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Durango Style Boise

How to break into Idaho's Latin music scene in just 48 hours

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The vista from the raised DJ booth at Limelight illustrates why Jesus "Mr Chuy" Ruiz needs a big crate. Or at least some diversity on his eight-gig jump drive filled with Mexican regional music.

The "So-So-Sonido Master," as Chuy calls himself, is spinning Duranguense off a pair of laptops. It's early on a Friday night at this nightclub, hidden in a generic office park off of Eagle Road in Meridian. Around 11 p.m., Mexicans from all over the Treasure Valley file into the over-21 room, grab $3 Coronas complete with lime and salt, and line up along the wall near the bar waiting for more chicas to show up.

No one is dancing yet. A Homedale man in his 30s sporting a tejana—not a sombrero, it's a serious cowboy hat—steps up to Chuy and requests something a little more classic so that he can dance with his lady.

Chuy quickly queues up "Estás que te pelas," from the Grammy Award-winning Norteño band Intocable. Intocable has a Texas sound, dominated by accordion and the slower, romantic lyrics that hearken back to an earlier era of Mexican-American cool.

Men in tejanas move to the center of the dance floor with their partners and two-step around the hall for a few songs.

Then Chuy, who sees the young crowd growing antsy, transitions back to the new wave with Patrulla 81's "Eres Divina." Pioneers of the Duranguense sound—which is all the rage at quinceañeras (coming-of-age celebrations for Mexican girls turning 15) and weddings from Mountain Home to Nyssa, Ore., and beyond—Patrulla 81 started recording in Chicago after a prior music career in the Mexican state of Durango.

Turning up the tempo and the synthesizer and downplaying los metales, the brass section that dominated the popular Mexican banda formula that took off on both sides of the border throughout the1990s, Duranguense is both a music and dance style infused with a decidedly urban-country sensibility.

Listen to Spanish radio in Boise for an hour and you are likely to hear this song—"Eres Divina" ("You are Divine")—with its police siren lead in, accelerating marching beat, sparse brassiness and highly danceable fills.

It is quite possible to completely forget that you are listening to hip-hop influenced Spanish polka music; you just smile and start hopping around trying to maintain some semblance of a Latin step.

The dance floor at Limelight begins to crowd and Chuy mixes in some Mexican cumbias and a little hip-hop and reggaeton, trying to switch genres every three songs or so.

This just might be the biggest party in Southwest Idaho this Friday night.

"Any Mexican that's within 300 miles—they all know about the Friday night regional Mexican at the Limelight," said Del Bradford, owner of the club, which doubles as a ballroom dance school by day. Promoted on KWEI 99.5, La Ley, with KWEI DJ's providing the music, Limelight pulls in 500 or 600 people every Friday night. And it has been going strong for five years running.

The under-21 room is even more packed than the adult area, with a heavier emphasis on reggaeton and rap; kids strut and show off their moves in circles on the large dance floor.

"En esta ambiente hay muchas chicas," said Chuy, hinting that the clean, secure atmosphere at Limelight draws in the nice girls.

Limelight was my first stop on a recent weekend packed with Latin music. But this was not my first foray into the Treasure Valley's Latino music scene.

About seven years ago, I dropped $40 on tickets for supergrupo Los Tucanes de Tijuana at the Caldwell Events Center, my first glimpse into the highly developed and long-running Mexican music scene here.

"Almost all of the top tier regional Mexican groups have come through the Treasure and Magic valleys," said Ben Reed, "El Chupacabras," whose popular morning show on La Fantástica, KFTA AM 970 in Burley, is now being broadcast live from San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato, Mexico.

Reed, an Anglo who speaks perfect radio Spanish—rapids trills, staccato-yet-smooth annunciation and exaggerated adjectives—has been an active voice in the immigrant rights movement in the Magic Valley in recent years (he calls himself "gabacho by birth, Mexican by adoption"). Reed said there is an informal Mexican regional music circuit that goes from Salt Lake City through Boise, the Magic Valley and Idaho Falls and then on to larger cities like Denver or Las Vegas. It is reminiscent of the big band days, Reed said, when Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman played dancehalls in towns large and small across the heartland.

