Why You Should Go To This Celebration of Philly’s Vibrant Salsa Scene

Siempre Salsa Week will feature free dance lessons, live music, a fiesta and more!

Photo by iStock.com/101cats

Photo by iStock.com/101cats

When the late, great Celia Cruz shouted the word “¡azúcar!” during her songs, she meant more than sugar (the word’s literal translation). The interjection was a command to live, to dance, to enjoy — and to put some spice on it already.

This week hundreds of people in Philadelphia will be doing just that: Siempre Salsa Philly kicked off at noon Tuesday at City Hall and continues with Salsa-centered events through the weekend.

“We are most pleased to be honoring Felix “Pupi” Legarreta, master musician and former member of the Fania All Stars, and Wilfredo Gonzalez, former owner of Centro Musical record store for five decades,” said Rob Bernberg who, with Jesse Bermudez, founded Siempre Salsa Philly last year. “Beyond the music itself, we honor the sense of ‘community’ fundamental to our music and stress the character traits associated with a ‘true salsero.’”

L to R:

L to R: Rob Bernberg and Jesse Bermudez

Bermudez is Philadelphia salsa royalty, starting his career some 40 years ago as a performer and Latin music DJ, and eventually founding the Asociación de Artistas y Músicos Latino Americanos (AMLA), which in turn led to the creation of the Latin School for the Performing Arts (LSPA).

Bernberg is also an integral part of the Philadelphia salsa scene, having produced recordings for local salseros and as the longtime publisher of Latin Beat magazine.

So, how does a nice, Jewish lawyer become so central to the Philly salsa community?

As it happens, there are deep ties between salsa and Jewish communities in the Northeast. Last year, Bermudez and Bernberg presented a program at the Gershman Y on the “Jewish Side of Salsa.”

“No joke, the entire Latin music wave — cha cha, mambo, rhumba — including the earliest days of salsa, started in the Catskill Mountains, when Jewish vacationers and Latin workers at the hotels realized that they shared a love for the music,” Bernberg said. “The music found its way back to the city’s broader population in the form of salsa via Jewish radio personalities such as Symphony Sid and Dick Sugar. Famed Fania All Star, Larry Harlow, a product of that era, is widely recognized as ‘The Marvelous Jew.’”

New York’s Fania record label — which brought together and produced the Fania All Stars — was to salsa what Motown was to soul music. Pupi Legarreta was a member of the legendary ensemble, Bernberg tells me, as was Ismael Miranda, the vocalist that will be featured at the Hispanic Fiesta at Penn’s Landing on Sunday.

Bronx-born and Paramus-raised, Bernberg came to Philadelphia to attend Temple School of Law. After selling his law practice in 1994, he “came into contact with salsa locally via Jesse Bermudez’s AMLA program and subsequently produced Carlos Sanchez y su Orquesta del Barrio’s first two recordings.”

“As I shopped Orquesta del Barrio’s first recording to members of the industry, I encountered my future Latin Beat magazine partners, Rudy and Yvette Mangual, at a music conference in Miami,” he said. “I quickly recognized that they and their mission were something special, so I was fortunate enough to be welcomed in to the family.”

Bernberg added, “My dream for the salsa scene in Philadelphia is to make the music and the community from which it emanates more accessible to non-Latinos throughout the region. Salsa music and dance is now being embraced globally for good reason, and our job is to expedite that process in our own backyard as a way of making people ‘healthier and happier.’”

In addition to the Lifetime Achievement awards, Tuesday’s kickoff acknowledged Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez’s support of Philadelphia’s community of artists and fans of salsa music, Bernberg said. And he’s excited about the other Siempre Salsa Philly events scheduled for the week: The Siempre Salsa Philly All Stars, “comprised of the region’s top salsa recording artists,” are slated to perform at the Piazza at Schmidt’s Commons on Wednesday, July 6th. The event will open with a dance lesson by the Philadelphia Dance Foundation.

“On Friday, we celebrate ‘Jesse Bermudez Day’ at The Painted Bride, featuring Pablo Batista and the Mambo Syndicate,” Bernberg added. “Plain and simple, Jesse Bermudez has effectively functioned as our city’s Latin Music Ambassador for the past 50 years.”

“Nothing,” Bernberg said, “builds bridges between cultures better than salsa music.”

• • •

Siempre Salsa Week events

Wednesday, July 6th, 6:30-10 p.m.:

The Siempre Salsa All Stars, featuring recording artists Anthony Colon, Carlos Sanchez, Adriel Gonzalez, Diana Oliveras, Elvis Bonilla, Juan Garcia and Joseph Cartagena.

Dance lesson by the Philadelphia Dance Foundation at 6:30 p.m.

Schmidt’s Commons, formerly the Piazza, American Street, near 2nd & Girard streets.

Free event. All ages.

Thursday, July 7th, 9 -11:30 p.m.:

Siempre Salsa Philly Party with DJ George, featuring Orquesta del Barrio.

Dance lesson at 9 p.m, followed by live music.

Parx Casino Latin Night.

Free event. Must be 21.

Friday, July 8th, 8 p.m.:

Siempre Salsa Philly and Salsa Caliente present “Jesse Bermudez Day,” featuring Pablo Batista & Mambo Syndicate.

Dance lesson by Flaco’s Dance Machine at 8 p.m., to be immediately followed by live music.

The Painted Bride Arts Center.

Tickets at paintedbride.org

Saturday, July 9th, 11 a.m.-1:00 p.m.:

Open house and Salsa legends reunion.

Centro Musical Record Store, 5th and Lehigh streets.

Free event, open to the public.

Saturday, July 9th & Sunday, July 10th, 2 to 8 p.m.:

Concilio’s 35th Annual Hispanic Fiesta.

Penns Landing.

Info at elconcilio.net.

Sabrina Vourvoulias is an award-winning columnist with bylines at The Guardian USCity & State, Tor.com and Strange Horizons. Her novel, Ink, was named one of Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012. Follow her on Twitter @followthelede.