1. A DAY IN OCTOBER, 2019.
An email pops into my inbox. Someone called Garret Keown from Toronto, Canada, says he is in Namibia visiting family and he heard about the Salsa Windhoek Social Club (I am glad he has—word, in some way, is getting out). He says he is a DJ (Oh no…)—a vinyl DJ (Great…another one of those—I hold all DJs at arm’s length, but I keep a ten-foot pole handy for vinyl heads)—and that he would like to play a set at the next salsa party. I am not, as a rule, unkind, but I try to make mistakes only once and, whenever possible, to learn from other people’s mistakes. I have seen what DJs who do not know the lay of the land or the crowd can do to a dance floor. I have all of my polite refusals ready. But, further down in the email, he says that he, too, organises a monthly salsa party in Toronto. I wince at the familiar struggle of organising such an event but silently commend him for his foolishness—we are in some strange way, alike, both bitten by the salsa bug, both committed to entertaining our foolishness and hope and belief in the power of dance.
I click on the links he sends me.
La Rumba Buena—A night dedicated to classic Latin sounds inspired by the salsatecas in Cali, Havana, and New York, co-founded by DJ Drumspeak and DJ Blancon.
Impeccable artwork and an aesthetic I admire. Some mixes with range and flavour—many familiar songs, many new ones, some fast, some slow, all of them good. The man, at the very least, knows his classic salsa music. It shows in his careful arrangements. No sudden lapses in tempo, no unfortunate turns into what-the-fuck-is-this. Heat, from start to end.
There is some familiarity in Garret’s project, similar strains to what I am trying to achieve in Windhoek with salsa. La Rumba Buena feels like a distant cousin—the same energy, the same music—all the way across the Atlantic.
Sure, let’s meet up and see what we can do.
2. A NIGHT IN OCTOBER, 2019.
By the time the monthly salsa party rolls around I have met Garret and he seems like a good sort. He has all of his vaccinations, a sense of humour, and an easygoing nature. His musical credentials are solid, even stellar—the man played with Quantic, a favourite of mine, and he has spun decks in multiple countries. He plays down all of his achievements and experiences. He just wants to jam—that is how he puts it. “I just want to jam, man.”
He is at the party venue before I am (what strange and punctual man) and he helps to set up even if he does not have to. We do not have all the bells and whistles he must be used to but he says, chilled, “It’s all good.” For a foreign brother who is about to play unknown music to an unknown crowd he is too relaxed for my liking. “When does everyone arrive?” he asks, tapping out a beat with his foot as he plugs in his mixer and laptop.
“This is Windhoek,” I say. “They arrive when they’re here.”
That is how it goes.
Salsa dancing might be all about timing on the floor, but when people decide to show up to a party is anyone’s guess.
So we wait.
All salsa parties have a formula: the setting up—with everyone wondering what I am doing, a couple of expectant people sit back, arms crossed on their chests like they are waiting for a show to start; the filler music—when my brother and I grab something to drink and eat and then put on some Latin orchestra jams to warm up, beaming the salsa signal into the late evening air, asking any willing Batman to come and save Gotham.
And then we wait.
It is impossible to predict what kind of night it will be. Some nights are loud and crowded, with no space on the dance floor. Some have fewer people. Some are heavy on the Cuban and Afro beats, and some are full of baila and bachata. Some have travelling dancers who are passing through and are just so happy to have caught the one party they can attend. All of the parties, though, without exception, are always fun—in the end, whether two people or two-hundred show up we play music and dance.
But we wait.
In Windhoek things happen on their own time.
A couple of dancers show up. It is night now, sunset has long faded on the western horizon. We decide to open the dance floor with something tame: Sergio Mendes and the Black Eyed Peas. I tell Garret I will take the first set, just to get the party going.
“All good,” he says. I certainly hope so.
After forty-five minutes I hand the reins over to Garret.
Instead DJ Drumspeak takes over.
