Johnny Polanco Watches Salsa Come of Age in Los Angeles
Johnny Polanco wears the beads of several orishas, the deities of his santería religion, around his neck when he goes onstage to play salsa music with his Conjunto Amistad. There are the red and white beads of Changó, the ruler of thunder, drums and dance, but he also wears the colors of Orula, Elegguá, Obbatalá, Oggún, Ochún, Yemayá, and Babalú Ayé.
He wore them Monday night at El Floridita in Hollywood and he will wear them again on Thursday for Sizzling Summer Nights at the Autry. It would seem they’ve favored this transplanted New York native, because the band has been together since 1993 and is a sought-after act in the Los Angeles salsa scene.
“I’ve been playing here 18 years already,” Polanco told me before his El Floridita gig. “I’ve seen the furniture and the carpet change a couple of times.”
In the early days, Polanco, who has mastered 13 different instruments in 40 years as a musician but favors the Cuban tres, played weekends at the restaurant with other bands. But the owner was looking for a change. He decided to open on Monday, the night the club was dark, to hold a “Cuban night.” The microphone would be open to any salseros who wanted to play.
“Monday was like a dead night,” Polanco said. “He decided he would make it like a descarga night where anybody could come in and jam with the band and things like that. He didn’t even charge. But then, it started to take off. Now Monday night is his best night.”
He met many musicians there, and they became his network. Some stayed in the business, while others went into law enforcement when they finished their service. Even today, they come say hello in their patrol cars.”I tell them to park the car over there,” he says, waving with a wink to the far side of the parking lot. “It’s bad for business!”
Salsa has grown and waned in nationwide popularity since it invaded the American music charts in the fifties. In Los Angeles, Polanco said, it was hot in the early seventies and eighties, then subsided until the turn of the 21st century. In the intervening period, there were few venues for salseros.
“It became weak; there were no places to play,” Polanco said. “When I started this band in ’93, there were very few places to play. We actually had to do like a salsa night or a Latin night. I remember we did one down in Anaheim in this place called Country Boogie. It was a big Country & Western place right by Disneyland.”
The band also played — and continues to play — jazz clubs. Polanco says there’s still a dearth of venues today, in part because many clubs get by with recorded music. Even so, the scene has managed to grow enough to support about 35 bands working the Southern California circuit. And when they play, people come from a wide periphery, even as far south as San Diego.
“There’s a lot of deejays, there’s a lot of clubs,” he said. “But the venues that have live entertainment seven days a week are few.”
When reggaeton came of age at the beginning of the decade, it made a big impact in New York and in Puerto Rico, Polanco’s ancestral home (he is also Dominican on his mother’s side). Because reggaeton was also popular with younger people, salsa again appeared to move into the background. But Polanco said some club owners now hesitate to book reggaeton acts because the younger crowd requires a more expensive security setup.
In Los Angeles, what keeps salsa strong is its popularity with non-Latinos, Polanco said. The scene no longer has to depend on the support of only the Latino community. He says Asians especially have taken to it, though he isn’t sure why that is. He does credit the dance as a way for anybody express themselves.
In any case, he believes salsa is in Los Angeles to stay.
“L.A. right now is the salsa capital of the world,” Polanco said. “There’s just too many people; a lot of people are dancing salsa.”