Trading beauty sleep for salsa

The 6th Annual West Coast Salsa Congress featured dance teams from all over the world such as this couple from Australia.

The 6th West Coast Salsa Congress keeps dancers, music lovers going four days and nights straight with legendary salsa bands and dancers from around the world.

By Laura Tate/Editor

You ever stay up till dawn four nights in a row?

I don’t recommend it unless you can sleep all the days following, and if there’s an activity worth losing one’s beauty sleep.

The one event worth it for me is the West Coast Salsa Congress, in its 6th year, which took place Memorial Day weekend. The congress is a five-day extravaganza of performances, musical shows, dance and musician workshops, and open dancing-puro salsa.

The congress has grown so much that the original venue inside the ballrooms of the Hollywood Casino is no longer big enough to accommodate all the attendees who come from all over the world, including Australia, Japan, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Sweden, the South American countries and more. (“It’s like the United Nations,” a Los Angeles salsero said on opening night as promoter Albert Torres, the man responsible for this event, introduced groups and shouted out to the audience, “Is France here?! How about Puerto Rico?! Spain?” with resounding cheers answering his call.) So, this year, Torres had a “salsa land” built in the parking lot of the Casino, next to the race track, with a huge open-air, tent-covered ballroom floor and stage, and an enclosed tent and stage for the dance performances, as well a smaller outside, covered dance floor, vendor tents and food stations. The evenings on Thursday through Sunday lasted until 4 a.m., and at that hour the dance floor was still full. Security had to shoo us out.

An extraordinary musical lineup was scheduled for this congress.

Johnny Pacheco and His Orchestra with Hector Casanova performed Thursday night. Pacheco, who was born in Santiago de los Caballeros in the Dominican Republic, is a salsa legend who has 10 gold records under his belt and co-created the Fania Records label with Jerry Masucci. In 1968, Pacheco launched the famed Fania All-Stars, which pretty much included any top New York salsa artist of the time either as guests or as a member. Although Pacheco is at least in his 70s and did not take the lead in performing, he is very much in command of his band, which sounded excellent.

Africando played Friday night. In a special award to the group, Torres recognized Africa as being the original root of salsa music. The group was born of a project by producer Ibrahim Sylla, which brought together Senegalese vocalists with New York-based salsa musicians. The audience seemed to appreciate the large group of musicians, begging for one more after they finished their set. And they obliged.

Puerto Rico’s Roberto Roena Y Su Apollo Sound followed Africando

Roena began his career as a dancer and was known as El Gran Bailarin (The Great Dancer). He learned to play the bongos and was soon asked to be part of El Gran Combo, which has been called an “institution” in Puerto Rico’s music history. Roena later formed his own band, Roena y Su Apollo Sound, which created some of the more progressive salsa of the time. He then joined the famed Fania All-Stars in the early ’70s. Most salseros stopped and listened to Roena and his orchestra rather than dance. Special guest Jimmy Bosch joined many of the bands through the nights, adding his spectacular talents on the trumpet.

Johnny Polanco Y Su Conjunto Amistad performed Saturday night. The Los Angeles band is considered one of the best local bands around, and plays regularly on the salsa scene.

Following Polanco, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra played, and true to what people have been saying, they are one great band. The salsa band was winner of the 2003 Latin Billboard Award for “Salsa Album of the Year-Best New Group.” Led by pianist and arranger Oscar Hernandez, Spanish Harlem has performed with singers like Ray De La Paz, Herman Olivera, Frankie Vasquez (another special guest to the congress) and musicians such as Ruben Rodriguez and Bobby Allende.

The finale for band lineups was El Gran Combo De Puerto Rico. But first, the amazing Japanese group, Nora and Orchestra De La Luz, played the first part of Sunday evening. This group has been called “one of the best salsa bands to ever come out of Japan.” Its horn section is amazing, and singer Nora engaged the audience with not only her voice but also her bright personality.

El Gran did not take the stage till almost 2 a.m. and its first song disappointed-one of its most popular ones,”Me Libere.” The backup was the problem, singing out of tune. But the band quickly regained respect launching into more favorites with energy and preciseness that belied the band members’ ages. The group hit the salsa scene in the early sixties and has included some of the greatest salsa talent in the world.

In between band acts, dance performances took place in the tent next door. A favorite was the group from Italy, whose number Thursday night had them dressed in silver space costumes, with silver spiked hair. They started out standing, but moving to sounds that indicated they were landing a ship. Then they launched into a perfectly synchronized hip-hop dance, segueing into salsa.

Most groups start out with a theme including costumes and pop music, then launch into a salsa routine. These groups begin working on their routines even before the present congress ends. They’re picked out of hundreds of applicants for afternoon and evening performances. And they do it for free-for the love of salsa and dancing.

The one performance team that really made me smile was the Mambo Kids from Puerto Rico. The six children, whose ages seemed to range from 7 to 11, danced as well or even better than many of the adult professionals, especially one boy dancing in the middle, who looked the youngest of the group. This young boy enjoyed dancing so much, and danced so well, one couldn’t help be caught up in the joy of his performance.

There were more than a few hundred performances, too many to list here or note, but there certainly is a vast amount of-and untapped-talent out there in the salsa scene.

Alas, the congress had to end, leaving us tired yet extremely happy. I’m already planning for next year.

But first, I’ve got to catch up on my sleep.