art is a war 34

Salsa music came out of New York City in the 1970s and is based on Cuban music, particularly the son montuno style innovated by Arsenio Rodriguez, which added a horn section to the typical three drum arrangement and call and response choruses.  With additional elements of Puerto Rican vocal stylings and jazz, salsa became a hot ticket, something of a catch-all phrase for Latin music in general.  The Fania label was created to cater to this niche, and in 1971, the Fania All Stars, a supergroup made up of the best-known artists on the label, managed to sell out Yankee Stadium.  Salsa had arrived.

Since that time, the music has developed into a number of subgenres, such as salsa romantica and pop salsa, and has spread to other countries.  Venezuela, Peru, Mexico, Panama, and Colombia all have their own salsa bands and traditions.  I’d heard that Cali is the capital of Salsa, and since I was there, hoped to learn more about it.  A Google search revealed a salsa museum that I wanted to check out.  When I asked Ace about it, his only comment was that it was in a very bad section of town.  I asked about the women folk guitarists I remembered from my last visit, and he confirmed that Loma de Cruz was probably the place to find them.

Since I didn’t have phone service, I scribbled down all the directions I thought I might need and headed out in search of Loma de Cruz, which was a park about two miles away.  Heading in that general direction, I got caught in a labyrinth of street art that eventually deposited me about five blocks south of it.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but Loma de Cruz, with rows of small huts for artisans and vendors, was largely deserted.  There was a pretty good overlook of the city, but no musicians.

Finding the salsa museum required a lot more determination.  I first had to get through the most congested part of the city, often unsure if I was heading north or south.  Not all of the street signs were posted.  When I thought I was close, I went into a small shop to ask if they knew the museum.  Not only didn’t they know it, they also repeated Ace’s warning that it was in a very dangerous neighborhood.  If I really needed to go there, I should take a taxi.

I ignored their warning and kept going, eventually reaching a section of the city where the streets and parks were full of homeless people.  I kept to the busiest street and as I kept walking, decoded the system they use for addresses.  The first number is the cross street and the second is the house number.  When I reached the right cross street, I headed over a few blocks and found the museum, looking no different than any of the surrounding houses, beyond a small sign above the door.

An old man was standing outside the door, and called to his son to come out and speak to me.  Yes.  They were happy to have me as a guest.  There was a small fee for a tour.  The guide would be a young man, Ramone, who gave dance lessons, but also conducted tours when need be.  I was the only visitor. 

Right away I started to take pictures of all the famous musicians on the wall.  The old man called to Ramone and appeared to be upset, pointing in my direction, and shaking his head.  It turned out he was the owner and had personally taken all of the photos in the museum.  He was concerned about copyright issues.  I was told I could take pictures of everything but the photos.  That was OK, although outside of the photos there wasn’t much to take pictures of, a set of drums, a dress that Celia Cruz had once worn, a few records in glass cases.

Ramone only knew a little bit of English.  My Spanish is just OK.  The way he gave the tour was to speak into his phone and then have me read the translation.  It was a bit like the Cone of Silence on the TV show Get Smart, where to protect secret information two cones come down and cover the speakers’ heads, making it so they have to shout.  It was a tedious way to communicate, especially since I understood about seventy percent of what he was saying.

One bit of history that I may have misunderstood, but prefer to remember that way, involves the reason for Cali’s salsa being so much faster than anyone else’s.  Colombia was very isolated for many years because of the perpetual conflict going on.  When records were imported, the players they had access to spun them at an accelerated speed.  They didn’t know any better, so danced accordingly.  When the outside world finally caught up with them, they were regarded as innovators.  That’s the way it goes with art.  Something is imitated so poorly that it becomes a new style.

When the tour was over, I met all three men at the door and took some of their business cards, promising to leave them at the hostel for other travelers.  The museum is one of those best kept secrets that can languish into eternity.

It had been nearly cloudless when I walked into the museum, but now the sky was dark and threatening.  Lightning flashed and the low growl of thunder filled the air.  I had my umbrella tucked in the waistband of my shorts, thinking when I left the hostel, I probably wouldn’t need it.  In a few minutes it wouldn’t be enough.  Lightning and thunder started crashing all around, like mortars striking the earth.  I hurried to get beneath an awning and reached it right when it started to pour.  It was like standing behind a waterfall and didn’t let up. 

I got tired of standing there and dashed to another awning, soaking my shoes in the process.  Now I was in front of a bar, with a few old men and hookers, looking out apathetically at the rain.  The intersection of the street I was on had become a river, at least two feet deep in places.  Cars risked getting stranded by crossing it.  Motorcyclists were knee deep, trying to push their motorcycles through.  When the rain finally let up, I backtracked and headed to a higher neighborhood, eventually making my way back to the hostel, as wet as could be. I never did find the women with the guitars.

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