An Entire City Becomes One Great Party
Called 'La Feria de Cali', the Cali Fair is without question one of the centerpieces of Caleño (people of Cali) popular culture and identity.
Indeed, throughout the span of over fifty years, it has constituted a resounding affirmation of Salsa's central position in this popular culture, promoting cultural, ethnical, and musical diversity in the region. In fact, many local salsa songs composed as a tribute to Cali center on the Fair, all of them proclaiming that the city of Cali is 'The Capital of Salsa'.
Cali, a city of over three million people, is located in southwest Colombia, two hours inland from the Pacific coast, in a broad valley between the western and central ranges of the Andes Mountains. Its annual Fair has been celebrated since 1957, beginning each December 25th and lasting until December 30th.
The Fair is officially launched in the afternoon, with a Cabalgata or horse parade through the city in which local and regional gentry participate.
During the days to come, the Feria unfolds into multiple events. Live music at various stadiums include free and ticketed concerts, highlighted by visiting international artists and a marathon 'Festival de Orquestas' showcasing local and international salsa bands.
One might say that during this period, parting is raised to the status of a local industry, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for entrepreneurs, club and restaurant owners, local breweries, among others. Today, the Fair remains a key event for heightening and maintaining the presence of salsa in local popular tastes, resulting in a focal point for Cali's salsa identity and the calendrical peak for all that characterizes Cali as the world's capital of salsa.
The Feria's First Two Decades
Inaugurated in 1957, the Feria was initially conceived as a time of official public celebration and holiday. The first Ferias were marked by elements that continue to this day - parades, bullfights, and most well known, performances by local, national, and international salsa groups (orquestas). Among the famous orquestas to appear at the Feria between 1957 and 1965 were Lucho Bermudez and Pacho Galan from Colombian's Atlantic Coast, Billo's Caracas Boys and Los Melodicos from Venezuela; Spain's Los Chavales de Madrid; and Machito and his Afro-Cubans from New York City.
Through the second half of the 1960s, the Feria came increasingly to be marked by spaces in which physical movement and joyful exuberance were concentrated. Increasingly, live music and orquestas moved to the fore of Feria festivities. In fact, during this time, tropical music, not salsa music, reigned supreme as the dominant national style, and most of the orquestas performing in Cali followed this trend.
The unquestioned turning point for the Feria and its role in local popular culture, however, came in 1968, when the New York salsa pianist Richie Ray and vocalist Bobby Cruz were invited to perform with their band. This was the first-ever appearance by a famous salsa band in Cali, and their visit electrified the city. For Caleño audiences, the band's crisp, high trumpets, dry maracas, sharp percussion, and nasal coros clearly echoed local popular taste.
Furthermore, Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz were among the more commercially popular New York bands that performed pachanga, a genre extremely popular in Cali during the 1960s.
Throughout the 1970s, Feria organizers increasingly invited other international salsa artists, such as Puerto Rico's most recognizable salsa band, El Gran Combo and Venezuela's contender on the international salsa stage, Dimension Latina, who made their debut in appearance at the Feria in Cali, Colombia in 1975. Both these groups had major salsa hits that year: El Gran Combo with "Un Verano en Nueva York" (A Summer in New York) and Dimension Latina with the vocalist Oscar D'Leon's now-classic "Lloraras" (You'll Cry). Not surprisingly both of these tunes were enormously popular in Cali and remain classic favorites for local salsa fans.
After this point, salsa orquestas became a mainstay of Cali's Feria, with the presence of prominent New York, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, and Cuban bands increasing through the late 1970s and into the 1980s.
The Festival de Orquestas
Since the 1980s, a centerpiece of Cali's Feria has been the Festival de Orquestas, a marathon salsa concert initially held during the middle of the fair but pushed to the final night during the 1990s. Inspired by the marathon concert festival held for Barranquilla's Carnival, Cali's Festival de Orquestas was created in 1980 as a way to showcase local talent alongside visiting national and international orquestas. Since that time bands have competed for prizes awarded to the best band, song, and vocalist, as judged by a panel of local and international celebrities.
Crowds would begin to pour into the Pascoal Guerrero Stadium around 3:00pm and continued carousing and dancing until 4:00am or 5:00am. During this time over thirty orquestas performed in sets lasting approximately thirty to forty minutes each. It was during these years that local bands such as Grupo Niche and La Misma Gente won the honors as best orquesta and best tune, despite competition from such internationally acclaimed Puerto Rican bands such as El Gran Combo and the Sonora Poncena.
Through the 1980s, the ratio of local bands appearing in the festival to national and international orquestas steadily increased, earmarking the event as a showcase for local talent. Consistently, Caleño bands proved that they could put on as good a show as the international orquestas, further stimulating the growth of the Cali live scene.
50 Years & Counting
As Cali's major annual celebration, the Feria de Cali continues to represent Caleño popular culture. For over fifty years, the Feria has been pure escapism, a steam valve that lets overworked Caleños party hard and exhaust themselves in a five-day outpouring. Human stamina and imagination are certainly pushed to their limits during the Feria, but one could argue that this also occurs throughout the year in Cali.
Today, the citywide embrace of Salsa continues on, functioning as a site of hope channeled through salsa music and other activities
that hopefully sustain the experience for another fifty years.
~Credits to Lise Waxer, City of Musical Memory: Salsa, Record Grooves, and Popular Culture in Cali, Colombia