Salsa in the Park brings memories of Havana to Oakland

Salsa dancers enjoy the music at Splash Pad Park

Salsa dancers enjoy the music at Splash Pad Park

From Cuban exiles to Bay Area salsa fanatics clad in nostalgic Cuban revolutionary gear and chomping the occasional cigar, Oakland’s Splash Pad Park was a crucible of different cultures Sunday as San Francisco-based Cuban salsa outfit, Team Bahia, performed some of its best tracks for a crowd of more than 300 dancers.

A couple dances at Splash Pad Park

Salsa in the Park, an afternoon of open air salsa and live music accompanied by a series of Bay Area deejays, was organized and hosted by Isaac Kos-Read, a local salsa fan who is the director of external affairs at the Port of Oakland, and Oaklandish, a local  organization that focuses on promoting Oakland arts and community building.

The park, a small concrete pad on the northeastern shore of Lake Merritt, was filled with color, cheers and music as salsa fans arrived from as far as San Jose to hear the band play.  Team Bahia, a Timba band formed by Walter Vela, also known as Dj Walt Digz, in 2010, plays an assortment of modern Cuban salsa hits. Sunday’s performance featured covers of favorite tracks like “Yo no me parezco a nadie,” by Bamboleo; “Mi Musica,” a Habana d’ Primera classic; and “Me Mantengo” by Los Van Van.

“Mi Musica,” a favorite with many at Splash Pad Park, sent dancers swinging in couples, followed by a few solo dancers. Slow, romantic salsa numbers and faster paced, hard brass hits filled much of the time.

“We were surprised—it is pretty packed. This is my first time here,” said Kipley Bruketa, a San Francisco resident who crossed the bay with friends for the event. “I like the outdoor setting. It is a small venue and a great place for people-watching.”

Bruketa, who has seen Team Bahia play in the Mission District, said the daytime setting of the event was a big plus, since people were able to bring their families.

Not a single dull moment at salsa fest

The Oaklandish salsa parties began thanks to a visit to Cuba in 2006, when Kos-Read visited the island nation as a tourist. “It occurred to me that we can’t always travel away to find something like this,” Kos-Read said.  “Creating a local salsa scene just seemed like the right thing to do to make something that is free and outdoors. It’s a social event, as opposed to a club or a pick-up scene.” In the spring of 2007, he  assembled his personal gear, a couple of portable speakers and started playing salsa in the park, before meeting with Team Bahia after its formation in 2010.

“This is a fusion of people from several countries, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, El Salvador and some from here in Oakland,” Kos-Read said as five-member band belted out one of its best-known tracks to the cheering crowd.

Sunday’s performance was the second time that Salsa in the Park has featured live music since 2009, and organizers say it drew a much larger audience because of the family-friendly setting. “This is the biggest salsa event we have had in four years,” said Natalie Nadimi, one of the organizers from Oaklandish. “We usually have about 50 people. This is way more than we expected.”

Splash Pad turned out to be a family-friendly venue.

Skilled dancers easily stood out as they volunteered and gave salsa lessons to new learners, switching partners for every song. “I really feel like I can do this now,” said Brittney Sanders of Oakland, as she took a break from dancing with one of the instructors. “This is the first time I have tried salsa with someone who knows how to do it without stepping on my toes.”

Raul Morales, 27, a third-generation Cuban who has lived in the Bay Area for the last 15 years, said the scene reminded him of his visits to Cuba, which have become much less frequent. “Being here makes me miss home,” Morales said. “It’s great to be out here and listen to some good music. This is what a Sunday in Havana looks like.”

For some, this seemed like an ideal place to sit in the grass and smoke a cigar. “I am not Cuban,” said San José resident Jonathan Losey, as he smoked a cigar in the shadow of dancing couples, “but I like that it is so multicultural. There is a place for everyone.”

“This crowd is much more fun than what we encounter in club settings, they are a lot more responsive,” said Luke Kirley, who plays the trombone for Team Bahia. Team Bahia band leader Walt Digz said the group would be performing at the San Jose Jazz Festival this summer.

As the salsa crowd melted away at the end of the day, the park took a more political tone as it filled up with Lakeview Elementary occupiers with flyers and megaphones. (See Oakland North’s previous coverage of the protest.)

For more information on Team Bahia’s performances, visit its website here.

2 Comments

  1. Neighbor

    I live about three blocks from Splashpad park and nearly called the cops on the salsa show. There is amplified music every Saturday at the market and I never hear more than a whisper. But that salsa show was INCREDIBLY LOUD.

    Ridiculously loud.

    I honestly hope it never happens again.

  2. Samantha

    What a feel good article! I feel the neighbor’s pain a little. Although I don’t live near the park I used to live next to a loft building that had rooftop parties with extremely loud music and I had to call the cops a couple times. I believe there is a limit to amplified sound, so as long as the organizers adhere to that it should be all good 🙂

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