he “too cool for school” expression, that unapproachable look used to fend off uninteresting prospects and to attract those one is interested in, is one that you will see on many a face at bars and clubs.
Not so at a salsa night with Son Venezuela. This Latin band has a certain way of not only getting every guy and girl in the audience to shake their money maker, but of also breaking down those pesky club-hopping defenses. Smiles are more frequent than cocktails at a Son Venezuela concert and everyone in the place is joined in the spirit of salsa dancing and having a little fun on the dance floor.
Although, Lead Singer Luis Guillen argues, not as much fun as his band is having onstage.
“I always say, if the people out there are having half as much fun as we are, we’re doing good,” said Guillen. “All of us have careers; this band is our hobby. We perform for the pure love of the music so, when we’re onstage, we’re doing what we all love to do.”
Those that share the same beloved hobby as Guillen are the nine and sometimes 10 or more members that make up the rest of Son Venezuela, including Kelfel Aqui, who often alternates with Guillen on lead vocals, and percussionist Fernando Reynoso. Reynoso’s 9-year-old son, Fernandito, also takes part in the mix.
“I just love playing with these guys,” said the younger Reynoso, who plays hand percussion with a stage presence that clearly shows his ability to hold his own among musicians who are considerably older.
The band itself is older than Reynoso; Son Venezuela has been together for 11 years now. This longevity stems, Guillen said, from simply not taking the band too seriously. But it does take work to keep things running smoothly.
“It’s very hard to keep a band going that long,” said Guillen. “But we all have our separate lives and, like I said, this is a hobby for all of us. That’s why it works. If we were doing it for other reasons, like for money or if we wanted to make it into a career, we could have problems.”
The separate lives Guillen speaks of are those careers that make it possible for the band to remain in existence. Trumpeter Byron Jones runs his own construction company, and Guillen owns the New City CafÃ©, a contemporary Caribbean and Latin-themed restaurant on Huntoon and Gage. Son Venezuela, while important to all of its members, clearly has to take second stage at times to these other, livelihood-necessitated jobs. It is a successful band, but its profit remains largely in the form of fan adoration.
“We certainly don’t do this for the money,” said Guillen.
Public interest, and the fact that they just love to play, seems to be enough of an incentive for Guillen and his fellow band members though. The group has no plans to call it quits until nature runs its course and calls it quits for them.
“We’re not young pups but we’re gonna go as long as we can,” said Guillen. “As long as we can still carry equipment and dance, we’re gonna go.”
From the grey hair that is noticeable on some of the band member’s heads, Guillen would be right in saying that Son Venezuela is not a young group, despite the 9-year-old Reynoso. The band has quite a young following however. They’ve won four Latin music awards from Pitch Weekly, a Kansas City-based music magazine read voraciously by hipsters in the Lawrence and Kansas City area. They also play several shows a year at places that are largely patronized by those of the college-age variety, such as noted Lawrence night spots, The Jazzhaus and Abe & Jakes Landing, and Jul’s Cocktail Club of Topeka.
Jul’s is the band’s home base; it is here that they play the most, with four or five performances a year. Guillen says the band is quite taken with the place that welcomes them with open arms so many times out of the year. Jul’s club goers are quite taken with Son Venezuela as well.
“I’ve been here once or twice and only when Son Venezuela comes out,” said Bambi Martinez, in her early twenties and a pretty devout fan of the salsa band she has come to love. “This is the best music you can find in Topeka and it’s just a great way to have fun and to learn salsa.”
While Son Venezuela shows are patronized by many young people like Martinez, the crowd is not just characterized by how old one is. The dance floor is usually packed with a melting pot of diverse ages and nationalities, all there to dance to some rather intoxicating salsa music. The rhythms vibrate, the yearning sounds of the horn section bounce off the walls and the soothing Spanish vocals demand that you join those brave ones already dancing and salsa! And it isn’t long before most people determinedly march themselves straight to the dance floor, partner in hand, and do just that.