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Changing Lifestyles : Strike Up the (Rebel) Band! : Former guerrilla fighters help revive El Salvador's flagging night life after years of civil war.

August 25, 1992|TRACY WILKINSON and MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN SALVADOR — An hour before show-time, it's standing room only at La Luna. The crowd pushing into the hip new nightclub has come to hear a band that hid out in El Salvador's rugged mountains for the last 12 years, playing songs for guerrillas, writing lyrics to chronicle the civil war and, occasionally, fighting the government army.

Excitement fills the smoky air on this August night. After all, this is the rebel band's nightclub debut.

"We are the Torogoces!" proclaims bandleader Benito Chicas, a 33-year-old peasant and fiddle player. "We are the musical expression of the Salvadoran revolution!"

Greeted with cheers, he takes his audience through a night of foot-stomping music and dancing. The eight-member band's songs about war, and their pleas for lasting peace, receive standing ovations and encore demands from many in the audience--a previously unimaginable mix of former guerrillas, leftist intellectuals and even a handful of right-wingers and the well-to-do.

This is El Salvador's postwar night life. As the country seeks to end its fratricidal war under the auspices of a United Nations peace agreement, evenings at La Luna represent one of the most tangible signs of change.

Salvadorans are struggling to revive a culture that stagnated during the war and accompanying economic ruin. As the tensions subside, more and more Salvadorans are looking for entertainment and relaxation where before there was none.

"We have lost a bit of our imagination--in politics and art," said Alvaro Castillo, an artist and musician who returned from exile last year to open La Luna. "We are in a period of recuperating our imagination. . . . This is going to be a different San Salvador."

In contrast to most war-era evenings, when curfews or fear sent people home early, some of the newest nightspots feature music and dancing until the wee hours.

For the highbrow, the Kiev Ballet and leading Latin American bands have come to town, and Miami-style discotheques have opened their doors. For the hoi polloi there are new, palm-thatched chupaderos --literally, places to get plowed. And for teen-agers, 24-hour gas-station mini-markets provide 1950s-style meeting places.

During the war between guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front and the U.S.-backed government, the capital's night life consisted of little more than seedy dives for the poor and a few discotheques for the sons and daughters of the nation's elite. The strobe-lighted discos, in San Salvador's exclusive Zona Rosa, attracted customers with bodyguards and bullet-proof cars.

The security was not unwarranted. One night in 1985, the guerrillas attacked two outdoor cafes in the Zona Rosa, killing four off-duty U.S. Marines and nine civilians. In spite of international reproach, the guerrillas insisted the Marines were legitimate targets and that the rich shouldn't be enjoying themselves while the poor were fighting a war.

The Zona Rosa scene has now expanded to include patrons from a middle class that grew during the war, merchants and service-sector employees earning enough money to enjoy a night uptown.

Downtown, El Quinto Sol opened several weeks ago as home to Tepehuani, another guerrilla band that spent most of the war traveling the world to raise funds for the rebels. Tepehuani's seven members--among them a Chilean lead singer--returned to El Salvador three months ago.

Tepehuani plays tropical cumbia dance music and some Ruben Blades songs but generally stays away from political tunes. Rigoberto Osorio, a bass player who leads the group, says the idea behind Quinto Sol is to provide "an alternative place" for people to let loose, dance and be entertained. But he is also keenly aware of the potential danger facing former combatants from those who might yet seek reprisals.

"There has been a risk since we got here, and we are taking that risk," said Osorio, 38.

Quinto Sol is informal. The dance floor is cracked concrete under a corrugated tin roof and surrounded by picnic tables and wooden benches. Young women sporting oversized black T-shirts, cotton scarves and tight pants dance with young male poets in ponytails.

The band's name, Tepehuani, means "winner of the battle" in the Nahuatl Indian language; Quinto Sol, or Fifth Sun, represents the harvest and "new beginning," Osorio said. The group expects to play Los Angeles and other U.S. cities for the first time in November.

La Luna is located in a middle-class neighborhood near the rebels' old stronghold, the National University. The artsy bar, which features jazz, rock and original music of Salvadoran artists, has scarcely had a bad night since it opened last December.

Its walls are decorated with murals and masks--a sort of radical chic that would fit comfortably along Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Hip waiters hand out menus offering quiche and yucca pie, granola, mango tea and fancy coffees with liqueurs.

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