The Making of Latin London


The Making of Latin London: Salsa Music, Place and Identity

Patria Roman-Velazquez (1999)

Pub. Ashgate

This 176 page book by Patria Roman-Velazquez, who you can read about here, considers Latin American culture and the practice of such in a geographically different location outside of Latin America, namely London in this case. The experiences of Latin Americans in shaping and re-making cultural identities through use of spaces and their associated activities is the main theme here, and London’s Latin music, dance and club scene forms the main basis for exploration.

Why you might buy it:

Very little has been published about the Latin music and dance scene in the UK and this book details much that in another generations time would be harder to establish. A good ‘snapshot in time’ of Latin London from the 80’s to 90’s, there are particularly good chapters on the music (Chapter 5) and dance (Chapter 6) scenes. Actually these two chapters form nearly 2/3rds of the entire book and so there is much to recommend here, particularly for those who have been involved in some way with London salsa from this time, memories will be jogged. Roman-Velazquez, whilst writing from an academic perspective, has based much of this writing on actual experiences and interviews and her involvement in the scene itself allows for some well made observations.

Why you might leave it:

It’s a low number publication so is reasonably hard to find and can be quite expensive (my copy is down to diligent E-Bay searching and was reassuringly inexpensive). It’s also short, so if you have little interest in the London scene there might not be very much here to interest you – even if you are from another part of the UK you might feel the same as this is ‘London only’ content. Whilst it was based upon an academic endeavour unfortunately it reads like an essay at times – too many “in this section I shall…” and “in this chapter we I have demonstrated….” moments.


1.    Introduction: Latin American Identities
2.    Globalisation, Power Geometry and Cultural Identities
3.    Latin Americans and British Immigration Policies
4.    Latin Americans in London: Routes Through the City
5.    Travelling with Salsa: The Making of a Music Scene
6.    The Embodiment of Salsa and Latin Identities
7.    The Making of Latin London: Concluding Remarks

Selected extracts (from):

3. Latin Americans and British Immigration Policies

Estimating how many Latin Americans are living in Britain is not an easy task, mainly because a considerable number have overstayed the initial period granted by the Home Office. There are various problems involved when considering Home Office statistics (…snip…) According to Home Office statistics from 1982 to 1992 a total of 7,610 Latin Americans have been accepted to settle in the United Kingdom.

The other source available is the census of 1991, in which a total of 41,549 Latin Americans were registered as living in Great Britain, Brazilians and Colombians being the biggest groups with 9,753 and 5,682 respectively; of these 12,327 Latin Americans were residents of Inner London: 3,182 Brazilians and 2,945 Colombians. These numbers have been questioned by many Latin American organisations in London who have argued that the number of Latin Americans in London can fluctuate from 60,000 to 100,000 if these figures were to include the number of people who have overstayed.

4. Latin Americans in London: Routes Through the City

In the case of Clapham Common Latin American cultural identities were mainly articulated through the different local football teams. Gathering on Sundays at Clapham Common to support the Latin American football league has become a social activity for many Latin Americans. The Latin American football league has been gathering at Clapham South since 1980. Its existence is communicated through word of mouth publicity or via the local newspapers but it is not that easy to find. I went with someone who knew the exact location of La Cancha (The Pitch) within the park. Whilst waiting for the person at Clapham South underground station I could identify those who were going to La Cancha, because they were speaking Spanish or wearing baseball caps or sweatshirts with labels of Latin beers, or other icons related to Latin American countries on their t-shirts and caps.


Most of the people started to arrive from two in the afternoon. People gathered for more than football. As Leonardo Sozza, a Chilean political refugee who participated at La Cancha, has commented when interviewed for an article published in The Guardian: ‘You arrive in London on flights from South America on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Many people come straight here from the airport: they’ve been told that you meet people who can advise you about immigration problems’ (in Salewicz, 1991, 26).

5. Travelling with Salsa: The Making of a Music Scene

Mr. Bongo, the first specialised record shop in Latin music, started operating in London during the summer of 1990. This was followed by Latino Records whose aim was to offer a variety of musics from different countries, not just salsa. Latino Records started in the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre in May 1991 after a successful year at Camden Market. However, it ceased operations in January 1992. Hence, for most of the early 1990s the only specialist Latin shop was Mr. Bongo, which sold contemporary recordings and re-issues of old records and collectible items. Dave Buttle, owner of the music shop, pointed out that Latin music sales were not high because there was a small number of people willing to buy and major profits came from distribution to France, Holland Spain and Greece, among other places, with Japan being his biggest market. Mr Bongo operated as a mediator and distributor for salsa to markets outside the United States, excluding Latin America.


