phone call sitting hunched over on the edge of the stage, while the trombone player, a judge in his day job, blasted moñas, or short, gravelly trombone riffs, over his head. A thin, Cuban gentleman dressed in black hung out near the stage during both sets like some cool spirit of the crossroads, listening and watching the dancers tear it up.
Your other best bet for salsa and tropical dance is Montas International Lounge a family operation in RTP which just celebrated its first anniversary. Pilar and Roberto Montas run dances out of their recently expanded club every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. (Reggae act Crucial Movement also has a standing gig there every Thursday.) Dress codes vary, with the Salsa Sunday (6-10 p.m.) the most casual and Saturday's Latin Night the fanciest (no T-shirts or athletic wear).
The elegant and comfortable low-smoke atmosphere (smoking is permitted, but a special A/C unit is used to purify the air) attracts a salsa-lovers' crowd, though music includes the latest Dominican bachatas and merengues, courtesy of Roberto's frequent trips back to his native island.
Roberto and his cousin Hector deejay from a computer MP3 setup, so dancers need not fear jagged segues. A beginning dance lesson is offered on Fridays and Saturdays at 10 p.m. and Sundays at 6 p.m., for those aching to give their hips an introduction to salsa moves.
Tables and couches in the upper bar area and in corners of the large dance floor can be reserved ahead during special events, but mostly are available on a first-come, first-served basis, as are the musical instruments strategically scattered throughout the room. Patrons can pick up a pick and scraper (looks like a large cheese grater) to make the wrist-flicking sound characteristic of Dominican merengue and bachata, or try their hand at the congas, bongos or maracas.
There is another "Latin" scene in the Triangle deserving of mention, for those eager to taste all the flavors: traditional Mexican and Tejano genres like cumbia (think Selena), ranchera (think mariachi), norteña and corrido (border polkas and ballads, respectively) and banda (a marching band sound from the pueblos). Though typically this does not fit into the Caribbean sound that dominates the Latin club scene, one Durham club, La Maraka on Hillsborough Road, is trying to integrate it into their lineup. Catering to the local Hispanic community, La Maraka will celebrate its second anniversary in October. The club has two rooms with DJs, and a game room with coin-operated pool tables in the back; membership is required. The smaller side has a bar, widescreen TV and a small raised dance floor with colored lights underneath (a remnant of one of the locale's seedier past incarnations). If you enjoy kitsch, this is a real plus. The larger side looks more like a vast, unpretentious country bar, with a black and white linoleum tiled dance floor, green Christmas lights and beer signs and a black-light mural that glows with palm trees and the words, LA MARAKA.
Friday is Mexican Night, with traditional Mexican cumbia, quebradita, norteña and more featured in the big room; salsa, merengue and tropical are in the smaller room. DJ Alex moves from the sala to the salon on Saturdays, where he does a super-variety mix of Mexican, Caribbean and American music, while the standard tropical dance repertoire takes over the main stage.
On Saturdays, crowds can reach as much as 600, whereas Fridays, peaking at around 200, are more laid back. Maraka's manager Cesar gives friendly, expert dance lessons for beginning salseros both nights at 10 p.m.
La Maraka could be a real undiscovered gem for Durhamites, especially those seeking contact with local Latino culture who don't want to wander too far from home.