A Korean recipe for salsaIf there is a way to make things even spicier than they already are, Koreans will find it. So it comes as no surprise that salsa, the steamy Latin dance of passion, would make its way across the Pacific to season the nightlife in Seoul.
Latin music, as Koreans are quickly discovering, has an infectious and addictive quality, so much so that a vibrant salsa scene has been growing in Seoul in the last five years. In a conservative society like Korea, salsa dancing ― in which members of the opposite sex are not only allowed, but required, to get close ― has a built-in appeal to the young.
“Traditionally in Korea, there are no dances where couples can dance together,” said Lee Eun-kyoung, manager of one of the newer and more popular salsa clubs in Sinsa-dong, called Gachi, whose name itself means “together.”
Salsa is not yet mainstream, and the majority of clubs are, quite literally, underground, occupying basement spaces. But there’s no denying that it’s got a following.
If you doubt it, you should have been at the swanky Apgujeong-dong Hyundai department store last month, where a Latin ensemble called La Orquesta Esencia (“essence orchestra” in Spanish) played to a crowd of hundreds of twirling Koreans.
“It’s earthy and dirty,” Isaiah Drone, pianist for the band, says of the music. “When you put it on, something’s gonna move on you.”
Latin music club owners in Seoul trace the local popularity of salsa back about four years, to the opening of the 2000 French film “Salsa” in Korea and a media frenzy for all things salsa.
According to Ungelita Baek, La Orquestra Esencia’s Korean singer and the director of Viento Sur Academy of Spanish Music and Dance, interest actually began spreading a few years prior to that, via ― what else? ― the Internet. Even today, most salsa clubs in Korea are patronized by online communities of salseros and salseras, who meet weekly to practice their cross-buddy leads.
Elaine Hur, the manager at Casa Salsa in Sinsa-dong, says that in contrast to the heavy drinking, noraebangs and nightclubs typical of Korean nightlife, salsa culture is “inexpensive and comfortable; no one forces you to do anything.”
Considering that Koreans are famous for having no shortage of passion themselves, the dance’s fiery language seems a rather natural development on the local social scene. Brian Noh, a novice dancer who has frequented Casa Salsa for the last two months, contrasted the strict environment of Korean corporate life to the dance floor, where “we can feel freedom.”
“Koreans have a lot of angst,” says Lee of Gachi. “This is a way to release pent-up emotions they can’t show.”
Of course, like many foreign-influenced trends in Korea, such as yoga and hip-hop culture, Koreans have made it their own. “Korean salsa is different from foreign salsa,” says Ryu Dong-hee, the manager of a large Latin club in Hongdae called Bonita. “Korean people love to show off... the women spin more, they are more showy.”
Some foreign salsa enthusiasts who’ve watched Koreans dance think that while they are technically proficient, they lack feeling. Ryu thinks that has to do with the language barrier.
“Koreans aren’t able to feel the music as much because they don’t understand the words to the songs,” he says. “They might do a flashy move to a sad song, for example.”
Foreign and Korean salsa enthusiasts tend not to mix much. There are roughly 10 salsa clubs in Seoul, most of which claim an almost exclusively Korean clientele. Meanwhile, Caliente, in Itaewon, primarily serves the small population of American G.I.s from Puerto Rico and Central America, as well as other Spanish-speaking foreigners.
Another difference Ryu has noticed is that, unlike foreigners, Koreans who enjoy salsa tend not to drink while they’re doing it. Compare Caliente, where the large circular bar takes up most of the club space, to Bonita, which serves no alcohol.
“In Korea, it’s not about the culture, but the dance itself,” says Ryu.
To be sure, Korean dancers have been praised by some who’ve grown up dancing salsa ― for one, Latin American-born DJ Ramos, who has spun at Bonita ― as among the finest in the world. “These Koreans dance salsa better than we do back home!” he quips.
The American servicemen in La Orquesta Esencia, however, several of whom are Puerto Rican, are making it their business to expand the spectrum of Latin culture in Korea. A self-described “ambassador of salsa,” bandleader Fernandito Rentas says it is his goal to popularize live Latin music in Korea.
