Canto de la Ciudad

Could a college radio program that has endured on the air continuously for 50 years be the record holder for longevity? 

The profile of shows hosted by undergraduates is they last for several years then flame out, to be replaced with those created by a new eager undergraduate class. The few programs that last for decades are often those defined by a single host and have comfortable multi-hour weekly slots.

How to account for a bilingual radio show that started as a one-hour pre-recorded program and quickly grew to 24 hours of live programming and multiple shows each weekend? “Alma del Barrio” is now a weekend program block airing every Saturday and Sunday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on LMU’s KXLU radio station that features rotating hosts, drawn from both new students and seasoned veterans.

What to make of a radio program capturing a devoted Latino and non-Latino audience that has remained loyal through five decades and several generations?

Or that “Alma del Barrio” had long ago become the first-call stop for musicians and concert promoters as well as Los Angeles government agencies and NGOs reaching out to its diverse audience?

“Stunning,” “Hard to believe,” “An amazing accomplishment” — these are the responses of college radio station managers when asked about their own program longevity in relation to “Alma del Barrio.”

“I’ve been the station director here at KXLU for 20 years. I very quickly understood how central ‘Alma del Barrio’ is to the station — and to the community at large,” says Lydia Ammossow ’94. 

“For me, the longevity of ADB is a testament to both our students and the university for cultivating and recognizing how important the co-curricular experience can be. That this program had been broadcasting for 30 years before I came aboard is remarkable — and ‘Alma del Barrio’ continues to be even more vibrant and thriving now than ever before. 

“… And that it is the result of the creative drive of two young students — when there was barely a functioning radio station at the time — is itself an inspiring story.”

“It is essential for the traditions of our music to be kept alive by curators who support, endorse and celebrate it. ‘Alma del Barrio’ has been that source for all of us.”

—Andy Garcia

The program may be, as Ammossow observes, “more vibrant now than ever before,” but this wasn’t just by happenstance.

“Alma del Barrio” now seems designed from its beginning for sustainability. The two “creative young students” long appreciated as the founders of “Alma del Barrio” are Enrique “Kiki” Soto and the late Raul Villa ’74.

As soon as the program first aired in 1973, Hector Resendez ’76, then a freshman, approached Soto and Villa while writing an article for The Los Angeles Loyola, LMU’s student-run newspaper. He quickly joined the two founders as a volunteer host.

“We never intended this show to be hosted by personalities. We always geared it toward us training a small group of student volunteers who would in turn train the next group of on-air hosts,” says Resendez. 

“There could be no success without that spirit.”

“Even when we had just one hour [of air time], we campaigned with the new station’s manager for more time to accommodate a hoped-for larger roster of student on-air hosts,” adds Resendez. 

“Not only did we want more hours we also wanted to take the format off the more accepted college radio music grid — classical, jazz, rock. We had a distant familiarity with what was then a new genre — salsa. We understood that it encompassed the many tributaries of Afro-Cuban music. We always referred to it as Latin music. We believed it would appeal to every community in Los Angeles.”

Afro-Cuban music itself was a collection of tributaries of genres from not only Cuba, but from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Columbia as well. Music promoters and record labels, mostly in New York City, rebranded these many rhythms — mambo, rumba, merengue, cumbia, plenas and so many more — as simply “salsa.” The early programmers’ purpose was to make the music easier to identify for both Spanish-speaking as well as the larger non-Spanish speaking market.

“Our intention from the very beginning was to not think of ourselves as crossovers into non-Latino markets. Instead, we thought of ourselves as providing a gateway into our world,” says Resendez.

Resendez and the others were confident that given time even the hindrance to acceptance of the music’s lyrics being largely in Spanish would be overcome. Another coincidental development in New York in the early 1970s was the emergence of bilingual lyrics in Afro-Cuban music, the “mother root.” Joe Cuba, Joe Bataan, Pete Terrace — their albums were added to the playlists. 

Resendez also noted that three of the main music genres in college radio — rock ’n’ roll, classical and jazz — all interacted with salsa. 

“The most popular rock and roll group of my youth was Santana. None of us knew when we first heard them that the driving percussion section [was made up of] musicians who were so deeply versed in Afro-Cuban music.”

Santana’s hit song “Oye Como Va” on their second album, “Abraxas,” was written by salsa star Tito Puente about a decade and a half before Santana recorded it. The album’s success gave both Soto and Villa confidence that popular rock ’n’ roll was just one gateway into their world of “Alma del Barrio.”

