Bachata at the Fringe
Two Years Ago, Baltimore Lost Its Biggest Booster of Latin Music--So Where Does The Hispanic Community Go For Ritmo?
It's Tuesday night in the studios of WEAA (88.9 FM), Morgan State University's public radio station, and Guillermo Brown, the friendly faced host of Fiesta Musical, the city's only Latin-music radio program, is behind the boards. On-air by phone is Izzy Sanabria, an influential New York salsa impresario who in the 1970s was a member of the legendary group Fania.
"I just want to say hello to the people in Baltimore and let them know they should support what you're doing," Sanabria tells Brown. "There's not a lot of people who are doing what you're doing . . . keeping the music alive, really playing the old-school music."
Brown laughs, thanks Sanabria for taking the time to chat, and allows him to put in a plug for his magazine, Salsa, before hanging up and putting on an Eddie Palmieri record. But Brown seems to know that Sanabria is right--especially in Baltimore, keeping Latin music alive is an uphill battle.
As of last year, according to U.S. Census data, there were about 15,000 Hispanics in the city, but some, including Urbanite magazine and the nonprofit Education Based Latino Outreach, have estimated the population closer to 55,000, including undocumented immigrants. Anyway, a brief walk down Broadway in Fells Point or Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown makes it clear that the Latino population is growing. Taquerias, boutiques advertising ropa vaquero and first communion dresses, and bodegas offering cheap phone cards and international money orders have sprung up like wildflowers to replace vacant storefronts or businesses long since closed by the area's original German and Polish immigrant population.
But in Baltimore, finding live Latin music is getting harder rather than easier. It's telling that Fiesta Musical is half in English, half in Spanish, yet claims to be "la voz de la communidad"--the voice of the community. Baltimore has just a handful of clubs--Latin Palace, Babalu Grill, Havana Club--that host Latin dance nights, and only one venue that hosts live music, the 13th Floor at the Belvedere. The yearly LatinoFest, held in Patterson Park and emceed by Brown, drew more than 14,000 paying adults this year to see Eddie Palmieri, the famous Puerto Rican bandleader, and Hermanos Flores, a Salvadoran orchestra, but very few local acts. On Broadway, Latin Palace draws a trendy--and mostly white--crowd to its weekend salsa-dancing classes, and serves paella to the reggaeton clubbing crowd, but rarely hosts live acts. Where, in this growing ethnic community, are the musicians?
"The problem with Baltimore is they just don't get it yet," says Patrick Albán, guitarist and leader of Noche Latina, one of perhaps three bands that perform Latin music in Baltimore regularly. "In Washington, everyone is so much more open."
Albán, 48, moved to Baltimore in 1977 from his home country of Ecuador and taught himself English by watching soap operas. As a child, he entered a church song contest in the city of Guayquíl, not far from his native Quito.
"You were supposed to enter with two songs," he says. "I entered with [a traditional] song I knew everyone liked and one that I wrote the night before. The one I wrote got first place, and the tried and true song came in last."
So started a career of songwriting and performing that brought Albán to Maryland to live near his cousins and study classical guitar for a year at the Peabody Institute. Over the years, Albán has supported himself gigging in Washington and once a month at the 13th Floor, as well as running a variety of businesses, including a sporting goods store and a hair salon. He now lives in Essex, where he says he loves being by the water and cruising in his power boat.
About a month ago, he started booking bands and doing sound work for the 13th Floor, which has staunchly maintained a Latin Night on Saturdays for the past few years. On a recent Saturday night, Albán mixed the levels for Rumba Club, a Baltimore-Washington area institution for more than 20 years stocked with musicians who live mostly in the Washington suburbs, plus a few who teach jazz at Peabody, and which played a set of Latin-jazz standards that would have felt at home in a Havana casino circa 1950.
Noche Latina's latest album, Ojos Verdes, released by Albán's own label, Gabi Records, is a polished, energetic record that features Juan "Cheito" Quiñones and Edwin Bonilla, both members of Gloria Estefan's Miami Sound Machine. Like many American Latin bands, Noche Latina forgoes loyalty to any single genre of music and records salsa, Cuban folk music, and amorphous original songs flavored by South American cumbia rhythms. Albán ignores his own advice and front-loads the record with all-too-familiar covers (the Gipsy Kings' "Bamboleo," Buena Vista Social Club's "Candela") instead of his own tunes, such as "Mi Ecuador" and the title track, which are both excellent songs.
