Rhythm is King

Dario y Su Combo Rican at Miguel's La Bodega

Dario y Su Combo Rican at Miguel's La Bodega

photograph by John Carrico

It's Saturday night and the joint is jumping -- all rhythm, brass, and swiveling hips. Things are usually a bit quieter at Borinquen, the cozy south-side cocina known for Puerto Rican home cooking: pernil asado, tostones, arroz con gandules. Come Saturday night, however, and the Congress Avenue eatery shucks the chef's apron for a silk slip and dancing shoes, forgetting all about the clock on the wall. Come Saturday night, clave is king and "never let them see you sweat" is a foreign sentiment. This is about salsa and merengue, merengue and salsa, and before the night is through, a small army of dedicated dancers damn near wear a groove in Borinquen's red-brick floor, their kicks and curves invested with a decidedly Latin sashay.

Fuel for the fire is provided by La Clave, a Killeen-based 10-piece that takes its name from Latin America's signature five-note count, a syncopated snatch of rhythm known stateside as the Bo Diddley beat, backbone of such classics as "Who Do You Love," "Not Fade Away," and "Iko Iko." La Clave's piano, percussion, and horns are infested with a rhythm that's movolatin' music -- which is not a bad idea either, if you want to work off some of those deep-fried botanitas Borinquen's serving up to every wag with a paper plate.

Papo Lopez' galloping piano announces another number, making dancers eye each other suggestively, and before the singing even starts, the floor is crowded with eager couples dancing closely. Elizabeth Ramos stands in the doorway and smiles sagely. Together with her husband Joaquin, she's run Borinquen for nine years, and in that time she's seen her share of salsa.

"Your body just sways to the music," she says in the relative quiet of a set break. "You really don't have to dance fancy or nothing like that. If you just listen to the music, you can feel the music, and move your body in a certain way."

Certain way? Some of those moves in there could make a fella blush. We're talking eye to eye, cheek to cheek, mons to mons.

"It's hard to just sit there to that music and not move anything," shrugs Ramos. "And if you don't, you're dead."

Mambo Redd at El Sol y La Luna

Mambo Redd at El Sol y La Luna

photograph by John Carrico

Latin music. Samba, salsa, merengue. Tango, son, vals. Mariachi, mambo, folk. Everything "south of Tejano," in John Wheat's words. A vast stretch of land, home to a vast store of music, and more of it played on Austin stages than ever before. Why? Is it the triumph of world beat, the celebrated death of rock & roll? Wheat doesn't seem to care. He's popping out small drumbeats on the table in front of him, in deep pursuit of some elusive rhythmic truth. It's a maddening habit of your more animated Latin musicians, a plague even, this constant hammering, this overwhelming need to release the inner beat.

Ti-tu-tu-ka-tu-tu-ka. That rhythm, says Wheat, ti-tu-tu-ka, is a "reverse clave" (tu-tu-ka), which promotes a "willowiness" (ti-tu-tu-ka) in the music (tu-tu-ka). This, presumably, is what makes you drum on tables. Or shake your can. Wheat should know. A sound archivist and crack musicologist at UT's Center for American History, he's also a longtime percussionist for local Latin musical troupe Toqui Amaru, as well as the Afro-Brazilian ensemble Sambaxe. He's also the founder and a 10-year veteran of KUT's Horizontes, the undisputed heavyweight champion of local Latin radio programming. In one way or another, he's had his thumbs in Austin's Latin music scene for better than 20 years.

When Wheat first started broadcasting Horizontes in 1975, KUT's Latin collection was a little thin. Although he supplemented the station's library with his own collection (culled from years of travels in Central and South America), he admits to scraping the bottom of the barrel, repeating a lot of material and desperately combing the racks of local record shops for new LPs. Success was rare, but he hopes those first few years helped open some Austin ears to tropical sounds.

