SAN DIEGO — Even though he has lived in San Diego for nearly two decades, Gene (Negro) Perry, a native of Puerto Rico, still finds it hard to break old habits--particularly musical ones.
So several nights each month, Perry and his band, Afro Rumba, set up their congos, timbals, pianos and other percussive instruments in such local nightclubs as Vic's and Presto, both in La Jolla, and Rio's, on Point Loma.
There, they serve up a steamy dose of authentic salsa, the jazzy Latino dance music of Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican origin that's every bit as hot and spicy as the sauce.
Afro Rumba's repertoire includes a few originals, but consists mostly of standards popularized by the likes of famed Cuban bandleader Mongo Santa Maria, Puerto Rican pianist Eddy Palmieri and Cuban conguero (congo-player) Chano Pozo, for whom legendary jazz great Dizzy Gillespie wrote "Manteca."
And although Perry is sometimes asked by club owners to incorporate more familiar Latin-American jazz instrumentals into his band's set, it's the authentic, vocally oriented music from his homeland that he enjoys playing the most.
"Salsa is part of our heritage, part of our culture, part of our lives," said Perry, whose next performance with Afro Rumba, Sunday at Presto, will also feature a three-piece horn section.
"This music is what we grew up with, and that's why it's so important to us to keep it alive," he said. "Everywhere you go in the world, if you run into a musician, he's got his native music with him, because that's what identifies him.
"And to us, salsa is a natural way of expressing our feelings and our inspirations--and of remembering our roots."
Perry, 36, said he first formed Afro Rumba four years ago as an outgrowth of the Sunday afternoon jam sessions he and several other expatriate Puerto Rican and Cuban musicians had been holding throughout the 1970s in Balboa Park.
"This is a tradition in all the Latin American countries," he said. "Guys just get together, somewhere outdoors, and jam for hours.
"For years, we played only traditional rumbas, using congos and timbals; it was our intention to throw some real Afro-Cuban roots out there, just to be different, just to have some fun.
"But then the crowds started getting bigger and we realized there were a lot of Latinos in San Diego, so we decided to get serious and add piano and bass and horns to come up with a more modern, tougher-sounding salsa band that could play in nightclubs."
Afro Rumba's first performance, in August, 1983, was during an ethnic music festival at the Educational Cultural Complex Theater in Southeast San Diego.
Since then, aside from steadily increasing nightclub work, they've given concerts at the Che Cafe at UC San Diego and played dances sponsored by La Casa de Puerto Rico, a local association of Puerto Rican immigrants.
But even after four years, the members of Afro Rumba are still unable to support themselves entirely through their music, said Perry, who works full-time as a groundskeeper at San Diego State University.
"It's real hard for any band that's not into the Top 40 in this town," he said. "Most of the work we do get is in jazz clubs, but, even then, salsa is more the exception than the rule.
"We've also played in some of the Latino clubs in Chula Vista and National City, but a lot of them are hesitant to book us for more than or two nights because their clientele is primarily Mexican, and they want to hear Mexican music instead of salsa. "
Perry remains optimistic, however, that with time, more and more non-Mexican Latinos living in San Diego County will hear about Afro Rumba "and come out to see us, which will lead to more bookings in the future," he said.
"We've been doing better every year, every month," he said. "There are a lot of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Panamanians, Venezuelans and Dominicans out there who want to hear the music of their homeland, and gradually, they're finding out about us.
"I'm always leaving fliers in Mexican restaurants and bars, and, already, it's paying off. The last time we played at Presto, every Sunday for a month, there was a group of Venezuelans that came out regularly--and every week, they brought more and more of their friends.
"It may be a while longer before we're able to get enough nightclub work to give up our day jobs, but we're in no hurry. We're the only true salsa band in town, and we realize our music isn't for everyone."