Sparks fly as salsa adds spice to Celtic crossover

MIXING salsa and Celtic music is a bit like throwing an electric heater into a bath. It's not the most obvious thing to do but it guarantees sparks will fly. As they prepare to release El Camino, their fourth album, Edinburgh-based band Salsa Celtica can look back on a decade of generating musical electricity from just such unlikely means.

Born from the vibrant bar band scene of the mid-Nineties, Salsa Celtica have grown from providing a raucous backdrop to many an Edinburgh party to performing in front of thousands in salsa's Latin American heartlands. Along the way they reached No 5 in the influential American Billboard salsa chart, played to 40,000 in Hyde Park and generally spread good vibes from Havana to Tblisi.

Given the band started out from boozy ad-lib jam sessions, this has all been rather unexpected. Trumpeter and one of the band's founding members, Toby Shippey is as surprised as anyone. Ask if a masterplan has been in place since the band got together in 1995 and he bursts out laughing.

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"It was totally unconscious," says the man with the band handle El Leon. "It was just one of these things that you fall into. You meet a bunch of people and start playing that kind of music, then you do an album for fun, but you don't think you will still be doing it 10 years later. Latin music can make you a bit obsessive if you get the bug."

The "bunch of people" involved over the years reads like a who's who of Scotland's more leftfield musical pioneers. Jim Sutherland, who has worked with everybody from Led Zeppelin to U2, was one of the bar buddies who kick-started the band. The late Martyn Bennett was also there at the beginning. Singer Nicky King added her vocals to their first album, while saxophonist Steve Kettley has played on all four albums.

Mixing and matching salsa with traditional Scottish music didn't seem such a wild idea at the time as Edinburgh was bubbling with musical cross-fertilisations. Shippey was involved in running the Lizzard Lounge club at Cafe Graffiti. Mixing soul and hip-hop, it was one of the more fun clubs of its time and encouraged musical experimentation. "There were loads of great people around," says Shippey. "Finley Quaye used to sing with us in those days. He used to come down to Graffiti. It was really vibey and a good way to live."

From all these interwoven projects and musicians, Salsa Celtica seem to have had the sturdiest legs in terms of longevity and reach. Salsa clubs in Los Angeles and New York have been keen hosts to the band, and in salsa homelands such as Cuba and Venezuela their idiosyncratic take on other people's indigenous music has been welcomed with open arms. Shippey reckons Latin America has taken to them because of their differences rather than their similarities.

"We've been playing a long time and I think we have our own energy. There are a few salsa bands that copy the Latin American blueprint. They might do Cuban salsa or New York Puerto Rican salsa but sometimes they seem a little bit fainthearted. We don't have the same reverence for the form. We've played big festivals in Latin America and they have been really into it because it has this energy. It's a bit punk rock for them and it also has the Scottish element to it, which is new to them."

Salsa Celtica have always had a fluid line-up, which has influenced the band's sound. Mercury Prize nominee, folk singer and old Salsa Celtica chum Eliza Carthy has left her imprint on El Camino by contributing a Latin version of 'Grey Gallito', an English traditional song.

The album's producer, Calum Malcolm, has also had an effect - turning down the volume and turning up the atmosphere.

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"Calum has an incredible set of ears and a very soft approach to music," says Shippey. "It's quite intimate. The thing about producing a salsa album in Scotland is that producers usually haven't heard any real salsa music. Calum approached it just as music. He hasn't produced it in a certain salsa way. It's turned out a really nice-sounding album."

• El Camino is out tomorrow. Salsa Celtica play nine Scottish dates from April 13. See for full details

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