Not all ears tuned to Horizontes were local, however. By the Seventies, UT boasted a sizable Latin population. Venezuelans, for one, were here in force, the product of an oil boom that had their government sending them to Austin to study petroleum engineering; Brazilians were here also, part of an active exchange program; and the university's Institute of Latin-American Studies was drawing a diverse crowd of Latins and interested gringos alike. Demand for Latin music grew, and the community responded in kind, hosting a series of dances and parties (the first Austin Carnaval was thrown by homesick Brazilians) and an occasional show by the small but earnest folk ensembles that thrived on the fringes of the UT Music Department.

Outside of the university, pickings remained slim. While a few gigging bands had a dash of Latin flavor (the Nash Hernandez Orchestra, Beto y los Fairlanes), and notable touring acts occasionally stopped through town (Paco de Lucia, Inti-Illimani), there was no standing nightclub scene. There was certainly no salsa in town when Willie Santiago, local percussion guru and current skinman for the Brew, first hit town in 1983. A veteran of Puerto Rico's venerated Impacto Crea, Santiago left the fertile fields of San Juan (and later Milwaukee) to find a Texas capital sans salsa. Back then, to hear salsa, you had to go to San Antonio, or better yet, Killeen, where a solid core of Puerto Ricans lived and worked at Fort Hood. (Killeen is still one of the best salsa towns in Texas.) His local options limited, Santiago joined Killeen's La Candela and hit the road as a touring salsa musician, something of an iffy proposition in the Texas of the Eighties.

Nilda de la Llata

Nilda de la Llata

photograph by John Carrico

The first regular Austin gigs came in 1985, when Club Islas opened up on Second and Congress, currently the site of Meneo dance club. Austin's growing Latin community finally had a club to call its own, and as the cornerstone in a four-member house band called Latin Tempo, Santiago could more or less hang up his traveling shoes. Borinquen opened in 1989; a year later Club Islas was re-christened Club Palmeras, and by the time Calle Ocho opened up on Congress in the early Nineties, the Latin scene was firmly established in downtown Austin. The landscape has changed since then; the scene is now anchored by Miguel's La Bodega, an upscale warehouse club on Fourth and Colorado, and neither the sound nor scene show any serious signs of fading.

Austin's airwaves have kept pace. Although Horizontes eventually lost its daily slot (it now airs Fridays from 1-3:30pm), its audience has grown steadily, even as hosting duties have passed from Wheat to Mike Quinn to current host and 11-year veteran Michael Crockett. KOOP's debut on the local radio dial boosted Latin music on the airwaves significantly; currently the station hosts 10 shows featuring Latin music, including programs dedicated solely to the sounds of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Andean folk. KTXZ (AM 1560) plays salsa, merengue, and Rock en Español, while some "south of Tejano" music shows up on KELG (AM 1440) as well. Better still, if John Wheat went trawling through Austin's (better) record stores today, he'd find more than enough Latin music to keep him satisfied. Willie Santiago says he saw it all coming.

"Rhythm," he says, smiling, "is important."

Back at his office in the Center for American History, Wheat agrees; he has moved on from the reverse clave to the "double ratamacue," "the 13 rudiments of drumming," and the much-maligned "paradiddles." His eyes roll back in his head and the beats keep coming. One gets the sense it's best not to bother him.

It's a slow Sunday morning at El Sol y La Luna, the sun falling slantwise on the covered streetside patio of the South Congress restaurant. At one end of the patio, Joey de Lago sits strumming an acoustic guitar while Tito Cuba accompanies him on congas. It's still early -- not yet noon -- and de Lago, coming off something of a late night himself, feels it, not that you'd ever guess from his flying fingers and vocal acrobatics. His repertoire ranges wildly -- from sambas to cha-chas to Thelonious Monk -- but always hews close to the pick of flamenco guitar run through a Latin strainer. It's more rhythm than one can be expected to handle at the crack of noon, but it works. It fits in with the morning like hand in glove: eggs, beans, tortillas, and a bolero on the side. The only question left is whether Nilda can be talked out of her sangria recipe. She can. Sweet heaven.

