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Music for the Masses

Latinos bring their mixed bag musical heritage to Richmond’s music scene. But can they get us to dance?


“The scene is definitely growing,” says Tony Ruiz. “There are three salsa bands here now — Bio Ritmo, TimbaSon and The Latin Cats — and bands like Ban Caribe and Tropikiimba that play some salsa and mix it up with other styles.”

Ruiz, who plays tres with both TimbaSon and Tropikiimba, was born in Mexico but grew up in the United States. He came back to Latin music after a youthful fondness for rock. “Now my favorite bands are the most traditional,” he says.

“There is a lot of potential for this music, with the number of Latinos coming into town,” Ruiz says. But demographics are only partial explanation for the music’s success. According to the 2000 Census, in the past decade the Hispanic population in the Richmond-Petersburg area has more than doubled (in the immediate Richmond area it nearly tripled). But even with that growth, the Hispanic percentage is only 2.34 percent. The bulk of the area population is the 94 percent, black and white bipolar majority.

Another compelling explanation is that in an era of often tired, often micro-segmented genres, Latin music is vigorous, fresh and appealing. Its sophisticated rhythmic complexities remain accessibly danceable. Born in the multicultural, multiracial Hispanic community, it’s ethnic without being exclusive. And it shares its roots with popular American forms like jazz, blues, rock and rap, all the byproducts of the collision of African, European and native people in the New World.

“It’s everybody’s music,” percussionist Kevin Davis says. Davis, who founded Ban Caribe, Richmond’s oldest Latin ensemble in the mid-’80s, played a pioneering role in introducing local audiences to salsa. “We were the first to do Latin music, although maybe not the most authentic,” he says.

As an African-American, Davis came to the music as an outsider. Inside his native Brooklyn home he heard gospel, jazz and Motown. But outside was the epicenter of Latin music, and he was entranced. “There was something soothing about the instrumentation,” he recalls. “The sound of the drumming was organic, and it was close to the African tradition of playing — one man, one drum.”

He started playing timbales, his ability enabling him to cross cultural boundaries, playing with salsa, Haitian and reggae bands. Frequently he was the only American in the group. He left Latin music behind when he moved to Richmond to attend Virginia State; when he started playing again it was pop and jazz. “It was far away from Afro-Cuban music,” Davis recalls.

In 1984, he joined with Richmond drummer Kokomo to start Ban Caribe. Since then, the Davis arrangements have evolved, mixing salsa, jazz and R&B, adjusting the sound and mix to the needs of the audience and the changing lineup of the band. (Kokomo now leads Sambiosis, a local band focused on Brazilian music.)

If Davis and Ban Caribe were the first to bring Latin music to Richmond audiences, Ruiz says, Bio Ritmo was the first to delve deeply into its Cuban roots.

With a dozen years and a major label CD (“Rumba Baby Rumba”) to its credit, Bio Ritmo often stripped arrangements down to the emotional and rhythmic roots of the music. The authenticity came from its Cuban leaders/arrangers.

“Jorge Negron really deserves a lot of credit for the band’s early success,” Ruiz says. “He did an awful lot to expose not just Richmond, but the entire Southeast to salsa. He also credits Negron’s successor, Renee Herrera, for continuing the band’s successful evolution.

Now fronted by singer Rei Alverez and with a new, strong, self-titled CD, Bio Ritmo continues to blend the traditional and the modern to popular and critical acclaim.

That bands like Ban Caribe and Bio Ritmo can survive and thrive through such personnel changes is a tribute to the fluid Latin music community, where bands share members, and lineups can shift, expand or contract depending on the requirements of the gig.

Authenticity doesn’t mean exclusivity; the lineup of John Acevedo’s salsa-centric The Latin Cats hails from everywhere — from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the United States to Turkey. The only thing that matters is ability to play, and a love of the music.

“Inclusion is the key to keeping the music going,” Ruiz says. “I see hope in the new bands that are weaving in different styles, including rap, that bring in the younger generation.”

Bolivian flautist Juan Antonio Tardio’s group takes a more traditional approach to an even younger audience. “The performers are kids from 5 to 12 years old,” Tardio says. “They dance and sing conga, machito, meringue. Its modern, timeless music.”

Reaching out to the Anglo majority, both black and white, is critical. “We don’t want to play for just Latinos,” Ruiz says, “But for anyone who loves to enjoy themselves, and loves to dance.”

The dancing may be something of a barrier. Ruiz says he suspects that the complex, sinuous moves of salsa dancing, often confidently displayed by lithe and experienced experts, might be intimidating. Newcomers hesitate to join in. Such concern about appearances plays no role in the music’s home territory. “In Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, everybody dances whether they know the moves or not,” Ruiz says. “People don’t care.

“And if the audience is not dancing,” Ruiz says, “I’m not doing something right.” If Ruiz and his compatriots have their way, there will be a new set of colors on the local black-and-white music scene. S

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