It takes toucan to salsa

Tomorrow's Salsa Ball at Olympia should be the biggest British event in the dance's 25-year history. But are we ready for it? Philip Sweeney looks at past salsa slip-ups and profiles the stars of the latest attempt to turn London Latin
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The Independent Culture
When the history of Latin music in London comes to be written, will the weekend of 21 September 1996 go down as an occasion of tropical splendour and alegria, or one of weeping, gnashing of maracas, and rending of bank statements? For the last few weeks, an advertising campaign across London - Spectrum Radio and Jazz FM, Time Out and the Latin clubs - has been enjoining punters to "dance with the gods in Olympia" tomorrow, and at least 3,000 will have to oblige if the pounds 70,000 budget of the Salsa Ball is to be recouped. With a total capacity of 5-6,000 in the giant hall, and the importation of two top salsa singers, plus their full orchestras, this is the most ambitious British event in the 25-year lifespan of the salsa genre. Its instigators are three London promoters (an original fourth lost his sauce bottle and dropped out), who were encouraged by the tremendous boom in salsa clubs and classes to try to emulate one of the really big events (with a bill of several top bands) that are a common occurrence across Latin America.

If certain indicators are favourable (recent London concerts by the Colombian Toto La Mompasina and the Venezuelan Orlando Watussi were extremely well attended), the track record of London salsa promotion is, none the less, erratic.

To recap: Londoners were introduced to live salsa in 1975, a few years after the term came into popular usage to describe the tough new blend of Puerto Rican and Cuban dance music emerging primarily from the New York Latin barrios. Island Records, who put out early UK compilations of music from the seminal New York Fania label, backed concerts by the Fania All Stars (sell-out at the Lyceum) and the doomed star vocalist Hector Lavoe (a succes d'estime in front of an invited audience of 300 rock critics and cognoscenti at the Nashville pub). Subsequent high points included a series of rip-roaring gigs by the salsa queen Celia Cruz and an ecstatic 3,000 strong audience for the veteran Puerto Rican Gran Combo at Brixton Academy, aided by the presence of the growing population of London Colombians.

But each of these successes had its counterpoint. In 1981, a decade before his descent into drugs, defenestration from a Puerto Rican hotel and finally death, Hector Lavoe - one of America's most prestigious singers - played to a mere 80 people in the Charlotte Street club Sol y Sombra. Three years ago, the Gran Combo refused to go on stage at the Empire, Leicester Square, when the promoter couldn't come up with their fee in advance, and the event was abandoned in chaos, with those audience members who did turn up not receiving refunds.

The key to avoiding such scenes is, clearly, securing adequate financial backing and good publicity. The Salsa Ball's cost has been underwritten by over a dozen supporting entities, including the Cuban rum distillers, Havana Club, successful Latin American theme catering operations like Islington's Cuba Libre, Kensington's Cuba and Bar Rumba in Shaftesbury Avenue. There are also several anonymous individual investors who will presumably want to remain anonymous if they make a profit just as much as if they lose out, in view of the undoubted inclusion of Inland Revenue staff among the new ranks of Surbiton salseros. As for publicity, which is the responsibility of Dominique Roome, operating as Salsa Boogie Productions, it's essential to cover all bases. This means not only 40,000 Time Out inserts, ads in the national press and lobbying for TV guest spots, but also intensive leafleting at the Sunday Colombian football league pitches in Clapham and Lambeth.

A further key to success is, of course, the choice of artists. Even if many of the new Anglo-salsa converts seems oblivious to the details of who they're listening to as long as they can show off their brand-new footwork, the Colombians do discriminate, as does the hard core of serious London Latin fans.

For this dual audience, an intelligently tempting bill has been assembled. First on board, chronologically, was the Puerto Rican born sonero Tito Gomez, a second rank star globally, but one of solid quality and of especial interest to the Colombians. Born in 1948, Gomez started his career with one of the great classic bands, the Sonora Poncena, and went on to figure among the founders of New York salsa and the Fania label. He and Ruben Blades, subsequently one of the most famous of all salseros, shared lead vocals as relative newcomers in the band of Fania lynchpin, Ray Berreto. In 1986, the vicissitudes of the music business saw Gomez recruited as lead singer to Grupo Niche, the influential star band from Colombia's salsa capital, Cali, with whom Gomez made his London debut at Camden Town Hall three years later, wearing, according to eye witnesses, a woolly tank-top as opposed to the shocking pink double-breasted zoot suit in which he adorns the salsa Ball posters. Gomez's plaintive voice became a trademark of Grupo Niche, which is why he's still of great interest to the Colombians. Luckily, he was about to embark on a European tour, and was offered around by his management at just about the time, two months ago, that Ramiro Zapata and Zinia Zendehdel of Tropicana Productions, the second of the three promoters, were broaching the idea of a grand salsa ball.