The Nilda in question is Nilda de la Llata, owner of El Sol y La Luna, the four-year-old South Congress taqueria whose local fame is both wide and just. De la Llata has booked live music at her restaurant from day one and says she couldn't live without it. El Sol features live music Friday and Saturday nights, plus Sunday brunch, with a booking policy that reads as follows: anything Latin. Talk to her about the local house bands -- Centzontle, Correo Aereo, Toqui Amaru, Cula du Cafe, Con Rumba Son, Sazon, and more -- and her speech grows thick with superlatives.

"All the bands are good," she says with enthusiasm. "I love them all. I think they're all wonderful musicians."

Good politics? Perhaps, but with de la Llata, you get the sense she means it. She really does love them all, and one suspects they love her back.

De Lago comes by after his set to talk Latin music. He speaks of a Cuban mother, a Miami childhood, his love of Rodgers & Hart. He introduces Tito Cuba, a Havana-born percussionist whom de Lago calls "Tun-Tun" because his downbeats -- tun-tun -- are always in the right place. He talks of his travels and his bands, most notably Cula du Cafe. Of course, he also talks about clave. Already he's drumming on the tables. Tok-tok-tok-tok-tok.

Watching de Lago tap out the clave with a fork, Cuba sits back and smiles broadly. A relative newcomer to the scene, he's already hit the tun-tun for a veritable who's who of Austin's Latin bands -- from Ta Mère to Cula du Cafe, Con Rumba Son to Dario y Su Combo Rican. Cuba emigrated from Guantanamo in 1993, and after stints in Miami and Las Vegas, he landed in Austin and quickly made a name for himself. Once again, this is a measure of how the Austin scene has changed: In 1983, conga-savant Willie Santiago had to go to Killeen for work; in 1999, Cuba has more offers than he can take.

Miguel's La Bodega

Miguel's La Bodega

photograph by John Carrico

If competition for conga players is the mark of an active scene, Austin is quite alive: The hills are alive with the sound of congas. Run down a list of Austin's Latin bands and you'll come up with more than 20 conga players, a musical roster that stretches from Sonora to Santiago. And there are plenty more Latin combos. Did we mention Mambo Redd yet? Or Cubanobop? Jazz PR? How about Susanna Sharpe, Antonio Dionisio, or Los Romanceros? There are more.

As a matter of fact, the diverse local roster points out the danger in talking about "Latin" music too generally. After all, Latin America is a big region with an awful lot of musical tradition to call its own. Trying to define "Yanqui" music -- from polka to Dixieland to acid rock -- is hard enough, and the same goes, naturally, for the music of Latin America. In Mexico alone, you can find dozens of regional styles; by the time you get to Argentina, "Latin American music" fails to signify anything at all.

Nevertheless, it's a category people use, and use confidently. There are clubs, radio shows, and Web sites devoted to Latin music; when you say "Latin music," people nod knowingly, and tap their feet. It must mean something. The search for the unifying element in Latin music can move quite quickly from geography (5,000 miles' worth) to language (Spanish, Portuguese, or Yoruba?) to import status (salsa was invented in Nueva York) without satisfaction.

Perhaps it's rhythm. Rhythm is king, making up three of the four legs of your average Latin chair. Remember ti-tu-tu-ka? That indomitable swing? Clave!

"Ya gotta respect the clave," says John Wheat.

De Lago's not too sure. He respects the clave, no doubt, but then there are the slow songs, the sad songs, the loping ballads of plebeian beat. He's a tun-tun man, true enough, but there's got to be something else. De Lago and Cuba consult each other, a strenuous conversation that takes place in Spanish.

"The sound has an inherent feel of celebration," de Lago says finally, interpreting and embellishing upon Cuba's words. "It's not about who you are as an individual and the problems and things that you face every day, as much as it is about groups of people coming together for a good time."

A spirit of celebration, then. Whatever the reason, people have been coming together for Latin music in Austin, and when they do, it's a mixed crowd. The average crowd at Miguel's is about half Latin, half not, with the nots running the gamut from Haitians to Pakistanis to, well, Nebraskans. Borinquen leans a little more toward the Latin, but only a little. The audience for Latin radio is similarly integrated, and local dance classes are filled with straight-up gringos itchin' to learn salsa.

"There's a lot of new people coming to the Latin party," says Cuba.

