Have you ever wondered how the UK came to be so in love with Salsa music and dance? Was it just a lucky accident that happened when a dance craze ‘crossed the pond’ or is there a little more to it than that? And did the Golden Years’ of Salsa really exist?
Luckily there is a man that can fill us in on all of the details with a large dose of authority. DJ Lubi certainly knows a thing of two about Salsa (having been around for several decades now) so when he offered to give us his personal reflections of the UK Salsa Scene over the past 30 years, we could hardly refuse!
Take it away Lubi….
The UK Salsa scene now has a history that stretches back 40 years, something most people dancing today don’t even realise because nobody here really cares about the past and what came before them. It basically breaks down into six periods.
- The Early Years 1973-1980
- The Second Period 1981-1989
- The Third Period 1989-1994
- The Fourth Period 1995-1999
- The Fifth Period 2000-2007
- Recent Period 2007- today
The Early Years- 1973 to 1980
The early years from about 1973 onwards were totally about the growing Latino community in London celebrating their culture and musical heritage through small parties, events and even concerts. Amazingly, Hector Lavoe played in London in 1975 to launch a new Colombian amateur football league! This period is well documented in Matt Rendell’s book “Salsa For People Who Probably Shouldn’t” and covers the 1970s where an underground London Salsa/Latin scene which was pretty much invisible to mainstream UK.
The Second Period: 1981 to 1989
The second period was 1981 to 1989 which could be described as “Salsa goes overground”. A whole new generation of non-Latinos began to fall in love with Latin music and Salsa and this happened just as “world music” arrived on the scene (“world music” as a music business marketing term not actual music from around the world which has been around since the dawn of time). At first, the Salsa bug took over London with DJs, music journalists, bands, musicians and promoters active in the capital. There are far too many people to name check here but some notables were DJs Dave Hucker, Tomek, Paul Murphy, Ara, Dominique Roome, John Armstrong. Music journalists Sue Steward and Lucy Duran were writing and commenting about Salsa and Cuban music in the press and on radio. And homegrown bands and musicians were spreading Salsa across the capital and beyond. Those musical pioneers include Robin Jones & King Salsa, El Sonido De Londres, Cayenne, Bolivar, Vik Hugo, Snowboy, La Clave, Roberto Pla’s Latin Ensemble to name a few.
This period was the first time Salsa started to become known in the UK and by 1985, the boom in London was spreading out across the whole of the UK – Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Leeds (I was part of that first wave). One really important thing to state here is that this was NOT due to Salsa dance classes or Salsa dance teachers. The first properly organised Salsa classes sprung up 1989/1990. So we already had a UK Salsa scene in place in the 1980s led by music – DJs, musicians, music journalists, live bands, concert promoters. Again, this period is very well documented in the previously mentioned book by Matt Rendell.
The Third Period: 1989-1994
The third period in UK Salsa happens from 1989/1990 with the arrival of Salsa dance classes and Salsa dance teachers. It began first in London (as always) but also spread around the UK very quickly. Usually it was Colombians/Latinos in each area who started teaching classes first. In Leeds, Colombian dancer Tanya Cusan started classes late 1989/early 1990. Salsa dance classes were an immediate hit everywhere. Even though there was an existing Salsa scene already, the dancing at events was very much “do your own thing”. However, people were seeing Latino couples dancing Salsa properly and classes began when many of the first teachers were out at clubs dancing and kept getting asked to “teach me how to dance like that”. It was bound to be huge once Salsa classes started happening. Contrary to popular belief, the British LOVE to dance. Be it the twist, ballroom dancing, Northern soul acrobatics, jazz dancing or break dancing, Brits love to dance. That’s why there were so many beautiful sprung-floor ballrooms around the UK. What happened post 1990 with Salsa classes is that Brits fell back in love with couples style dancing again, which had gone out of vogue from the early 1960s onwards (except for the ballroom scene).
It’s important to state that from 1990 to probably 1995, the Salsa dance boom went hand in hand with the existing Salsa scene led by the music featuring events with DJs and live bands. It became standard at a club night or Salsa concert to have a Salsa dance class early doors to (a) teach people how to dance (b) get folks down early which meant more bar revenue and a buzzing venue as people arrived . There were professional Salsa DJs spinning the music at nearly all events (yes it’s true – there was a time when you could make a living as a Salsa DJ just spinning Salsa music) and very often, a live band too. The dance classes added the icing on the cake to make a good night even better and offer an even more value for money package than just a band and a DJ.
