‘Music is part of our culture’: How Philly’s Centro Musical shop makes space for salsa and community

January 13, 2021

SOURCE: https://whyy.org/

Salsa starts in the heart, moves to the hips and feet in a joyous rhythm that is the latido del corazón, or heartbeat, of the city’s Latino community. And nowhere does it beat more fervently than at the bustling corner of 5th and Lehigh – heart of El Bloque de Oro and home of Centro Musical, probably the most important salsa music-and-instrument store in Philadelphia.

The iconic metal palm trees of 5th Street line the block right outside Centro Musical. | Las icónicas palmeras de metal de 5th Street bordean la cuadra justo afuera del Centro Musical. (Photo by Bernardo Morillo for WHYY)

“Salsa was, and will be, the best genre of music, and it will never die,” said Reinaldo Meléndez, owner of the West Kensington shop. “It is something that is here to stay. When you compare other types of music, it is still at the top.”

Serving North Philadelphia’s busiest Latino business district, SEPTA’s Route 47 bus stops practically outside Centro Musical’s door. Inside? Rows of glistening guitars hang on the walls, maracas and güiros fill bins. Bongos, congos, tambourines and cowbells crowd aisles and counters, along with racks of compact discs and records featuring tunes by all the past and present Latino greats.

Outside, the music continues in mural form.

A painted keyboard unfurls above the door, the width of the entire storefront providing a backdrop for a guitar, saxophone, bongos, maracas, and a cowbell. Below a window, a line of music, annotated for percussion, pulses out a rhythm, while a musician plays a bongo on a sliding metal door.

The iconic metal palm-tree sculptures lining the curb seem to bend to the beat. Or they might be listening to musicians playing inside. An impromptu concert may break out at any moment — guitarists, percussionists, vocalists. They feel welcome at Meléndez’s store.

“We follow the same tradition that the previous owner had for 57 years. A beautiful friendship has been made with the musicians – perhaps with some, it is a relationship of 35 years,” Meléndez said. The players gather inside, or outside and the música begins.

“The music attracts them. They come. They share. They have their drink, their beer. They sing, they play, and we always have a good time,” Meléndez said.