"I think Austinites want to be a part of every part of their community, and not just one corner of it," adds de Lago. "I think to be a Texan or an Austinite or whatever, you have to pick up some Spanish. You have to check out some rodeo, you have to eat some fajitas, you have to bust a piñata, you have to dance a little salsa. Or else you're missing out."

Call it crossover appeal, and if it lasts, Austin will be able to support a wide range of bands on a variety of stages. Some have their doubts, of course, pointing to the muy suave Latin lounge craze that peaked two years ago when the Continental Club featured Cuban music, the Speakeasy and Cedar Street dabbled vigorously in the sound, and a retro-Havana ensemble by the name of Son Yuma was hot, hot, hot. Those days are gone, and some say the dance scene has ebbed, with Latin music moving increasingly into the restaurant scene: El Sol, Curra's, Malaga, Manuel's.

Whether it's fading or not -- and that contention is up for debate -- the Latin dance scene has a core audience that isn't going anywhere. As Austin grows, so does its Latin community, and for that community, salsa, merengue, and the rest are not passing fads but enduring culture. Ebb or flow, through periods of high fashion or low, it's hard to imagine an Austin where the record store racks are empty and the closest salsero is up in Killeen. By all accounts, that's a very good thing. Rhythm is important.

It's early Thursday evening at Malaga bar, and Austin's downtown elite are just rolling in for their first glass of wine and romance. The air is cool, the chatter animated, the tapas elegant, and at bar's end, Teye is thick into one of his nimble-fingered flights of fancy, picking out a trilled flamenco tune on Spanish guitar. His wife, Maria Belén Oliva Bermúdez, pounds out rhythms on the cajón at her feet. Folks listen, talk, and eat. A lovely scene.

Pepa Martinez, one of the two dancers in Teye's troupe, smolders quietly in her chair, clapping passionately and managing to look both engaged and removed. There's a social buzz in the room, but the bar shuts up as one when Martinez climbs up on a stagefront platform and puts her foot down. And picks it up. And put it down. Quickly. It's the traditional flamenco dance, and its rhythm crackles in the still air at Malaga. Takata-takata-takata-TA!

Joaquin and Elizabeth Ramos
Joaquin and Elizabeth
Ramos
photograph by John Carrico

A different sound, yes, and fascinating, but not the thief that stole rock & roll's thunder. Look around, it's everywhere: oenophiles and power ties, marble tabletops, designer shoes, and high ceilings. Always high ceilings. This is not your post-punk iconoclast's seedy barf dive; this is a more cosmopolitan haunt, with an air of sophistication and corporate wine-sniffing. Perhaps the story isn't the death of rock & roll. Perhaps it is, instead, the growth of Austin. But then, so are all stories these days. No matter. This is good shit. Stomp on.

Next stop: Tosca, who are plying their exquisite melancholy in the ramshackle red funk of the Ritz Lounge. The septet would fit cleanly into the finest recital halls, but somehow tonight's match is perfect. No lingering worries about Austin's future here, just dim lights, a pint of bock, and Glover Gill's incredible tangos. The whole affair is so sad and beautiful that it takes at least 30 minutes before -- ratamakap -- it occurs to me that there's no percussion here. Rhythm, yes, and a certain appreciation for the stop-action of the staccato sign, but no percussion save an isolated slapstick. Those long sought unifying elements -- mad drumming, Spanish and Portuguese vocals, a spirit of celebration -- all missing here tonight. And yet the tango is distinctly Latin.

After the set, Glover Gill pauses when asked if Tosca is a Latin band. He's never thought about it before. Yes, Tosca's nuevo tango was born in Argentina, and when the group features a singer, the words are Spanish and Portuguese. Yet there's an undeniable classical strain in the music, a European melancholy that colors every tango. Gill is of two minds: Tango does not have a Latin feel, but then again it does. Finally, he hits upon the dance. The dance is what ties Latin music together.

"Sometimes tango is so stylized it's not danceable," Gill admits, "but there's still a gesture in my mind somewhere. Even on the undanceable tunes."

