Latin Communities of DC: Music and Dance

Some background on Sofia Besosa’s project on Latin music communities in DC

Sofia’s approach to this ethnomusicology project was to research about the art influence of the Latin communities of Washington, D.C., mainly focusing on its dance and music. The goal of the project was to get a grasp of the history and present influence of this community on DC music and dance as a whole. The DC Latin scene is a collaboration of members originating from many different Latin countries as a whole. In DC, these different cultures are not segregated from each other, but rather integrate the different musical and dance aspects that excel in each country to create an environment where they can communicate in Spanish, dance, and listen to Latin music.

Sofia first became interested in this project because she is Latina herself. She was raised in Dominican Republic and came to Washington, D.C. four years ago to pursue her college career. Since she has been here, she has not had the chance to explore the Latin perspective and communities around the city. Utilizing  this project, she was able to take advantage of the opportunity to explore this field. She couldn’t have been happier with the choice she made because she learned so much and met so many wonderful people from this community. Pursuing this project made her realize how much she loves Latin music and how proud it makes her to have it influence such a prestigious city like Washington, D.C.

Latin Communities in Washington, D.C.: Music and Dance

One of the most prominent cultural aspects of Latin Communities is the performing arts, especially music and dance. For the majority of Latinos, this characteristic is one that brings a lot of pride and joy into who we are and what it means to be from a Latin American country. Through music and dance, one can somewhat truly depict the general persona of a Latino. The lyrics, rhythm and melodies incorporated in the music can generally portray that ‘Latin flavor’ most people are familiar with, and the accompanied dancing to it creates a more passionate connection to the general notion of Latin performing arts. It is this uniqueness of adding a specific dance style to the different Latin music genres that makes it so important for Latinos.

Music and dance also serve as a gateway to remember home: your country, family and friends. In almost every cultural activity imaginable, there is never a doubt that music can be incorporated, so for those who are away from their home country, listening and dancing to the music can bring back past memories and a glimpse of being back home. This is what actually happened to me as I was doing this project. Every time I would listen or dance to this music it created an inner joy that is just so hard to find anywhere else. It is a combination of the remembrance of the humbleness portrayed by the people from my country, and the gratification of knowing that this is the music that represents who I am.

Latin Music Style

Latin America has produced many successful worldwide artists that have served in sharing the music with the world. Latin music is unique due to the rhythmic structure it is assembled upon. It is the strongest characteristic and is highly syncopated and when the various rhythms from all the instruments are being played at the same time, it creates a rhythmic counterpoint and brings about exciting cross rhythms. The general instrumentation consists of percussion, namely the timbales, congas, bongos and clave, guitar, bass, piano, woodwinds and a brass section that mostly consists of trumpets and trombones. There are a lot of different styles of Latin music that originated from different countries, but the most known and the ones that I will focus on for the project are salsa and merengue.

Salsa originated from Cuba and it is generally the most popular dance music among Latin American countries. Ultimately, salsa’s popularity spread globally due to its unique style and incorporated dance. The basic building base for salsa is the clave that consists of a 3-2 rhythmic pattern and a very popular form is the call and response which consists of a musical exchange between two voices usually including a ‘coro’ (chorus).

Merengue originated from Dominican Republic and has become very popular throughout the world due to the more manageable integrated dance. There are three main types of merengue known: ‘merengue tipico’, big band merengue and guitar merengue. All of these have a general fast arrangement with a 2/4 beat that suggests the easy approach to its dance.

CLIP 1: Latin Music Styles

Interviewees

For me, one of the most complicated parts of the project was to find musicians that would grant me an interview. I didn’t know where to look for them, since I hadn’t really been around the Latin Community scene here in Washington DC. But after some research, I found a Cuban restaurant called ‘Habana Village’, located at Adams Morgan, to be very popular to the Latin Communities especially for the salsa dancing held Thursdays and Saturdays and the Latin group ‘Grupo Ritmo y Sabor’ that plays live every Friday. I called right away and spoke to Oscar, the director, bassist and lead vocalist of the live band. He was extremely welcoming and granted me an audio interview. After I met with him, I was intrigued by his band and decided to go that following Friday night to listen to them. I brought my gear with me to the restaurant and definitely felt like an outcast; I had my huge glasses on, my enormous backpack with my computer and recording microphone inside, and just really looked out of place. Everyone was ready to dance, women with their heels on, men looking for their next dance partner and there I was with my schoolgirl look; it was definitely an experience. Oscar had told me that I could ask the pianist (Patricio Downling- the second interviewee) and saxophonist (Sergio) of the band for an interview while they were taking their thirty-minute break and so I did exactly that. Thankfully they both agreed and with a couple of beers (THEM, not me) and a VIP audio interview at Habana Village’s own kitchen, I had very useful information to complete my Midterm Podcast. Coincidentally I met Jose, the salsa dancer, that same night while watching the band perform and asked him for a future interview in which he agreed on.

