Culture Vulture: Salsa Dura


Bassist Pablo Aslan’s new CD “Piazzola in Brooklyn” is a faithful re-creation of “Take Me Dancing,” Astor Piazzola’s 1959 attempt to fuse jazz and tango in the same way Stan Getz had linked jazz and samba. Unlike Getz’s legendary recordings, “Dancing” bombed and was never heard from again. And while “Piazzola in Brooklyn” is a well-made, well-played outing by musicians who are well-versed in the subject, it’s easy to see why why jazz tango never caught on: Tango dancing is a stylized, over-dramatic metaphor for romance (and, by extension, sex), while samba is basically foreplay set to music. Sure, there are steps to samba, but at the end of the day, it’s all about shaking it up and shaking it down, and in the pre-sexual revolution days of the ’50s, jazz samba let you heat up and stay cool at the same time.

Fast-forward (or, in this case, reverse) to the MASS MoCA dance party on Saturday, November 5. As usual, my favorite art oasis pulled out all the stops to bring their patrons totally into the experience – not only booking a monster headliner in the Brooklyn big-band juggernaut La Excelencia, but also bringing in Don Polite and Ebryonna Wiggins from Williams College’s Latin-dance group Ritmo Latino to show everyone how to salsa-dance properly.

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The foundation of salsa dancing is simple: Three steps and pause, three more steps and pause. But the devil’s in the details, as Polite and Wiggins amply proved, because while the narrative portion of their presentation tended to drone, their demonstrations of various moves showed that salsa dancing can be the most fun you can have without getting busted. Those audience members who didn’t get their instructions completely got help from the more accomplished dancers in the crowd. Even those who didn’t get it (or couldn’t get it) kept at it, and laughed all the way through it, because there’s such a sense of joy, a feeling of letting all the bullshit go for one evening, one hour or even just one moment.

Now, understand, this was not a salsa dance party – this was a salsa dura dance party! Salsa dura (or “hard salsa”) comes at you strong and fast, literally demanding that you get up and dance. As La Excelencia’s lead vocalist Gilberto Velasquez put it, “This is an interactive show! We want to see you dancing!” This music takes no prisoners and has no truck with the over-played love songs that dominate the Latin sub-genre salsa romantica. Even when La Excelencia was doing songs about the battles immigrants face (“American Sueno”) or musically indicting this country’s financial stratification (“Unidad”), there were oceans of passion, but not a drop of sadness or self-pity.

Seeing Velasquez sing was like watching someone act out everything in his world so you’ll understand why he feels the sway he does, whether it’s about social injustice or just about the way this music affects him and the monster players backing him up. We’re talking an 11-piece beast with four killer horns that’ll knock you down until you stay down, and three percussionists who ended the show by going out to the middle of the dance floor and holding an inverted drum circle: Conguero/band co-founder Jose Vasquez-Cofresi played an amazing solo while the entire crowd gathered around him.

La Excelencia is a force – a real kick in the ass, both for their genre of music and for anyone who takes the time to listen to them. Unfortunately, there are people who have problems watching them: Traditionalists in the salsa community have made a point of attacking La Excelencia – not for their music, but for their insistence on wearing sneakers and street clothes onstage, instead of the fancy suits and shoes that have become synonymous with the genre. (It’s laughingly similar to the criticism Miles Davis got for not making his band wear uniforms during their concerts; Davis’ answer was to wheel a rack of uniforms onstage, and then telling the audience, “We’ll be leaving now, so you can enjoy these nice uniforms.”)

La Excelencia may play “traditional” music, but they don’t approach it in a traditional way, because that was then and this is now. And in the end, it’s not about what the band wears; it’s about what the band plays, and whether they light that spark that makes you want to take your partner out onto the middle of the dance floor and let it all hang out.

La Excelencia does that in no uncertain terms. End of argument, end of rant.

Story by J Hunter

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