A serendipitous encounter in Cuba led the Alaska Folk Festival to the salsa band Cambalache.
The Seattle-based dance band Cambalache will perform and teach at the upcoming Alaska Folk Festival, scheduled for April 8 through 14. For the first time, the festival is featuring a guest band for the weekend dances as well as a guest artist for main-stage performances.
Folk festival board member Heather Haugland loves dancing and salsa music. She was reveling in both last fall on a trip to the Caribbean when she learned about Cambalache.
"It all goes back to Cuba," Haugland said. "I met a girl there from Portland, Audra, and she said I should look them up when I was visiting Seattle."
Months later, on a trip to Seattle, Haugland and two Juneau friends went out dancing to the nine-piece band. She was impressed with the band's stage presence and the horn section. She said the musicians pulled up dancers from the crowd to dance on stage - and it was a small stage.
"They really interact with the audience and the dancers," she said. "They put on a great show."
Members of Cambalache hail originally from Peru, Mexico and the Philippines, as well as the United States. Pancho Chavez, the lead singer, band leader and manager also is producing the group's first CD, which he hopes to have done in time for the folk festival.
The band includes four percussionists - three of whom also sing - a pianist, two trumpets, trombone and bass.
"About half the band members are full-time professional musicians and half have other jobs," Haugland said.
Bassist Cliff Swiggett, who plays with three other Seattle groups, has backed up jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie and Randy Becker. He'll lead a workshop on the role of bass and piano in salsa music, and the band's drummers will lead a percussion workshop.
All festival dances and workshops are free and open to the public.
Haugland, who has taught salsa dancing through the Juneau Racquet Club, will team up with bandleader Chavez to teach a salsa dance class April 13. Haugland said she's kept in touch with the Portland, Ore., woman who tipped her off to Cambalache, and she is coming up for the Folk Festival and has volunteered to teach dance.
In addition to performing two sets of dance music on April 13 at the National Guard Armory for the festival, Cambalache also will perform April 12 at the Hangar on the Wharf.
The folk festival features a guest artist every year to showcase a particular genre of folk music. Recent years have included folk singers, bluegrass and old-time musicians and a Cajun band. This year's guest artist is Irish fiddler Frankie Gavin and accompanist Brian McGrath. The guest artists teach workshops and jam informally with local musicians and festival visitors.
Historically the festival featured a big dance Saturday night. About 10 years ago, the board expanded the dances to include three nights of dancing in addition to the main-stage concerts. The nights feature caller-led contra dances, and one night features rock, swing and other styles.
The festival also began bringing a guest dance caller. The caller leads contra dances and dance-calling workshops. When Haugland pitched the idea to the rest of the board for a guest dance band, it was a new direction. Music for dances always had been provided by volunteer performers.
"Cambalache is definitely a different try at something," said longtime festival board member Michael Sakarias. "It's costing more money - we're basically bringing up two main acts."
In addition, Warren Argo will serve as guest dance caller. Argo is no stranger to the festival. He's been chief sound engineer at the event for several years and has called dances, led workshops and played music. Like Cambalache, Argo hails from Seattle.
"He's very active in the Northwest dance scene," Sakarias said. "People like him and he's fun to dance to."
Riley Woodford can be reached at email@example.com.