BUENOS AIRES — In London it's Elephant and Castle. New York has several, including East Harlem. And in Paris, of course, there's the Latin Quarter. Most of the large cities in the United States, Europe and even Asia have at least one Latino neighborhood.
Interestingly enough, there isn't one as such in Buenos Aires, this most European of Latin American capitals. But there are a growing number of salsotecas, salsa clubs that spring up and thrive wherever there are significant concentrations of Colombians, Peruvians and Venezuelans.
Salsa clubs first emerged in New York in the 1970s, when Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans and immigrants from elsewhere in Latin America began to make their rhythms popular with groups like the Fania All-Stars. As the years went by, salsotecas opened in other U.S. cities, as well as in Europe. And these days, they don't just play salsa music. Club goers also shake it to the rhythms of bachata, reggaeton and merengue.
Salsa is truly taking hold in Buenos Aires — Photo: El Nuevo Dia, Jose L. Cruz Cande/GDA/ZUMA
In Buenos Aires, a city famed for its own music and dance tradition — the tango — about 15 or so salsa clubs have opened in the past decade. Among the first was Caracas Bar (Guatemala 4802), which opened in 2009, before Colombians and Venezuelans had a noticeable presence in the city. In fact, its first customers were mostly Argentines, some of whom had lived in Venezuela and wanted a place to recall old times.
Its Venezuelan manager and bartender, Félix Ovalles, came to Buenos Aires in 2006, and says the drinks he serve — a mix of rum and fresh fruit juices — "heat you up." He misses home. "You come in here and ask for a drink. Hector Lavoe is playing. You hear the waiters talk, and you're back in your country. You never get over being far from home. Salsotecas are places that heal this wound for a bit. You feel like you are on your way home."
You never get over being far from home. Salsatheques are places that heal this wound for a bit. You feel like you are on your way home.
Keep in mind that for these communities, music is much more important than it is for the average Argentine. In their countries, the day starts with music. It is their morning news bulletin. There is music at the office. Taxis are practically little discos. And on Sundays, it's music all day at home, and loud.
"It's another rhythm of living. We live and die with music, it's inside us," says Hernán Reynoso, better known as DJ Luny's. He arrived in 2006 from Santo Domingo, and has worked in about 10 salsa clubs. Today you'll find him at the Dubai Star Lounge in the San Telmo district. Like Caracas Bar, this place also serves Caribbean food. Sensitive to the Argentine passion for football, many such clubs have giant screens and open even earlier on match nights.
Home away from home
Salsa clubs are increasingly fond of live shows. The Peruvian venue Your Club, in central Buenos Aires, has hosted the Puerto Rican singers Tito Nieves and Maelo Ruíz. More and more are coming to play in Buenos Aires, often arriving alone knowing there will be a local band to play for them.
"You have a sense of opening the door and finding people you don't know but who have the same tastes and similar conditions to yours. They too miss their home, music and food. Many come alone. It's like a meeting place for compatriots," says barman Ovalles
León Newton is Cuban. He came to Buenos Aires 20 years ago and began making a living giving salsa classes. Over the years and with a few trips to and from Cuba, he felt the city lacked an exclusive Cuban salsa joint. Tired of listening to just one or two of the best known songs from his country, in 2011 he opened El Toque Cimarrón (Perú 571), which on Fridays becomes Fanía Funché, a musical event and venue catering for Colombians and Venezuelans.
"I knew there was a public that loved Cuban salsa, and I devoted myself just to that," says Newton. "El Toque Cimarrón is a project to revalue Cuban music. We want to give it the heat it has and has lost due to misinformation."
Dancing is the most important thing, by far. Followed by meeting people and seduction.
Like Havana's best salsa clubs, El Toque has live bands playing every night. That's how Cuban salsa emerged, says Newton — "for the people." Argentine customers abound, and the place may have inspired quite a few of the habitués to travel to Cuba. "The atmosphere is like the Argentine tango club. The gentlemen stand up, approach women and invite them to dance," he adds. "Dancing is the most important thing, by far. Followed by meeting people and seduction."
For DJ Luny's, there are two types of places in Buenos Aires: regular clubs that play salsa — and tend to attract Argentines in the their 40s or above who "come to practice" what they are learning in salsa classes; and salsotecas, where people can find "the real essence of salsa."
The majority of the people in salsotecas are foreigners, DJ Luny's explains. But some Argentines go there as well, especially younger people who are drawn to the music or just because they're curious. It's ike a cultural excursion, a way to try new foods and experience something totally different.
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