There's something deeply comforting about the timelessness of Afro-Cuban music (the culinary term salsa, meaning sauce, is a disputed one which has managed to stick to the pan). It's a form as intricately conventionalised as masonic ritual, with a place for everyone and everyone is his place.
There's a fair bit of masonry involved in the construction of the music, too. Deep footings of bass and percussion support melodic walls formed by the piano's rippling triplets and parps of trombone and baritone sax, while the whole rhythmic edifice rises to the heights through trilling vocals and the click and clack of things shaken and stirred. High-note trumpet blasts form the shingles on the roof. Once built, the satisfyingly cartoonish shack seems to pulse and breathe in time to the the three-step clave beat. It's a hell of a job and if you're not dancing already, you have to stand back and admire the handiwork.
As salsa bands go, the 13-piece Spanish Harlem Orchestra - touring England for the Arts Council-backed Music Beyond the Mainstream network - is the real deal.
Named after the uptown Manhattan neighbourhood out of which the great waves of expatriate Afro-Cuban styles such as Boogaloo emerged in the Sixties, and led by the rather scholarly figure of the composer, pianist and arranger Oscar Hernandez, the Latin Grammy-winning orchestra plays an impeccably schooled and authentic summary of the governing trends in the music. It's still music for dancers - and the hall's front stalls had been removed to accommodate a hefty rump of salsa-class aficionados - but you can actually listen to it too.
If the orchestra had a failing, it was that of being - unusually for a salsa band - too tasteful, and too controlled. Even the marvellously florid trio of male vocalists led by Ray De La Paz was less hysterical than one might have wished, and a long performance without an interval allowed the pace to slacken.
In an absolutely thrilling encore, where the band really did go wild, with solos that looked truly impassioned rather than a little over-rehearsed, the musical shack began to vibrate with joy. A little more caliente was all it took.Reuse content