Sol y Sombra in Charlotte Street was mentioned as one of the first Latin clubs in London to be in the same location for a relatively long period…snip….Sol y Sombra was organised by a Colombian in 1982 and it ended in 1986. Dave Hucker, who used the same name to run a night at Bar Cuba on Wednesdays and who was the disk jockey for Sol y Sombra, recalled that: ‘This was the first, the original club, and that was burned down in 1986. It closed and now I have revived the name for my Wednesday nights in Bar Cuba, because I am trading on the fame of this club. I mean, because it was an award winning club. I won disk jockey of the year when I was playing there’.


In  moving from the clubs identities to the routes and routines of dancers I intend to highlight how the movements of those who participated at these clubs were as important in the making of Latin identities as the aspects mentioned above, such as decoration, geographical location, advertising strategies and publicity. Each of the identities discussed above were based either on class or national differentiation, and involved various ideas and images of Latin America. For example, I first mentioned how clubs like Copacabana and Rumberos were established as working-class Latin clubs through elements such as the cost of the entrance fee, publicity, distribution and strategies for selling liquor by bottles rather than individual drinks, all of which contributed to attracting working class Latin Americans in London. In the case of Barco Latino the identity was further established through the decoration of the boat. At night Barco Latino was considered a working class Latin club. However, during the day and because of its location the identity of the boat was that of a Colombian bar-restaurant and the working class references were less evident. In contrast, Club Bahia attempted to appeal to a middle class Latin American clientèle and maintained this identity through elements such as the price of admission, door policy, decoration and service. I also referred to clubs that had been created out of tapas bars where the Latin identity was usually fused with a Spanish theme and I concluded with Mambo Inn where Latin music was featured as part of a multi-cultural, Afro-Caribbean and politically alternative identity.

6. The Embodiment of Salsa and Latin Identities

Learning how to dance salsa listening to and understanding the rhythms and learning how to interpret these with the body. Dancing to salsa music involves making a correlation between corporal movement and rhythms in time-space. Body movements and speed should change according to the rhythmic variations of the music. In London most of the dance teachers adopted a technique of teaching salsa by separating the rhythms into four beats and each step into four ‘tappings’. In doing this, dance teachers often feel that they are having to ‘adapt’ and ‘modify’ salsa for a London public. For example, Nelson Batista, a Cuban dance teacher, narrated this process through which he developed a technique for teaching salsa:

‘I developed my own style, but I still call it Cuban because the roots are still Cuban. The Cubans do not tap, they hold the step and then they go. Instead of tapping they hold the foot there for the beat and then they move forward, it is in that moment when I tap. By tapping I can improvise, it gives me the rhythm (…snip…) I began to use a lot of rumba movements, not steps but the movements. I use the rumba off-beat sound and beat to mark the body movement at that particular moment, dance wise. Many of the turns that people do in jazz and jive can be acquired and developed into salsa. So I took that, although Cubans dance using a lot of turns as well’.

As Nelson mentions, learning the basic step is just the starting point. The dancer should be able to interpret the overlapping rhythms simultaneously with other parts of the body. In relation to this point Nelson said: ‘If you follow a rhythm with the whole of the body, then you are not going to be able to move one arm outside when the horn section comes in’. Thus, dancing is about the movement of the body, about how the rhythms are interpreted with the whole of the body.


Jose Polanco, a Colombian dance teacher, has adopted a different approach to Nelson. Jose prefers not to count, but to start associating the steps with the music. For him it is important to teach students to listen and understand the music simultaneously with the steps:

‘For a student the most important thing is to teach them how to listen to the music, not to count because if they start counting they end counting. If they start with an instrument it is different. I always try to make the rhythm of the body consonant with the music. I do not teach only one rhythm of salsa; as you could have seen a lot of people tend to dance the same rhythm. I emphasise that people must learn how to differentiate the music. Our Latin music is varied and there are many rhythms. The problem is that most people count, count and count and don’t know which music is being played’.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews:

No other reviews found (Jan 2008)


4 responses

14 05 2011

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30 09 2011

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10 10 2013
Christopher Molrey

The Sol Y Sombra in Charlotte Street was a popular haven for the Welsh in the city. I used to travel from Cardiff to meet mates there.

6 10 2014
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