Siempre Salsa Philly co-founder Carlos Sanchez (center) playing with Un Toque de Cache in City Hall.

Siempre Salsa Philly co-founder Carlos Sanchez (center) playing with Un Toque de Cache in City Hall.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

How this local initiative plans to grow Philly’s salsa music scene

Siempre Salsa Philly is hosting a weeklong event series with the goal of reaching new audiences.

Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

Siempre Salsa Philly Week is underway. Founded three years ago by key players in the musical genre’s local community, Siempre Salsa Philly aims to grow the city’s scene. Organizers find encouragement in recent success, but say it’s taken some time.

Today, Siempre Salsa Philly will celebrate at Concilio’s Hispanic Fiesta at Penn’s Landing. Tonight, they’ll host an awards ceremony where they’ll honor local musicians Mino Cruz, Elba “Candy” Dormoi and Victor Aday. Their ceremony will also include a salsa course for beginners before a full-on party.

“It’s not easy to blow your ethnic music up,” said Jesse Bermudez, a legend in the scene and a Siempre Salsa Philly co-founder. After founding the Asociación de Músicos Latino Americanos, he also founded Philadelphia’s first Hispanic music school, AMLA’s Latin School for the Performing Arts, in Juniata in 2006. “One thing is to work with the artists. And another thing is to figure out how to make this music grow, to put in the ear of people who haven’t heard it.”

Philly’s salsa history

Philadelphia’s salsa scene traces back to the 1960s, as the genre was developing in its hometown, New York City. The size of Philly’s Puerto Rican population soared in the 1940s through 1970s, as islanders migrated, often for the promise of better employment opportunities. LuzSelenia Salas won the Siempre Salsa Philly Salsa Citizen award for her work in the community at a City Hall reception Thursday. She’s a photographer who’s been documenting the scene since 1972.

In the ‘60s, salsa wasn’t just beloved in Philly’s Latino community; it was embraced by Hispanic musicians around the country and in the Caribbean.

“I got interested in the music of my culture,” said Bermudez. In the ’70s, Philly soul made a lasting impression on rhythm blues, while later in the decade rocker Todd Rundgren and duo Hall & Oates became hits. “All the other music in the city was moving, but ours wasn’t recognized,” said Bermudez, at that time already a respected DJ and promoter.

“I think Siempre Salsa Philly has made a difference.” Salas said after the City Hall event. “Having an event like that open to the public, it’s easily accessible and they have different bands that they come to hear. It started off slow, but now it’s come to a point where [the audience] is a lot more.”

At the Siempre Salsa Philly Week reception. Left to right: Jesse Bermudez, SSP co-founder; Rob Bernberg, SSP co-founder; Willie Ruiz, honoree; Pablo “Chino” Nunez, honoree; Quetcy Lozada, chief of staff to Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez; Ray Collazo, honoree; Carlos Sanchez, SSP co-founder.

At the Siempre Salsa Philly Week reception. Left to right: Jesse Bermudez, SSP co-founder; Rob Bernberg, SSP co-founder; Willie Ruiz, honoree; Pablo “Chino” Nunez, honoree; Quetcy Lozada, chief of staff to Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez; Ray Collazo, honoree; Carlos Sanchez, SSP co-founder.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Why growing a salsa music audience can be challenging

“There is still a great traditional audience for salsa music,” said Rob Bernberg, Siempre Salsa Philly co-founder and Latin Beat magazine’s co-publisher. “But there’s an even greater opportunity to grow our music, but because there’s so many non-Latinos who love our music but don’t necessarily have access to it.”

Bermudez and other local musicians noticed that one roadblock could be how musicians were treated. It was once common for salsa artists to play hourslong shows for meager pay. Bermudez coordinated a strike in protest of the low wages in 1982, and roughly 125 musicians turned out. This was an early action for organizing for what would become Asociación de Músicos Latino Americanos. In 2006, Bermudez would also found Artístas y Músicos Latino Americanos as a nonprofit.

Salas says even today, pay for salsa players isn’t always great.

But it’s not just wages. Salsa bands are often large, which makes them expensive. Many fans expect to hear not a trio, but a salsa orchestra.  “In order to have quality salsa music you need a quality band of 10 or 11 pieces to get it right,” said Bernberg.

Then there’s the struggling of securing places to play. “Most of the time we’re just looking for venues,” said Bermudez. In the ’80s, Bermudez turned to the Painted Bride in an era when Hispanic promoters were often rejected. Bermudez still regularly throws events at the Painted Bride, and still encounters difficulty booking shows and parties. Bernberg noted that the club Brasil’s, the restaurants Cuba Libre and Lucha Cartel are welcoming, but few other locations downtown consistently are. “[Venues] hire their own curators, but most of the time they don’t know about the culture of what they’re presenting,” he said.

But he isn’t too concerned about the trouble they’ve faced with booking so far. “We are confident we can find the venues or create our own venues,” he said.

How Siempre Salsa Philly plans to expand the scene

One primary means for outreach is events. Bermudez hosts a regular party at the Painted Bride called Salsa Caliente.  In warmer months, the initiative throws a First Friday dance party at the Piazza. They’ve partnered with the Philadelphia Dance Foundation to offer free salsa lessons before each one. “We do a little dance class then we hit it,” said Bermudez. When that event first got started as a seasonal monthly party last year, maybe a 100 people would come through. Now, they see crowds of 700.

The second key approach has been through Facebook. Their main page has roughly 2,170 followers, and a second page, New to Salsa, has approximately 690. On both pages, they promote events and share clips of performances, but the latter is targeting newcomers more specifically.

Salsa, first championed by Puerto Rican and Cuban communities in New York, has been viewed as a quintessential genre for U.S. Latinos. Millennial Hispanics are also consuming newer styles, though, like hip hop-influenced music from Mexico and reggaeton. A 2013 MTV Tr3s study found that the top choice for Latin music consumers over 35 was salsa and merengue, but for those under 35, it was regional Mexican music. If salsa’s current audience is aging, that’s one reason for branching out.

The crunch that digital music trends have placed on the music industry provides an additional reason to seek fans outside of salsa’s OG audience. Bernberg doesn’t view digital music trends as bleak, rather, he sees opportunity in online music discovery. Latin music in the U.S. has long been enjoyed by non-Hispanic consumers; Billboard reported in 2016 that more and more Latin music industry professionals have been trying to market to its multicultural audience.

“We don’t need to feel negative on account of there being this vast pool of non-Latinos between 20-year-olds to 50-year-olds that have a great demand for our music,” said Bernberg. If the Siempre Salsa Philly events continue to draw hundreds of listeners (and dancers), their hope is to broker partnerships that could cover the costs of a proper ensemble. Yesterday’s event at the Piazza wasn’t sponsored, but Bernberg hopes that will change for upcoming editions.  “We’re looking more for corporate sponsors for funding our music, and I think that’s the way we’re going in the future.”

Bermudez said their plan is to keep pushing, to keep reaching listeners who might not be as exposed.  “We know one thing: Once we put the music out there to the people, they enjoy it,” he said. “It’s just about finding settings.”