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Reggaetón might be the first new musical phenomenon of the century, but the dance is as old as mammals. Fans call it el perreo, and Minneapolis newspaper Vida y Sabor has reported that it "simulates the copulatory movement of two dogs." But on a cool Saturday night at the Loring Pasta Bar, men and women rotate their lower torsos in the way only humans can. The DJ onstage, Omari Omari, has switched from the brass and piano razzle of salsa to the digital boom-click of reggaetón, and dancers on the crowded tile floor have abandoned the gyroscopic elegance of spinning and dipping for the more basic pleasures of animals trying curious poses.
"I've found the dancing pretty out there sometimes," says Katie De Los Reyes, 18, a regular at the Pasta Bar since she got her fake ID two years ago. "It's very sexual, and it makes a lot of guys uncomfortable to see their girlfriend out there doing that. I know my boyfriend doesn't like it, but that's why I don't bring him."
"Omari, cabron," shouts a man with two fingers on the straw of his drink, wading into the grinding couples as two women slide up under the DJ's portico to make requests. Omari, 25, speaks fluent Spanish, though his mother is Jordanian and his father, '70s rumba singer Hassan Omari, is Kenyan. (The son looks a little like Seth Gilliam from HBO's The Wire, wearing the white sports casuals of a grownup hip-hop kid.) Omari says he started listening to salsa as a way to pick up girls back at Minneapolis South High, though he plays "air cowbell" to his merengue selections with a fan's abandon.
Reggaetón (pronounced reggae-tone) is the next thing, he says, a Spanish Caribbean blend of American rap and Jamaican dancehall that has become an advertised draw at hip-hop, reggae, and Latin dance nights around town. Scenes like the one at the Pasta Bar have multiplied ever since El Nuevo Rodeo launched the first local reggaetón night in 2004. (Last year it moved to Thursdays, as Noche de Perreo.) Now the genre's stars touch down in Minneapolis—Luny Tunes at Rodeo on Halloween 2005, Ivy Queen at First Avenue in April, Tego Calderón at Rodeo in July. Meanwhile, the music has breached the previously rap-free zone of Minnesota Spanish radio, lighting up request lines on "regional Mexican" La Invasora 1400 (WMNV-AM, Thursdays from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.) and La Mera Buena 107.5 (KBGY-FM, weekdays from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.), with more regular play on the new La Picosa 1530 (KQSP-AM).
"Nothing like this has ever happened in Latin music," says local reggaetón producer Diego De La Vega. "I've been to Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela. Reggaetón is out of control all over Latin America. If you can hear it on KDWB [101.3 FM] in rural Minnesota, imagine what it's like in some place like Peru."Maya Santamaria, owner of El Nuevo Rodeo, compares the explosion to salsa in the '70s, another sensation powered by Puerto Ricans through the hemisphere. Yet the new sound outsells salsa at Mena's International in Minneapolis, according to the store's owners. Four years ago, Universal began distributing reggaetón king Daddy Yankee and others on Puerto Rico's VI Music label, thanks to the connections of Gustavo López, a native of the U.S. territory who worked as a rep to Best Buy in the late '90s while living in Hopkins. Last year, López launched Universal's Machete Music, a major-label reggaetón imprint with echoes in Jay-Z's Roc La Familia and Diddy's Bad Boy Latino.
The same year, more than 100 students at Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights participated in recording and performing an anti-tobacco reggaetón song. And since the first local reggaetón show in March of 2004—Honduran-born brothers Caribbean Connection at El Nuevo Rodeo—more than a dozen Twin Cities acts have taken their version to the stage and into the studio, with enough evidence on demos and MySpace to justify buzz over next year's slated wave of CDs. One forthcoming compilation, produced by Leroy Smokes trumpeter Kyle Borchert, features bilingual St. Paul rapper and singer Maria Isa, Dominican-born MC Back-Up Plomo, Panamanian-born deejay the Kamillion, and others working across genre with such local reggae and hip-hop vets as Prince Jabba and Unicus. Watch this space for the future of Minnesota music.
Like any genuine pop movement, reggaetón is three new things at once—a beat, an audience, and an ethos. The beat is the ubiquitous, tripping dem bow, the boom-ch-boom-chick rhythm that is the hull of any reggaetón song. The audience is the changing urban core of the Americas, including the thousands of young Spanish speakers in Minnesota who marched for immigrant rights last April. "Most of the immigration that we saw in the last 10 years was from rural areas," says Alberto Monserrate, co-founder of Latino Communications Network, which owns Vida y Sabor and La Invasora. "Now what we've seen in the last two or three years is a lot of immigrants coming from big cities in the U.S., or from Mexico City."