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Orlando Sentinel

Salsa Finds Fans Among Island's Young

By Iván Román

March 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The young and not so young marked the generations-old beat clapping in unison, tapping beer cans in their hands.

Under a brilliant sun fitting for the hot music, tens of thousands of people in the XIX National Salsa Day sang the words to now-classic tunes such as "Piragüero" ("Snow Cone Vendor") and "Sonido Bestial" ("Marvelous Sound").

Most of those crammed into San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium last Sunday weren't even born when the songs were hits in the 1960s and '70s. The music should have been like ancient history for 3-year-old Jewel Andres Rivera Delgado. But he banged on the cowbell like it was second nature. "I was born into this, and it looks like he's following the same path," said Luis Rivera Hernandez, 26, a police officer from the Santurce section of San Juan. "This is our root, the congas, the drums, the sticks, the skins of Africa."

The outing is a tradition in his family. His father brought him to the first National Salsa Day when he was 7. In the past, the concert, sponsored by an all-salsa radio station, has featured newer salsa figures with a homogenous sound.

But this year, the festival paid tribute to Ruben Blades, the king of "salsa with a conscience." It was about the old salsa, the salsa developed from Puerto Rico's turbulent sociological history."I am 50 and these young people with me are 20," said Angel Crespo Feliciano, a letter carrier from Carolina. "Here I can have a great time with my son, enjoying the rhythm that our country gives us and that proves we are Caribbean. Salsa doesn't die but keeps reviving itself."

They sang along to Cano Estremera's ditty highlighting the island's environment and its people's idiosyncrasies: "Dice mi gallo kikirikí, la culpa de todo la tiene el coquí." ("My rooster kikirikí told me to blame everything on the coquí," the island's tree frog.)

And to Tito Nieves and Conjunto Clasico's lament about the realities of decades past: "Ya se fueron los Rodriguez, no se sabe para donde, dejaron su terruñito, se fueron del monte." ("The Rodriguez family left, no one knows to where, they left their land behind, they left the countryside.")

Of course, the realities in today's industrialized island are quite different. But for generations X and Y, their parents' and grandparents' salsa helps them understand their culture."This is what is written from the heart," said Maria Narvaez, 31, an airline passenger-service agent who remembers hearing the songs all around her while growing up in New York. "The new salsa is too commercial, too many love stories. The old salsa touches us. It's about our struggle as Puerto Ricans, and the struggle goes on."

Blades, who is from Panama, topped off the nine-hour salsa marathon with two hours of his universal songs that also struck a chord among these die-hard salseros.

"Pablo Pueblo, hijo del grito y la calle, de la miseria y del hambre. Pablo Pueblo, su alimento es la esperanza, su paso no lleva prisa, su sombra nunca lo alcanza." ("Pablo Pueblo, child of emotion and the street, of misery and hunger. Pablo Pueblo, his food is hope, his feet are in no hurry, his shadow never catches up with him.")

Blades suddenly went to the left of the stage where 10-year-old Ronald "Bambam" Ortiz of Toa Baja played wooden bongos. Blades held the microphone as Bambam played his heart out to the cheering crowd.

"You see? This is about the new generation," Narvaez said. "How cute!"

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