A Cali native tries to define the ineffable quality of the Capital of Salsa. what is that special something that makes visitors want to stay forever?
text: Santiago Cruz | photos: Juan Arredondo
It’s a rainy Sunday. My college friend Miguel Ángel Hoyos and I are searching Cali for a bar where we can sit and talk. It has been years since we’ve seen each other: work had taken Miguel back to his hometown of Medellín. We were stopped at a traffic light on Avenida Pasoancho, when he suddenly says:
“I’d be so happy if I could live in Cali.”
Miguel looks out the car window. He’s silent, as if trying to decipher the secret that keeps him tied to this city.
“It’s that here people are happy. In Medellín, we’re different. Everything gets taken more seriously. In Cali, on the other hand, you take life as it comes. Even though you have to go to work the next morning, people from Cali don’t think twice about going out to have some fun. It’s this approach to life that would make me happy.”
Despite the rain, a group of Deportivo Cali fans celebrate on a street corner. Their team just beat Millionarios four to three in a match the commentators described as epic. The same thing is happening on Avenida Roosevelt, on Calle Quinta and in the neighborhood of San Fernando, home to Pascual Guerrero Stadium. Cali celebrates unabashedly over a game that isn’t going to decide a championship, even though Monday morning looms ahead.
He doesn’t look like a pianist. If you ran into Víctor González in the street, you’d assume he was a college kid. He’s wearing jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers. If you focused on his hands, you might guess his profession: Victor has long fingers.
When he was 11 years old, González began taking piano lessons, and even earlier, he loved playing on a toy piano when visiting his aunt Luz Dary. When he was still a youngster, González joined Luis Carlos Ochoa’s La Charanguita orchestra, where he played the music of Los Van Van, Rubén Blades and Richie Ray.
We’re sitting at a café in the Centro Comercial Chipichape in northern Cali. In the background, you can hear a woodwind ensemble playing on a small plaza nearby. González is thinking about a question I just asked: Why would someone start a jazz group in Cali, the capital of salsa? He’s from Cali, but some think that his mission is foreign.
For starters, Cali is home to approximately 100 salsa academies. Each one of them has between 50 and 200 young students. Most of these schools prepare during the year for one big event: the salsódromo. The biggest parade of dancers in the world opens the Feria de Cali every December 25. At least half a million people crowd along the Pan-American Highway to watch the display.
Cali’s musical culture revolves around salsa. In the discotheques of Menga, near the northern entrance to the city, salsa predominates. It’s the same story in Juanchito, a small town across a bridge from Cali. So the question remains, why would someone decide to start a jazz group?
González is the director of Sángo Groove, a local group that performed at the 2014 Ajazzgo Festival, one of the city’s preeminent cultural competitions. He takes his time in answering my question. “In reality, it’s not that strange to start a jazz group here,” he says. “Salsa comes from jazz. However, people have a tendency to want to categorize everything. Salsa on one side, jazz and tango on another.”
Perhaps it’s this need to define and label things that led to Cali being known as the Capital of Salsa. The title, however, doesn’t represent an absolute truth. The people of Cali do love salsa: most of us dance it as though it were part of our genetic heritage, but we also enjoy other rhythms, including vallenato, ranchera, rock and merengue. “If I really had to define it,” says González, “I’d say that Cali is a musical city.
They call him “El Mago” (The Magician). Although Michael Lynch was born in Cali, he moved to the United States at a young age. He returned just a few years ago, and by appearance and accent, he’s a “gringo.” You can find him every night surrounded by the steep streets, old houses, poets and bohemian life of San Antonio, a neighborhood of artists. It’s also home to a number of foreigners, who are drawn to this area and the cityscape view from the local church. San Antonio is the city’s balcony.
This is where Lynch started his restaurant, the Teatro Mágico. It’s more than just a place to eat. Folks come here to laugh at themselves and their fellow diners, because Cali uses laughter to overcome its problems. Diners come to watch Lynch cook: the open kitchen and the tables all serve as the stage. As he prepares your meal, “The Magician” provides the evening’s entertainment, joking about in-laws, the mayor, financial woes, safety issues or the decline of the Americas.
And there are many more culinary options in Cali, Just a few streets over from Teatro Mágico, Azul offers homemade cooking with a Mediterranean touch. The restaurant’s owner, Marta Izquierdo, was married to one of the city’s most famous photographers, Fernell Franco. Also nearby is Zaguán de San Antonio, a great place to get a feel for local cuisine: like the hearty chicken soup called sancocho de gallina, aborrajados (plantain fritters), champús (a drink or dessert made with honey and fruit) or lulada (a beverage made with a local fruit called lulo).
If you head out of San Antonio – crossing Calle Quinta and taking Avenida Colombia, the longest city tunnel in the country (it passes under the new downtown boulevard and, a little farther along, the Iglesia La Ermita) – you’ll arrive in Granada, another of the city’s culinary districts. Just walk around and you’re sure to find several good restaurants along the way. Dal Padrino offers Italian cuisine, La Goleta serves up delicious paella, Solomillo features excellent grilled fare.
If you’re looking for something more down-to-earth, the Galería Alameda shopping center offers a terrific selection of seafood, but in the exclusive Ciudad Jardín in the south of Cali, Monchis makes the best barbequed ribs around. They call them “New Orleans ribs.” Ultimately, Cali proves to be just as open-minded about food as it is about music.
In his restaurant Teatro Mágico,
Michael Lynch shares food and laughter
to make you forget your troubles.
Miguel Ángel Hoyos
Just before ordering his last beer of the night, my friend returns to the subject of Cali. The city, he says, has a special charm that you only fully perceive at a distance, when you experience something that could be described as nostalgia, a kind of longing. “Cali makes you fall in love,” he says. “Perhaps those of us who live here don’t realize it.” It’s midnight on Sunday, and the music keeps on playing.
The steep streets, old houses, poets and bohemian life of
San Antonio, a neighborhood of artists.
The Two Sides of Cali
Writer Andrés Caicedo described Cali as a city “bitterly cut in two by a river like a razor,” but it is actually divided by an avenue: Simón Bolívar. On the west side, to the north and south, you’ll find the tourist-friendly part of town, the postcard-perfect city. The Cali of the Old Quarter and the Centro Cultural, the Teatro Jorge Isaacs and the Teatro Municipal, the zoo and the shopping centers (Chipichape, Unicentro, Centenario), the stadium and universities, the CAM, Plazoleta Jairo Varela, Plaza de Caicedo, the Museo La Tertulia, the cats of Tejada and the cafés of Avenida Sexta, where you can enjoy the afternoon breeze.
The eastern side – the District of Aguablanca – is less well known, but it’s the source of plenty of great stories. It was here that a group of young people invented a new musical genre – salsa choque – that Colombia’s national soccer team danced in front of the entire world at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Cali is a city that shines like a rainbow: multiracial and multicultural. in
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