The Davis Baking Co. in Durham's Lakewood district, with its striking facade mural and old neon sign, has been a landmark for decades: It was a piece goods store, a grocery and a barbershop before the Davis Company took over. Today, its transformation into the Panaderia Chicho Mexican Tienda and Bakery symbolizes the cultural changes spreading across the Triangle. It's just one of many Mexican-owned stores that sell everything from piñatas and spices to pre-paid phone cards, clothing and CDs. Responding to the demand, Don Jose, the oldest line of tiendas in Durham, recently added a music store on Avondale (near the mall) that doubles as a pool hall. Many Latin stores, like La Casita Amarilla (on Durham's Hillsborough Street), also rent videos, many of them with great soundtracks: You can find anything from Pedro Infante's singing cowboy movies to a mambo noir gangster film featuring Perez Prado and his Orchestra.
Flea markets are also major outlets for record buyers from Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela, Colombia, or the Dominican Republic looking for sounds of their homeland. Florentino Valencia and his brother Amado sell Latin tapes and CDs at the flea market near Burlington, as well as in their Durham store, Valencia Records (on Guess Road near Broad). The brothers, lured by Durham's low business costs and underserved market, recently relocated from Brooklyn, where they worked the record business for many years.
They also run Valencia Promotions, which books local talent and live acts for clubs and private parties. The Mexican name for a DJ who "has-sound-system/will-travel" is a "sonidero," and Valencia has booked some of Mexico's best-known sonideros into The Ritz and other area venues. Sonidos like "La Changa" from Mexico City draw fans to Raleigh from as far away as Atlanta and West Virginia. The best way to find out about these shows (which run in the $20 range) is to go to the nearest tienda and look for printed flyers in the windows. If you speak Spanish, you can also catch concert ads on local Spanish AM-radio stations K-Pasa (1030) and K-Buena (1300).
With the Triangle home to an expanding Latino market, mainstream stores have begun to cater to the needs of Latin music consumers. Big discount chains like Circuit City and Best Buy have some of the largest Latin music CD sections, heavily weighted toward popular Mexican artists and genres, while Millennium and more upscale chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders have a World Music orientation that's geared more to crossover audiences. Generally the smaller, independently owned stores stock quality over quantity in the world music niche. Most of these will place special orders for you, but they may have difficulty hooking up with the distributors for some Latin labels. If you're trying to build a serious record collection, traveling to other metropolitan areas and shopping on the Internet remain important resources.
Meanwhile, college radio provides some alternative Latin music programming without the ads and reverb of the AM stations. Every Wednesday night from 6 to 8 p.m., WXDU (88.7) airs "Azucar y Candela," a show of hard salsa and Afro-Cuban roots (hosted, in the interests of disclosure, by yours truly). WSHA (88.9) broadcasts its Latin show most Saturday nights from 6 to 9 p.m., while two Sunday-night shows go back to back, 4 to 6 p.m. on WKNC (88.1) followed by "Rice and Beans" from 6 to 8 p.m. on WNCU (90.7).
From the toddlers to the great-grandmothers, music in Latino communities is inextricably bound up with a lively dance culture. As immigrants bring their traditions, professional instructors are making Latin social dancing a part of the Triangle's musical vocabulary. Among these are James and Milton Cobo, New York-bred brothers who host dance workshops at Triangle Dance Studios once a month. Back from a recent trip to Europe where they taught salsa moves to Londoners, the Cobos' January workshop in Durham attracted over 100 students to learn mambo and salsa techniques. A typical student at the daylong session was Karen Sweeney, a physician's assistant who first traveled to Cuba to study their health care system, but came back with salsa in her blood. Having recently dipped her toes into the New York scene, she came to the workshop to get more tips on New York-style "on 2" mambo (danced on the second beat of the measure, unlike most salseros who move "on 1"). Other area dance schools offer regular salsa classes in a range of styles and specialties, including "rueda," a Cuban ring dance popular in Miami and featured in the film Dance With Me.
If dancing isn't enough for you, you can tap directly into the healing power of the drum. The Triangle supports a growing scene of students and professional musicians in traditional West African djembe and Afro-Cuban percussion styles. Beverly Botsford, a touring musician with jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon, has taught percussion locally and recently spearheaded (with the help of the Carrboro ArtsCenter, the Kenan Foundation and Duke's Music and Dance Departments) Michael Spiro's Durham visit. Spiro, a renowned educator and expert in the field of Afro-Cuban drumming, uses bells, hoeblades, shekeres (hollow gourds with beaded skirts), batá "talking" drums and congas to invoke the Yoruba gods (orishas). Botsford intends to offer her own conga workshop again in April; beginning and intermediate drummers can express preliminary interest via e-mail (
Live music continues to proliferate in a variety of styles. Mariachi are the archetypal "for hire" wandering troubadours, and Carolina-based musicians traverse the state playing gigs from store openings to midnight serenades. Triangle-based salseros Samecumba have performed recently at Durham's Spartacus Restaurant (near South Square Mall), Tiffany's in Raleigh, and Patio Loco in Chapel Hill, while La Hacienda on N.C. 15-501 (at the Lowe's plaza) hosts a mariachi quartet every Sunday during dining hours. Andrés, the group's gray-haired fiddler, used to play trumpet in a mambo band in his native Nayarit before switching genres and instruments to play ranchera in the States. With violin, trumpet, guitarron (oversized bass guitar) and requinto (small guitar), the four men wander from table to table singing for diners, finally serenading the kitchen staff when their shift is over.
At $300 an hour, Mariachi Nuevo Michoacan will rent their services for private events such as wedding receptions and "Quinceñeras," the traditional coming-of-age party scheduled for a Mexican girl's 15th birthday. Somewhat resembling a debutante ball, Quinceñeras typically combine low-brow hospitality with high-brow presentation, as the birthday girl herself, in lacy finery, serves beer, Faygo, and warm tortillas to her guests. Live bands play cumbia, norteña, and valse, along with quebradita covers of obscure '60s rock tunes for dancers decked out in a combination of prom elegance and rodeo chic.
In upcoming concerts, salsa dura trombonist Jimmy Bosch plays Duke on Feb. 28, while N.C. State hosts Lila Downs, the mesmerizing Mexican-American folk singer, on March 23. The next Cobo Brothers workshop takes place Feb. 23 at Montas Lounge, and check with local restaurants to see what nights they feature live music. Come summer, all you'll have to do is roll down your windows at stoplights and you're likely to hear strains of bachata, cumbia and ranchera mixed in with the asphalt symphony of rave, twang, hip hop, metal, classical, and indie rock. And what a lovely cacophony it is.