CLIP 2: Habana Village and Grupo Ritmo y Sabor

PATRICIO DOWNLING

Patricio is an American born and raised in Washington DC. He is currently the piano player in the Latin band that plays at Habana Village ‘Grupo Ritmo y Sabor’. He has been interested in Latin music from the first time he listened to it when he was fifteen. Ever since then, he has been involved in the Latin scene performing with various different types of bands. Due to him been from DC and having such an influence and involvedness on Latin music, I was certain that he was going to be extremely helpful in grasping the Latin communities of Washington DC. Thanks to his general knowledge and experiences with these communities, I could really comprehend the Latin scene of Performing Arts here in DC.

One of the aspects of the Latin Communities in DC that Patricio emphasized on was how it has a great Latin scene but no industry at all. Washington DC is a very abundantly diverse city when it comes to the Latin Community; there are many different Latinos from different countries throughout. The unique aspect that Patricio has realized over the years of these communities is that DC has a great Latin ambiance in comparison to New York. Latinos are not segregated into different areas as seen in NY; the Latinos here prefer to create an environment where they could listen to Latin music in general and appreciate each style from all the different countries rather than separate themselves and pursue their own country’s music. Another great aspect that DC has is that it been the capital of the USA and a prestigious city, a lot of Latinos have come here to pursue in studies. This therefore led to having high level of educated people in the Latin communities. These are all aspects that explain why DC has a distinguished Latin scene but no industry at all. The problem lies in the money. Patricio says that Latin music is not a field to take on if you want to make money. Due to its competitive atmosphere for gaining the most money out of the Latin music scene, one will end up hating the music and lack that appreciation of what making music is all about. Patricio states his point of view and probably many other Latin musicians’ that Latin music should be pursued as a hobby. As you will see in the video clip of Patricio’s interview, he also discusses how the organization of Latin bands changed over the years. He states all his personal insights on the topic and many others.

CLIP 3: Latin Music: Patricio

JOSE

Jose was born and raised in the Dominican Republic up until he was eighteen years old when his family moved to New York and he later came to live in Washington DC. He is currently a salsa instructor in many places and one of them is Habana Village. He became interested in dance from a very early age due to culture; dance being a huge tradition in Dominican society. In his interview he states how much he loves to dance and the bliss it brings to him and that is why he really enjoys being an instructor and helping others feel the same way too. After the interview I actually had a dance session with him and could tell that he has fun and wants everyone to feel welcoming and confident while dancing, without feeling insecure about making mistakes. His general view of Latin dance is a sensual one. He believes that the movements involved in salsa, merengue, tango and other Latin dances transmit sensuality and most of all deliver the Spanish culture and aesthetic it all originated from. The way that the woman transmits her affection towards wanting to dance and how the man takes control over it is clearly shown through the steps. He also believes that Latin music has progressed and become popular over time, expanding and emphasizing the dances involved. His view of DC is one with a lot of diversity but states how he believes that New York has a greater Latin orientation.

Something very interesting from Jose’s interview was his perspective of being Dominican but having lived in the United States from a very young age. He states that he was always aware of his roots and never forgot about his dear homeland Dominican Republic. Jose was always connected to the culture when he lived here, he would watch the famous TV shows from back home, listen to the Radio and talk to some family and friends that still lived there. His family will also have big dinners with homemade food and their outings to church every Sunday that kept that Dominican feel. Obviously the most important aspect that Jose lived through his life in the US that will hold his ethnicity true was the love for dance and music. One thing that he said that really stuck to me because I feel it too is how coming from a third world country really shapes and affects your persona. We both come from an environment where you see poverty and people in horrible circumstances on the streets, but still manage to have a smile on and keep on going. This is a perspective that many Latin cultures have due to the circumstances the countries have been in. That humble and positive perspective of ‘keep moving forward’ and be happy and dance is something Jose really stated that has made him successful in life. He is very proud of being Dominican and even more proud of carrying this title and persona into also being a US citizen.

How the project changed over the semester

Sofia’s first approach to the project was to explore only the Dominican communities of DC. She quickly realized that she was unable to find musicians who are strictly Dominican and realized it wasn’t a large enough community to focus on for such a project. Upon further inspection, Sofia realized that the different country-specific Latin communities prefer to have a more broad and mixed Latin environment, rather than separated by country of origin. She therefore decided to focus more generally on the Latin community in Washington, D.C., with the heart of it in Columbia Heights.

Credits

Sofia would like to thank Oscar, the director of ‘Grupo Ritmo y Sabor’ (a Latin band that plays at Habana Village) for being her first interviewee. He gave Sofia her first change to listen to the band and provided information on the different songs from all eras in Latin Music. She would also like to thank Patricio Dowling for being extremely helpful in providing extensive information for the project. He was the main focus of my project due to being raised here in Washington, D.C. and being involved in the Latin scene for many years. Sofia would also like to give thanks to Jose for his information on Latin dance and his experience as an instructor. He also was very helpful in trying to grasp the influence of being a Dominican raised in the States. Finally thanks to Habana Village Restaurant for being so welcoming and letting Sofia enjoy their food and music while doing interviews and recording performances.

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