"It’s over," says Rico, owner/manager of down-to-earth Cuban bar and restaurant, La Havana. He’s talking about Bangkok’s obsession with all things Latin. "The height has certainly already come and gone."
Sexy, colorful, and most of all fun, Latin dancing rode into town on the coattails of Ricky Martin and 1997’s World Cup. As the baht dived and the SET plunged, it wasn’t only business going into the red; if they had to be miserable by day, Bangkokians staunchly refused to be grim by night. They slipped into clothes – if not red than at least bright – and slunk out to salsa the night away at a myriad of pumping clubs: El Nino, La Havana, Baila Baila, the Salsa Club, Que Pasa, Coco Loco, Bar Latino, Senor Pico’s, and most recently, Cubanos. Bangkok was the salsa-holic’s taco.
It was a timely antidote to descending gloom – and still it lingers. "Latin is fun. It’s lively. And these facts appeal to the Thai sense of how life should be lived," says Vararom Pachimsawat, artistic director of the Dance Centre, one of many places offering Latin dance classes. "Certainly there is a trend of Latin dance at present in Bangkok. I think that it will last for some time to come."
But dancing venues are dwindling: Coco Loco, Bar Latino and Que Pasa have cha cha-ed off into the sunset. Baila Baila has shifted its focus towards the mainstream; Cubanos changed owners shortly after opening at the end of last year, yet still clings to the formula that worked earlier for so many others.
So is it all commiserations and tears in the mojitos for those punters still wanting to party?
Not for a second. Now that Bangkok’s fickle crowd has warmed enthusiastically to the idea of something beyond disco, pop and techno, some clubs are taking a step further into the unknown: world music. That catchall phrase for – well, anything not western – is the Next Big Thing.
Both La Havana and the Salsa Club are in the process of shifting their focus in this direction. "We will always have the Latin vibe because I’m from Puerto Rico," says La Havana’s Rico, who claims to have the best Latin CD collection in all of Asia. "But now we’ll also have north African, Lebanese, gypsy, flamenco, blues, whatever I can get my hands on." Given Rico’s background in LA music management this could mean a great deal of things.
The bar’s anniversary next month will also be its relaunch, as La Havana World Music Bar. The objective: as much different music as possible. The lineup so far includes Scottish experimental outfit, the Chemical Sisters, who play live accompaniment, including flute, guitar, saxophone and further down the track percussion,to programmed electronic music. "Nobody’s ever seen or heard this sort of music in Bangkok," Rico enthuses. The two experienced musos, aged in their 50s, play an ambient set late on Saturday nights followed by a dance set into the wee hours. "It’s been incredible. They’re going to way outgrow this place. For their style, they need a huge room, huge system, tremendous bass."
Between their set and on Fridays, a Cuban balladeer plays trova, a traditional kind of sung Cuban poetry. Sunday is blues; and a north African band will be auditioning shortly. "I don’t think Bangkok can support an exclusively Latin club," says Rico, adding that he was amazed when he visited in 1999 to find there wasn’t a single Latin venue here. "It blew my mind. All the main cities elsewhere had Latin clubs, and Bangkok is supposed to be the hub of mainland Southeast Asia. Trends here just seem to come later."
So could Bangkok possibly be ready for the likes of the Chemical Sisters and company? "Bangkok may not be ready, but the expats are. Everyone else will grow into it," says a confident Rico.
In such a small market, having a few venues featuring varied live performances is definitely a good rather than bad thing ; musicians have more than one place to play, hipsters have more than one place to kick back and have a good time in. So it’s unsurprising that Rico says approvingly of the Salsa Club, who have also shifted towards a more eclectic selection of bands throughout the week: "They’re giving music and musicians a chance."
Stanley Pao, general manager of Salsa Club home the Pathumwan Princess, speaks with a combined business/music head, being a great fan of jazz himself. He says that Latin was never more than a niche market. "Everybody was playing some kind of Latin [when the Salsa Club opened in 1999], but it wasn’t a mass market – the music was a trend. But the dancing and music will always be a part of the scene now."
The businessman in Stanley Pao wants to reach that mass market, and believes world music will be the carrot. "We’ll have rock ‘n roll nights, jazz nights, reggae, to broaden the market for the Salsa Club. Latin represents a lifestyle; it’s exciting, sexy. But we need to appreciate that it’s going to be a niche market anywhere – unless there is a large Latino community."
Which isn’t to say there isn’t still room for a little Latin lovin’ in town. "It won’t die," says Stanley. "It’s sanuk, so Thai people like it. They’ll like any kind of music that signifies fun. With world music, what we want is a touch of a few styles." The club is certainly on the way there, now being home to three house bands: on each from Trinidad, Philippines-Thailand and Chile.
Stanley concurs with Rico on the ability of Bangkok to support a solely Latin venue. "Bangkok’s not big enough – there aren’t enough people. There might be 10,000 salsaholics in town, but there won’t be 10,000 going to dance every day. We need to have a variety, to open the door to other promotions." Still, 15 to 20 are turning up for their daily Latin dance classes. "Some come back, some never come back. But they’re still interested enough to get the exposure to it."
To really sustain the Latin trend, Stanley says he’d like to see more Latin artists actually coming to Thailand. "The majority do not even consider stopping here – they just go to Japan. But if they came here, more people would be exposed and would become interested. They’d keep the fires going. But for a forest fire, we need a lot more work."
El Nino is certainly stoking those fires, being one of the few clubs still believing in the longevity of Latin. Bar and restaurant manager Patrick Ng concurs that the craze is over, but says the market is still steadily opening up. "We simply offer another option. La Havana has its own niche, ours is more upscale. The ambience is different. We offer a good ambience, a bright environment, and the most important thing, a good band [the house band is Colombian outfit]. Ten per cent of people in a city of 8 or 9 million can afford to come here; we offer them that option."
So we’ve had plenty of tacos; could it be at last we’re on the way to having the whole enchilada?