It's a Thursday night at the glittering Conga Room, and the capacity crowd screams with delight as Tito Puente performs one of his trademark blistering timbale solos.
When Puente segues into the first bars of the classic son montuno "El Cayuco," everybody smiles. The Miracle Mile nightclub is packed with Hollywood celebrities, music industry insiders and Latino yuppies. In only a year and a half, the Conga Room has become the trendiest Latin venue in town, and the excitement on this night symbolizes a resurgence in salsa music that could finally bring the specialized musical genre into the mainstream.
Yet the Conga Room is only the tip of the iceberg. In the last couple of years, famous salsa acts from all parts of the world have visited L.A., turning it into one of the key stops on the international circuit.
You would think this would be great news for the many salsa ensembles that are based in Los Angeles. But think again. In the midst of this boom, local salseros find themselves on the outside looking in. Taken for granted because they are always around and squeezed by low pay, some musicians look to record deals or session work as a means to survive. Most struggle to balance their music career with the routine of a day job.
"There is a large disparity between the amount of people that come to see a national act compared to the ones that come to see a marketed local band," says Brad Gluckstein, the Conga Room's owner.
"A lot more marketing dollars go into promoting national talent," he adds. "And consumer behavior is fairly predictable. Unfortunately, a name sells more than a talent."
Does this lack of support mean that Los Angeles' salsa bands are not that good?
Quite the contrary, insist those familiar with the scene. "Our bands are as good as any," says Rudy Mangual, editor of the Los Angeles-based magazine Latin Beat, which offers exhaustive coverage of Afro-Cuban music on a monthly basis.
"Sometimes, when you can see a band every day, you start thinking it's not a high-caliber [one]. But the same acts are received like kings outside of L.A."
"Our audiences have become spoiled," says Albert Torres, the city's leading salsa concert promoter and manager of bandleader Johnny Polanco's orchestra Conjunto Amistad.
"Polanco and I just came from a trip to San Francisco and we sold out everywhere we went," Torres says. "But when we play here, people know that they can see Johnny every Monday at El Floridita and every Tuesday at St. Mark's, so they don't show up. It almost comes to the point where we should disappear for three or four months and then do a huge comeback thing."
During the '80s, the Los Angeles salsa scene paled in comparison to New York's. Those were the golden days of East Coast salsa, with the creation of the Fania label and a new sound concocted in the Bronx by Puerto Rican arrivals.
But as with most musical movements, the Big Apple's reign eventually came to a natural end. During the '90s, many musicians migrated to the West Coast, where they formed new, exciting bands. Polanco was one.
"Los Angeles was never considered a mecca of salsa until now," Torres explains. "These days, the musicians from New York are calling me and wanting to come to work in L.A. because they hear all about the great venues and the skilled dancers we have."
The opening of the Conga Room last year couldn't have been more timely. And the Los Angeles bands, invigorated by this new salsa craze, are sounding better than ever.
Among the best:
* Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca, a joyous group led by charming Congolese singer Lemvo, combining Cuban rhythms with the spiraling guitars of Central African pop.
* Polanco's Conjunto Amistad, an eclectic band that last year performed a whopping 313 dates.
* Rudy Regalado, a Venezuelan bandleader and West Coast veteran who oscillates between a spicy salsa combo and a muscular Latin jazz big band.
On their trips outside Los Angeles, these bands are hailed as the genre's stars and are paid $10,000 to $15,000 a night--about the same that national bands are paid when they play here.
But when L.A. bands work locally, they find themselves playing for much less--around $1,000 a gig on weekends and anywhere from $400 to $800 on weekdays, no matter how famous they are.
Unlike rock bands, which generally have three to five members, the average salsa outfit uses at least 10 musicians, which means that each can go home with as little as $50 to $100, depending on the generosity of the bandleader.
"I think you'll find that most of the musicians have a day job," Gluckstein says. "It's a travesty, really. The other night I was noticing how the members of [a certain group] were dressed, and what wonderful musicians they are. Their value is certainly not translated into their compensation. The truth is that musicians are basically underpaid."
