‘Sounds of Cuba’ brings gleeful night of salsa to Rhythmix Cultural Works

Portrait of Jesus Diaz
Susan Lin/Staff

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Last Saturday night, among a massive block of dark warehouses at the edge of Alameda, one small building stood out in the quiet, as kids ran in and out and light radiated from the windows.

The immense energy inside Rhythmix Cultural Works, a nonprofit community arts organization nestled next to the Tidal Canal, starkly contrasted with the quiet nighttime outside. While the rest of the city may have been asleep, the Jesús Díaz Quintet had brought couples and families to their feet in a cha-cha frenzy to the “sounds of Cuba.”

The quintet was one of various groups Rhythmix Cultural Works hosted as a part of the organization’s Island Arts Concert Series. Starting with Saturday’s event, “Sounds of Cuba,” the concert series will feature four different groups, giving a platform to the music and dance traditions of Cuba, Tahiti, Japan and Indonesia.

“Sounds of Cuba” explored “the role that music plays in the cultural identity, history and geography of Cuba and the Caribbean islands through a blend of contemporary and traditional practices,” according to Cultural Works’ website. The night was dedicated to creating space for Cuban culture, as the hosts served mojitos, catered food from Prima’s Cuban Vegan Corner and set up Salsa lessons while the Jesús Díaz Quintet transported the crowd with its music.

The music was definitely the highlight of the night, with Díaz’s rich voice commanding the room as everyone happily shimmied and spun around. The musicians’ control of the packed room stemmed from the eclectic yet concerted tunes of their instruments. While Díaz’s voice led the melodies, the entire quintet created a happy chorus that packed a punch throughout the songs.

Díaz, a Cuban born percussionist and vocalist, has performed on a local, national and international scale, even working with famous artists including Stevie Wonder and Carlos Santana. And while the artist is so successful, he blended in with ease as he sang and played drums with a simple, humble demeanor.

The trombone and keyboard kept up the spirit of the night during each band member’s solo. While the trombone used its booming bass to its advantage, delivering a complete, round melody, the keyboard delivered a spotlight of such salient, crazy chords that it was almost surprising that it worked with the rest of the quintet. The percussion defined the music within the scope of “Island Art,” using classic Latin instrumentals such as the cowbell and conga drums.

The night’s set included “Dime Si Te Gusta,” a simple melody with a vibrant beat made for dancing. The attendees ranged from couples on date night to entire families who came to cha-cha.

Some couples sat off to the side, swaying in their chairs and chatting over sips of mojitos. Two parents, trying to involve their young kids in the festivities, started a family cha-cha train. Nearby, pairs were salsa dancing as if they were on “Dancing With the Stars.” Women in backless dresses and high heels danced with men in black dress shirts and fedoras, all moving around the floor like a tornado.

Above the dance floor hung a string of mini flags from around the world, representing Rhythmix Cultural Works’ mission to serve as “Alameda’s destination for global arts and culture.” It must be applauded that the organization was able to appreciate Cuban culture, giving a platform without co-opting it. The joys of sharing in Cuban festivities were on everyone’s faces. Many took this Saturday night to try something new, and those with Cuban heritage celebrated their community.

Malini Ramaiyer covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @malinisramaiyer.