In Southwest Idaho, these salones concentrate in Caldwell, where the Caldwell Events Center and nearby La Tropicana alternate hosting the big name bands. Smaller shows have been held at the Mardi Gras in downtown Boise.

Banda el Recodo, perhaps the most famous of the Norteño bandas, packed the Idaho Center two years ago.

These concerts are often organized by the owners of Tacos Michoacan or Chapala restaurants and promoted on local Spanish radio stations and on loud, colorful posters plastered in taquerias and Mexican stores across the valley.

On Saturday night, mostly recovered from my evening at Limelight, I headed west to Caldwell.

La Tropicana is a hulking concrete structure just off the Nampa-Caldwell Boulevard. It has something of a reputation for seediness, a stereotype that is quickly quashed once you get past the mechanical bull, Mr Chuy, who was playing music just outside the dancehall and the beefy bouncers at the door.

As Oasis, a local Duranguense group warmed up for the main act, the large dancehall filled with young Mexicano couples pushing strollers, grandmas and grandpas, little kids trying out their moves, and no shortage of tall tejana hats, of the Durango style, often autographed by well-known musicians.

Concert-goers wore everything from full cowboy getups to Tupac tees.

More than 500 people paid the $15 cover this night to see Amantes de la Sierra, a fairly new band from Boise that is now on its first major tour, playing about 10 cities with a stop in Miami to record songs for several Univision shows.

Amantes' seven players were happy about their sendoff at La Tropicana.

"It was really good," said Agustin Landa, the band's manager and a former radio DJ himself. "We weren't expecting that many people."

Amantes did not appear until almost midnight, by which time the place was packed. Their song "Vuelve," a peppy plea for a lover's return, is getting air play on about 70 Mexican radio stations around the country. Their next big hit, "La Tanguita," the "G-string," with its reggaeton interlude, is getting some exposure in Mexico as well, Landa said.

Los Amantes claim the mantle of being the first Treasure Valley banda to hit it big. But another solo act out of Boise has blown up in the past few years as well.

I discovered Grupo Karibe in 2003 while searching for a decent local wedding band. Led by the personable Edgar Guerrero, Karibe at that time was playing with a more tropical sound and fun lyrics—cumbias about sumo wrestling and some goofy dance numbers like "Baila Machin," or "Dance Machine."

Their roots were in the Norteño music they had grown up with, but it was clear that the members of the band—some of them Boise State students at the time—were pushing the limits of their parents' rhythms, incorporating the new dance moves that are often slow to appear in Idaho.

We gave Guerrero sheet music for "Hava Nagila," gave him directions to the Pioneer Lodge at Bogus Basin and crossed our fingers. It was their first gabacho gig and it may have been the first Norteño/Jewish wedding ever. (There was a 15-minute Mariachi hora followed by a break dance-off paying homage to the B'more vs. Jersey Bar Miztvah rivalry.)

But Guerrero was destined for even bigger things. In 2005, he took fifth place in La Academía, Mexico's version of American Idol. Guerrero was locked up in a house with a group of musicians for six months. Their only contact with the outside world was a weekly concert they performed each Sunday that was beamed into Latino living rooms across North America on the Azteca network.

Guerrero has since moved toward Spanish rock and cut an album called Del Norte al Rock (From Norteño to Rock). His agent said he's signed with Universal for a new album.

But first, on April 19, Guerrero will appear on another Azteca reality show, El Gran Desafio (The Great Challenge). He is currently in Mexico preparing for the show and BW was not able to arrange an interview.

Any weekend night, the Treasure Valley is rife with regional Mexican dances. But there is another growing Latin Music scene in Boise that is headquartered at the modest Boise Cafe on the corner of 10th and Bannock streets.

