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Nationally Known Radio Show Gains Diverse Following : ‘Soul of Neighborhood’ Rocks to the Beat of Salsa

Times Staff Writer

The party starts each Saturday at dawn.

The drums and horns of salsa invade restaurants, beaches, grocery stores, freeways. From Hawthorne to Santa Monica, from Culver City to Huntington Park, “Alma del Barrio” rules the weekends of a devoted and diverse following.

The radio program “Alma del Barrio” (“Soul of the Neighborhood”) is broadcast by KXLU-FM (88.9), the public station of Loyola Marymount University in Westchester, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

New York and Miami have more active salsa scenes than Los Angeles and substantially larger populations of the Cubans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans who form the core audience. But because it dedicates two 12-hour, commercial-free blocks of time to salsa and Latin jazz, “Alma del Barrio” has a national reputation with musicians and aficionados.

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Envy of New York City

“I told my friends in New York about it. They wish they had a radio station there like we have here,” said Julia Garcia, a former New Yorker who lives in Gardena.

Garcia, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was one of several callers to the KXLU studio on a recent Saturday who said their weekends revolve around the radio.

The show “gives me the feeling of being home,” Garcia said. “I make tapes for my friends in New York. It has a fantastic variety.”

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Eight volunteer disc jockeys are the soul of “Alma del Barrio,” which is in its 14th year. Many of them are current or former Loyola Marymount students who work in Latino-oriented media during the week.

Disc jockey Eddie Lopez, for example, is a director for Spanish-language television in Los Angeles. Blanca Sandoval works for the newspaper La Opinion. Albert Price writes for a newspaper in his native Venezuela. The staff includes people of Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican, Dominican and Salvadoran backgrounds.

“It’s a labor of love,” said Emilio Vandenedes, co-director of the program, whom fellow co-director Nina Lenart calls a “walking encyclopedia” of knowledge about Afro-Cuban music. “When I get done with my show, I feel like I’ve had a transfusion of life.”

Salsa is an imperfect umbrella term for the Afro-Cuban-based musical styles popular in the Caribbean, Latin America and North American urban barrios. The layered rhythms and exuberant melodies have their roots in African music preserved by Cuban slaves that melded with the music of the island’s Spanish settlers.

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Some of the disc jockeys do their shows primarily in Spanish or in English, while others strive for a bilingual balance. The distinctly non-commercial melange includes a daily hour of Brazilian music, interviews and documentaries spotlighting musicians and music, literary readings and information about concerts, clubs and cultural events.

On a recent Saturday morning, for example, Price used the breaks between music to update listeners on a meeting of Latin American presidents in Acapulco and the awarding of a literary prize to Mexican author Carlos Fuentes.

“I try to make it a vehicle for information and cultural awareness as well as entertainment,” Price said.

Diverse Audience

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“I get so many people who call in and say ‘I don’t know what I’d do without your show,’ ” Lenart said.

Listeners are from varied communities, income levels and age groups. Lenart estimated that about 30% are not Latino.

Despite the avidity of fans, salsa and Latin jazz exist in a curious limbo in both the commercial and Spanish-language music worlds. Performers like Celia Cruz (the Ella Fitzgerald of salsa), Willie Colon and El Gran Combo are popular concert and recording stars among Latin American and North American Latino markets. But they are virtual unknowns to the mainstream Anglo audience.

“Why don’t you ever see Celia Cruz on American TV?” asked Peggy Lane in a phone interview. Lane, a fervent “Alma del Barrio” fan from Culver City, said salsa would make scores of converts if it received exposure.

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“To appreciate the music, it has to be visual,” Lane said. “We need more people to push the music. There should be a (television) show that plays salsa and teaches people how to dance to it.”

Latin music has gained increased attention recently because of Ruben Blades, the Panamanian singer/actor/lawyer whose albums feature poetic and politically charged lyrics in Spanish. Blades has surmounted the language barrier to become a star with a widespread audience.

“Ruben has helped,” Vandenedes said. “I was surprised at the reaction to him at the Playboy jazz festival (in June). The place went crazy.”

The salsa influence also is evident in the sound of pop groups like Miami Sound Machine and songs like Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita,” Vandenedes said.

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Even on Spanish-language radio, however, air time for salsa is limited. Los Angeles stations cater to a population of predominantly Mexican and Central American origin with an offering of pop ballads and folk music such as Mexican rancheras . Other than KXLU, salsa and Latin jazz are confined to short weekly programs on assorted jazz, public and Spanish-language stations.

“There are so many wonderful artists we play who don’t make commercial radio,” Lenart said, citing groups such as Cuba’s Irakerre. “We don’t have a hit-list.”

Public Service Award

KXLU’s nonprofit status allows “Alma del Barrio” an eclecticism that last week earned the staff an award for 14 years of service from Club Candilejas, a popular nightclub.

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The student-run station has a staff of about 140 people, all of them volunteers. It plays alternative and underground music during the the week and has an annual budget of about $70,000, said faculty adviser Robert Ritter. The university provides $50,000; the other $20,000 comes from listener contributions, including an annual January fund drive.

Public radio stations KCRW and KLON are also based on college campuses, but they are not student-run. KCRW has nine full-time employees and an annual budget of $1 million, said a spokeswoman for the station that broadcasts from Santa Monica College. KLON, which has studios at California State University, Long Beach, has a staff of 23 and a budget of $1.8 million.

Vandenedes said the program’s goals for the future include more live programs featuring local bands and events like this summer’s “Rumba on the Beach,” which brought out hundreds of listeners to Imperial Beach near El Segundo for an afternoon of music.

The staff also persists in the hope that KXLU management will grant them longer hours, an idea that had the enthusiastic support of callers last weekend.

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“It’s the best program in Los Angeles,” said Albert Mondragon of Van Nuys. “The more they have, the better.”


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