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Salsa Music, Lifeblood of Cali
You step through the dark entrance, leaving the tropical night behind. Suddenly, waves of sound crash above you like in the ocean. Breaking out of sweat, your heart beats to the rhythm of bass, bongo, bells and brass. The walls seem to pulsate. The pungent smell of sweat mixed with perfume attacks me. As your eyes adjust to the darkness, broken by the hypnotic flashes of multi-colored flashing lights, and you realize that you’re not surrounded by walls, but by dancers—lots of dancers spinning, twisting, and twirling, limbs flashing, hips thrusting into the quarter—time has passed. You fill his lungs with the spicy aroma, he tightens his belt and dives in. Welcome to Chango’s in Cali, Colombia – one of the hottest salsa nightclubs in Latin America.
Cali, a modern, festive city, lies in the heart of the “valley”. when Colombians say “the valley,” they mean the Cauca Valley, a not-so-small Garden of Eden one hundred and fifty miles long and about fifteen miles wide between the Coast Ranges and the Central Cordillera. Until the turn of the century, this valley was little more than a rural outpost.
Then the Cauca Valley, with about 15,000 inhabitants, was largely cattle country, distributed among the “haciendados” in vast tracts. They were proud, almost haughty men who raised cattle for leather and beef. Some used sugar cane plantations to produce the sweetener “panela” and to distill the crystal clear but strong “aguardiente” that is still sipped today. Life was slow, measured, patriarchal and unchanging.
It has been said that the Cauca region is to Colombia what the South is to the United States. Indeed, there are similarities. In the olden days, “the hidalgos walked the uncovered ‘bridges’ in coats of velvet or scarlet broadcloth embroidered with gold and silver and buttoned, their flowered silk waistcoats and shirt frills made of the finest batiste,” says author Kathleen Romoli. Colombia: Gateway to. South America. And as in the southern states of the colonial fringes, large numbers of slaves were imported to work the fields and serve the gentry.
Time has brought many changes. Even today, huge sugar cane plantations cover the valley. Mechanized cotton, rice, and cattle production turned the Cauca Valley into Colombia’s most important agricultural area after “King Coffee.” And with economic growth came industry. Cali is a pleasant colonial city in 1900 and has grown into a large manufacturing center with over a thousand industries.
Salsa is in the air
Despite the changes, Cali has retained its homely charm, its distinct personality, and the atmosphere you’d expect in the Caribbean. Romoli describes it well:
Caliban today is not the plaza with its imposing government buildings and ranks of taxis, avenues of giant palm trees, nor the suburbs with their modern villas and churches whose bells ring out melodies instead of ringing in Bogotá. nor the busy factories. It is a pervading atmosphere of gaiety, almost gaiety. Not that it’s a city of much entertainment; Cali is not gay because of its commercial facilities for organized hijacking, but by the grace of God.
Cali attracts travelers from all over; tourists, businessmen, backpackers, scholars and students. And of course salsa fans and salsa artists. Lots of recording studios, “rumberias”, “discothèques” and “viejotecas”.
What is the appeal of Cali? The vibrant atmosphere of the city? The spectacular sunsets? The natural beauty of the soaring Andes? The commendable beauty of women? Maybe it’s the climate where it’s always June. Or is it his remarkable purity? Many cities in Colombia are clean, but Cali is so clean that it stands out. Or perhaps the trees and the flowers—the billowing crimson and purple bougainvillea falling profusely from the walls, the golden goblet dripping from the eaves, the waxen bells of the trumpet, the poinsettia bushes, the beautiful gardenias, the trees with crimson leaves and carmine blossoms, or others feather green – white flowers or pale pink clusters – a wild extravaganza of blooms, among which iridescent green-bellied hummingbirds fly even in winter.
No Salsa No Date
Cali has it all. However, for many, salsa music is undoubtedly the main attraction that lures them to this charming city. The sensual, tropical rhythm of Salsa pervades the lives of the two million plus Caleños. You will hear salsa on every bus. Go for a walk, go to school or go shopping, there’s salsa in the air. And of course, there’s Salsa on almost every one of the more than two dozen local radio stations. Throughout the city, 24 hours a day, salsa blares from loudspeakers in streets, parks, shops, cars, portable radios, and private homes. Cali lives and breathes Salsa. But why salsa? Many other musical traditions, styles, and types of folk music flourish in Cali (including traditional cumbia, where machete-wielding dancers stomp around women in frilly skirts). What’s so special about Salsa? After all, Vallenatos, a brand of folk music that dates back to the days of the Spanish conquistadors, is still hugely popular – especially when sung by Colombian Grammy winner Carlos Vives. Boleros (check out Luis Miguel’s “Inolvidable”) and Merengue still have a strong following here.
