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St. Petersburg Times

'Mr Salsa' Spices Local Latin Scene


May 14, 2004
Copyright © 2004 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

Mr. Salsa is bopping. Jitterbugging. Shiftily whirling from corner to corner in his spacious Valrico kitchen.

Actually, he's brewing a cup of Cuban coffee. But fans of Latin music know the lively Izzy "Mr. Salsa'' Sanabria is capable of busting a move at any time.

"I'm a great dancer,'' says Sanabria, who, like the neon "Mr. Salsa'' sign in his home office, is a constant, crackling buzz of energy. "The rhythm is in my legs.''

It isn't just braggadocio. A flashy dancer who dabbled in comedy and bathed in promotion, Sanabria was a driving force in popularizing the term "salsa,'' especially as it applied to the fusion of Spanish, Puerto Rican and Afro-Cuban rhythms found in Latin dance clubs in New York in the 1970s.

Sanabria was also a prolific album cover and concert poster artist, creating designs for Tito Puente, Celia Cruz and Ruben Blades, among others.

He hosted a weekly Soul Train-style television program, Salsa, and ran a magazine, Latin NY, that chronicled with exuberance the city's Latin scene from 1973 to 1985.

Now, Sanabria lives in Valrico with a wife and 10-year-old daughter, raking leaves and meeting friends for lunch at La Teresita in Tampa.

But he's working on a plan to bring the salsa beat to Ybor City. Sanabria is trying to build interest in a proposed Salsa Museum and Cultural Center to house and display his immense collection of salsa-themed artwork, photographs and film stock.

"There isn't a single person I've met in the Latin community that doesn't know Izzy,'' says his partner on the museum project, Elisa Abolafia of St. Petersburg.

Mr. Salsa, as it turned out, nearly ended up Mr. Country.

Growing up in New York, young Israel Sanabria favored the cowboy sounds of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Later, he pumped nickel after nickel into jukeboxes stocked with Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Platters.

In late 1950s, Tito Puente's syncopated mambo beats finally caught his teenage ear. Sanabria fell in love with artists like Puente, Willie Colon and the Fania All-Stars and their sexy, popping blend of African, Cuban and Puerto Rican rhythms.

In Latin dance clubs, Sanabria found a place to showcase his creative, outgoing personality.

"Since early childhood, I was an artist, a writer, great reader, and also onstage all the time,'' he said. "They didn't know what to do with kids like me then. I was marked incorrigible.''

He enrolled in art school and created concert posters and album covers for rising Latin music stars. In nearly every endeavor, he used the word salsa, a term long derided by some more established musicians, but embraced by New York's underground Latinos who preferred a fusion of sounds.

It was partly a matter of promotion, he said, especially in the pages of Latin NY.

"I used salsa very much like Playboy uses sex,'' he said. "I covered a lot of very important issues pertaining to the mindset of Latinos at that time, but the most popular art form was the music.''

Sanabria was featured in the pages of GQ and the New York Times. He even says a major Latin music awards show he organized in 1975 directly led to the creation of more Latin music categories at the Grammy Awards.

"The music itself is growing,'' Sanabria says. "All these musicians are traveling around the world now, bringing this music.''

Last June, Sanabria and his wife, Judith, realized their house in New Jersey had doubled in value. Judith always had wanted to live in Florida, so they packed up their 10-year-old daughter, Jacqueline, and headed to Hillsborough County.

It didn't take long for Sanabria to sniff out Tampa Bay's Latin music scene. He met Abolafia at a Latin club; together, they hatched the idea of a museum.

"His ideas and what he has in his warehouse is phenomenal,'' Abolafia said. "And we thought Tampa Bay was the place to do it.''

However, the project lacks both funding and a timetable. Sanabria has attracted interest from Centro Ybor and Paul Wilborn, the city of Tampa's creative industries manager, but they have yet to file the proper paperwork to make the museum a reality.

Nonetheless, he is hopeful.

"In me, you have a one-stop,'' he says. "In other words, I could start a museum all by myself. From that, you grow.''

- Jay Cridlin can be reached at 661-2442 or


NICKNAME: Mr. Salsa.

AGE: 64.

FAMILY: Wife, Judith Rosado, son Marc, 36, daughters Barbara-Jinnette, 20, and Jacqueline, 10.

BIRTHPLACE: Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.

HE KNEW HE'D LEFT NEW YORK: When he was treated kindly by workers at the local Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

COUNTERCULTURAL MOMENT: "I went to Woodstock in '69 with a white hippie girl that had a guitar on her back and went barefoot.''

PRIZE POSSESSION: A tambura, an Indian sitar-like instrument, that rests on a pedestal in his living room. He paid $350 for it in 1971.


SOME OF HIS FAVORITES: Willie Colon's La Gran Fuga, Ray Barretto's Que Viva La Musica.

PEOPLE: Israel "Izzy' Sanabria

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