“We want to give a taste to Koreans of what the music looks like,” Rentas said.
For the 10-piece band, all dressed in loud, matching orange dress shirts, a performance isn’t just about playing the music, but about engaging the audience. Along with his singing partner Baek, a flamenco dancer and the only Korean in the band, Rentas spins and mambos with dizzying energy between lyrics. They have been known to threaten to stop playing if dancers don’t take the stage in kind.
“That’s what we’re all about: people shakin’ their butts and having a good time,” said bass player Chris Smith.
La Orquesta Esencia made its mark on Korean audiences when it was invited to play for a crowd of over 8,000 at the first-ever Korea Salsa Congress, three days of workshops, professional demonstrations, music and dancing held at the COEX Convention Center in August last year.
They have also arranged on-base performances through the U.S. military’s Morale, Welfare & Recreation department and performed at various clubs and Latin events, such as at the Hyundai department store in Apgujeong-dong, while seeking to tour and play more for Korean audiences.
Though the band members consider themselves “the dominating salsa force in the Seoul area,” adding that fans will come from as far as Dongducheon or even Daegu to see them, their somewhat sporadic performance schedule is indicative of what remains a fledgling live Latin music scene.
Ibrahim Ferrer, lead singer of the revived Buena Vista Social Club, was scheduled to perform at LG Arts Center last fall, but had to cancel due to poor health. More recently, the duo Cubapercussion came to Seoul Arts Center to give a fusion classical/Afro-Cuban jazz concert, at which an invitation to the audience to shake small, egg-shaped maracas in time to the music was a big hit. But such performances are few and far between.
Rentas, an active advocate of bringing other big-name Afro-Cuban performers to the Korean Peninsula, wants to change this trend. Currently, he says, he is working with the military to bring a well-known salsa singer to Korea next September, when the performer is scheduled to give a concert in Japan. Star performers have long been notorious for bypassing Seoul on their Asian tours, and it’s Rentas’s hope that by bringing Latin performers in for military-sponsored shows, he can then introduce their music to the Korean public.
“When they hear it for the first time and they try to dance...” Rentas trails off and shakes his head with an amused grin at the thought of introducing his music to new ears. “This is it. This is my drug right here.”
Seoul for salseras
The biggest and most popular club among Koreans in Hongdae, where some of Korea's best dancers show off their moves, especially on weekend nights. Open 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. No alcohol is served.
From Hongik Univ. Station, line No. 2, exit 1, make a right, then turn left at the main road. Bonita is across the street under Family Mart. (02) 337-0045
A favorite among Spanish-speaking expats in Seoul. There is a consistently good crowd from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays ―after which the G.I.s clear out for curfew. Expect a lot of merengue and bachatta, both of which have less complicated steps than salsa, and Spanish reggae, which has more of a hip-hop feel. Free lessons on Thursdays from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Across from the Hamilton Hotel, on the third floor above Nashville.
This classy club draws dancers even from outside Seoul. The spacious layout, attractive decor and well-dressed patrons make this club a must-try. It even has a dressing room and practice studios. Open nightly from 7 p.m. to midnight. Lessons are available nightly from 8 to 9:30 p.m., at 60,000 won ($51) for four lessons.
From Apgujeong Station, line No. 3, exit 5, walk about 400 meters, and turn left just before reaching the Rari coffee shop. A red sign for Gachi is on the right.
The oldest Latin music bar in Seoul has a miniscule bar, minimal seating and a smallish dance floor that is notoriously unforgiving toward exposed toes. Nevertheless, Macondo remains popular for its mellow atmosphere and late hours.
From Hongik Univ. Station, line No. 2, exit 5, turn right at Coco's and then left.
by Kirsten Jerch
Check out La Orquesta Esencia live tomorrow night at Caliente in Itaewon. Showtime is 9 p.m. There is a 5,000 won cover charge for men; women get in free. Call (016) 893-6848.