Interview with José Ortega of Lula Lounge Records in Toronto

Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks
Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks
Lula Lounge, the hottest Latin music dance club in Toronto and one of the most reputable world music venues in the city has released an album titled Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks. This is the first release on the Lula Lounge Records label and features some of the leading artists from the Latin music scene in Toronto.

The Lula Lounge club was founded by José Ortega, who moved to Toronto from New York, and José Nieves. Together, they built a first-rate performance space, with great sound and food, and a welcoming environment.

José Ortega discloses additional details about Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks and the Latin music scene in Toronto to World Music Central’s Angel Romero in the following interview:

The album Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks features songs by numerous Cuban musicians. How did so many Cuban artists end up in Toronto?

Latin immigration to Canada started gaining force in the early 70s (initially primarily from South and Central America) and continued to increase through the 80s and 90s. A number of the Latin musicians that came from Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Cuba started bands, concentrating on popular covers and playing community events, so when Cuban immigration started to grow about 10 years ago, there was already an existing Latin musical community, with salsa fans and dancers ready to pay attention.

Many of the Cuban musicians that play at Lula originally came to Canada as part of international tours and stayed. The last big wave of top level Cuban musicians came to Toronto about five years ago but new artists continue to arrive every year. The city is gaining a reputation as a musical center. Jane Bunnett mentioned that when she has been travelling in Cuba in recent years, musicians there mention Toronto as a place that they would like to get to. In the past, people told her that they wanted to relocate to Miami or New York but more and more she is hearing that Cubans see our city as a desirable place to live and work.

Are the Cuban musicians settling in Toronto or are they using it as stepping stone to get to other places?

Hilario Durán
Hilario Durán from Cuba
We see both things happening. Many musicians from Cuban and other Latin countries are settling in Toronto, bringing their families, creating their own bands and working to establish musical careers here in Canada. Example of this would be Hilario Durán, Jorge Maza, Jorge Bettancourt. Some do move on to other music friendly cities. For example the Cuban piano player Luis Guerra relocated to Spain several years ago and David Virelles is now working in New York City.

In addition to musicians, is there a sizable Cuban community in Toronto?

There are close to 10,000 Cubans living in in Canada which is not really that many but their impact on the musical life of the country far outweighs what the numbers would indicate. Our salsa scene at Lula is not exclusively Cuban though. Musicians from Mexico, Peru, Colombia and Italy are important contributors. There are more than 65,000 people who identify as Latin American in Toronto so our audience is drawn from many different Spanish-speaking countries as well from communities from all over the world. Because of the overall cultural diversity of the city , Toronto may have the most diverse salsa audience in the world.

Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks contains superb timba, the exciting modern Cuban dance music. How popular is timba in Toronto?

Timba has really grown in popularity in recent years. There’s a whole community of dancers that seek out live timba and get together to dance regularly. Sometimes it’s hard to please both the timba crowd and the audience that prefers the New York (Puerto Rican) style. There are dance schools, social organizations and DJs that specialize in teaching Cuban styles of casino and timba dancing.

Tell us a little about some of the artists featured in Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks.

Roberto Linares Brown (La Crisis)

Roberto Linares Brown
Roberto Linares Brown from Cuba
Roberto is one of Cuba’s most respected arrangers and composers. He’s worked with Valentin y Los Del Caribe and Azucar Negra and for several years, was the arranger for Adalberto Alvarez. The caliber of his work is so high and his band is one of the most popular at Lula.

Jorge Maza (Molotera)

In the style known as Charanga Francesa (with the addition of Cuban tres guitar), Tipica Toronto is led by veteran flautist, Jorge Maza, who performed for many years with Cubanismo.

The charanga band format is fairly unique. They use strings instead of a horn section for a very traditional sound. Jorge’s story is interesting because he travelled the world with Cubanismo before coming to Toronto. He’s got tons of very high-level professional experience and is very interested in fusing R&B and salsa.

Yani Borrell (Latinos)

Alex Cuba
Alex Cuba from Cuba
Yani has a very distinctive style and is one of Toronto’s best-loved salsa vocalists. He has an incredibly sweet voice and is really charming and entertaining on stage. He gets the crowd whipped up at Lula every time he plays by shouting “Everybody love salsa?” That part of the liner notes was meant to be an inside joke for regulars. Yani is working on a new CD which will be released at Lula on May 17th.

