Whether you’re a salsa aficionado or a passive listener, the sight of a group of Japanese musicians flawlessly delivering the traditional rhythm is striking. Tokyo’s Orquesta de la Luz was an early pioneer in creating what became a mainstream explosion in the 1990s — and they remain the most famous of the few.
Puerto Rican-born Ernesto Salinas, who relocated to Japan in 2005, remembers seeing an Orquesta de la Luz performance as a kid on a late night TV show titled No Te Duermas. If you closed your eyes, he says, they sounded just like any other band. “I was pretty young when I saw them, so it left a big impression on me,” Salinas says. “After that, I figured that anybody can play any kind of music as long as you work hard on it.”
That performance was booked around the release of their debut album De la Luz in 1990. Orquesta de la Luz embarked on a tour of New York, Boston, Miami, and a whopping 18 performances in Puerto Rico. Crowds embraced them wholeheartedly anywhere they played: Despite minimal Spanish comprehension, the group absolutely embodied the spirit essential to salsa performance.
But Nora, their powerhouse frontwoman, says acceptance wasn’t instant. It took a little persuading.
“Latinos living in New York – they’re used to seeing different kinds of culture. They are so surprised and shocked to see Japanese people playing salsa,” she says. “But for Puerto Rico, para puertorriqueños, more surprise — big surprise, huge. They can’t imagine what they’re seeing. I think they cannot move. At first, they’re so shocked, so they freeze.”
Four or five songs is typically what it took to convince a crowd, she says. “They just want to see us playing for real. They want to see [if] this [is] real or not,” she laughs. “When they found out this is real, then they start to react. But every time I say ‘Viva Puerto Rico!’ or ‘Boricua!’ or anything about Puerto Rico, they had to react. I was trying to say those kinds of words to please the Puerto Rican people. So they start to react, so I could sing more comfortably onstage. At the end, everybody was excited, onstage and also in the audience. Everybody was one.”
Nora notes that the support of established, revered figures in salsa likely strengthened their sway. At one show in that period — their second, held at the University of Puerto Rico for a crowd of about 2,000 — they were joined by a legend. “People were watching so seriously; I was scared,” Nora admits. “I kept singing, singing, singing, then at the end, Cheo Feliciano came up on the stage and sang with me and everybody loved it. That was a good memory.”
Like Salinas says, if you weren’t looking right at them, you’d never know the difference. But actually watching Nora and company perform was understandably surprising.
Before Orquesta de la Luz, the only other Japanese salsa band to make headlines was Orquesta del Sol, emerging around 1978. They’re said to have influenced Nora and her bandmates, and some even refer to them as the first and foremost Japanese salsa band. But by comparison, their impact was not so immense and widespread as that of Orquesta de la Luz.
José Ibáñez Reyes of Orquesta el Macabeo, a Puerto Rican salsa dura group formed in 2008, calls their TV performances a “revolution,” noting that he felt something akin to culture shock when first seeing them at 12 or 13.
“It was very impressive,” he says. “It was a shocking image between what you’re listening to and what you’re watching. Your eyes are watching something and you’re listening to another thing. It’s a shock. The brain freezes for a while, you know?”
“There was nobody else who could sing that kind of salsa at that time except me.”
For 12 straight weeks that same year, Orquesta de la Luz’s debut LP held the no. 1 spot on the Billboard Latin chart. From there, they released several more exceptionally well-received works, and in the process racked up a slew of awards both at home and abroad. They were even nominated for a Grammy in 1995.
By 1997, though, they’d disbanded, as Nora ventured into a solo career and members launched side projects. One of the latter was Las Estrellas, where Osaka-born singer Yoko joined as lead from 1995 until 1997.
“In the 90s, salsa romántica was the mainstream,” Yoko says. “Las Estrellas – it’s basically half of them from Orquesta de la Luz. They wanted to play a different style, like the New York salsa dura. That was the beginning of that band. There was nobody else who could sing [that kind of] salsa at that time except me.”
Visits to Osaka and Tokyo from the iconic Tito Puente probably laid the foundation for that 90s boom. From the late 60s onward, he traveled there often; in particular, reception for a 1979 show confirmed he’d cultivated a sturdy, loyal fanbase in Japan. Willie Colón, among others, also trekked over, and was eagerly welcomed. Yoko counts his concert as her primary lure into the genre.
The ripple effect of those concerts and the success of Orquesta de la Luz resulted in a boom of like-minded groups popping up in Japan, and soon after, clubs catering specifically to the genre were filled with swarms of fans. Since then, the hype has simmered. Salsa in Japan is like any other genre that exists outside the mainstream today: Its crowd may be devoted, but comparatively, it’s a niche market.
No Japanese salsa bands were as galvanizing as Orquesta de la Luz.
“In the 90s, the music part was the only active part. It wasn’t really active, because Orquesta de la Luz was the only Japanese band, and then the salsa bands from the United States were traveling to Japan as foreign music…They didn’t know salsa yet,” Yoko says. “When I was singing in Osaka, there was nobody dancing salsa. Only in Tokyo. I think there was only two dance teachers in Osaka. There were more in Tokyo, but it definitely was limited.”
When Yoko relocated to the U.S. in 1997, she took a career break, but has been active for the past 10 years, especially in New York, where she’s known as Yoko La Japonesa Salsera. She travels home for a string of shows about once a year.
“I went back [to Japan] 2004, seven years after I came to the United States. There was already thousands of people dancing to salsa,” she says. The popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club documentary, she notes, helped ignite a fresh revival. Today, the Japan Salsa Congress, held annually in October, typically draws about 10,000 people.
Without discounting the efforts of other Japanese salsa bands and artists, it’s undoubtedly true that none were as galvanizing as Orquesta de la Luz. “They are very, very big in the salsa world — worldwide. They were the big band,” Yoko says. “They’re very successful. I definitely think they opened the door for me, too. [People were] already familiar with Japanese [people] playing salsa, so the people in New York, me singing salsa, it’s not so much weirdness.”
Author Frances Aparicio, currently a Spanish and Portuguese professor at Northwestern University and Director of its Latina and Latino Studies program, noted the impact of Orquesta de la Luz back in her book Listening to Salsa: Gender, Latin Popular Music, and Puerto Rican Cultures. “This is a group that, by its very presence, has destabilized the value of salsa music as a nationalist marker and as a product of cultural essentialism,” she writes. “The experience of watching Orquesta de la Luz perform…was truly new for most Caribbeans, including myself. Their onstage performance obliges us to recognize our assumptions about expected submissive Asian gestures, manners, and behavior. That Orquesta de la Luz thrives on this double-edge destabilizing of national/cultural constructs, on the self-tropicalizing of Japanese musicians, is most salient in some of their arrangements and lyrics.”
Those stereotypes don’t hold so firmly in 2016, but at the time — before the globalizing effects of the Internet — they were more prevalent. And Orquesta de la Luz, with Nora front-and-center, had an early hand in shredding them.
“Just to sing salsa as a Japanese [person], it’s kind of different…Salsa is your music, right? I love the music, but I want to overcome frontiers, barreras, en todo el mundo, through salsa. I need people to get excited, and welcome us, even though we’re Japanese. They used to tell us thank you for playing our music,” Nora laughs. “That’s what the Puerto Ricans always say. I was like, why do you thank me? I just wanted to sing salsa. I love salsa. You don’t have to thank me, but I was so happy to hear that, that they accept us. That’s the proof.”