In Cali, south Colombia, discotecas are treasure troves of old-school salsa and other Latino music, with vast collections of vinyl, turntables, posters, and, of course, dance floors
Santiago de Cali is the self-proclaimed capital of salsa, not because this musical genre was born there (that would be the Bronx), nor because it had the best bands (that would be Puerto Rico, Cuba or the Bronx again), but because the locals in this city in south-west Colombia have adopted it as their own, making the lyrics part of the local poetry and dancing it like no one else on the planet.
Salsa emerged in the 1970s from a conglomeration of many earlier Latino musical styles and rhythms. The appreciation of Latino music in Cali extends back to the 1940s when the first radio stations broadcast music from Havana; when musicals from Mexico’s golden era of cinema (with Cuban swing bands and singers) were broadcast on local TV in the 50s; and with the arrival, also around that time, of records from Cuba, Panama and Argentina.
In the 50s and 60s, small bars and clubs opened alongside or inside bordellos in the centre of Cali, and it was there that the obsession for dancing and pre-salsa tropical music (as heard on vinyl) entered the city’s cultural subconscious, paving the way for salsa to be adopted as the city’s official culture.
In the 70s and 80s, with the economic bonanza of the cocaine cartels, live salsa bands were flown in to perform in swanky clubs and mansions, and flashy dancing and romantic salsa reigned supreme. When the coke bubble burst and bands no longer came to play, it was once again the small, local discotecas (literally “record libraries”) dedicated to the rhythms and urban sensibility of classic salsa, but also to earlier dance music and crooners, that maintained the city’s love and knowledge of Latino music.
Time stands still in Cali. A wide variety of genres of Latino music – dating from the 30s up until the 80s – have been preserved in the discotecas and viejotecas (“old libraries”), which are like musical time capsules, with the original records, turntables, posters and photos creating an authentic setting for listening and dancing to the sounds of eras past.
Gary Dominguez, a self-proclaimed discómano (record maniac), is the owner of Bar Latino, located in the house where he was born 57 years ago. The walls, ceilings and even the tables are covered with photos, posters and records of salsa musicians. The salsa played here, however, isn’t an excuse to get people up and shaking their booty, but rather is appreciated for its musical, rhythmical and lyrical qualities.
Gary’s father, a professional soccer player in the 1950s who loved music and collected records, would ask his young son to play the discs for his family during the celebrations after games. As a teenager, Gary moved on to playing records in the city’s bars, and in 1982 he opened his own, Taberna Latina, a salsoteca where he would put on themed nights (all the records of a single group, for instance) as a way to educate and entertain his guests.
“Here in Cali, collectors have become the conservationists of the musical memory of an era,” says Gary.
Through his salsateca, he came into contact with record collectors all around the city and began to organise tocadas in parks around the city once a month. Since 1991, he has been organising events for melómanos (literally, music maniacs) for Cali’s La Feria carnaval in late December, in which collectors (few refer to themselves as DJs) select the best of their record collections for a huge dancing audience.
• Calle 7 # 27-38, +57 316 5550412, on Facebook, open Thursday to Saturday 7pm-2am
In 1985, Maria Elena (Nelly) Parra, 51, owned a small store in the Obrero neighbourhood (the original site of Latino music and dancing in the city). Customers kept asking her to add some music, so she transformed the space into the dance club. To help her do it right, regulars gave her LPs and photos of salsa musicians to decorate the place.
Simon Garcia Suarez, 67, spins the records here, on an old phonograph – mostly classic salsa and a bit of boogaloo sped up from 33 to 45rpm so dancers can show off their moves. “At first, some people in the neighbourhood considered this place sinful,” says Nelly, “but now all classes of people come to dance.” The space is simple, with plastic chairs and tables, but it’s one of the best places to enjoy non-pretentious, soulful dancing – no one here spins their partners in the air for a double flip.
• Carrera 10 # 21-69, no telephone (music too loud to talk) or website, open noon Monday to Saturday, closes at 1am Monday to Thursday, 3am Friday and Saturday, Sunday 10am-10.30pm
Born in 1936, Jesús Dagoberto Hernández Toro (Dago to friends), didn’t have a phonograph or radio growing up, but his father was a musician who played guitar and clarinet and his mother sang tangos while washing clothes or cutting wood. As he got older, he started to buy records, thinking that when he’d collected 100 he’d stop. Today he has more than 10,000, bought mostly on the streets of Cali since there are few record shops in the city. His collection is made up mostly of 78s: the oldest is by Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1905). He also has an impressive collection of French-Argentine tango singer Carlos Gardel records, and enjoys playing Edith Piaf’s version of Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas.
He is a romantico, a “romantic first and foremost,” as the bolero goes. “Loves of my life are associated and relived with particular songs.” The club’s name, Evocación, evokes a yearning for the past, for the music from past epochs. “People come here to listen, to sing, to dance and to learn. Most of the music is about love, although tango is love and philosophy.”
• Calle 5 #19-02, +57 316 5560231, open Monday to Saturday 5pm- midnight
Jaime Parra Restrepo, 59, grew up in the house that is now Cali’s most famous Tango dance bar. His huge collection of LP records is organised by genre and by country, although all the covers are painted in colours to imitate the flags of Argentina and Colombia. This is the fanciest of Cali’s old discotecas, with a large dance space, memorabilia from floor to ceiling, and even a jukebox that plays old 78s. The club is a showcase for the flashiest dancers (one bartender is a national champion salsa dancer and Jaime himself is one of the city’s foremost tango dancers), but it is also a cultural centre that offers dance classes.
• Carrera 11 #22-80, +57 311 3216864, lamatracacali.com, open Friday and Saturday 6pm-2.30 am, Sunday 3pm-1am
Don Ever, aka El Rincon de la Salsa
Eighty-one-year-old Jose Heriberto Bonillo Campo had a tiny bar in his family home where he played the music he loved most – salsa. One day, around five years ago, a group of university students asked him where they could find a place with a dance floor. Since then, students and a mix of everyone else in the city pack Heriberto’s small two-floor space and spill out into the open-air concrete patio in front of the club. Giant murals inside and outside the club pay tribute to the salsa greats of yesteryear, and the records that line the walls are a virtual catalogue of the best of the genre.
• Carrera 24 #5-32, Santiago de Cali, +57 310 4097229, on Facebook, open Thursday 3pm-1.30am, Friday and Saturday 3pm-2.30am
the Guardian | Kurt Hollander