3. THE MORNING AFTER—27 OCTOBER 2019.
—“Dude, who was that guy at the other party? Dit was ‘n ander ou. Jissis!”
—“His name’s DJ Drumspeak.”
—“Will he be back?”
—“I hope so.”
4. A DAY IN JANUARY, 2020.
—“Yo, Rémy, would you like me to make some mixes for you guys?”
—“Sure. We can call it the Salsa Exchange.”
THE SALSA EXCHANGE PROJECT
Rémy Ngamije: How and why did you get into vinyl DJ-ing? And what were some of your early challenges when you were branching out into classic salsa music? Do you remember how your first set went?
DJ Drumspeak: The vinyl thing came about through my love for hip-hop. I am a definitely a 90s hip-hop kid and if you weren’t playing records back in the day, you weren’t a real DJ—simple as that. There was a real “code” in the hip-hop community and similar to a lot of scenes or sub-cultures there was a purist mentality. Records had to be spun, otherwise, people might not have taken you that seriously. Through my love for hip-hop and discovering where the samples came from I developed my love for jazz, soul, funk, and the blues.
My interest in salsa and Latin music in general happened through a series of events and because I had already been exposed to different types of music by “digging in the crates” to find hip-hop samples, I was ripe for another musical discovery. I remember hearing my sister playing a mix tape back in ’98 or ’99, I must have been in the eleventh grade, and damn, it was so rhythmic! I could hear every kind of percussion possible, lyrics sung in Spanish, and my feet just wanted to move. I stole the tape and had it on repeat for an entire summer. After that, Buena Vista Social Club was released and all of sudden, everyone, (who didn’t grow up in a household playing salsa), was into Cuban Son, and by extension, salsa. Over the next couple of years I took trips to Cuba, Nicaragua, Peru, and Colombia and just kept digging for Latin records—salsa dura, boogaloo, son, cumbia, and whatever else I could find.
One of my earliest memories playing a Latin set was at a university party in 2003-2004. I dropped a Cuban classic “Bacalao Con Pan” by the Cuban group Irakere. I thought the dance floor would explode, but after about a minute, I remember seeing people tucked off to the side. A young guy from Mexico City approached the DJ booth and said “We don’t dance to fusion stuff. We want pure salsa.” That was the first time I realised there was a lot to learn in terms of how to play a salsa set.
RN: What is your favourite piece of vinyl?
DJ D: Hmm…tough question. I’m gonna go with Willie Colon’s “The Hustler” only because it was a big find for me at the time and I bought it in NYC off someone on the street. It felt like I was close to the source of salsa, being only a few blocks from Spanish Harlem—a big misconception is that salsa was born in Cuba and not NYC—and at the time it was near impossible to find original Fania albums in Toronto.
RN: La Rumba Buena, much like our own monthly salsa party, brings together lovers of salsa music. And, like us, it cannot have been easy to get started. How were the early parties received?
DJ D: I have to say that we’ve been super blessed with our Rumba Buena parties right from the beginning. I remember for our first party, four years ago, DJ Blancon (my DJ partner) and I had no idea who was gonna show up and how it was gonna go. As soon as the doors opened at 10 PM, people came flooding in and it was a proper jam! I guess there was a gap in the scene and we were one of the only parties playing original salsa music on vinyl. I have to give it up to all of the Rumba regulars who are majority Colombians, and the best crowd to play to!
RN: The parties have grown on your end. La Rumba Buena is a fully-realised brand and business which invites performing artists to feature at its parties. What, would you say, was the most important lessons you have learned en route to all of the newfound growth and success?