Alex Cuba (Oye Rumberito)

Alex was half of Puentes Brothers one of the first major forces in Canadian Latin music. Both Adonis and Alexis (aka Alex Cuba) have highly successful solo careers. Alex was Canada’s first Latin Grammy Winner and was also just nominated for another Juno for his most recent CD. His work has really taken off internationally. Alex’ brother Adonis is a very respected salsa singer as well. They have both performed several times at Lula and are very tied into the Cuban Canadian musical community in Toronto, despite living out west.

Hilario Durán (Cuando Me Toca a Mi)

Hilario Duran came to Canada in 1998 and has been extremely successful in the jazz world. He has toured the country appearing at all the major jazz festivals. He’s been invited to record in Germany. We first met Hilario thirteen years ago when he performed at a small private party at a friend’s house. Last October he performed at Koener Hall (one of Toronto’s best concert halls) with Chucho Valdez and Jane Bunnett.

Hilario is also also a Juno winner and is considered one of the world’s most innovative pianists and composers/arrangers of Afro-Cuban music and Latin jazz.

Jane Bunnett from Canada
Jane Bunnett from Canada
Jane Bunnett (Ron Con Ron)

Jane has played a huge part in bringing Latin music before Canadian audiences. She studied with people like Steve Lacey and worked with Don Pullen. She is hugely respected by Canadian jazz lovers and has been a tireless advocate for Latin music in Canada and. She really is an anchor for the whole Latin music scene with her groundbreaking exploration of Afro-Cuban music and culture. Jane is a Juno Award-winner and Grammy-nominee.

How is the album doing so far?

The CD is getting a lot of support from our audience and on CBC. We’re starting to get some attention for the CD internationally as well. So far, the response has been really positive. There’s an element of surprise when people hear the CD. Most people aren’t aware of the vibrant Latin scene in Canada/Toronto so they are taken aback by the quality of the music. The CD is mainly comprised of original compositions that stand up to any production coming out of Cuba, New York, Miami or Puerto Rico.

Are the bands featured in Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks touring bands? Do they ever go outside of Canada?

Luis Mario Ochoa, Jane Bunnett and Hilario Durán regularly tour outside of Canada. I think that we will see groups like Tipica Toronto, Yani Borrell, Moda Eterna and Son Ache touring in coming years. Tipica and Yani are both working on their first albums in Canada under these project names. Once they have passed that milestone, it will make it easier to tour. We’re working on putting together a Lula All Star band that could travel across the country and abroad.

In addition to Cuban music, what other Latin American musical forms can one find in Toronto?

Luis Orbegoso
Luis Orbegoso from Peru
Our programming at Lula is heavily weighted towards salsa that has Cuban, New Yorican, Colombian and Puerto Rican influences. An example of this on the CD is the track by Caché. Luis Orbegoso who provided the bonus track has a great salsa band called Moda Eterna that has a vintage New York salsa sound. It’s quite different from the Cuban groups and also very popular. Mexican music seems to be growing in popularity in Toronto. Amanda Martinez, Quique Escamilla and Cafe Con Pan (Kali Niño and Alec Dempster) are some artists who are gaining more mainstream recognition. There are some interesting things happening in the Chilean musical community as well. While the Cubans may dominate, there are also Peruvians, Venezuelans, Mexicans and Dominicans and Colombians making a mark on the salsa and dance scenes.

A I understand, Lula Lounge presents more than Latin music. What other world music genres are presented at the club?

We present a lot of Brazilian, African, South Asian and jazz music and have just started a monthly classical night. One of our programmers has been bringing in more local alternative Toronto bands as well – which helps to encourage cross pollination across genres. Seu Jorge, Badi Assad, The Mahotella Queens, Bombino and Kiran Ahluwalia are some of the artists that have played at Lula but we’ve also hosted Norah Jones, John Cale and the Sun Ra Arkestra.

Why did you decide to start a record label?

We wanted to draw attention to the fantastic work that being created here in Toronto: to help get top quality local productions out to the world.

We also want show what’s happening in Toronto’s uniquely multi-cultural scene. Toronto has become real cosmopolitan center that feels different from others like Paris and New York. For the most part here in Canada, we enjoy a respectful co-existence of many cultures. Canadians have a deep interest in learning about one another’s music and heritage and as a result we have very supportive audiences, hungry to learn about new music.

What’s next in the horizon for the label after Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks?

The next project will be a world music compilation that will include a wide range of genres including some Mexican reggae/pop, Brazilian forró and samba, Son Jarocho and Turkish Jazz, Italian folk and a whole lot more. After that we’d like to highlight some of the work that’s being done in Latin jazz in Toronto.

Buy the Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks CD

Buy the Lula Lounge: Essential Tracks MP3s

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites and Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.


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