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Excerpt taken from the Thursday, August 3, 2000 issue of the Daily News
Still the Salsa Borough
El Condado de la Salsa is home to some 350,000 Puerto Rican and more salsa legends than any other place outside of Puerto Rico. The ivory-tickling Palmieri brothers grew up in the Bronx. So did percussionist Ray Barretto, Willie Colon, Dave Valentin, Orlando Marin Marin, Nicky Marrero and the Rodriguez brothers (Ray, Jimmy and Bobby).
But where did the northermost borough get its snappy nickname? Opinions on the subject abound, although everyone seems to agree that turn-of-the-century Bronx is still the place to go for salsa and Latin music in general,
Oscar Rivera, manager and co-owner of Tito Puentes (64 City Island Ave.), doesnt hesitate when asked how the Bronx got its nickname. "Thats easy. Youve got two million Hispanics living in New York City, most of them Puerto Ricans living in the Bronx."
Although Tito Puentes is a restaurant, it is also known for its weekend Latin jazz shows, which attract top performers like Lionel Hampton, Ralph Irizarry, Orlando Marin, Chocolate, Potato and Dave Valentin.
"Were known for the food and the music," says Rivera, who opened the restaurant in 1995 after approaching the venues namesake and getting permission to use his famous moniker.
Latin jazz shows at Tito Puentes are Friday and Saturday nights from 7:30 to 11:00 p.m. in addition to the Latin jazz Sunday brunch from noon to 3:30 p.m.
Prestige Productions John "Gungie" Rivera, who also heads Prestigio Records, has been in the New York City music business for over 20 years as a deejay, club and concert promoter and record executive. Gungie attributes the Bronxs saucy salsa reputation to the playeros (beach parties) that use to be held at Orchard Beach. "Those concerts sort of made a mark in the salsa industry," Rivera recalls. "And if you remember some of the salsa clubs - Chez Sensual, Hippo Campo, Night Tracks," he adds, naming a few of the old-time salsa hot spots that have been replaced by Riveras own Rhumba and places like Wild Palm.
Gungie sees salsa music as "going nowhere but up" right now, although when he first hit the scene, Puerto Rican kids we "always into other culture: dance techno, freestyle, rap, ragge." Later, he says, "Salsa sor of crossed into other marketplaces and has touched the other demographic younger audiences," having the effect, oddly enough, of making it more attractive to young Puerto Ricans.
Rhumba (396 E. Tremont Ave.) Puts on live salsa and merengue concerts on Saturday and Mondays, says Rivera, who has paired salsa legends like Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez with hot newcomers like La India in order to spark youths interest in their musical heritage.
At Rhumba, you can expect to find the musical royalty of the salsa world - people like George LaMond and Jose Alberto "El Canario" - as well as stars in the merengue scene like Oro Solido, Frase Klave and Joseph "El Gato" Portes. Merengue, though native to the Dominican Republic, is very popular with Puerto Ricans and , says Rivera, "its a lot easier to dance to [than salsa]."
place like the Bronx
Another popular Latin music venue in the Bronx is Mitch and Mannys Wild Palm (1601 Bronxdale Ave., corner of Pierce). Accroding to Wild Palm manager and promoter Michael Agosto, "We are the last true salsa nightclub in New York City." Given the fact that most other locales play a mix of salsa and other music Latin jazz, merengue, Latin house, hip-hop he may have a point.
"The type of music we play is nostalgic salsa salsa for the dancers." Wild Palm plays "a little bit of merengue and bachata," concedes Agosto, "but our main thing is salsa. Thats why this club has become very popular." Mitch and Mannys Wild Palm presents live salsa every Friday and Saturday night.
Asked why the Bronx is known as El Condado de la Salsa, Agosto says, "Well, a lot of the dancers reside in the Bronx Orchard Beach, Bedford Park. A lot of the salsa concerts take place in the Bronx and there are a lot of popular dance schools that support salsa. Therefore, when people go dancing in other boroughs and see people dancing salsa they ask, By the way, whered did you learn to dance? Thats where the name comes from."
Although its only six years old, Jimmys Bronx Café (281 West Fordham Road, corner of the Major Deegan) is already a Bronx nightclub staple. Jimmys self-proclaimed "VIP Guy," popular local comedian Casper Martinez, says that Jimmys is the place to go and hear live salsa on a Saturday night. On other nights, Jimmys deejays play a mix of salsa, merengue, house and other popular music.
"Wow. You come up on Friday or Saturday night and see people coming from all the boroughs, all over the world to our club, for the music and food," says Jimmys proprietor Jimmy Rodriguez. "The African-American community is in love with salsa and merengue right now. Ive been around for 15 to 18 years in the party scene, and Ive never seen the African-American community in love with salsa the way they are now. We do a little bit of everything salsa for 20 minutes, then merengue, then hip-hop and R&B."
"Its been 40 or 50 years," says Jimmy of the Bronxs musical legacy. "Back in the days of all the social clubs, everywhere you went you could find salsa all over the Bronx."
But is the Bronx still a hub of Latin Nightlife? "Well theres no place like the Bronx for Latin music. Willies and Jimmys and the restaurants and nightclubs they keep the flavor," he says.
Martinez, meanwhile, has a more grassroots explanation for the El Condado de la Salsa label. "I guess its because you go to parks in the Bronx and theres always a guy jamming with a guiro, a cowbell and a conga doom-DOOM-DOOM-doom. Thats all it ever took: a guiro, a cowbell and a couple of congas and you have el verano en Nueva York."
Willies Steak House (1832 Westchester Ave.) Has been a Bronx fixture for over 20 years. Lately, its reputation for Latin Jazz is starting to overtake its reputation for great steaks. On Wednesday nights, Willies is packed to the gills with a friendly crowd of Latin-jazz fans from the neighborhood and around the city.
And, still going strong after all these years, Orchard Beach continues to be ideal place doe a salsa or merengue show, with the sun and the surf providing the tropical backdrop for the Caribbean sounds.
Local promoter Ralph Paniagua Jr. has been putting on salsa and merengue shows at Orchard Beach for the past five years. This years Tropical Music Festival at Orchard Beach, with shows every Sunday afternoon through Sept. 4, includes hot artists like Grupo Niche, Hector Tricoche, Junior Gonzalez, Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez, Cuco Valoy, Conjunto Clasico and Frase Klave.
"Back in the 60's," says Paniagua, "the Bronx was the mecca of salsa. They had clubs like the Colgate Gardens, Club 310½ and the Hunts Point Palace, where you could see guys like Harry Harlow, Tito Puente, Willie Colon, Machito and Cal Tjader from noon to four in the morning for like $3.
While it seems that everyone has a slightly different explanation of the origins of the Bronxs nickname, there is one thing that they all agree on: The scene is still alive and thriving in El Condado de la Salsa.