Yeh Saala Salsa!
Giju John

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In 2014, Grammy award winner Christian Tumalan had spent 13 years in America and considered himself not fully American but “getting there.” He is band-lead of the 19 member Pacific Mambo Orchestra and believes that (net)working with DJs and local talent is one of the reasons the band is doing so well; he has developed a solid fan base. Of his latest joint-venture with Giju John called Bachata Indu, he says, “The one thing it is, is unique. There is no other album out there with a fusion of traditional Bachata and Indian sounds!”

Who is Giju John and what is Mambo or Bachata for that matter? Well, John is a San Francisco Bay Area based Latin-Indian musician and dancer. He was part of the internationally touring Salsamania Dance Company for ten years, before investing in the idea of melding Latin and Indian sounds and rhythms. He hails from Kerala and as a child, he trained in Carnatic music and bharatanatyam. But it was love at first sight when he came to America and experienced Salsa. Salsa itself, like its culinary namesake, is a mix of many Latin and Afro-Caribbean influences. It is said that the name originated in New York, to mean a mix of dance/music from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

Mambo literally means “Conversation with the Gods,” and was invented in the 1930s in Cuba. Bachata is from the Dominican Republic, originally considered a poor cousin of the more traditional Bolero, but today, far more popular. There are many variations, but generally, Salsa music is in 4/4 time; the dance consists of 3 steps (2 quicks and 1 slow or a pause). Mambo is 4/4 too, but can range from 32 to a dizzy 56 beats per minute! Bachata is also played 4/4 but danced with 3 steps and a tap.

John sees Bachata Indu as Indian Bachata, by introducing Indian sounds such as the santoor and vocals in Hindi. It is an EP (Extended Play) album with three songs, which he has co-produced with Tumalan. “Mi Corazon” begins mellowwith the guitar ushering in a soft ballad delivered via Hindi-Spanish lyrics. “Mas Bhangraton” is a contrast, with metallic, hard-edge guitaring moving into the tun-tuna of Bhangra music, moving on to Pop; then some rap-style Punjabi lyrics—overall upbeat. “Yeh Saala Salsa” (Indian Mambo) is an out-an-out-for-dance track. The lyrics have found an elegant fit, though they take a backseat to the intense and fantastic rhythm. Tumalan certainly makes his presence felt here.

The album is good for Indians who like Latin rhythms and want some familiar ground. It is tasteful musically; the lyrics serve the purpose of breaking down the rhythm, making it easier to keep up with the frenetic pace in the last track. It’s like a sampler dish, with each track having a distinct flavor. It would be a great gift to someone who has been hesitant about the style of music and/or dance; and a great addition to any dance party.

Just as John fell in love with Salsa and now is a mover and shaker in the Latin-Indian genre, interestingly, one of the original forces behind the Salsa movement in Mumbai is someone who returned to India after a stint in the United States. Yogesh Karikurve got hooked into the Latin scene while he was studying here; he fully expected to insert himself into an already thriving Salsa scene in Mumbai. He was shocked to find on his return, that virtually nobody had heard about it; in fact, he felt compelled to dance to some of his own Latin music collection at a party where “La Bamba” was being passed of as Salsa music. That was sixteen years ago and it started a trend where he would conduct Latin-themed dance parties and workshops. International stars like Ricky Martin and Enrique visited India only to make Latin music more popular in other cities. The music caught the fancy of the masses as it started getting integrated into Bollywood songs. Now, annual salsa festivals have become the norm. Nightclubs play Latin music on designated nights— mostly on weekdays, to draw a niche audience to boost their business on slack days. Instructors who have started classes find these clubs a good place to market themselves and attract more students. Salsa India is an organization that claims to be the largest in India and has taught over 10,000 students across cities.

There are dedicated clubs and those that do Salsa Tuesdays or Wednesdays in every major city here too. These start with instruction followed by dancing, when the club opens its doors to the experienced Salseros. In fact, Los Angeles and New York have their own sub-genre or style of Salsa. Bay Area citizens can visit to follow the local Salsa scene.

Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.