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Sample Track 1:
"La Crisis - Roberto Linares Brown" from Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks
Sample Track 2:
"Guaguanco - Changüi Habana" from Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks
Sample Track 3:
"Latinos - Yani Borrell " from Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks
Sample Track 4:
"La Molotera - Jorge Maza & Tipica Toronto" from Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks
Layer 2
Lula Lounge, Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks (Lula Lounge Records) A Fresh Frame for a Hot Sound: Lula Lounge Nurtures Toronto’s Burgeoning Latin Scene, Struts its Salsa Stuff on Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks

In a cozy corner of a working-class Toronto neighborhood, you can step off a cold evening street and into the full-on joy of an eleven-piece Cuban dance band, complete with sparkling horns and some of the island’s best musicians. You’ve just walked into Lula Lounge, a striking, bubbling hub of culture, resonating with the hottest dance music of the Caribbean and Latin America.

Founded on a fluke by a dedicated arts instigator, Lula Lounge goes far beyond your average venue, incubating émigré big bands, packing the dancefloor with salsa converts, and nurturing one of North America’s most vibrant Latin and world music scenes. Now Lula is sharing the energy and good times on Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks (Lula Lounge Records; February 22, 2013), a collection of Latin dance-oriented artists who frequent the venue. It reflects the concentration of Cuban talent, the cross-pollination between scenes and cultures, and the dedicated, fun-loving community that has turned Toronto into an unsung Latin music hotspot.

Lula has harbored and supported major names like Alex Cuba (as part of the Puentes Brothers; “Oye Ruberito”) and Juno-winning Afro-Latin pianist Hilario Durán (“Cuando Me Toca a Mi”), as well as Cuban artists like revered arranger Roberto Linares Brown (“La Crisis”), sweet salsa vocalist Yani Borrell (“Latinos”) and jazz great Luis Mario Ochoa (“La Fiesta”). Lula has helped foster a range of multicultural and multilingual ensembles like Caché (“El Sonero Llego”), Nigerian-heritage salsa queen Lady Son (“Cantame Sonera”); and saxophonist, Latin music advocate, and force of nature Jane Bunnett (“Ron Con Ron”).

“Before we started Lula, there was a whole community of creative people who didn’t have a place to do things,” recalls Lula co-founder Jose Ortega, who moved to Toronto from New York and fell in love with the city. “There was also an attitude about art that tended to exclude a lot of people from enjoying the process, as well as a whole lot of raw or not-so-raw talent in Toronto that was underappreciated. We worked together to build something. Lula is just a frame around all this activity and creativity.”

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Lula is more than a venue; it’s a multifaceted, party-friendly arts organization. Though dedicated to good times—dance lessons and big, full Latin dance bands are de rigueur at the nightspot—it has also become a cultural incubator.

It has brought together Cuban diplomats with defectors—for a night of music and intense discussion. It has plotted cross-cultural collaborations like Salsafrica, an Afro-Latin band—and then cold-called Congolese/Angolan singer Ricardo Lemvo (who agreed excitedly to get involved). It has organized jams for jazz artists that led to new projects and supported newcomers to Canada as they forged careers. “We work with artists more than many venues, to harness their creativity and pair them up with new opportunities,” notes Tracy Jenkins, Lula Co-Artistic Director.

Lula was born when Ortega and partner-in-art Jose Nieves negotiated on the fly with the owner of a space in a working-class, traditionally Portuguese neighborhood of Toronto. Through trial and error, Lula built a first-class performance space, with strong sound, a great kitchen, and a warm atmosphere, a combination many Latin artists had little access to before Lula. The space attracted diverse acts, including big names like Broken Social Scene, John Cale, and Norah Jones, and harbored a wave of Cuban émigrés, defectors who left big-name touring groups to start a new life in Canada.

The biggest wave of Cuban musician-immigrants came in the mid-2000s. Leaving behind some of the island’s strongest bands—Cubanismo, Valentin y Los Del Caribe—they arrived with stunning chops as instrumentalists, arrangers, and bandleaders, inspiring local Toronto performers to up their game considerably. “They really raised the bar for everyone,” Jenkins says. “They really put some steroids in the scene,” adds Ortega. “We wouldn’t be here without that.”

Cuban émigré artists like Hilario Durán, Roberto Linares Brown, Yani Borrell, and Jorge Maza began building their ensembles and repertoire at Lula, often moving from classics and covers to original, locally minted material, songs that chronicle their Canadian experience while drawing on their Cuban roots. Their stellar performances and technical prowess inspired other Latin music devotees, like Lady Son, a singer of Nigerian heritage who pitched Lula for three years, until she and her band perfected their NuYorican-inspired style and became regular performers.

The combined forces of new, masterful artists and local talent have led to one of the biggest Latin music scenes in North America—and to a new sound The combined forces of new, masterful artists and local talent have led to one of the biggest Latin music scenes in North America—and to a new sound. “Toronto salsa has a less commercial vibe, though still hits hard on the dancefloor. Although the Cuban influence is dominant, it's mixed with cumbia, soul, jazz and reggaeton,” explains Jenkins.

“The cool thing about Toronto, and one of the things I feel here that’s exciting, is that most things haven’t been done here yet, and people are willing to try new things,” Ortega laughs. “In New York City, everyone thinks everything’s been done and it’s so expensive to experiment. I think a lot of immigrants feel the potential here, really feel that they can do new things and try things out.”

Yet there’s another element to this Toronto sound: the growing ranks of diverse dancers and Latin music fans who turn out in droves for dance lessons and hours-long salsa sessions, the passionate regulars who support Lula’s artists and help them hone their sets. “Toronto is a fresh, receptive place. A lot of our audience is not Latino, but from all different backgrounds,” Ortega states. “There is a very open population willing to try new food and music, and for that, I credit the politics in Canada. The discourse is inclusive, not divisive.”

<< release: 02/22/13 >>