The fast steps, gyrating hips and sultry moves of Cali’s legendary dance – salsa caleña – has been recognized by Colombia’s Ministry of Culture as Intangible Cultural Patrimony of the Nation; and important step toward the eventual listing of the dance, with all its cultural manifestations, on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Hertiage (ICH).
“For Cali this is historic, and has global resonance. For decades we have received the unconditional nickname of World Capital of Salsa and this patrimonial exercise allows us to ratify our international reputation,” said Ronald Mayorga, Cali’s District Secretary of Culture. “We are willing to take care of what has been achieved, to preserve and protect all these narratives, stories, and productions that Cali has created over the years. The challenge ahead is to take new steps, to think about the future of salsa and salsa for the world,” he added.
In a city home to salsa academies, dance clubs, music ensembles and traditional record shops with collections of vinyls, salsa caleña is recognized among the fastest given that music is interpreted at 45 rpm compared to other tropical genres at 33 rpm. The announcement declaring salsa as intangible patrimony was made by Minister of Culture Angelica Mayolo to mark the city’s 486 anniversary of its founding.
From the old-theques or viejotecas where Sunday dancing in a romantic slow-paced style unravels to the melodies of musical greats such as Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, to the sprawling dancehalls in nearby Juanchito with their crossover rhythms and frenzied crowds, the departmental capital of Valle del Cauca is always alive to the sound of music.
“Salsa speaks to the people,” believes Carlos Trujillo, founder of one of the most respected dance academies in Cali. At Rucafé, dance lessons start in the morning and continue into the late hours of the night. After having participated in international salsa congresses, Trujillo has seen his city evolve into the world capital of salsa. “It’s a lifestyle which breaks through class divides,” says the professional choreographer.
With more than 8,000 professional dancers in a city known as “the outpost of heaven,” many dancers have hit the global performing circuit to teach their steps to others. For Trujillo, who produced the acclaimed Delirio dance/musical with its Broadway-style show, “salsa caleña is the great social integrator.”
During the 1970s, Cali’s predominantly white, European, social fabric was transformed when a wave of black migrant workers from the Pacific arrived in the valley to harvest sugarcane. With this movement of displaced ambition and dreams, salsa took root in small towns overlooking the banks of the Río Cauca, and physical divide between an affluent industrialized city and the ramshackle huts of the dispossessed.
Jairo Varela bridged this social divide composing songs etched in the Colombian promise. The release of ‘Al pasito’ in 1979, launched the Afro-Colombian poet, novelist and lyricist as the country’s ambassador of salsa. With the acclaim of Varela’s first album, the internationalization of Colombian salsa began, and one of the city’s legendary ensembles, Grupo Niche, catapulted to international stages, accompanied by fleet of dancers.
Other big bands followed with their own brassy sounds, chart-stopping hits and heart wrenching refrains. Cali’s Golden Age of Salsa was born. But only ‘maestro’ Varela could baptize an entire city with a song “Cali pachanguero,” and the panchanga (word that fuses ‘dance’ with ‘party’), lives on, and now indelibly emblazoned as patrimony of a nation.