Getting to Know Shai Hayo and Salsa del Soul
Nine-piece orchestra moves audiences with various styles of Latin jazz and Afro-Cuban dance music
Shai Hayo is an artist who appreciates precision. That precision comes across in the intricate rhythms that reverberate through his timbales, which propel his nine-piece group, Salsa del Soul, forward like a heartbeat. And it also comes through in the specific language he chooses to describe his long-running band, which has carved out a unique place for itself in the larger Twin Cities jazz scene.
In their 20 years of performing at dance clubs, Latin festivals, outdoor amphitheaters, indoor theaters, restaurants and weddings, Salsa del Soul members have banded together out of a shared love of dance music from the Spanish-speaking regions of the Caribbean. Their concerts are made up of about eight parts animated dancing and singing, one part appreciative cheering, and one part music and history lesson. Thanks to detailed introductions of each number, even those completely unfamiliar with Afro-Cuban music or Latin jazz will be able to leave a Salsa del Soul concert with a working understanding of what separates son from plena, cha-cha-cha and cumbia.
Salsa del Soul is led by a trio of radiant singers — Gloria Rivera, Frank Rivery and Chryss Altamirano — who dance, step and sway in unison, provoking the audience in front of them to join in their entrancing movements. Often audience members will stand up and start dancing within the first few moments of the first song, which is an especially rare and impressive feat in stoic Minnesota, where even the most ardent music fans can be reserved in their participation.
About Jazz Fest Live
The Jazz Fest Live series is presented by the Twin Cities Jazz Festival and AARP Minnesota. See our related story to find out more about Minnesota's Jazz Fest Live, learn about area performers, and listen to a Spotify playlist of jazz staples curated by series co-founder Steve Heckler.
The orchestra is rounded out by Bryan Rossi on piano, David Martin on bass and guitar, José “Freddy” Reyes on congas and bongos, Scott Agster on trombone and Matt Hanzelka on trombone.
As part of the Members Only Access series highlighting Minnesota jazz acts you should know, Salsa del Soul’s cofounder and bandleader Hayo connected with Minneapolis journalist Andrea Swensson for an exclusive interview for AARP.
It’s impressive how quickly people start dancing at your shows. What goes into creating an inviting and safe atmosphere for dancing?
We have an interesting demographic group. We really try to perform a lot of styles of dance music that are popular in all of Latin America, because, you know, in the U.S., it’s not like one-country-specific or one-region-specific with regards to Latin American ethnicity and national representation in the country. So we have this one demographic, where we’re kind of speaking to all the different Latin American representatives that are here in the U.S. and are citizens and are noncitizens, everybody. And then we have a real die-hard population of American dancers — folks who are not necessarily of Latin American or Hispanic descent, that are just dancers, and they love it, and they love the music. And within that, there may be diehard ballroom dance folks and social dancers. So we have a really fun mix of people. When you take all those folks, and you put them together, what it makes for are folks who want to dance. So we try to provide music that is inspirational to them.
Does offering dance lessons beforehand help with participation, too?
Yeah, some venues have made that a part of what they do. They’ll not only have the band, but then for folks who might not be familiar, because you know, Minnesota culture — it’s not super dancy. We’ll have shows where I will say, “They’re watching the band the Minnesota way.” That’s when they’re just sitting there. And really, they just clap. And it’s like, “Do you like this? Are you sure that you’re enjoying this?” And they’re, like, “No, we love it, it was the greatest thing.” And you wouldn’t imagine it because they just kind of sit, and just kind of enjoy it. It’s a different thing than what we’re used to. So when we’re in venues that might try to entice folks to try dancing for the first time, venues will incorporate dance lessons, and that’s very fun. Because, you know, some folks who might not typically cut a rug will get out and try their luck.
You are also an educator. Do you feel there is an educational component to presenting Salsa del Soul, and teaching people about the various styles of Latin music like son, plena and cha-cha-cha?
Oh, yeah, for sure. I try to make it a point to say, OK, this is this style, and it originated here, and it’s popular here, and maybe originally recorded by this person, and then interpreted by whoever it is in the band that’s singing it. I think that’s important, just for the fact that we play so many styles. I started doing that, just because I felt sort of obligated to do so, like, people might have no idea what it is. Maybe they like the cha-cha-cha and they didn’t know that was a cha-cha-cha. And now they’ll know a little bit about it. They could be, like, “Oh, cumbia. Cool!” I feel like it’s really important to do that.
What are your favorite types of events to play?
Our favorite style of event is an interactive dance event. I mean, it’s dance music. So while we love playing theaters, and that’s awesome, the most inspirational environment for us is playing for dancers, because that’s what we play. And that could be a club or it could be an outdoors event, anything like that.
You’ve traveled to many places — you were born in Israel and lived in West Africa and studied in Puerto Rico and Chicago. Have you spent time in Cuba?
I attempted to do an educational exchange there many, many years ago, and there was no luck. It was just roadblocks, completely. Every time that the window has been open to travel there, it’s either not corresponded with a time that I was able to travel or, politically or for whatever the reason, it wasn’t available. So, unfortunately, no. I’m going to get there sometime.
How would you describe the jazz music scene in the Twin Cities, as compared to what you experienced in other places?
We’re lucky, you know? We’re very lucky. I mean, everyone who’s here should just thank their lucky stars that there is support. We are so lucky to have a city that supports arts and music. And we’ve had that for a long time. That’s why it was called the Mini Apple, you know. I remember hearing that they used to do runs of Broadway shows to test them out here because there was such a large theater population and just so many theatrical events. But I would say, talking about arts and music, there’s a culture of support on many levels. And we’re very lucky to have that.
Minnesotans have gone through so much these past two years, including the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and subsequent uprisings and reckonings. Have the past two years brought up any new reflections for you on the importance of your work with Salsa del Soul?
Only that we’ve always been about celebrating diversity. I mean, our whole group is like a microcosm of diversity. There are folks of all different backgrounds that come together and play with the band. And then in our crowd, it’s such a diverse group. That’s such a big part of who we’ve always been anyway, that I guess it is motivational for us to just keep doing what we’re doing, more than anything, because it’s a very unifying experience.
Do you think Salsa del Soul will ever make a record?
No, because it would be making a record of other people’s music, which is not interesting. [Laughs.] I mean, it’d be like Joe Cocker, you know what I mean? That’s what we’d be: the Latin salsa Joe Cocker band, which is not — it’s just not our music. If we were to go and do some original music, fine. But we have created this niche of basically being like this big cover band. That’s what we are. And that’s fine! People ask us all the time. And I just say, hey, you know, just go buy the original.
Andrea Swensson is a music journalist in Minneapolis. She is the host of the Official Prince Podcast and the author of Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound. Swensson has written for Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current, City Pages, the Star Tribune, Pitchfork, Artful Living and Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.
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Getting to Know: Moore By Four
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These Jazz Fest Live videos are part of AARP’s Virtual Community Center, where you can find a variety of free virtual events designed for self-learning, self-improvement and fun.
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