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Hot, Hot, Hot: Arriba! Dance Parties at the High Line

by Bonnie Rosenstock
July 23, 2014
West 14th Street Passage at Tenth Avenue
New York, NY 10014
At twilight, the High Line could have easily stood in for the malecón (waterfront esplanade) in any tropical country. The weather was sultry, and the anticipated Latin rhythms were going to be even hotter. We weren't "Dancing Under the Stars"—the West 14th Street passage has a rooftop which protects against the elements, and there is rarely enough visibility in Manhattan to observe the night sky —but on July 23, Sonido Costeño played out of this world, and the dancing bodies were in heaven.

Sonido Costeño (Coastal Sound, in English), a New York City-based fusion Latin band, featured seven accomplished musicians (Sam Barrios, piano & vocals; Enrique Breton, bass; Ozzy Cardona, trumpet; David Ondrick, sax & vocals; David Freyre, bongos & vocals; Renato Thoms, conga; Nestor Villar, timbales), plus front man JuanMa Morales on vocals, guitar and cuatro.

In an email, Morales told me that Sonido Costeño is all about the dancing. "We play high-octane music, and our musicians are the top shelf in the Latin and Jazz scene. We love to improvise and take the songs to the outer limits every time, but without the dancers reacting and enhancing every note, every beat, it's not complete."

For the first set, the band thrilled the overflowing crowd with some familiar favorites. They played the traditional Cuban "Guantánamera" (a guajira); "Chan Chan" (a Cuban songo, a timba beat, created by Los Van Van in the 1970s)—the song was made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club in 1997; salsa, cha-cha and mambo; a bolero cha dedicated to Cheo Feliciano, the Puerto Rican composer and singer of salsa and bolero, who died tragically in April; a medley from Santana's "Oye Como Va"; a slice of Joe Cuba; and Tito Nieves's "I Like it Like That."

Morales said they liked to "start slow" (but, I mused, in the way a tornado starts slow), because, in a rapid heartbeat, the sweat was swirling along with the gyrating hips, torrid torsos and fancy footwork. The dancers came in all ethnic backgrounds, sizes, shapes, ages and dance abilities, but the band is very much a part of the communal coming together. Morales related that he likes to get to a gig very early, wander around, observe the crowd, get a feel for the vibe and look at how they react to the first two or three songs.

"From there, I steer the musical spaceship to where I feel we are going to bring the most Joy and Healing to our audience," he said. "Healing is a lot of what we do, and it works both ways. We heal them, and when we meet and find that sweet spot of harmony, music, movement and Dance, they heal Us."

Sonido Costeño's second set showcased the band's original tunes, with Morales on cuatro, the ten-string national instrument of Puerto Rico. There was Colombian Cumbia; mapaye, a Puerto Rican rhythm; salsa Jibaro-style (Puerto Rico); and guaracha from Cuba. Then he switched back to guitar and played a homage to the iconic Héctor Lavoe (El Cantante), who was credited with initiating the salsa movement in 1975, and Willie Colón (El Malo) with El Cantante. They started Celia Cruz's "La Vida Es Un Carnaval" as a closer, "but the rain and thunder blew us off the stage," said Morales. (The musicians were spread out inside and outside the protective overhang.)

One group of Latina ladies stood out, not only because they were attired all in white, but also by their sheer numbers. Las Comadres Para las Americas, a networking organization that empowers Latina women in their careers and home life, via charity work, book club readings and support of Latina women and events, were special guests of the High Line. In a telephone interview with Julia Abrantes, one of the New York City facilitators of Las Comadres (the godmothers), she related that the nationwide group usually meets monthly for a comadrazo (a potluck), but in the Big Apple, they have to rely on corporate offices to lend them their conference rooms, "since no one in the city has a home bigger than an elevator," she quipped.

In New York City there are approximately 800 comadres. But unlike other cities across the country, theirs is the epitome of multi-culturalism, Abrantes explained, with over 15 different Latin American countries represented.

An hour before the music started, they were given use of the High Line conference room for their meeting, received a private dance lesson with a salsa instructor and had a reception. Then they got down to it. "We loved the band, did group dances, danced in circles and shared partners if someone brought one," she said.

This was Sonido Costeño's second gig at the High Line. "I totally enjoy playing this park that was saved and re-invented by Friends of the High Line," Morales said. "It is the fabric of New York. People from all walks of life, ethnicities, tourists and natives blend in a peaceful and safe environment. I feel honored to bring our music to this beautiful place."

Arriba! is part of High Line Live!, a performance series in partnership with Healing Arts Initiative and Hudson Guild. The final Wednesday, August 27, from 7 to 9 p.m., will feature Nu'D'Lux, one of New York's most original Cuban bands, offering a mix of son montuno, rumba, danzón and timba styles. Free and open to all ages. No RSVP required. For more programming information, visit www.thehighline.org.

For more information about Sonido Costeño, visit www.sonidocosteno.com. CD's available on Amazon.com.

To find out more about Las Comadres Para Las Americas, go to http://lascomadres.com/lco/
from left to right: Renato Thoms, conga; JuanMa Morales, guitar; Nestor Villar, timbales; and David Freyre, bongos.

from left to right: Renato Thoms, conga; JuanMa Morales, guitar; Nestor Villar, timbales; and David Freyre, bongos.

Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


from left to right: Nestor Villar, timbales; David Freyre, bongos; Enrique Breton, bass.

from left to right: Nestor Villar, timbales; David Freyre, bongos; Enrique Breton, bass.

Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock

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