Albán theorizes that the dormant local options for live music probably have something to do with the fact that most of the new arrivals to Baltimore are from Mexico, El Salvador, and the Caribbean, and don't have the roots or the disposable income of the more established Latino communities around Washington.
"The Latino community [in Washington] can afford to go out and spend money," he says. "People around here, they love their bachata"-- the romantic pop music of rural Dominican Republic that is also popular in Central America--"and I just can't do that." The style is one that Albán doesn't have an interest in playing, nor does its audience, in general, have the money to go to clubs to hear it.
Everywhere in Baltimore, if you talk about Latin music, the conversation inevitably touches on José Ruíz, the founder and original host of WEAA's Fiesta Musical, who passed away in 2006. Ruíz was a Lower East Side Nuyorican who fell in love with a girl from Dundalk, whom he met in New York's Washington Square in 1977.
The couple moved to Baltimore shortly after, and Ruíz became the sort of mover and shaker that every community needs. He founded LatinoFest, the two-day ethnic festival in Patterson Park, in 1980 to benefit his nonprofit, Education Based Latino Outreach, which serves Hispanic children through the city school system. Under Martin O'Malley's administration, he headed the Mayor's Office for Hispanic Affairs and served as a liaison between the city and the community. The whole time, music was an important part of his plan to serve the Latino community.
"José was really, really excited about music," his widow, Claire Hollister-Ruíz, says. "He wanted to keep Latin music out in public so it wasn't just in clubs and inaccessible."
Hollister-Ruíz says Latin music in Baltimore has faltered because of a lack of venues and because of a demographic shift. In the 1970s and '80s, Baltimore's Hispanics were Puerto Ricans, but now they are largely Central Americans.
"[Ruíz] was not into bachata music--he was a salsero to the max--but he knew the demographics," Hollister-Ruíz says. Because of Baltimore's strong Central American Latino population, bachata is where the interest is. "[Radio] is how Latin music is going to continue to be heard. You've got to have radio."
Ra%uFFFDl Molina says he always wanted to appear on Ruíz's radio show but never got the chance. Molina is a percussionist, singer, and Colombian immigrant who lives in the heavily Latino portion of Highlandtown, near the Enoch Pratt Free Library branch on South Conkling Street.
He came to Baltimore five years ago following his friend of 25 years, Ángel "Angelito" Macias, a blind pianist whom he used to gig with in Bogotá. For the last year, both men, who are in their mid-50s, have played in a band called Latin Swing, a four-piece specializing in Colombian cumbia, Latin jazz, and Cuban folk music; they perform later this month at the 13th Floor.
"Aquí tiene bastante vinculo de la vida nocturna," Macias says over coffee at a Mount Vernon café. In America "you have a good connection to nightlife."
In Colombia, both men gigged regularly, accompanying big-ticket acts like Celia Cruz, until the government enacted curfew laws that severely restricted the earning potential of working musicians. In America, they have found not only better paychecks but also an active club scene in the region, but, still, primarily Washington.
"For me, I like playing for Americans, because they appreciate you as a talent," Molina says, also in Spanish (neither speaks English). "Generally, we use the word `versatility.' . . . We apply ourselves to all genres of music--jazz, folk music, Colombian music, merengue, salsa."
Their demo CD has five tracks that showcase Macias' strident piano playing, full of neat jazz flourishes that must cover half the keyboard. "Bilongo," a Cuban son song, is driven by forceful piano rhythms and Molina's tasteful tapping of a conga drum, and "Pollera," a cumbia, is more subdued, floating gracefully below Molina's throaty, high-baritone singing.
Without José Ruíz to oil the gears of the community, talented acts like Macias and Molina get lost in the mix. Both are brilliant musicians and have played with talented professionals, but they have to hold down day jobs--Molina selling windshield wipers for an auto-parts wholesaler and Macias teaching private music lessons--to make ends meet.
"No one person could do everything that [Ruíz] did," Guillermo Brown says. "He wanted people who like that music to be able to hear it. . . . He was a figure that just about everyone in the Latino community knew. He was present in so many areas."
As for Brown, he pegs his hopes to Latino children now growing up in Baltimore. "At LatinoFest this year . . . there should have been a high-octane lane for strollers," he says. "I think a lot of parents want children to know: This is your culture, this is your music. . . . It's really a key element to having a vibrant community." H
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