Downtown Soul and Reggae Love
[Update: since writing this article, unfortunately, the Luna brothers and Sal parted ways with Downtown Soul. Griselda is currently running the club on her own and Sal is still spinning at Memphis]
If you were one of the many patrons that visited the Bistro 400 located on 4th and Birch on the final Thursday of each month chances are you heard resident DJ Ras Sal Navarrete spin his extensive collection of rare Jamaican vinyl. From the Skatalites, to Alton Ellis, to Desmond Dekker, Sal spins an amalgamation of Jamaican oldies, ska, rock steady, and reggae that gets the dance floor filled with young lads and ladies skanking the night away.
A Santa Ana native and Valley High School attendee, Sal fell in love with Jamaican culture and music at an early age. He has been active around southern California either spinning his favorite music to the masses or playing it with reggae band Isouljahs since the early 1990s. He is a resident DJ at Memphis in the Santora (playing every 2nd and 4th Fridays of the month) and is one of four founding members of the club held at the Bistro 400 every final Thursday of the month known as Downtown Soul.
For those that have not heard of Downtown Soul, it is a club like no other held in Santa Ana offering rare soul tunes, northern soul, Motown, and of course ska, reggae, and rock steady. With its $3 Red Stripes, Downtown Soul is five hours of non stop music most club organizers would not even be able to identify. It was at the first Downtown Soul held in May of this year that I first saw Sal spin. He was accompanied by an MC who seemed to have just stepped out of the plane from Kingston, Jamaica (I came later to find out that it was reggae artist Garth Dennis). Having known of Sal from fellow Downtown Soul organizers Bernie and Greg Luna, I had been wanting to know a little more about the story behind this Jamaican music connoisseur. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with him last week in an underground studio in the heart Downtown Santa Ana.
Samuel Munoz (SM):
So tell me about your history in Santa Ana. Where did you live? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Santa Anita, the barrio that is on the west side of Santa Ana over the bridge. And during those times [late 70s to early 80s] in Santa Anita it was a hotbed of people, of friends and girls. Everyone that lived in that neighborhood we knew each other. [The neighborhood is sandwiched between 1st and 5th street and in between Harbor and Fairview]. Back in those days it was crazy. It was like hundreds of friends, it was just activity everywhere and unfortunately it was also a big place for drugs, especially heroin. Back then I got into hanging out with “those guys” you know the Santa Anita [he pauses] I don’t even want to call it “a gang” because it was not a gang, it was a neighborhood. It’s been a neighborhood since way back…We weren’t gangs; we were just people, you know a neighborhood of working class Chicanos. Anyway, I grew up there and I was a homeboy. And I was deep into it. I fucked around a lot. There were these veteranos that I looked up to…and since I fucked around a lot, I didn’t graduate [from high school] when I was supposed to. And I knew that I was fucking up and I wanted to change. I was searching for a spiritual change and music became that, you know, spark. […]
How did you get into reggae music in particular?
The way I first heard reggae music was like this. It was in 1980 and on TV, instead of cable, what they had was this thing called ON TV and SELECT TV. It was like the two cable networks where you could watch movies, you know, uninterrupted and unedited. And me and my primo, we were like 14 years old, we were always looking at the movies that showed tits (we both laugh). They would send you a TV guide for the box and we would search the TV guide for these late night movies and we would always look for the one that said “nudity” on it. One day we found this movie called The Harder They Come. Have you heard of that movie, The Harder They Come with Jimmy Cliff? You got to see it. It’s the first movie they ever made in Jamaica. Great movie too!
So you thought this was a porn movie or something?