Why is this one style so ingrained in the culture? For fans, the answer is simple: “I love salsa music.” Whatever the reason for its universal popularity in Cali, salsa is more than just music, more than a dance. It’s an essential social skill, explains my friend Carmenza: “No salsa – no date.” You can’t meet other people if you can’t dance.” And that’s why there are salsa dance schools all over town. Lessons are charged by the hour. Prices range from $2 to $6 an hour, private, one-on-one instruction. Group classes sell out quickly. Salsa classes it’s not just a place to learn, but to practice and perfect your moves or pick up new ones. It’s a good ‘meeting place’ for the locals. It’s important that you dance really well, otherwise you’re boring,” says Sofia, an avid salsa fan.
Cali bills itself as the “Salsa Capital of the World,” a title won from post-Fidel Cuba and often shared with New York City. But even those who might take exception to the “capital of the world” agree that Cali is certainly “the salsa capital of South America.” Top Latin salsa artists like New York’s Jerry “King of 54th Street” Gonzalez regularly fly in to strut their stuff. Any time you see all the famous names in salsa, the artists will visit Cuba’s “Queen of Salsa”, Celia Cruz; Juan Luis Guerra, guitarist, singer and songwriter from the Dominican Republic; Frank Raul Grillo, the Cuban American aka Machito; Reuben Blades, the popular Panamanian singer, songwriter, actor and politician known for his musical innovations as well as traditional salsa; Willie Colon; Oscar d’Leon and others.
SALSA CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
And you don’t have to go far in this city of dancers to hear different styles and variations of Salsa. With 120 of the hottest dance halls, Juanchito is the beating, rhythmic heart of Cali’s salsa nightlife. Every week of the year, two hundred thousand locals flock to this eastern suburb to party. Cali is full of discos and “viejotecas” for the young and the young. Younger generations of Latinos typically prefer the softer, more sentimental music known as Salsa Romantica, popularized by bandleaders such as Eddie Santiago and Tito Nieves. Internationally popular salsa singers of the 1990s included Linda “India” Caballero and Mark Anthony. Puerto Rican based band “Puerto Rican Power” is another hot group with passionate fans in Cali and Puerto Rico.
While it’s exciting to hear famous Salsa music performers from abroad, don’t forget Cali’s many outstanding world-class bands and famous Salsa musicians who combine the old with the new. The classic and the innovative. It’s worth a trip to Cali just to hear the vibrant, unconventional sounds of Jairo Varela and Grupo Niche. Or other artists like “Son de Cali”, the all-female “Orchestra Canela” and Lisandro Meza, who also inject new blood into the Cali salsa scene. These and the intoxicating classic salsa sounds of Kike Santander, Joe Arroyo and Eddy Martinez thunder through the air and flow through the veins of “coca-colos” (late teens to early 20s) and “cuchos” in discos, salsatecas and even viejotecas , which attract the 35+ crowd.
When I arrived in Cali in 1995, I thought my salsa was fine. After all, during a summer stint in San Juan, I picked up some slick moves from a bevy of hot Puerto Rican beauties. Even in my home state of Pennsylvania, it was possible to slip out on a Friday or Saturday night and mingle with Latinos at the local Spanish watering holes. I also perfected a double quick step in a rectangular pattern and added swirls and spins to the heavy beat. I had no problem getting and keeping dance partners. Then I met a Latin cutie while on a Labor Day weekend retreat in Miami. I invited her to dinner and dancing later that week at “La Cima”, one of the best salsa clubs in town, to show her my moves. I was impressed. A year later we got married and a few more years later we moved to his native Colombia.
Colombian salsa is another beast. The style, rhythm and tempo are similar elsewhere, but the story is different on the dance floor. My feet recognized the beat but acted like they were wearing Bozo’s shoes. For a while, 1 stuck to a downtown spot like “Cuarto Venina,” which straddled the banks of the brown, knee-deep Cali River. Just listen, there’s no dancing here. The music is so subdued that you can carry on a conversation over empanadas and a cold Costeña. It could be just the right touch for a Sunday afternoon. Today, Latin cukim and 1 are considered “cuchos” (the over 35 set). It’s been ten years. We’re still here and we’re still dancing Salsa. And I’m still showing off my moves.
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