Soul of salsa in L.A. turns 30

Times Staff Writer

Veteran radio deejay Alan Geik still remembers one promotional CD among the hundreds he’s received over the years at “Alma del Barrio,” the long-running salsa radio show on college station KXLU-FM (88.9). It arrived in the mid-’90s with a modest note signed by guitarist and producer Ry Cooder, who was soon to become the American Midas of Afro-Cuban music.

“Alan: Just got back from recording in Cuba and I hope you like the CD. I think we’ll call it Buena Vista Social Club.”

Of course, the record went on to become a surprise international smash, spearheading a late-blooming craze for Afro-Cuban music. But for Geik and other disc jockeys at “Alma del Barrio,” exposing new listeners to the joys of Latin rhythms has been a weekend passion since the old-timers of Buena Vista were barely middle-aged.


Today, the Cuban fad has fizzled, and salsa has slipped into a major commercial slump. But one thing remains constant and unchanged: The music in all its styles, new and old, can still be heard every weekend on the program, just as it has for the last 30 years.

“Alma del Barrio,” which celebrates its 30th anniversary Sunday with a dance at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, was launched in 1973 by a pair of students, Henry “Kiki” Soto and Raul Villa, who were among the few Latinos attending Loyola Marymount University at the time. It’s now the longest-running radio show of its kind in the country, blossoming from a one-hour taped broadcast to 24 hours live every weekend, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday.

The noncommercial, bilingual program went on the air even before the term “salsa” became a popular shortcut to refer to various forms of Latin dance music from the Caribbean. And thanks to the late Emilio Vandenedes, an “Alma” deejay and Cuban music distributor, it was among the earliest outlets in the U.S. to regularly feature progressive new bands from Cuba, such as Los Van Van and Irakere, at a time in the 1980s when music from the island was a rare but prized underground commodity.

Since then, the show has earned a national reputation far beyond its station’s meager 3,000 watts of power, which covers a spotty 30-mile radius around the university’s Westchester campus. The small station is an obligatory stop for top salsa stars coming through Los Angeles, and the show has now been a weekend ritual for two generations of listeners. By virtue of its longevity and loyalty to its purpose, it has become a cultural institution in Los Angeles.

“Alma del Barrio,” a title taken from an old Joe Cuba album that means “soul of the neighborhood,” has the power of a brand name in Latin music.

“Anyone who has any affinity for Latin music knows about ‘Alma del Barrio,’ ” says Lydia Ammossow, the university advisor who supervises more than 50 programs on KXLU. “They are an extraordinary force in the music because they are offering something that listeners can’t hear anywhere else.”

There are other salsa shows in Southern California, including “Canto Tropical,” a weekly, two-hour program on KPFK-FM (90.7) hosted by “Alma” alumnus Hector “La Voz” Resendez. But no other show has such a large block of time with a variety of deejays who bring the entire spectrum of Caribbean dance music to their individual programs.

“If you listen the whole weekend, you’ll get every little taste [of salsa] and all its sub-genres,” says Loyola Law School graduate Jose Cristobal, 29, a Cuban-American who was named “Alma’s” program director last fall.

It has not always been easy to recruit new “Alma” deejays, who now range in age from early 20s to middle 60s. That’s one of the reasons the show has so many veterans, such as Geik and his wife, Nina Lenart, who have been with the program since the early ‘80s but never attended the university. The show also features LMU alumni, such as Vanessa Sulam and Eddie Lopez, who stayed on the air long after leaving college. All are unpaid volunteers.

Students are often more interested in rock, the mainstay of weekday shows at KXLU. But even those who care passionately about salsa music find the “Alma” initiation daunting, because novice deejays pull the 6 a.m. weekend shifts.

“Oh, man, let me tell you,” says LMU student Anabel Marquez, 23, the youngest member of the “Alma” staff. “As a college student, I’ve got parties and clubs to go to, and sometimes waking up Sunday morning, I’m like, ‘Man, do I have to do this?’ And then I get there and start playing this great music, and seriously, I start dancing by myself in the studio.”

Marquez was born in East L.A. in 1980, when “Alma” was already in its seventh year. The English major got the deejay job by chance two years ago when she went to the station to make a demo tape for a student journalism assignment. She was loaned a little air time by the morning deejay, who was her roommate. Shortly after Marquez’s unfamiliar voice went on the air, a call came in from Lopez, then the program director. A stickler for format and consistency, Lopez demanded to know “What’s going on and who’s this girl?” But instead of reprimanding Marquez, he shocked her by asking, “Do you want a job?”

Marquez has been holding down the 6 a.m. Sunday slot every other week. It’s not just her love of music but also the love of her listeners that keeps her going. Like the man who calls religiously at dawn on Sundays, saying he sets his alarm to wake up to “Alma del Barrio.”

The passion -- and donations -- of listeners have sustained the program. “Alma del Barrio” consistently ranks among the station’s top earners during annual fund drives, typically drawing more than $25,000 in donations. That support helps defuse occasional rumblings about cutting back the time slot for “Alma,” which started streaming on the Internet two years ago.

“Their listeners are extraordinarily generous and very beautiful people,” says Ammossow, who receives the pledge money. “They write these wonderful, personal notes about how much they love ‘Alma,’ and I don’t get that from any other show.”

Geik and other deejays say it’s this sense of community with “Alma” fans that keeps them volunteering year after year. He still chokes up recalling the wave of sympathy calls he received at the station after his father died.

“I’ve known people for 25 years through the show,” Geik says. “I know their life stories and they know mine and we’ve never met. That’s the glue for the whole show.”

As for industry slumps, trends and crazes that come and go, Geik is philosophical: “We were here before,” he says. “We’ll be here after.”