Esencia Latina Band: ‘Let the Rhythm Bring You In and Don’t Be Shy’ | Feature Story

Paige Cotignola got a phone call in early 2013. An Omaha jazz bassist, she was confused when Alex Sanchez, a salsa singer, introduced himself.

Sanchez acquired Paige’s number from a friend, and asked her to meet him and a group of salsa musicians at Passion Lounge, an Omaha dance club off 108th and Q, for a salsa rehearsal.

Paige didn’t know exactly what she signed up for, but she rounded up husband and saxophonist Chris Cotignola and headed to what would be the first gathering of Omaha-based salsa group Esencia Latina Band.

Conga player Cristobal Oquendo assembled the original bones of Esencia Latina Band in his Bellevue home’s garage. Javier Alers, who plays the bongos, said the police were called to that garage 18 times for noise complaints. They played anyway.

Paige had no experience with salsa music when she went to Passion Lounge for that first rehearsal. Neither did Chris.

The percussionists who formed the group, Oquendo from Puerto Rico and Antonio Betanzos from Cuba, grew up with salsa music and could play by heart. When Chris and Paige arrived, the charts the rest of the band were reading off resembled nothing they had ever seen.

Salsa music, much like jazz, comprises a high level improvisation and working off other band members. This makes chemistry key. Paige says gaining that chemistry was a natural process for the now 13 band members, most of whom are professional musicians.

“Jazz and salsa are kind of like second cousins,” Paige says.

Alers, who goes by Jelo, points out that modern jazz and salsa both incubated around 52nd Street in New York City around the 1940s and ‘50s. Latino musicians were picking up on what the jazz musicians were doing and adding their own flair.

In January 2014, Esencia Latina Band was becoming a solidified group, and those members who had no prior salsa background were picking it up.

Paige says as long as they are following the clave, or “key” in English, rehearsals and shows flow with ease. She says Oquendo will often stop a song and repeatedly shout, “clave, clave!” until the members are back on track.

Salsa is an exceedingly active genre, and the audience matches their intensity. The members, now playing gigs in venues ranging from The Waiting Room to Bushwackers, say they know when they are playing a good show if their isn’t a person seated in the building. Beyond being dance music, Jelo, who was born in Puerto Rico, says salsa is all about bringing people together.

Chris explains the community aspect of salsa as part of Latin culture, with the night of the blockbusting Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight as an example. He invited the band members over to his house.

“The guys brought their instruments and spontaneously started playing and singing,” Chris says. “People who weren’t in the band but were family members or friends started joining in.”

This is a microcosm of what the band members say a salsa show is like. The group is scheduled to play Club 24 on Saturday, and if you attend expect to be on your feet.

“The key is to get the people on the dance floor, to get them involved,” Jelo says. “The goal is for everybody to jump in and have a good time, sweat like crazy and get moving.”

Club 24, located on south 24th Street, is in the heart of South Omaha, a hub of Latino and Mexican-American culture in the city. Chris says the band has never played the venue before, but noted that they will pack any venue if there is room for people to dance.

Now in their second year, the group is gaining traction in Nebraska, and won the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Award in the “Best Ethnic” music category earlier this year.

Looking ahead, Esencia Latina Band, playing mostly covers now, wants to compose and record its own work and play bigger venues. They also want to branch out and play in Midwestern cities like Kansas City or Denver.

“Salsa is contagious,” Jelo says. “Come in and start dancing, don’t stand outside, let the rhythm bring you in and don’t be shy.”