DJ D: That’s a great question. I think we’ve been really consistent with our brand and it’s pretty niche. We play vintage Latin music on wax and mostly salsa classics. People know what to expect at every party and we really make an effort to meet and talk with all of our guests. I’ve heard people describe our party as a house party vibe. It feels like you’re in someone’s living room. We have also invited many of our favourite DJs, producers from around the world and that has gone over really well—people like Quantic, DJ Bongohead, and Bobbito. I would also say that we are not a traditional salsa party, where everyone is coupled off practicing their latest dance moves. We have a mix of people, from hard-core salseros and salseras to general music appreciators who love hearing music on vinyl. There’s not an expectation to dance traditional salsa steps, if you wanna break dance, 2-step, or just play the claves on the sidelines, it’s all good. As long as you’re bringing a positive vibe and you’re feeling the music, the crowd will embrace you.
RN: Having played some international sets, where would you like to play next?
DJ D: So far, we’ve brought the Rumba Buena party to Havana, Mexico City, New York, Montreal, and Windhoek. I would love to bring our party to Miami, LA, Bogota, Cali, London, and Barcelona. It’s amazing how many cities around the world have a salsa scene and it’s an incredible way to connect with people and have an instant community. That’s how you and I met, right?
RN: You were a hit at our party. It was an honour to have you play a set for us in October, last year. I think it was refreshing for the crowd to hear new music and to have a master mixer cutting it up on the decks. Were you anxious about jamming in Windhoek?
DJ D: I didn’t really know what to expect, but salsa is salsa anywhere you go. I figured as long as I played some classics I wouldn’t be attacked or be asked to leave. For real though, as soon as I heard you play Quantic’s “Mi Swing Es Tropical” I knew I’d be okay and that you and I would be friends.
RN: What did you think of the party and the crowd? Any echoes or universal themes from all the other places at which you have played?
DJ D: I have to say that it was, hands-down, my favourite party in Namibia! I loved the whole “Street Salsa” vibe and the fact that it was outside gave it such a unique feel. I also loved seeing how diverse and intergenerational the crowd was. I think people respond to salsa music the same way everywhere in the world. There is an instant joy and flow that is associated with salsa and it’s beautiful to see how people connect with it.
RN: What kind of music do you enjoy mixing the most?
DJ D: If given the choice, I really like a night that is “open-format”—meaning I can play anything as long as it keeps people dancing. I am a huge fan of Latin, Brazilian, reggae, hip-hop, house, and everything in between so when given the opportunity to explore all of those sounds in the same night, I’m pretty happy.
RN: When are we having you back on this end, hombre?
DJ D: Oh man, I’d love to jump on a plane right now! It’s winter in Toronto and there’s no sunshine. Y’all are spoiled in Windhoek with the amount of Vitamin D you get.
RN: We are excited to listen to the first salsa exchange between DJ Drumspeak and the Salsa Windhoek Social Club. What flavours have you thrown into this mix?
DJ D: I put together a mix of what DJ Blancon and I call La Rumba Nueva—newer songs that were made with a DJ in mind or remixes and re-edits of classic salsa songs. They work really well on the dance floor and are fun to mix compared to traditional salsa songs that are not meant to be mixed or blended. I guess there is supposed to be a natural pause or break between songs to allow for dancers to change partners and such. This mix, in theory, should keep you dancing with the same partner for 40 minutes! Happy listening.
Tracklist: Boogaloo Assassins – No No No; Bosq y la Candela All-Stars featuring Hector Alomar – San José 51; Grupo Magnético – Bailalo Y Maevelo; Setenta – Funky Tumbao; Quantic featuring Fruko & Michi Sarmiento – Descarga Cuantica; Willie Colon – La Banda (Whiskey Barons Edit); Bosq y la Candela All-Stars featuring Ray Lugo and Roberto Roena – Aquarembe; Joe Bataan – Fuego (Whiskey Baron’s Edit); Quantic – Puerto Rico Pa Gozar.
Rémy Ngamije is a Rwandan-born Namibian story writer, essayist, columnist, poet, photographer, and the author of The Eternal Audience Of One (Blackbird Books, 2019). He also writes for brainwavez.org, a writing collective based in South Africa. He is the editor-in-chief of Namibia’s first literary magazine: Doek!