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Salsa without spice sounds old

May 05, 2003|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

For a big Cuban band like Orquesta Aragon, coming to the U.S. has become a challenge in these days of homeland security and restricted entry. The historic group, which predates Fidel Castro, performed Friday at Sportsmen's Lodge minus two members, including director Rafael Lay Jr., who didn't get visas in time for the tour.

But the band played on, with a substitute bass and an off-stage soundman who added vocal harmonies from behind a mixing console at the rear of the packed ballroom.

The absences didn't handicap the band, which basically reprised past shows here. And the delighted crowd didn't seem to notice that Lay, the founder's son, was missing from a lineup that has no original members remaining.

Older fans were happy just to get a heavy dose of pre-communist nostalgia from the group that helped popularize the graceful cha cha cha in the 1950s. And young fans were far more interested in the dance contest held between sets.

These annual L.A. salsa competitions have become elaborate affairs featuring dynamic dancers who develop ever more stunning routines, with flashy costumes and death-defying dips and flips. The crowd gasped at stunts by more than a dozen competing couples. The problem was that the excitement of the intermission completely upstaged the featured orchestra, which offered no thrills at all. Aragon sleepwalked through hits such as "Cachita" and "El Bodeguero," sounding "just like an old record," as one satisfied fan put it.

The tunes were so predictable you could pretend the music emanated from a 1950s jukebox. Aragon completely avoided its more recent and far more interesting material, such as its rhythmic creation called cha-onda, a groovy and energetic Afrobeat fusion that can be heard on its 2001 World Village release.

Salsa lovers don't like to hear critics say that the genre is dying. But extinction or worse, irrelevance, is inevitable as long as artists and fans shun salsa's hip and creative aspects. A promising new local band, Odara, opened the show with a spirited set rooted in Afro-Cuban religious traditions, salsa's inexhaustible fount of inspiration.

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