Latin America and Scotland, Salsa and traditional Scottish folk music – you couldn't imagine two more different places or styles of music, or so you would think. Salsa Celtica, a Scottish/Cuban salsa band formed in 1996 in Edinburgh are a potent example of musical fusion, breaking down imagined barriers, and highlighting the links between diverse cultures. The band formed in the musical melting pot that is Edinburgh. Founder member Toby Shippey explains “The band has been organic, and particularly with the way that Edinburgh is, there are a hell of a lot of traditional musicians, most of whom jump between genres. Maybe it's different from bigger cities where you play just one form of music, so if you're a jazz musician you play just jazz, etc. In Edinburgh it's really common to play lots of different types of music all the time. So you can have a guy who plays traditional with one band, funk with another and then maybe salsa as well. We started gigging in Edinburgh and a lot of trad musicians joined in. When we started off, we were far more a salsa band, but then traditional stuff started creeping in and I think it's really interesting”.
Shippey's own love of Salsa developed from hearing records at a local club: “There was a club in Edinburgh called Club Latino that I used to go to with my girlfriend and that's how I heard people like Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri. Not that I grew up with it, it wasn't that easy to find in Edinburgh, I grew up with the normal things that everyone grows up with: rock, funk, hip-hop, punk, you know, the usual stuff”.
There are of course the critics, who would cynically say that the band's Celtic influence is more a marketing ploy than anything else, giving them an interesting edge in a crowded musical marketplace. Shippey responds good naturedly with just a hint of exasperation “I think the only people who really weigh up the balance are really the more traditional traditional music fans (laughs), I think Salsa fans are blown away by the fact that we play with this Celtic side. It's not deliberate – there's no grand scheme or marketing plan – it's just an organic thing, and with the current group of musicians in the band, it's really strongly balanced. We'd be a lot richer if there were (laughs)! At the end of the day if you're playing a big concert with 5,000 people enjoying, you're doing nothing wrong”. The charges of opportunism in fact seem to strike Toby as odd more than anything else “This mixing of musical styles and updating the traditional has been the musical norm in Scotland for years, and in some way it's more unusual to have a straight ahead trad band than it is to have for example something like us. There was reggae and folk music, double bass and folk music etc. There's nothing wrong with Fusion – as long as it's exciting”.
In many ways Salsa Celtica are a breath of fresh air: musicians playing with a genuine passion for what they're doing, and outsiders to the rule “For some people Salsa has become just that little bit too formulaic, and so for many we're a fresh sound, writing our own material, and playing around with styles. We don't stick to the rules either of Salsa or Trad, there's a little bit of punk rock there as well”.
The majority of the, vast, band are Scottish, but with a couple of Cubans thrown in to the mix. Toby's enthusiastic descriptions of Salsa show the mindset of the Scottish musicians, enamoured with the Latin American music, but what of the Cubans playing in the band – what do they make of the Celtic connection? “They've no baggage in relation to the music. Sometimes in Scotland, and maybe it's the same in Ireland, there can be a certain attitude to the traditional music, and the Cuban guys don't have any preconceptions. To them it's just great dance music. They hear the tunes just as music. Out of the set we do, some tunes are straight ahead Salsa, and some are more fusion, and I think the fusion ones give the Cuban guys more of a buzz”.