It was a mob scene as 15,000 people packed the 900 block of Penn Avenue in June for a rousing concert by El Gran Combo, a hugely popular salsa band from Puerto Rico hailed by promoters as the Rolling Stones of their genre.
The opening act – Noel Quintana Latin Crew– performs regularly in the Cleveland and Pittsburgh area and the concert, which drew fans from all over the region, was a big hit. But more than that, it showed in a big and public way that the Latin music scene in Pittsburgh is coming on strong.
“I believe there’s a shared vision that music is an opportunity to really bring people together,” says Betty Cruz, non-profit manager for the Mayor’s office, who worked alongside members of ¡Hola Pittsburgh! and other city officials to help organize the event. Others, like Carla Leininger of Global Beats, who has been working this scene for years, would agree with Cruz.
The turnout was indicative of a demographic shift in recent years as the Latino population in Allegheny County doubled from 11,000 to 22,000 since 2000, according to U.S. Census data.
Meanwhile, the number of Latin bands in Pittsburgh – ranging from Riot Salsa to Andean flute music – has increased from two or three to about a dozen over the last 20 years, according to local musicians and community leaders.
And the music is reaching younger audiences. Requests for Latin music at schools and dance parties is at an all time high, said Gloria Rodriguez Ransom, performance coordinator for the Pittsburgh Latin American Cultural Union.
Even Steeler fans more likely to catch a game than a live band got a dose of Latin culture at the Sept. 28 game, when Guaracha Latin Dance Band performed in recognition of National Hispanic Heritage month.
It’s all music to the ears of Cuban born Miguel Sague Jr., who has performed and promoted variations of Latin music for more than 30 years for audiences more accustomed to Rock & Roll and American Jazz.
In fact, there was a time when Cinco De Mayo didn’t exist in Pittsburgh. “May 5 would come and go and you would not see any mention in any bars or any restaurants—even Mexican restaurants,” Sague Jr. says.
It wasn’t until he walked into the Post Gazette building in the mid 1990s holding three national newspapers with Cinco De Mayo coverage that local media took it seriously. “I said to them, ‘does Pittsburgh have to continue to be the backwater town of the country?’”
An article was published that year and his Cinco De Mayo celebration at the former Rosebud in the strip district was packed. “By 1996, we had a well-established Cinco de Mayo tradition,” Sague Jr. said.
And yet performing Latin music was an uphill battle, says Miguel “Cha” Sague III, who would tag along with his dad to shows. The swaying hips of the salsa gigs and the colorful outfits of the Caribbean steel drum gigs in a town known for its steel workers and babushkas was at times both a musical act and a social experiment.
“There were always tough guys who laughed, because they didn’t know how to deal with it,” Sague III says. “But they would start to get the picture when the ladies weren’t laughing. And you get (the guys) on your side when you teach them to dance salsa.”
Sague III has carried on the family tradition as the front man of the Guaracha Latin Dance Band, which originally was formed by his father in the late 1980s.
And while there’s actual competition these days from other Latin bands and DJs, Sague III said the crowds are more appreciative. “A lot of the people coming to shows now are Latino,” he said. The same goes for local dance clubs and restaurants. The dance floor at Cavo in the strip district typically is packed on a weekend night with couples salsa dancing and singles flirting in Spanish at the bar.
In Beechview, a neighborhood known for attracting Latino residents, a fusion of Latin music by Geña y Peña helps draw customers—many of them Mexican Americans—to the Casa Rasta restaurant on Broadway Avenue.
“I’m hearing from customers that (Beechview) is like a Latino community,” says restaurant owner Antonio Fraga, who moved to Pittsburgh from Mexico City 12 years ago.
A second Casa Rasta opened last month in East Liberty, which has provided more gigs for Latin musicians. And while Pittsburgh is far from a Latin hub, musicians and restaurant owners from Latin countries continue to trickle in.
Violinist Alejandro Pinzón moved to Pittsburgh about 10 years by way of Mexico, Argentina and Miami. His latest instrumental project, which he plans to debut in Pittsburgh this winter, blends the violin and guitar of South America and Mexico with the rhythms of Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Pinzon said the music was well received by audiences in Mexico, where the group already has performed. “People sometimes spontaneously would start singing,” he said. “Then I would play a second voicing or something on the violin, because the audience had then become the singer.”
While fresh faces on the music scene work to build a following, local organizations are doing their part.
¡Hola Pittsburgh! is a year-long initiative designed to attract professionals and talent relocating from Puerto Rico.
Welcoming Pittsburgh is a national and grassroots-driven effort to ensure cooperation between foreign-born and U.S.-born Americans. The timing seems appropriate, based on studies that show Pittsburgh lags behind most peer cities in net immigration.
Sague III says a true indicator of a well-rounded Latin music scene would be the day he’s competing for Mariachi gigs with musicians of Mexican descent.
For decades, the Sague family provided Mariachi music at Quinceañeras and other traditional Mexican celebrations with musicians of Cuban and European descent. “We were filling a need,” Sague III says. “There were no Mexican musicians here at all. We were looking out for the very few Mexicans who were here.”
But for the greater good, Sague III said he wouldn’t mind the competition. “Mexican musicians will start to appear, and when they do, I’ll help book them,” he said. “When we all cooperate and help each other out, there are more gigs.”