About midnight on that recent Friday night, I left Limelight with the party still going strong. I drove by Boise Cafe and looked in the window to see if it was still happening.

A related, but more crisp and refined Latin sound spilled out onto the street and a dozen couples whipped each other across the dance floor. This is where the salsa dancers come to play.

Oscar Luna, who hails from Cali, Colombia, which he describes as the salsa capital, dances with women half his age, directing their substantial hip and foot movements with the slightest of effort.

"My art is dancing," Luna told me in Spanish when I spotted him a week later delivering croissants at the Modern Hotel and Bar. He carried on about feeling the woman's rhythm.

A sizable divide exists between the Mexican and other Latin dance scenes in Boise, but dancers from San Juan to the Tierra del Fuego can be found Friday nights at Boise Cafe.

"It's one of the only places that you really see a diversity," said owner Marco Lo Iacono, an Italian who lived in Mexico City for five years teaching "five-minute salsa" lessons to tourists.

The gabacho DJ spins salsa, merengue and some reggaeton too, taking brief breaks from his booth to dance with the bartendress.

As last call came and went, the dancing continued—it was a party that did not want to end.

The salsa dancers see the Mexican cumbia and Duranguense steps as a bit pedestrian, but Luna, standing in the empty, silent Modern Hotel bar on a Friday morning, demonstrates the connections between the two.

Omar Rengifo, graphic designer, and his wife, Lorena Medina, editor of Mirada, pose in front of the dance 
posters they produce. The couple can also be seen dancing on YouTube. - NATHANIEL HOFFMAN
  • Nathaniel Hoffman
  • Omar Rengifo, graphic designer, and his wife, Lorena Medina, editor of Mirada, pose in front of the dance posters they produce. The couple can also be seen dancing on YouTube.

While the proper salseros utilize their hips and bodies, Mexican dancers put much more effort into the footwork. Luna assumes the position (straight posture, one arm up the other out, as if cradling the back of a completely trusting Boriqua) and executes a perfect rendition of the Duranguense hopping step before continuing on his bread delivery route.

Omar Rengifo and Lorena Medina are also Colombian dancers who run a graphic design business and print a bilingual magazine called Mirada. The magazine serves Southwest Idaho Latino's community, and Rengifo prints the posters for most of the Mexican concerts and also for the annual Idaho Salsa Congress, scheduled for June at Knitting Factory.

The couple prefers dancing at Boise Cafe, but Rengifo also broke into an impromptu quebradita, the irresistible break-beat banda two-step of recent Mexican regional music.

The chance run-in with Oscar Luna, the presumptive godfather of salsa in Boise, just goes to show the way in which Latin music infuses the Treasure Valley. The first phone call I made for this story was to a number at the bottom of a flier that I had picked up months ago and kept on my desk.

A man named Jesus—a different Jesus—answered and told me there were not really any good Latin concerts coming up. Then he asked me to hold and I could hear another man on the other end say: "I'll have two carne asada tacos."

Jesus Hurtado, who also goes by Chuy, is a long-time Treasure Valley Spanish radio personality and DJ. And he is the guy that takes orders at Chilango's taco truck outside the Idaho State Capitol where I eat at least once a week.

We hung up and I ran down to the truck to interview Hurtado.

It turns out he was testing me, a ritual I would grow accustomed to as I reported this story. A man at Limelight asked around if I was an undercover cop, and many people averted their glances as I approached with a notebook and pen to chat.

It is admittedly strange to conduct a shouted, bilingual interview at a nightclub when you are among the only white guys around.

But Hurtado recognized me and scribbled out four hot Latin venues on his note pad sending me on my weekend adventure. The next week he revealed that he's been promoting Latin music in the Treasure Valley for decades. He hosted cross-over Mexican parties that drew mixed Sunday night crowds to Sixth and Main street bars and the Basque Center in the early 2000s.

Hurtado smiled when I remarked at the impressive size of the crowds at Limelight and La Tropicana.

"There is nothing else to do around here," he said.