Salsa night celebrates first year

By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer

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Ron Casselberry (left) of Cleveland dances Mary Ciesa of Akron during salsa night at the Uncorked Wine Bar in Akron. (Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal)

Tonight at the Uncorked Wine Bar, Akron’s only regular salsa night will celebrate 365 days of inspiring swiveling hips, sexy dancing and a little cultural exchange.

The first anniversary shindig will include a band and a demonstration by a trio of professional dancers called Los Sabrosos, both Salsa Night firsts.

Salsa Night was created by a small local group of friends, mostly international grad students, who are all involved in the more vibrant Cleveland salsa scene. The group wanted to bring the music, dancing and camaraderie of the North Coast scene down to Akron and for a time alternated its biweekly salsa nights at two downtown nightspots, the Uncorked Wine Bar and Paolo’s.

But for my money, Uncorked always felt like Salsa Night’s true home, with regulars and curious first-timers getting their salsa, bachata, and meringue on. And, as most folks who have attempted to get something like this started in Akron find, maintaining an audience can be the most difficult part, so getting folks to salsa dance every two weeks for a year is worthy of a self pat on the back.

“I do feel a sense of accomplishment and I am happy that people are interested and excited about our events and hope [they] still will be for years,” said Esra Cipa, a co-creator of Salsa Night along with Jason Nehez and Ravi Uppal.

“The crowd is still pretty good and 77 people responded on Facebook [to the first anniversary announcement]. We might have the largest crowd of the year,” she said.

Cipa and crew have long wanted to have a live band at Salsa Night, but one of the more important rules/aspects of Salsa Night is that it remains a no-cover night. So, the nice folks at Uncorked, owned by Tony and Jill Troppe, stepped in to help out.

“They told me they are willing to pay for the band since it’s our first-year anniversary,” Cipa said. “For the performers, one of my good friends [and regular], Daniel Bonafini, told me that he would cover the cost for the dancers.” Chef Cesar Mugaburu, owner of Nazca restaurant and bar in Warrensville Heights, will provide complimentary food.

If you’re curious but have never been to Salsa Night and perhaps have two left feet, don’t worry. One of the reasons Salsa Night is fun is because it is a non-judgmental space where folks of all skill levels can get in the groove together.

One night, I watched a young man struggle mightily and determinedly with the most basic salsa steps while his buddies chuckled at his awkwardness. Twenty minutes later, my man was out on the floor (awkwardly) dancing and spinning a lady around while his buddies sat at the bar, cheering him on.

I’ve seen middle-aged couples doing their own version of salsa dancing, staring lovingly into each other’s eyes and an older gentleman still in his work clothes respectfully get his groove on with any young woman who would accept his invitation to boogie.

There are free lessons an hour before the official 9 p.m. start time and the evening doesn’t have the usual dance club/meat market atmosphere. Folks of all ages feel comfortable switching partners frequently.

The evening’s live music will be provided by relatively new Akron-based Timba band Ahi-Nama led by pianist and Akron native Alex Hoyt. The band — Hoyt, bassist Matthew DeRubertis, percussionists Nate Volenik, Chris Baker and Dan Kshywonis, trombonist Jason Hadgis, trumpeter Tim Coyne and saxophonist Nathan-Paul Davis — consists of schooled musicians from the universities of Akron, Illinois and Kent State.

As with most musical genres there are many subgenres and offshoots of salsa. Ahi-Nama is a Timba band, which is salsa music born in Cuba from the ’90s to now as opposed to the traditional “New York Style” salsa that gained some crossover fame in the ’70s and ’80s.

Hoyt, who recently moved back to Akron after spending five years in Miami, confesses to being fascinated with and absorbing copious amounts of Afro-Cuban music. He said Timba music incorporates more contemporary jazz and funk influences along with contemporary instruments such as full drum sets and synthesizers and allows for more experimental grooves.

“The appeal of this genre to a jazz musician is a chance to play improvisational jazz at the same time a powerful dance groove is created,” Hoyt said. “Not many styles of jazz can claim to be as danceable, and not many styles of Latin music can claim to be as improvisational as Timba or modern Latin Jazz. For us it’s the best of both worlds.”

Hoyt moved back to Akron in part to start a Timba band.

“In Miami, nobody was starving to hear Timba or Latin music of any kind. In Ohio, it would be a brand new flavor to expose to people,” he said.

“For sure, there are Latin bands in Cleveland which are excellent, but they almost exclusively play classic salsa. Ahi-Nama is really the only band in the area focusing on a more modern, Cuban-style approach. … The music is accessible and tropical sounding and who in Ohio couldn’t use a bit of warmth right about now?” Hoyt said.

While jazz cats have long had an underserved reputation for “playing to impress each other” onstage, Hoyt said “Having folks dance to anything we play gives us a huge boost emotionally and physically and dramatically brings up the entire energy level of the gig.”

And to ensure that folks dance, the band, which performs classics, originals and Latinized versions of jazz standards, will play a setlist specifically geared toward dancers and not just Latin jazz/Timba fans.

“We’ll use the pieces in our book that fit the tempos and styles salsa dancers are most familiar with,” Hoyt said. “We won’t play our most experimental-type pieces or those at blinding tempos, instead selecting those which give the dancers the best chance to demonstrate what they know and what they’ve learned. Also, the songs themselves will be shortened a bit so that people can catch a break or switch partners,” Hoyt said.

If it sounds like I’m cheerleading a bit, it’s because Salsa Night really is a fun way to spend a couple of hours, dancing, drinking and mingling with a wide variety of folks from all over Ohio and the world. Even if you never put down your wine glass and get on the floor, watching folks have a good time while stool-dancing to the infectious grooves is still a pretty good Thursday night out on the town.

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, or follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.


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