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The horn section of the Eighth U.S. Army’s salsa combo perform last month at U.S. Army Troop Command Korea’s Hispanic Heritage celebration on Yongsan Garrison in Seoul.
The horn section of the Eighth U.S. Army’s salsa combo perform last month at U.S. Army Troop Command Korea’s Hispanic Heritage celebration on Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. (Courtesy of U.S. Army)

PYEONGTAEK, South Korea — Eighth U.S. Army Band member Sgt. Andres Ramos was getting his sheet music in order just before a rehearsal early last month when the unit’s operations sergeant walked up.

National Hispanic Heritage Month was Sept. 15-Oct. 15, and the command wanted to know if the band “could do a demonstration of authentic salsa music” in about two weeks, Ramos recalled recently.

“Not too often do you receive a tasking for playing … salsa,” Ramos said.

“‘Yes,’” he recalled telling the operations sergeant, “‘We are positive, 100 percent, that we can perform.’”

The request was the start of something hot. In short order the salsa combo was born, giving the 8th Army Band a fiery new musical capability, one that can stand up on stage anytime it’s asked.

Salsa, Spanish for “sauce,” also is the name of a popular form of Latin dance music characterized by fast, shifting Caribbean rhythms rich with blaring horns, bongo, conga and timbale drums, and exuberant vocals.

Ramos’ fellow band member Sgt. Victor Trinidad put it another way: “This music represents ‘party central’ … The atmosphere is alive and vivid. It’s … up front and personal.”

The combo’s first gig was on Oct. 14, a Friday, at the multiplex theater on Yongsan Garrison in Seoul.

Out of the band’s 50 or so musicians, they’d pulled together 12: Ramos and Trinidad on vocals along with 10 instrumentalists: two each on trumpet, trombone and sax; one on string bass and three on percussion: bongo and cow bell, conga, timbale.

Both Ramos and Trinidad speak Spanish and know Latin music well. Ramos, 35, is from Carolina, Puerto Rico. Trinidad, 24, was born in Manhattan but grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The combo’s performance at the multiplex was a hit, especially with troops of Hispanic background in the audience, said Command Sgt. Maj. David Doyon, 45, the 8th Army Band’s enlisted leader who plays bongo and cow bell with the combo.

Next the salsa combo played Seoul American Middle School on Oct. 18. Then, Oct. 21 it performed at Yongsan’s Collier Field House while an audience of almost 2,000 awaited an appearance by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines packed the place and a few started dancing in place.

“The first time you listen to salsa your body will respond automatically to the music,” Ramos said. “You can see people tapping the floor or see people moving their head. Because it’s that, it’s movement.”

“It’s like, happiness,” Trinidad said. “I see that look: ‘Okay, I want more.’”

“With all of our ethnic celebrations and our theme months, the Army celebrates the history and culture of unique peoples who not only make up the fabric of America but also make up the fabric of the Army,” Doyon said. “So as we’re entertaining the troops, salsa is very, very popular.”

Sgt. 1st Class Cornell Herrington, 39, plays trombone in the salsa combo. At the Collier Field House, he saw just how popular salsa could be.

“I saw this one guy with the unit guidon,” Herrington said, “and everybody was laughing because he was up there dancing.”

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