[11 December 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
What things come to mind when you encounter the words “Bay” and “Area”? I’ll give you my short list of associations—seafood markets, animals hanging out at the piers, Alcatraz, questionable punk rock and Charlie Hunter’s neatly trimmed beard. The amount of time I’ve spent in California doesn’t amount to a full month, so perhaps I can get the benefit of the doubt by not including Salsa music on my list of Bay Area associations. But according to a keeper of the Salsa flame like trombonist and arranger Wayne Wallace, the Puerto Rican and Cuban twists on jazz music that have flourished within San Francisco have been ignored for a little too long. That’s why Wallace and filmmaker Rita Hargrave have recently teamed up to put Bay Area Salsa on the musical map, her with the film The Last Mambo and him with the double album Salsa de la Bahía. WIth 22 tracks clocking in at two hours, this is a party soundtrack. Put your playlist on repeat and I guarantee you that none of your guests will notice or mind that they’re hearing the same songs again.
Salsa music can do that. It has a melting effect that intellectual jazz usually lacks, one that stems from a pinch of soul and spoonfuls of rhythm. The liner notes for Salsa de la Bahía paint a brief historical picture of San Francisco Salsa, tracing origins to a club called Cesar’s Little Palace, owned by Cesar Ascarrunz. It was the kind of place where everyone felt welcome, even those too young to drink. From there, other clubs sprouted up and stayed in business thanks to the dancing patrons that frequented them.
The musicians themselves made very little money (an all too familiar story), but that didn’t stop their desire to bring the music to the people who loved to dance to it. Salsa de la Bahía‘s roster is full of people who are veterans of the ‘70s Salsa boom or were coming of age as it was happening, including Avance, Anthony Blea y Su Charangam, John Calloway, Jesus Dian y su QBA, Edgardo y Su Candela, Estrellas De La Bahia, La Moderna Tradición, Louie Romero y Su Grupo Mazacote, John Santos and the Machete Ensemble in addition to his own sextet, Benny Velarde y Su Super Combo, Orestes Vilató and Vission Latina. If many of these names are new to you, don’t sweat. They all have their own miniature bios inside Salsa de la Bahía‘s liner notes. For instance, if Tito Puente had worn a crown, the very brief write-up of Orestes Vilató has me convinced that he probably would have inherited it upon Puente’s death.
Salsa de la Bahía doesn’t stop at rump shaking. Wallace himself boasts that “...there’s at least five layers of complexity that you can get into.” And although you probably can’t count these layers just from quick listening, the gist of what he’s saying comes through on John Calloway’s groovy noodle-scratcher “Montuno Pa la Flauta”. Favoring dynamic and rhythmic shifts, it’s hard to imagine people’s hips going nuts to a track such as this. But if I were you, I’d take that away as a selling point for Salsa de la Bahía. Both CDs are front-loaded with the cha-chas, mambos and hard dancing numbers meant to burn up the hardwood floors. Orquesta la Moderna Tradición’s delightfully light “Soy Matancero” sounds like a break from those floors, a chance for everyone to catch their breath and chat with one another.
That makes sense. Wallace assures listeners that Salsa de la Bahía, in addition to being a “tremendous party record”, has introverted fans in mind as well— those who want to “kick back and dissect it”. Considering that this is a double album stuffed with 22 songs and a considerable amount of subtle talent, that’s the most anyone can ask for.