The Fourth Period: 1995-1999
The fourth period in UK Salsa I would say happened from 1995 onwards and could be called “UK Salsa’s boom years”. It coincided with a huge new interest in all things Latino worldwide. From Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez to Buena Vista Social Club and Andy Garcia, Latinos and Cubans were everywhere in popular culture. Films, TV, cable music channels, radio, newspapers & magazines. You know there’s a new Latino cultural dynamic occurring when magazines like Time and Newsweek are making it front cover news. As this is going on, suddenly Cuba opens up for tourism and we get direct flights from London to the island, followed soon by holidays to the Dominican Republic. People come back from these places and want to learn the dances they attempted on holiday. Salsa classes 1995-2000 are booming. Even cool clubbing magazines like Mixmag and DJ are reporting on Salsa clubs. This is when the big drinks companies came onboard and the Salsa scene starts to get big injections of cash from them. Havana Club began to get distributed in the UK in the 1990s and Bacardi relaunched itself as a Cuban rum and they started to battle it out at Salsa clubs around the UK with drinks promotions and sponsorship deals. Crazy years.
At my own weekly Salsa club in Leeds at this time, Casa Latina, all we had to do was open the doors every Thursday, do a bit of promo and we’d be packed to the hilt with 350 people in and a queue outside. Remember, this was before Facebook and Twitter! Salsa was new, cool, exciting, different and I guess a bit more exotic than anything else going on around at this time and everyone wanted a piece of it. I think that this 5 year period saw huge growth in the UK Salsa scene and it would lead to bigger events post 2000 and the arrival of spin-off business such as Salsa Congresses, Salsa holidays, Salsa clothing, Salsa fitness etc. Definitely the “golden years”.
The Fifth Period: 2000- 2007
The fifth period comes post 2000 up to maybe 2008 and we see a drop in interest and numbers in the UK Salsa scene around the latter part of this time but much more diversification in both music genres and Salsa dance styles. People start to specialise more in the style of Salsa they prefer. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was generally a Salsa scene (with the exception of London’s Colombian clubs) where everyone danced together to all styles of Salsa music. In 1995, I would have played a set at Salsa gigs that included classic Fania era Salsa, Colombian Salsa, Salsa Romantica, Merengue and some Cuban Songo, Son and early Timba. By 2000-2005, we see a separation starting to happen. The whole On2 Salsa/Mambo dance thing started to take off and suddenly there were classes and club nights pretty much catering for those dancers. The Cuban Scene really took off in the noughties. Prior to 2000, there was no real separate Cuban scene even in London. By 2005, there are strictly Cuban nights and classes across the UK and Cuban Congresses and Weekenders happening. There was also a whole new urban Latin/R’n’B Salsa/Salsaton scene that springs up post 2000 and that sound becomes really popular in some club nights with Street Salsa dance classes accompanying them. At the same time as all this new separation going on , the mixed Salsa nights continued.
In retrospect, the noughties consolidated much of what happened in the 90s and you could say UK Salsa became more of a lifestyle thing rather than a music led movement. More socialising through Salsa classes, Salsa Weekenders and Salsa holidays than jumping in a car to drive a 400 mile round-trip journey to see someone like Tito Puente live in concert. Numbers in the scene were still good but that “15 minutes of fame” enjoyed in the 1990s in mainstream UK culture had gone.
Recent Period- 2008 to present day (June 2014)
I think the final period that brings us up to date is probably 2008 onwards. Like everything else worldwide, the global economic downturn from that year onwards hit Salsa hard. If you don’t have a job or can’t pay the mortgage, you won’t bee going out to Salsa three times a week or going on Salsa holidays or to Congresses 2-3 times a year. Classes dropped in numbers as did events, from club nights to Congresses to Holidays. It’s been a tough 5-6 years for the UK scene which coincides with a feeling of stagnation. Some people have got bored of Salsa. New dance crazes have come along like Bachata-Tango, West Coast Swing and the massively popular Kizomba which have sucked people away. I know long time Salsa dancers who only dance Kizomba now. The social element and dance fitness which many people enjoyed from Salsa dance classes has been usurped by Zumba and more recently Bokwa. If you add all this into the equation with the long recession you can see why Salsa in the UK has been in decline in recent years. It’s not quite dead yet and there are still some big nights in London, Birmingham, Blackpool, Manchester and Leeds, but definitely the golden years of UK Salsa are over for now. However, things go in cycles, especially regarding popular culture, so maybe in 5 or 10 years time, we might see a large scale Salsa revival here. I hope I’ll still be Djing if and when it happens
Many thanks to DJ Lubi for sharing the History of the UK Salsa Scene with us.
Now it’s over to you lovely readers, Don Lubi has shared his account of the history of the UK Salsa Scene with us here today. But do you think differently? Do you believe that the Salsa scene has declined in recent years or is that just untrue? Let us know in the comments below..
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