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'We Were The Pioneers, Opening This Club': Afro-Latin Music's Forays Into The Midwest

Batá drums are a percussion instrument native to Nigeria, but now also heavily used in Latino countires.
Eric Panser | Flickr
Batá drums are a percussion instrument native to Nigeria, but now also heavily used in Latino countires. "

Since 1996, Club Viva in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood has been the spot for locals to get their international music fix. It’s been a home to dance enthusiasts and partygoers alike, who attend themed nights for Latin music and reggae.

This music of the Caribbean and Latin America draws heavily on African roots. The layers of Latino identity reflect Latin America’s long, oppressive colonial history, when indigenous Americans, Europeans, Africans and Asians intermixed. 

More African slaves were sent to Spanish and Portuguese colonies — particularly those in the Caribbean — than to North America. Their music infused the culture around them, providing the building blocks for styles such as salsa, rumba, merengue and bachata, as well as serving as a major influence on jazz and pop.

But music isn’t just a pastime — it can also be political. A song that illustrates that is “La Rebelión'' by Joe Arroyo, an Afro-Colombian musician. It sounds danceable, but there’s a serious message with lyrics about slavery and the discrimination still affecting North and South America today.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske explored the political and cultural significance of Afro-Latin music here in the Midwest. 

Joining the conversation was Pablo Sanhueza, known as the region’s premier salsa and Latin jazz percussionist. He recently gave a talk on Afro-Latin music as part of the State Historical Society of Missouri’s “Show Me Missouri” speaker series. The presentation focused on the political exiles and immigrants who arrived in the Kansas City region in the 1970s and 1980s, exploring how they created spaces to remain connected to their shared culture through music and dance. 

By the mid-'90s, Latin nights in a local venue became described as Kansas City’s “best-kept secret” for 10 years, Sanhueza explained, attracting more than 600 people in the region. Sanhueza later co-founded the Kansas City Latin Jazz Orchestra — the first performance and education nonprofit in the Midwest dedicated to salsa and Latin jazz. 

Also joining the program was Carmen Guynn. She’s a salsa instructor and the artistic director and owner of Almas Del Ritmo Dance Company. Ten years ago, she founded the St. Louis International Salsa Bachata Congress

For Guynn, Club Viva opening was a pivotal moment. 

“We never had something in the St. Louis region that honed in, or just allowed people to enjoy, the Latin music. By Club Viva opening the way it did … it gave people a new perspective of what was out there, especially with Afro-Latin music, which is not seen when you think of Latin music as a whole,” Guynn said. 

Wednesday’s program included comments from Club Viva’s current owner, Cesar Cardona. He said that before the venue opened, Latin music gatherings here focused on Mexican music. Club Viva changed that. 

“Club Viva [has] become an icon in St. Louis … when I [moved] here, there weren't many things going on, and also not many people knew about [Afro-Latin and Caribbean] music. So we were the pioneers, opening this club. Besides the club, we started teaching people how to dance to different rhythms — from salsa to merengue, cha cha cha, bachata,” Cardona said. 

Listen to the full discussion:


St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.