Ben Saffer, Carolina boy and sometimes clarinetist for Tosca, brings another fork to the table: passion. Tango is Latin in that it's passionate. It's a word that comes up a lot in discussions of Latin music. Passionate, romantic, suave. Sensual, sexual, exciting. From the son to the salsa to the bolero, passion is a dalliance not only with the dance but with what might come after. It seems a dangerous road to tread, a road fraught with ignorance and stereotypes. Still, it feels right. Rhythm, spirit, celebration; passion and romance. The need to dance.

Careful now. Passion is a trap, romance a double-edged sword. Consider the words of Rey Arteaga, Chicano congaman and veteran of Centzontle, Mambo Redd, Son Yuma, and Con Rumba Son. He's talking about the dangers of romanticizing the scene, of forgetting about what drives it: the integrity of the music.

"It's important for people to accept the music for what it is. There's a lot of history, there's a lot of tradition. It's really beautiful music. You can dance to it, it's very enjoyable. But I just don't like people who get a misconception about who we are as musicians. I've done gigs where you're up on display, and people have a romantic idea of who you are. You're ornamental. You're disenfranchised, because you're seen as something that's less than integral, when in reality you're part of that engine that's pushing the culture, that's pushing that diversity, that's contributing to the community."

It's a good scene, says Arteaga, you should come on down. Just don't arrive with a rose clenched in your teeth. There are no roses at the Ritz.

Final stop: Miguel's La Bodega, the thumping heart of Austin's Latin music scene -- loved, feared, and perhaps most of all, envied. There's very little that's undanceable here, for Miguel's kingdom is built upon dance. Tonight the salsa comes courtesy of Orquestra Shati, a veteran outfit from Killeen once known as La Candela, with Willie Santiago on the skins. Miguel's could no doubt stand a better sound system, but tonight, as on every weekend night, the club is packed. It's a classy joint, all wrought iron and Mexican cocktail glasses, and while there are a few lovable slouches in attendance, on the whole, it's a pretty sharp-dressed crowd.

Miguel's pan-American assortment of flags hanging from the rafters reflects a crowd as worldly as any in Austin; Miguel's is one of the few bars in town that can truly claim an international crowd. After a hot stew of salsas and merengues, Orquestra Shati wraps up their set with, of all things, a Glenn Miller standard, "In the Mood." The players cut amp and give over to the set-break DJs, and in short order the echoes of Glenn Miller yield to more familiar merengue. As at Borinquen, so at Miguel's: A set break is no reason to give up your spot on the dance floor. Grind on.

Grind on: It's a notion that might upset the purists who, like Arteaga, see more in the music than motion. Still, it can't be denied that there's some serious swivel going on at Miguel's, both from loose hips and wandering eyes. More than any other local Latin club in recent memory, Miguel's is a scene, a place people go to see and be seen. The joint is crowded, and those crowds aren't contingent on the bands playing. More than just a Latin music scene, it's a singles scene, a corporate scene, a college scene, an international scene, a crowded scene.

Musicians are split on whether the Miguel's scene makes for a good audience -- it's a crowd more energetic than discriminating -- but one thing's for sure: If they want to cultivate a strong local following, they have little choice but to play Miguel's. Most nights, it's the only game in town, and even when it's not, it's easily the biggest game in town. Miguel's smells suspiciously like a monopoly, and even operations manager Joseph Avalos admits as much.

"I think Miguel's is the scene right now," he says frankly. "And we're going to try our best to remain the scene."

But what's good for Avalos isn't always good for musicians: There are more bands than slots available, and competition for gigs is fierce.

"Real fierce," confirms de Lago, who adds that the competition makes for better music. "Everybody wants everybody else's job, everybody wants everybody else's tenure in a club, and it's healthy."

Arteaga isn't so sure. Instead of a healthy devotion to the craft, he sees musicians spreading themselves too thin, taking on too many side jobs to make ends meet. He describes a mercenary spirit among players on the scene -- himself included -- born of economic necessity rather than musical providence. If there were more stages, he says, there would be more money-making opportunities for the scene's core bands and newcomers alike, and musicians could concentrate on building great bands.