For the second band, the organisers went for solid headline quality, in the form of the orchestra of Jose Alberto Justiniano, aka Jose Alberto, aka "El Canario" on account of both the sweetness of his voice and his gift for mimicking flutes and bird-call, though his speciality is not, in fact, the canary, but the strident toucan, salsa's answer to the jackdaw.

A decade younger than Tito Gomez, Jose Alberto has none the less an equally impeccable deep salsa pedigree, having joined the prestigious Tipica 73 group in 1977, shortly after arriving in New York, via Puerto Rico, from his native Dominican Republic. A dozen years of solo career were crowned last year by an album On Time, which went gold last month, and still features heavily on club turntables in New York and London - it's pretty much a textbook demonstration of current, hard, state-of-the-art salsa.

Here, at the heights of tracks like "A la Hora que me Llamen Voy" and "Celia", you get the business. A solid, plodding, anticipatory bass pinning down a clatter of percussion, tumbling piano arpeggios, smooth, powerful blasts of brass, rich with trombones and abrasive with baritone sax, a spine-tingling chanted male chorus set against Jose Alberto's agile voice. "Celia" is a tribute to the great Celia Cruz - "Para ti, mi reina, para ti!" ("For you, my queen, for you") El Canario calls out over the instrumental mambos - and on another track, the diva Cruz guest duets, adding her trademark whipping-on cry "Azucar!" (Sugar!) to the mix.

The co-operation with Celia Cruz, the jewel in the crown of impresario Ralph Mercado, the don king of salsa, is both a sign of Jose Alberto's success, and a contributory factor to it. In 1988, five years after forming his own group, El Canario signed to Mercado's newly formed record label, RMM, the contemporary equivalent to the pioneering 1970s Fania. He was immediately used by Mercado as an alternative backing band to the orchestra customarily put together by the veteran Tito Puente to accompany Celia Cruz. In 1988, El Canario made his UK debut at the Hammersmith Palais backing Cruz, and fortunate spectators recall one of the best - some would say the best - London salsa gigs ever, with Jose Alberto's band supplying a mixture of deference and fire that inspired Cruz to her absolute heights.

If Jose Alberto excels as a hard, old school sonero, he also covers the other strand, salsa romantica, so much derided by hard-core fans who refer to it as "salsa monga" (limp salsa). In 1980, directed by the band leader and producer Louie Ramirez and the arranger Isidro Infante, Jose Alberto was lead singer on an album called Noche Caliente, which pioneered the idea of mainstream romantic ballads set to a light salsa orchestration, and thus ushered in salsa romantica. Lovers of this tendency should check out El Canario's contribution to the recent RMM multi-artist album, Tropical Tribute to the Beatles, for which Ralph Mercado paired Jose Alberto with "Mi Gran Amor le Di", otherwise known as "And I Love Her", to rather pleasant effect.

After a series of unsuccessful attempts to get El Canario on the phone at RMM's Broadway offices between his return from Peru and his departure for Europe, I spoke to Isidro Infante, newly appointed musical director of the Mercado organisation. Infante is a veteran of the complicated business of staging big salsa shows, from 25,000 audience festivals at Madison Square Gardens to 3,000 capacity clubs like the Copacobana, or Mercado's own Latin Quarter. "Basically you've got to be very organised, especially in the money department," Infante said. "Sometimes you get promoters who kind of improvise on the day, and that's no good." For artists, it can be an advantage though. "That's one of Jose Alberto's major qualities. A lot of young artists now are very methodic, they study and practice hard and they always render their material on stage in exactly the same way. Jose Alberto is one of the few old school improvisers." "And as a person to work with?" I probed, antennae alert for any hint of mambo scandal - egomania, serial substance abuse, incipient tyranny. "A sweetheart," Infante said.

This should be music to the ears of Colombian Elder Sanchez, proprietor of Salsoteca Productions, and third member of the promoting cartel, as he heads for Luton Airport to pick up the band tomorrow lunchtime - with the obligatory UK work permits. Potential hitches notwithstanding, the organisers appear enthusiastic and have been inviting celebrity guests, such as the Colombian footballer Faustino Aspirilla. Apparently, Ramiro Zapata has been heard fantasising about ex-Princess Diana, so if you get the feeling that you know the blonde dancing in front of you with three Special Branch men, swigging from a bottle of aguadiente and making toucan calls, you could be right.

n The Salsa Ball, Olympia, London W14 (0171-373 8141) 8pm-3am tomorrow