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Too Much of a Good Thing

With L.A. becoming a mecca for the country's top salsa bands, local salseros--taken for granted by fans and squeezed by low pay--struggle.

July 01, 1999|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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