He may soon get his wish. La Zona Rosa is already experimenting with a regular Latin Night, and there are rumblings of another full-time Latin music club opening downtown, with a certain high-profile street corner and a certain high-profile Hollywood name attached. It's still a rumor -- and rumored clubs are usually more common than actual clubs -- but almost everyone on the scene would welcome another nightspot, Joe Avalos included.

"The more people on the block, the better," he says, unflinching. "We might suffer in the beginning, but if it's not the right atmosphere, they'll come back."

It's a tempting thought. Another club means more bands, more gigs, and more room on Miguel's dance floor. Everyone walks away rich and happy, right? Not so fast. There's a very real question as to whether Austin's Latin music scene can support two nightclubs. When Calle Ocho opened, Club Palmeras suffered; when Miguel's opened, both Calle Ocho and Club Palmeras shut down. The scene has since grown, but largely on the strength of Miguel's crossover appeal, and there's no guarantee that crowds will leave their established home. The future of the Latin dance scene is anything but certain, but it's safe to say the landscape will change in the coming year.

New club or no, Arteaga's not about to quit his day job; few on the scene are counting on a fat bankroll. Austin is a notoriously cheap town when it comes to paying bands, and the size of Latin bands makes the money even tighter.

"This music gets made with nine to 15 people on stage," explains de Lago. "To pay nine to 15 people is difficult. It's like the death of the Duke Ellington Orchestra or any of the big bands from the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties. We saw them die and we saw the quartet come, the quintet, the small ensembles. That's where I'm at. I'm not working with any great salsero -- like Willie Colon or Celia Cruz or anything like that -- I'm just a guy with an ensemble. The most I can usually afford to pay is five pieces. I can't get a budget for more than that. Some people will have an orchestra, and they'll just pay everybody peanuts. It's a labor of love."

Miguel's La Bodega

Miguel's La Bodega

photograph by John Carrico

A labor of love. It's a phrase heard often on the local Latin scene, together with such choice rejoinders as "it's more an avocation than a vocation" and the classic "nobody's getting rich." Perhaps now, deep in the nitty-gritty of stage slots and economics, of Miguel's, monopolies, and splitting the tip jar 10 ways, we have hit on the true common denominator of Latin music in Austin: Nobody's getting rich. Instead, they do it for love. For rhythm. And, it might be said, for passion.

It's Latin Night at La Zona Rosa, an infant institution that, to date, has showcased both traveling shows (Cubanismo!) and local acts (Combo Rican). Tonight, Ta Mère headlines, and although the crowd is a little thin and a bit more vanilla than you'd find at Miguel's, the music is hard to beat. Lead guitarist David Pulkingham is throwing out exquisite solos with startling ease, but more impressive may be his rhythm guitar, sprinkled with spare but solid bits that owe as much to Steve Cropper and Ali Farka Toure as salsa's own Yomo Toro. Second guitarist Christian Fernandez and bassist Luis Guerra are similarly adept and imaginative, and the three play as one.

Add in a few horns and some tight percussion and it's easy to see why Ta Mère has a local reputation as the cream of the Latin music crop -- the one band with true "outbreak potential" and the chance to rise beyond the local scene. If that happens, it won't be for their faithful merengues, no matter how much that gets the Miguel's crowd moving. Rather, it will be for their ability to stretch the form, to find room to play in the curves and empty spaces, as all masters do. As they move from Willie Colon to Dick Dale to rap en Español, there's always something tuneful and musical going on, an emphasis on the song as much as the rhythm.

It's a fine celebration, pan-American style, and while it feels quite different from Borinquen during Sabado en la Noche, there's still a cross-club kinship, built from tun-tun, clave, and the flat-out need to dance. Few are ignoring that need on this evening: You won't find many dead people at La Zona Rosa either. As a small gaggle of lily-white coeds push their way to the dance floor, their moves more eager than expert but their hips cranking nonetheless, the words of Joey de Lago come back, past El Sol, Miguel's, and Borinquen to La Zona Rosa on a somewhat slow Thursday night:

"Don't be afraid to shake it," he says. "Don't be afraid to jump on the table and dance."

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