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La Sonora Ponceña makes a rare L.A. appearance, and most fans move to the beat rather than listen -- and that's a shame.
By Agustin Gurza, L.A. Times Staff Writer
There's a corrupting trend in salsa that comes from the growing but largely unspoken disconnect between those who make the music and those who dance to it. That divide was obvious this weekend during a rare local performance by La Sonora Ponceña, the revered Puerto Rican orchestra that headlined the ninth West Coast Salsa Congress, a radically pared down gathering that closed Sunday at the Radisson Hotel near LAX.
You could measure recent changes in music appreciation by the number of people who stood to watch this 53-year-old institution rather than keep dancing. During salsa's glory days in the 1970s, when this band was in its heyday, fans were so attuned to the jazzy skills of pianist-bandleader Papo Lucca and his dozen musicians that they would rush to gain standing room near the stage before the show started, leaving little room on the floor for dancers. All the great salsa bands used to get the same attention.
Those days are gone. Those intent on listening were only a few rows deep when La Ponceña (named for its hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico) took the stage Sunday morning at 1, two hours late because the dance competitions ran over schedule. Rather than rush the stage, many fans actually left the room when the formal dance exhibitions ended, leaving ample space for people to dance while the band played.
One man even had the audacity to set up a chair at the edge of the dance floor to watch the couples in action, turning his back to the band. Clearly, fans don't come out to hear great live music. They come to watch one another show off.
That musical indifference is killing salsa as an art form, at least in the U.S. It was great to see so many young and sexy people still coming from all across the world for the congress. But what's going to happen when the great salsa bands of the Ponceña's brilliant generation begin to die off, with few young groups to take their place?
The answer might be gloomily apparent in this year's scaled-back lineup, featuring one major act, compared with five or six as in past years. What's next? The all-digital salsa congress?
Granted, La Ponceña delivered a mostly standard 90-minute set that offered nothing new musically. With its members wearing gray business suits and striped ties, the band basically gave the crowd what it wanted: a steady dance beat uninterrupted by the extraordinary arrangements and jazzy explorations that mark its best work on record.
Yet narcissistic hoofers might have missed some memorable highlights during the performance. At one point, Lucca was joined onstage by fellow pianist Oscar Hernández of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra (formerly with Rubén Blades' superb sextet Seis del Solar). The two keyboardists traded bars of improvisation, riffing off complex flute lines provided in between by guest soloist Nestor Torres.
It was one of those thrilling salsa moments worth watching. And it seemed to spark a fiery finale, the kind that makes it worth sticking around until 3 a.m.
At that point, you couldn't blame dancers for hitting the floor in a spontaneous synergy with the rhythms. Those fleet-footed dancers from Colombia showed off their dazzling, high-speed steps as others with less Olympian stamina crowded around to watch.
There's an old expression for moments like this: ¡Se fórmo la rumba!
Literally, it means the rumba (an event, not a dance) has started, and in Spanish, the implication is that it happens magically.
That's the trance-like magic of live salsa, created when music and dance come together as one.