After Dark: Are you Havana good time yet?
Saturday 14 March 1998
London is often criticised for failing to offer enough variety - "it's all bland house" goes the standard criticism - but if you're willing to scratch the surface, the capital always comes up with the goods.
The number of venues showcasing Latin dance music has grown steadily over the last five years to the point where fans now have an excellent choice of venues.
"When you usually go to a mainstream club, everyone's roughly the same age and wearing the same clothes," says Rochelle Cohen from Salsa in Charing Cross Road. "Latin clubs are completely different - you'll see people from the ages of 15 to 50, as well as Brazilians, Cubans and lots of other South Americans."
Salsa is a bar, a restaurant and dancehall with a Latin cantina feel. Patrons can hear live music on every night of the week. The events on week-nights, like El Mas Latino on Mondays, attract an authentically Latin American crowd while the weekends see a more cosmopolitan contingent.
The main difference that attracts people to salsa is the social vibe. Many promotions offer lessons at the beginning of the night before everyone does their own thing. Dancing with friends, or complete strangers, is part of the scene.
Chris Greenwood has been promoting Latin music since 1989 after becoming converted while DJing in New York. On returning to London, he started Pachanga, one of the first promotions to play Latin music without diluting it with jazz or other western rhythms.
His promotional CV now includes the Havana chain and Bar Cuba. "Latin music is pure escapism and conjures up visions of sunshine," he enthuses. "It's a social thing that everyone can take part in.
"The dancing looks difficult but you just have to get your head around the rhythm. It's not a basic four/four rhythm, so when people get out of the "areeba, reeba" fake flamenco thing, and get used to the syncopated rhythm, it becomes easy."
Cuba offers classes from Monday to Thursday and attracts a strong, well- dressed South American crowd. Cuba, Havana and Salsa are owned by London's Capital Radio, and the success of the clubs means that there are plans to open new Havanas in Glasgow and Manchester.
Far from attracting a specialist bunch, salsa clubs are tempting more and more clubbers away from mainstream house nights for more exotic rhythms.
As with many clubbing trends, London is not the first city in the UK to adopt this musical genre. The salsa scene in many northern cities has been well-established for years. Salsa enjoys a huge following in Manchester and many top salsa bands play there without even coming to London.
However, the capital's appetite for salsa, merengue, son, rumba, mambo and lambada looks set to increase and there are new venues springing up regularly - such as Little Havana. It offers Cuban/ Caribbean cuisine in addition to groovin' live Latin beats.
Admission prices are usually cheaper than mainstream clubs and consequently most venues attract enough patrons to open seven days a week. Chris Greenwood isn't surprised by Salsa's appeal to regular clubbers. "Disco music originally came from Latin music, but house is simply the disco of the 1990s," he contends. "There's always been Latin percussion in many clubs and many top house DJs, like David Morales, Kenny Dope Gonzales and Roger Sanchez have Latin roots and influences.
"Latin is the world music at the moment. The more people hear the music and listen to live musicians, the more popular it will become."
Cuba, 11 Kensington High Street, W8 (0171-938 4137)
Salsa, 96 Charing Cross Road, WC2 (0171-379 3277)
Little Havana, 1 Leicester Place, WC2H (0171-287 0101)
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