- Gabriel and Willy behind the tables at Les Etoiles, June 17, 2005.
It’s Friday night, June 17, 2005 and on the marble floor of Les Etoiles, the level of heat generated by the sparks from DJ Willy’s turntables is making the dancers shine. Gabriel came to the club tonight to hang out with Willy, and spin a few disks to give him some dance time. When he finally sat down to watch the party, I wrote down some notes on the tablecloth, as we talked. And so now, here are a few small glimpses of Gabriel, Paris’s most respected salsa DJ.
Gabriel was born in Lomé, Togo, and had his ears dipped in salsa music by his father, whose musical tastes ran from Zaire to Cuba, Puerto Rico and New York, and Haiti, in the music of Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, Monguito and Labah Sosseh, among others. In the early 1980s he came to Paris where he began amassing a 1200-cd/vinyl collection of Funk, in addition to playing in four world-championships of table tennis. He cites Babyface and Luther Vandross as some of his favorites from the Funk phase of his life... That is, until he discovered salsa, in 1996.
On a whim one night, he went to Les Etoiles, where Jack el Oso was spinning salsa at the turntables, and Cliford Jasmin and Valerie Mitchelson danced. This night marked the beginning of his love for salsa. He started taking classes in the Parisian suburbs with Cliford and Valérie. His tastes in the beginning were very romantica : Tito Rojas, Tito Gomez, Tony Vega, Tito Nieves, Mimi Ibarra. Jack el Oso continues, laughing : "At first, I’d let him mix when I’d take a break, at a club called l’Evasion. I’d go get a drink at the bar, and when I always knew it was time to go back to the turntables when the couples started dancing syrupy and slow, and the lights would dim under the weight of all the romantica. I used to tell him : Gabriel, you’re putting them to sleep." He began building his collection of salsa CDs in these early days and nights, going to local music stores and buying the CDs that no one else would. "He bought cds made by salseros whose mothers didn’t even know they had made an album," says Jack. His tastes evolved, but Gabriel admits that he still remains faithful to his first crush, la salsa romantica.
He continued salsa classes with Cliford and Valérie, of whom he says, "I owe them everything - my first soirée, they asked me to mix. My first salsa congress as Official DJ, it was they who invited me." But there was a point at which his growing collection of disks and passion for the search for swing drove him away from the dancefloor, to the turntables. He still listens to African music, but stopped listening to funk in favor of salsa, because "...salsa is about sharing. You dance to funk by yourself, but salsa is about more than one person, it’s danced in couples. Salsa reminds me of my roots, and it has become part of me. I can’t live without it, and there will never be a moment in my life where I will move on to a different type of music...It will be with me until the end."
What is swing ? Gabriel is an expert, but finds it easier to hear than to describe. He says, "swing makes everyone get up and move, it’s saveur, it’s feeling, I hear it in the piano, in the conga, but I can’t describe it, it’s something you feel. That - that’s swing..." (DJ Willy has just pushed Play, and Gabriel looks across the dancefloor to Willy, and smiles, nodding his head to the rhythm.)
These days, his favorite artists are numerous. Among them are : Yambu, Orquesta Cimarron, Fonzi Cruz, Bobby Valentin, Willie Rosario, Impacto Crea, Sonora Ponceña, El Gran Combo, Carlos Barberia, Orquesta Dee Jay. When asked if there is an album or an artist that he could hear every day, he names Noé Matos, Louie Lopez y su Orquesta, and Gus Colon, Rikikiki y Yambu, as the three that he cannot live without. Ask him if he associates certain albums with different seasons of the year, and Gabriel replies, "...there is no season for salsa, salsa warms you in summer, salsa gives you heat in winter, when I hear salsa, I hear the sunshine." His CD collection is not arranged in a particular order, there is no strict alphabetization or genre-artist-album hierarchy, African music is jumbled in with the Puerto Ricans and Nuyoricans. As Gabriel says, laughing "a DJ knows their CDs. There’s no logical order to my disks, but I know where everything is in my head, and as soon as a CD isn’t where it’s supposed to be, I get lost !"
Ask him what he does, and Gabriel says, "I make people dance."
"In this milieu, I have had the luck to work with amazing people, beginning with Clif and Valérie, Jack el Oso, Willy, thanks to these people I’m here today with my brothers the PapasDJs. No one knows where salsa is going these days, there are a few known quantities, but salsa is blending with soul, and the future is unknown. As for Paris and France, we’re just getting started... and the events at the Mondial 2005 are encouragement, motivation to keep going forward. In ten, twenty years, I can see myself in Puerto Rico or in New York, if not in France. My hope is that salsa continues, that people keep sharing this music, this culture, that people keep sharing. For me, that’s what salsa is all about."
On this note, I ask him to share a bit of the dance floor with me, hoping that he will say yes ; and, rare delight, he does.