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Salsa fanatics bring the Latin Jazz and Salsa Festival to Dogwood Dell for the 11th year 

click to enlarge Luis “Sweet Lou” Hidalgo, Miguelito “El Guiro” Lebron, Gloria “La Gigi” Torrens-Billings and Robert “Master G.” Billings are helping to bring the 11th Latin Jazz and Salsa Festival to Dogwood Dell on Saturday, Aug. 25.

Scott Elmquist

Luis “Sweet Lou” Hidalgo, Miguelito “El Guiro” Lebron, Gloria “La Gigi” Torrens-Billings and Robert “Master G.” Billings are helping to bring the 11th Latin Jazz and Salsa Festival to Dogwood Dell on Saturday, Aug. 25.

When organizer Luis Hidalgo sees a wide variety of Richmonders dancing to salsa music at the Latin Jazz and Salsa Festival, the happiness in the crowd touches him

"It looks like Woodstock with people of all colors of the rainbow," says Hidalgo, a Brooklyn-raised plumber in his 70s who moved to Richmond after the trauma of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack. "I get emotional and I think what a beautiful thing it is to see. A kid from Brooklyn could put together something like this."

Now in its 11th year, Saturday's Latin Jazz and Salsa Festival at Dogwood Dell Amphitheater in Byrd Park features at least six sets of singers, bands and DJs.

The featured performer in this year's festival will be Van Lester, a Puerto Rico-born, Rhode Island-based salsero who performs the songs of the iconic Hector Lavoe.

In a Billboard article on the 15 best salsa songs, Judy Cantor-Navas writes "Hector Lavoe will always be the voice of salsa. … [His work] sums up the sound of the seventies New York salsa scene, and still puts a spell on dancers."

Lester's performance exposes festival-goers to one of the great legends of salsa, who died in 1993, a man so central to the music that Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez made movie about his tormented, drug-filled life.

Meant to get people up on their feet and dancing, salsa music should feel like the opposite of stress, Cantor-Navas also wrote.

The festival lineup includes Miami-based, Puerto Rico-born salsero Johnny Love; Cuba-born, North Carolina-based singer Wanda Lopez; Rafael Ortiz and his Tumbao Urbano orchestra featuring Simon Perez; and Adrian Garcia's Latin Jazz Quintet presenting a blend of jazz, funk, neo-soul and Latin rhythms led by the Pennsylvania-based Garcia and DJ Eddy Mayorga.

The festival is able to bring such a high caliber of performers because of the involvement of longtime festival team member Jimmy Castro of Ritmo Caribe productions. Castro is a New York-based producer who was based in Richmond for nearly a decade as a military staffer at nearby Fort Lee.

"Luis is very dedicated and proud of his Puerto Rican culture and Latino culture in general," says Castro, who thinks the city should recognize the festival with more support. "He's a very passionate person."

Hidalgo describes Latin jazz as influenced by 1960s boogaloo and shing-a-ling music, and midcentury hi-de-ho style. The appeal is the rhythms originating in Africa, mixed with Caribbean sensibilities and influenced by the American experience.

Beyond cultural exchange and fun, citizenship is front and center this year, as the organizers honor military veterans and Latinos who serve as first responders. For Hidalgo, in a year of assaults on Latinos, immigrants and minorities, this has an important message.

"It's our way to fight in this battle," Hidalgo says. "Instead of pointing out our differences. We are pointing out what makes us alike."

A conga percussionist, Hidalgo ditched the Big Apple for Richmond after the distress of living through Sept. 11 when soot and ash from the collapsed World Trade Center rained down on his Brooklyn neighborhood covering cars and trees like snow.

"It was horrible," Hidalgo remembers.

The diversity and popularity of the Salsa and Latin Jazz Festival doesn't surprise him.

"There's something happening with Latin jazz and salsa every night of the week here in Richmond," Hidalgo says.

He says that 10 years ago, Richmond was the epicenter of that cultural activity, but now it is just the spoke in the wheel with events that spread out to New Kent County, Fredericksburg, Tidewater, Fort Lee and Charlottesville.

In a city not known for a Latino population, Hidalgo and his co-host sidekick Miguelito Lebron, a Bronx-raised retired mortgage broker, champion salsa and Latin Jazz in free flowing radio shows on local and internet radio stations.

"We enjoy doing this, sharing our music and our culture with anyone and everyone who's willing to listen," Hidalgo says.

They've contributed to the cultural propagation, sowing seeds weekly for 13 years, on what they say is the longest running salsa show in the Richmond area. On their recent Friday internet show on WOBN, and their noon to 3 p.m. Saturday shows on WHAP 96.9 FM and 1340 AM, they bantered in their raspy New York flavored inflections. They play classics and promote the festival performers.

"We don't speak English." Hidalgo said.

"We don't speak Spanish," LeBron counters.

"We speak Spanglish," they sing together.

They reminisce about the stars they have interviewed such as the black-Filipino soul singer Joe Batan but also give shout outs to dedicated Latino listeners at the Petersburg Federal Penitentiary.

"We salute the brothers and sisters that serve honorably at Fort Lee," says LeBron. "We're not only talking about Latinos, we got Asians, Pakistanis."

Hidalgo lets rip the Cali, Colombia-based salsa group Grupo Niche's vigorous, up-tempo rhythmic dance tune "Oiga, Mire y Vea" with lyrics: "If it smells like tobacco cane and tar, you're in Cali, and look: The women are beautiful"

"With salsa it don't matter where you're from," LeBron says. "Your feet are going to move." S

The Latin Jazz and Salsa Festival is held at the Dogwood Dell Amphitheater in Byrd Park on Saturday Aug. 25, from 3 to 8 p.m. For information on the festival and radio shows: latinjazzandsalsashow.com.

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