Most observers of the scene blame this state of affairs on the greed of promoters.
"One of the reasons why the salsa scene will never become mainstream is the attitude of the club owners," says Latin Beat's Mangual. "They routinely hire bands for a pittance in order to cut corners.
"This is perhaps the biggest problem in the local scene," he continues. "The club owner will always find a band to play for less money. If Johnny Polanco says he won't play unless they give him $1,500, Johnny will be out of a job and somebody else will do the gig for $500."
Consider the number of salsa establishments that closed their doors in the last few years--most notably Candilejas in Hollywood, La Rumba in Huntington Park and the El Rey Theatre's weekly salsa night--and you see that running a club is no easy task. "People have to recognize that the payment is a direct result of ticket revenue," Gluckstein argues. "Musicians might not make enough money, but then again, you have to consider the expenses involved in producing a local band: the quality sound system we have, the security and advertising costs."
Still, the Conga Room is not the only club that found success in the field. The salsa nights at the Sportsmen's Lodge are always packed, as are weekends at Hollywood's El Floridita and the Mayan Theatre in downtown L.A. And the occasional tropical gigs at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel routinely draw thousands.
So what is a salsa musician to do if he enjoys eating three meals a day?
One way out is to secure a recording contract with a nationally distributed label. The record sales will bring offers to tour, and your subsequent absence will make you a sort of prodigal son within the scene.
Ricardo Lemvo's talent got him a three-record deal with hip world music label Putumayo.
"My situation is a little different than most local bands because I already have two records out, and they're distributed in America and Europe," he says.
"I care about the gigs here, but I don't depend on them to survive. Besides, the good money is to be made in cities like New York or Miami, touring abroad, or even in festivals across the U.S."
Another solution is to become a hot session musician, especially in the pop field. Take the case of Thousand Oaks-based Cuban percussionist Luis Conte. During the '70s he honed his craft playing with a number of local Latin bands. But he soon got tired of the uncertain life of a salsa musician.
"You have to open your eyes and see what's going on," he says. "When I was in my 20s, I said to myself, 'Do I want to be 45 years old and play in these salsa clubs for 50 bucks a night? If I have to do it, I'll do it, but that shouldn't be the only thing I've got going.' That's how I decided to become a session musician."
These days, Conte is the touring percussionist for the likes of Madonna and Phil Collins. He has performed live with acts as disparate as the Spice Girls and the Pat Metheny Group, and spends every spare moment doing sessions for established pop artists such as James Taylor and Toni Braxton.
But he hasn't forgotten his salsa roots. He recently played a few gigs with Latin jazz outfit Tolu and also with his own Afro-Cuban group at Studio City's La Ve Lee.
Lemvo and Conte are exceptions to the rule. Most other musicians spend their time managing themselves, rehearsing new material and trying to play as often as they can, anywhere they will get paid to do so.
For the salsa aficionado, the situation is a blessing in disguise. Think of it as the equivalent of being a rock fan and seeing acts like Hole or the Smashing Pumpkins in little clubs, where there's always space for you to stand right in front of the stage, and time to chat with the band members after the show.
For the musicians themselves, the reward lies solely in the music. So what if there's no financial security or professional stability? What if life is experienced precariously and on a day-to-day basis? There's always the heartwarming, infectious beat of Afro-Cuban music to carry you through.
"These people are not doing it for the money," Gluckstein says. "Like all of us, a lot of them have dreams and aspirations. Playing is part of what keeps those dreams alive."
"I've been a musician myself," Mangual adds. "And when you're in a band, you just play for the sake of playing. Money is a secondary issue. Of course, you keep hoping that one day you'll be rich and famous. For the moment, though, getting some gas money and a couple of bucks for a beer is just fine."
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Serving Up Salsa in L.A. These are the most popular acts currently working the L.A. salsa scene.
Clave y Son
Johnny Polanco & Conjunto Amistad
MC1 featuring Mazacote
Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca
Rudy Regalado & Chevere
Son y Clave