Well, we thought it was going to show tits (laughs). So we were there watching this movie waiting for the tits, but at the same time, this movie, right from the beginning, was so intriguing. The music! The music was like nothing I have ever heard before. See, I didn’t even know where Jamaica was at the time. I totally forgot about the reason we were watching the movie in the first place, and the music just got me man. And it’s funny to me that it was just an accident. I was looking for tits and I found this whole new music and culture. After I saw this movie, years later I slowly started getting more and more into Jamaican music. I researched it; found out about Bob Marley, Rastafarian culture, and all that. […] I started listening to this show on KCRW in Santa Monica 89.9. There was this DJ named Hank Holmes, and he was pretty much my teacher of reggae music. He was not just playing Bob Marley and the regular stuff. He was actually showing you that in Jamaica there are many recording studios and producers. Every producer that put out a record had its own sound. For example, Lee Perry, when you heard a Lee Perry song you knew that that was a Lee Perry record. And at Studio 1, there was this guy named “Coxsone” Dodd, as soon as you heard his sound you knew that that was a studio 1 record. Hank taught me that. […]
So how did you get started with DJing?
Well, I’ve always loved playing music for people. Even back in the Santa Anita days, I was always the DJ. I’ve always loved buying and collecting records. See back in those days, here in Santa Ana we had two of the best record shops anywhere. There was a record shop called Ghetto Records. It was located on McFadden and Sullivan. That was back when Santa Ana had a large black population. Not that many people know that. Back when I was going to school at Spurgeon [Intermediate], it was maybe 40% African American, 40% Hispanic, and the rest was pretty much white. We did not have that much of an Asian population back in those days in 1978. […] That south west area of Santa Ana was very African American and Ghetto records was right in the middle of it and it had all these great records. That is where I would go buy my funk. The other place was located where that Ronald Regan building is at now in Downtown. There was this place called Loco Oldies. The guys that own that place were these two brothers from New York […]
So at a young age you were buying records and playing music for people at parties and whatnot. But how did you get into it officially as more than just a hobby?
Well, you see, I used to play in a reggae band [Isouljahs] and even back then I had all these records and anytime I had a chance to spin, for example between sets, I would spin my records. So I guess I was officially a DJ since then, but as a DJ in Santa Ana it happened at Memphis when I started DJing with Mike Scully. He goes by the name of Mike Groove. And one day he was DJing at Memphis. I had gone to Memphis with the Luna brothers. We were all just hanging out, having a good time, and I just kept on talking to the DJ. He was spinning mostly hip hop, jazz, and beats. We started talking about records and he is all like “you collect records?” and I’m like “yeah, I collect records since I was a kid.” He said, “Well, why don’t you bring your records next time?” And I said, “alright!” […]
So, lets talk about the club night known as Downtown Soul. How did you guys think up this idea? I know you guys started it in the summer.
The first one was in May, and it was me, the Luna Brothers (Bernie and Greg), and Griselda [De Santos] who brought it together. Griselda is important because without her we never would have got the Bistro 400 […] The way it got started was like this. I was DJing at Memphis and afterward we went to go munch out at Norms. We were all there, Griselda, Bernie, Greg, and me. We were there eating pancakes at like 3 in the morning. And we were there for hours talking about this. You see, Bernie and Greg grew up in the whole mod, punk and ska scene, and they have been in that scene for years. They’ve been going to places in LA that had Soul nights and that played Ska. They wanted to bring something like that here to Santa Ana. They said, “yeah, let’s do our own club!” And I had connections at Memphis so I said “well, I can get Memphis!” And Griselda was like, “well I can get the Bistro!” At first I didn’t think the Bistro was a good suggestion because I always thought it was a bit too fancy shmancy, but it turned out to be the best choice. And the great thing is that the Luna brothers were the ones that brought all the other great DJs that play at Downtown Soul like Paula Weller, Clifton Weaver and Jesse Trejo […] And we just wanted to have a place where anyone from anywhere can come and have a great time in our hometown of Santa Ana. And to have got the reaction we have received in the short time we have been doing this, its amazing! And its been on a Thursday!
Since my conversation with Sal, it was confirmed that Downtown Soul is moving to a Friday this month. The next Downtown Soul will be a special Halloween edition on October 28th, 2011. Learn more about it here. I also learned that Sal is a published writer. He wrote an interesting piece on reggae artist, Jah Bull, that you can read here. As mentioned in the article, Sal is the resident DJ at Memphis every second and fourth Friday of the month. His next night will be on October 14th 2011. There will be a special reggae night at Memphis that will include Sal on the turntables among others Nov. 11th 2011. Visit his facebook page for more info.