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Hot Soulsa : As Latin and Afro-Caribbean rhythms merge in local nightclubs, revelers of all races get to dancing.

March 18, 1993|ELENA JARVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Git along little dogie. Hang up those shiny spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle. Stow the chaps. Ditto with the tin badge, pardner.

While they shed a tear in their beer for "Achy Breaky Heart," country enthusiasts will have to two-step out of the way to make room for a new fashion force, one we are calling "soulsa."

In mega-ethnic Southern California, nightclubs are melting pots of culture.

Within them, art, music and language meet, mingle and mutate into something that has so far escaped the vernacular.

Soulsa is the heart, the spirit, the essence of Latin America. Soulsa is more than music or dance. It's also the clothes, the clubs, the commerce, as well as videos and compact discs by such rising stars as Los Bukis and L.A. Tipica.

Anything goes in soulsa. It speaks Spanish, French and Portuguese and represents 30 countries, from rural Guyana to cosmopolitan Argentina. Here, the Mexican corrida combines with a Colombian cumbia. Tango tangles with mambo. Haiti's merengue meets Panama's pollero. Derivative of Afro-Caribbean salsa--a form more than a century old--soulsa is evolution in motion.

Last year's movie "The Mambo Kings" helped launch the trend. The film, based on Oscar Hijuelos' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," didn't do well at the box office. It did, however, pick up Oscar nominations and introduce audiences to the addictive pleasures of Cuban percussion.

This year brings us Al Pacino's sizzling Argentine tango in the Oscar-nominated "Scent of a Woman" as well as the passionate Spanish dance sequence in the new film "Strictly Ballroom."

Soulsa also seems to be burning up the charts, along with local dance floors. For the first time in Los Angeles history, a Spanish-music radio station is ranked No. 1. KLAX-FM mowed down competitors in the most recent Arbitron race. Three months earlier, it was No. 21. Analysts attribute the rise to smart programming and young, English-speaking Latinos returning to their roots.

Soulsa didn't burst upon the club scene so much as insinuate itself. Civil wars and lack of opportunity inspired Latinos south of the Mexican border to try their luck at the American dream. Along with hope for a better future, emigres brought distinct cultures to Southern California. From Miami, New York and Philadelphia came Americans of Afro-Caribbean descent, who opted for the promise of L.A.

Being cousins, the cultures were naturally curious about each other.

To make his music more accessible (and he has Grammys to prove the point), Ruben Blades blends Anglo and Latino lyrics and sounds. A political activist, actor, recording artist and Harvard-educated attorney, the Panamanian singer frequently reminds fans that "Latin American countries are like different rooms in the same house."

For locals, especially those of Latin heritage, soulsa is a sensation. Weaned on country Mexican music, young Latinos are responding to its contemporary energy and mostly Spanish lyrics.

Capitalizing on the trend are major record companies--EMI, Warner- Elektra-Asylum, Sony--which have expanded traditional Latin labels specializing in Tex-Mex and mariachi to include modern reggaespanol and Latin American rock. Meanwhile, record sales generated by such Latin jazz and salsa icons as Tito Puente and Celia Cruz have given new artists a leg up with the majors.

Latin influences are showing up in the least likely places, from albums by Australian rockers INXS to Top 10 hits by the rap group Color Me Badd.

California has the largest Latino population in the United States; 35% of the inhabitants of the Los Angeles area fit into the category. More than 172,000 Latinos live in Ventura County, roughly a quarter of the population.

Soulsa lovers come from all over the ethnic map, however. "Ai-ai, I love this music!" said Venturan Catalina Schoenherr, who is of German ancestry. "It's the rhythm, the music, the culture. I love to dance. Me encanto. "

Between songs, Schoenherr explained that six months ago she was just your all-American blond, blue-eyed registered nurse. Three months of lessons transformed her into a soulsa priestess. On the dance floor, very few, Latin or not, can outmaneuver this convert.

"This music gives me energy," she said. "It's in my spirit. I can feel it. It makes me happy. Music is like an inside view of culture. It gives me a different perspective."

*

The word soulsa doesn't express a lot about the diversity contained therein. Experts say it is distinctly different from salsa, a catch phrase for dance and music of Afro-Caribbean origin. Salsa is just a small slice of the soulsa pie.

"On Wednesdays, we see a big Latino cultural crossover because we play DJ salsa music," said Joann Harmon, who manages Stinger's, a Ventura nightclub.

Late last year, Stinger's was the first Ventura club to go to an all-Latin format. On weekends, groups play Mexican music, though soulsa influences show up in the occasional Caribbean, rock, reggae and even Peruvian ocarina riff.

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