The California Institute of the Arts — more commonly known as CalArts — opened its doors in 1970 and soon established itself as one of the leading private art schools in the nation. It became known for its animation and visual art departments, but from the beginning it also developed an expansive music department with an interest in sounds from around the globe.
The school’s World Music and Arts Festival happens April 27-29 on the campus in Valencia. Among the groups performing at the festival for the first time is the CalArts Salsa Band.
Every Wednesday afternoon, the band gathers for a rehearsal, in the same classroom where the members began learning about Latin music last September. The band was formed only seven months ago, but the young musicians sound like they’ve been playing together for years.
The band was created 27 years ago, when Aaron Serfaty, a renowned percussionist from Venezuela, attended CalArts to finish his degree in music.
“So we put together a very small group," says pianist David Roitstein, chair of the jazz program at CalArts and director of the salsa band. "It was only about six or eight people, and we played a set of Afro-Cuban music at a noon concert and everybody got so excited that they all said, I want to do that with you.”
That small group grew into a regular ensemble and, for the first few years, Roitstein accepted any student who wanted to join. But having a band of more than 20 members was no easy task. Roitstein says he downsized the group to 12:
“Three or four singers, four horns, three percussion, bass and piano. And that’s the instrumentation that we arrange for. I start over, every single year, with new music. We learn a couple of easy descargas by ear, but then I spend a lot of one-on-one time, helping them arrange songs for our book. And by this time in the year we have probably 25 or 30 songs.”
Roitstein says every band member contributes with at least two arrangements and that’s how they learn to get into the heartbeat of the music.
The Latin music program at CalArts appears to be expanding. Every Tuesday, a group of 15 students get together in a large classroom for the Brazilian Drumming Ensemble. Today, they’re rehearsing the "Bloco" Afro style of Carnaval drumming from Salvador, Bahia.
Percussionist Alex Shaw co-directs the drum ensemble. He’s a second year MFA student in the World Percussion program and producer of the World Music and Dance Festival. He says this year’s event includes the addition of a second Latin percussion stage:
“There are more Latino students on campus than we’ve ever had before, and so I think the fact that these ensembles are present and growing is a reflection of who’s on campus these days.”
At the salsa band’s rehearsal, 25-year-old Tiffany Lantello takes the lead, singing a classic cumbia from Colombia. Lantello is pursuing an MFA in performance and composition — and she also plays the sitar. After a year at Cal Arts, Lantello says she decided to join the salsa band to improve her musicality:
“My mom is from El Salvador and every time we were at family parties they would be playing the music. So it wasn’t like I was actively seeking out that kind of music, but it was sort of around through my childhood. And so when I started singing with [the band] it was just so much fun and I’m so glad that I’m doing it.”
In a small rehearsal room, 24-year-old pianist Pablo Leñero plays an original classical improvisation. Leñero, who is from Mexico, is getting an MFA in composition, piano performance and conducting. He’s also a singer with the salsa band. He says he wanted to play piano in the group so he asked director David Roitstein:
“'Let me play, por favor,' and he was like, ‘Pablo, the thing is, I am the bandleader and if I’m not the pianist, the band doesn’t run.' And he said, 'Well, can you sing?' I said, 'Sure. I’ll try it!'”
Leñero says, as a classical pianist, the experience he’s getting with the salsa band is more than he could have imagined: “Performing and having people dance to your music is mind-blowing and it has made me reassess what I want to do. Because sometimes I don’t necessarily get the same satisfaction about performing piano. I like making people happy and I like when people enjoy when we’re singing, when we’re dancing or rolling Rs in very high pitches.”
Renowned Latin percussionist Joey De León co-teaches the band with Roitstein. De León says a year-later, the results are clear:
“It’s funny where you start and where they finish. The seed is sprouted and now you see this unwavering sense of relief [from the students]: OK, man, I broke through this passage and now I’m feeling comfortable. And you instill confidence [in them].”
That confidence has given students the tools they need to take the next steps, after they graduate. Roitstein says many students who've played in the CalArts Salsa Band are now successful professional musicians: “Two or three years after they finish school, I might go to a club and see them with a band and they’re burning it up.”
That’s what the CalArts Salsa Band can do — besides getting people to dance.
The CalArts World Music and Arts Festival takes place April 27-29 in Valencia. Admission is free.