Fuego Latino: our footprint in Singapore

I am Norella Prada, and I want to share my experience with the development of the Latin music movement in Singapore.

In 1996, Willman Florez, six musicians and I left Colombia bound for Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) to work in the first Latino bar in Asia as Kalamary Band. Willman was the director and pioneer in organizing this expedition of musicians to the far East.

Caribbean Colombians represented an excellent choice of musicians because we displayed great musicality and ease playing any rhythm, especially the Latin American ones. Our group also had a special feature: we brought folkloric instrumentation in addition to the usual equipment for popular music. I was fortunate to be the first woman to officially play the “gaita” in both in Colombia and in Singapore.

In whichever country we were, our band celebrated Colombian Independence Day on July 20th as well as important dates from other Latin countries, and with the help of our Latin American friends we performed folk dances and Latin events which became a tradition.

Exploring the Asian market, we were proud to represent Colombia in countries like India, Myanmar, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand among others. A very strong Latino movement was also born in China; some people had gone to Beijing for reasons unrelated to music or dance but ended up linked to the development of Latin American culture in Asia. One of these ambassadors was Lucho Roa, who began teaching dance and became a cornerstone of Colombian culture in China.

In October 2008, we arrived back in Singapore with a new format after our Asia tour. We were now “Fuego Latino” band with four members: Juan, an Antioquian guitarist; Dana, an Australian singer who also played bongos and percussion; Willman, who continued to be band director and played bass, guitar, and piano; and myself, performing as singer and playing pipes, congas and minor percussion.

We were a bright, committed and efficient group in organizing the Latin concept. In fact we were so successful, that we thrived in one location (Union Square) for 6 years. And not only did we have fun, but we also became teachers of dance, music and Spanish.

In Union Square we consolidated a group of friends from different nationalities who were willing to support us in all our ideas. We had a great musical show with Faiser Florez, a Colombian percussionist guest who accompanied us for two years in various folk performances. Faiser later formed his own group and began working for the “competition”, but he maintained the tradition of celebrating Colombian culture and we remained good friends.

In the 2010 Independence Day party, we showcased a traditional performance called “dancing doll” (salsa dancing with a doll of human size) which was a hit with viewers; we also had the special participation of Efia Luis, a dancer and banker from Curacao, who delighted us with belly dancing to the rhythms of Shakira.

The celebration of July 20th, 2011 was also very special. Jessica Florez (daughter of Faiser Florez) surprised us with a beautiful cumbia. We had the outstanding participation of Freddy Sonderenggen, Swiss classical musician, member of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Singapore and a great admirer of Colombian music. Sonderenggen masterfully executed the “bombardino” (musical wind instrument) to the beat of “Colombia tierra querida” and “Los sabores del porro”. It was cause for great joy to see musicians of so many different nationalities dressed in our colors and interpreting our themes.

The tradition of “sancocho for all” was an exhausting but highly anticipated offering, where we cooked a Colombian stew for the public (a simpler version that everyone could eat “halal”), which we accompanied with Antioquian aguardiente that our relatives had sent us from Colombia.

For the Independence Day party of 2012, we introduced a “Mapalé” dance which was a superb collaboration between all band members. We also had Efia return to dance once again, and Ylen Florez demonstrated a “cumbia”. All of this was complemented with a music set especially crafted for the occasion, with extraordinary musicians who joined in on the project. That year our friends and colleagues John and Dana left to Australia, where they are still representing Colombian culture.

In 2013 the expectation was at its maximum because the Independence Day party was now anticipated by all. That year we had special visitor, Mrs. Monica Tomlin Villegas, Colombian Honorary Consul in Singapore who was introduced to the community at this event. We also had the participation of Colombian, Natalia Angel who promoted the party to gather a record of 300 guests, and with a guest chef delighted us with empanadas, pandebonos, and arequipe amongst other other gastronomic delights. As a special dance the band assembled “the Marimondas”, in collaboration with Gupson Pierre professor and pioneer the development of salsa in Asia, who executed the choreography.

The show proved so successful that after seeing it many people decided they would put Colombia on their bucket list just to participate in the carnival of Barranquilla where the renowned Marimondas traditionally perform. From the small touches of the draped decorations with patriotic colors and the staff dressed in Colombian costumes, to our VIP guests, all our joint efforts helped to promote and further engage the Colombian community in Singapore.

Since our format had changed and Willman and I were the only permanent members, we were challenged to build great shows with our many invited guests who were excellent for Colombian salsa and folk music; starring artists such as Leo Muñoz, a great Mexican percussionist, amongst many other local players.

But just when we were getting used to Singapore it was time to go home. However, we left with the satisfaction of having met all our goals abroad with the strengthening of our Colombian image by promoting our culture and traditions. Over the years we counted on many groups of friends who supported us with all our ideas who came to be called the “salsa family”, it is to them we owe much of our success, so thank you!

It is a testament to the footprint that we left having many friends from all over world visit  Colombia, and hearing from many local in Singaporeans how they remember our parties and time together fondly; the friendship and hospitality have remained through time. I must say those sixteen years we spent in Singapore were definitely a fun but also committed way to make a cultural impact in Asia.

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