Salsa’s story from smooth to sultry

Time of article published Mar 20, 2014

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MORE than just a live music band, Manteca, a popular Afro-Caribbean act in Durban, are more about the art of music. Manteca bring their show, La Esencia del Salsa! (The Essence of Salsa!), to the Rhumbelow Theatre from March 21 to March 30.

A press release describes the show as “live music, energetic dance and intimate theatre coming together to tell the story of salsa”. It follows the journey of salsa “from the courts of King Louis XIV to the plantation slaves of the Caribbean to the dance halls of New York and the world”.

Tonight caught up with some of the band members to find out more about Manteca and the show.

The band includes Mark Momple (bass), David Langley (piano), Jose Chemane (timbale), John Drace (congas), Johan van der Molen (baritone sax and clarinet), Daniel Sheldon (trumpet), Avikaar Maney (tenor sax and flute), Avinash Maney (keys and guitar), Raul Vazquez (vocals), Rod Choromanski (guitar, vocals), Sam Marais (vocals) and Liana Barciela (vocals).

John Drace begins by explaining the name “Manteca”.

“It means grease or fat… like butter… It’s also the name of a famous song that was written by a guy named Chano Pozo who was one of the first early Afro-Cuban percussionists to go to the US.

“He wrote the song with Dizzy Gillespie, one of the creators of that bebop style of trumpet playing. He was also interested in Latin-American music and Cuban music and he and Chano Pozo were collaborating and they wrote the song together…

“Why the name ‘grease’? That’s a good question. I think it means it’s about being slick or smooth moves in dancing… Manteca is a signature song in Latin jazz and we’re jazz and Latin players.

“That whole fusion of jazz and Cuban music is kind of signified by that song. It’s one of the first that was written and it was written by a percussionist and a jazz player.”

Sheldon adds: “The reason the band has that name is that it was one of the first songs we did and it’s our signature piece.”

Sheldon said Manteca began as an ensemble project in 2006 at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Over the years it has evolved to an off-campus band that includes salsa dancers.

The show will include rootsy Cuban folklore, European art music with an African twist, swinging Latin jazz, and explosive salsa.

Sheldon said: “We are going to play a few of the numbers that we normally play, just to outline the progression of the music because we are tracing its history.”

Drace adds: “This is woven into a story that we’ve written, so it will have a personal story. – hopefully something of interest to engage the audience. We are also going to present some of this historical information, especially styles and dances.

“It’s visual, it’s dramatic and it’s musical.”

Sheldon said they believed Manteca had the opportunity to teach people about the genre and its origins. “The dancers become part of that.”

The music is a fusion of cultures, blending French, European, and West African influences. It also reflects how these influences met in Cuba and were mixed in different ways in different places. The idea is to take audiences on a journey.

“We are also trying to de-mystify salsa,” Sheldon said. “People are afraid to dance the salsa, but salsa is not something to be intimidated by – it’s everyone’s.

“It’s music that is always evolving and changing, depending on where it goes and who takes it there.”

Choromanski says Manteca is more than a band, it is a project that regards the audience as being part of the group.

“The idea is to bridge into different fields of art where we have a collective of creative and innovative thinkers in a group and in our community, creating social integration in public spaces.”

The approach was similar to that of Jay Pather, the Durban choreographer “who did amazing work with dancers in public spaces”, Choromanski said.

“Carol Brown, with Red Eye, also did public art… Art is meaningful. Art brings people together.

“I think the band, through music and dance, and possibly with fashion (a reference to popular designer Karen Monk Klijnstra, whose creations are worn by the group), will start seeing people coming out again and becoming expressive.”

Drace said: “We enjoy bridging art forms that are seen as being separate. We do music with dance, and with fashion, and now we’re going into theatre…

“You could call it ‘performance musicology’. We want to entertain and enliven the public space, and to educate a little as well.”

• La Esencia del Salsa! Runs on March 21-30, with shows on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm; and Sundays at 2pm and 6.30pm. Tickets are R120 (R100 for pensioners and tables of eight or more). Book at Computicket or call 031 205 7602.

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