“We also knew the large jazz college radio audience at that time would be receptive to Latin jazz — which, after all, was given credibility by the recordings of jazz giants like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, both of whom enlisted Afro-Cuban percussionists on their recordings. They received airplay on college jazz programs. Why not on ours?” Resendez says.

Even a pillar of college radio at the time — classical music — was not isolated from the genre the “Alma del Barrio” founders were introducing. 

“Our intention from the very beginning was to not think of ourselves as crossovers into non-Latino markets. Instead, we thought of ourselves as providing a gateway into our world.”

—Hector Resendez ’76

Resendez recalls, “Early on we featured the music of Israel “Cachao” Lopez, a legendary Cuban bass player. He began as a 12-year-old prodigy in the Havana Symphony, then populated by European musicians who fled the Nazis. By the 1950s, he was also laying down great Afro-Cuban tracks that were later in much demand by our growing audience. He was also considered one of the godfathers of mambo — a popular dance of the 1950s.” 

Cuban-born actor and director, Andy Garcia, an early and devoted supporter of “Alma del Barrio,” produced Grammy-winning recordings of Cachao that have long been staples of the show’splaylists.

“It is essential for the traditions of our music to be kept alive by curators who support, endorse and celebrate it,” Garcia says. “‘Alma del Barrio’ has been that source for all of us.”

If the music would be the beckoning gateway into the world of “Alma del Barrio” for such a diverse listening audience, then the program’s direct outreach deep into the community became its lifeblood.

“From the very beginning, we believed that the success of the show would be largely defined by how we involved the community. We intended to do it in what now — looking back — was novel, and maybe still is, for college radio,” says Resendez. 

Resendez would be the program director and a guiding force of “Alma del Barrio” from its very early programs until he left in 1986 to start a similar show, Canto Tropical, at KPFK. He would always remain part of the “Alma del Barrio” family.

“Those days were so exciting. We actually went out into neighborhood centers and asked how we could help publicize their events. This was unheard of at the time. I remember going to the Venice Health Clinic and then announcing their blood drives and free health services to the community on the air. Then we went to health clinics in Gardena and Inglewood.”

It gave the early hosts uplifting feedback learning that walk-ins to the clinics had heard about the services on “Alma del Barrio.”

Resendez remembers going to the Zorro Market, a popular Cuban market in Hawthorne. He asked the managers if they wanted to sponsor an hour of the show. They were pleasantly surprised: They never imagined sponsoring a radio show.

“Nobody had ever gone to them offering a sponsorship. The end result for us was that the market played “Alma del Barrio” all weekend. Shoppers who had never heard the program heard it for the first time while strolling the aisles. The audience grew every weekend.”

The early hosts had in effect had become community activists. 

PSAs (public service announcements) became important links to the community. Library events, block party announcements, blood drives and voter registration drives found their way onto the Saturday and Sunday 4 p.m. calendar, which in turn became a much listened to part of each day’s show. Community workers and school board members were invited to the KXLU microphone to inform the audience in English and Spanish of their events,

In those days before the internet and social media, it was the telephone and the open line to the on-air host that strengthened the link with the community. Song requests, dedications to loved ones, birthday greetings to a young child or a visiting grandmother from Puerto Rico, or responding to ticket giveaways kept the phone lines busy all weekend.

These were also the same listeners who when rocked by political and natural upheavals would also call that same number, but this time for a now familiar, sympathetic voice. The Mariel boatlift from Cuba in 1980, the devastating earthquake in Mexico City in 1985, hurricanes in Puerto Rico were all urgent matters to the audience and Alma was there to console and inform. 

Resendez especially reveres the late Nina Lenart and Gustavo Aragon, popular hosts of the show for decades. “Both of them had been so active in our community outreach — both at the mike and also by attending community functions. It was a loss for the city when they passed away.”

In recent years, LMU has set aside a day, Salsa Fest, for the community to join the Alma hosts of past and present and the KXLU staff in a joyful celebration. The 2023 Salsa Fest marked the program’s 50thanniversary. It was fitting that Angola-born Ricardo Lemvo, leader of the L. A.-based band Makina Loca, would be the closing act for the day’s live entertainment. Lemvo had come to Los Angeles in the mid ’70s to follow his dream of being a salsa singer. He performed in local bands until he produced his first recording, “Tata Masamba,” in 1996. The recording, as all his other releases, included lyrics in Spanish, French, Portuguese, and his native languages, Lingala and Kikongo.

“I really owe my musical career to ‘Alma del Barrio,’” Lemvo says. “Soon after ‘Tata Masamba’ was released, Eddie Lopez invited me for an interview on ‘Alma del Barrio.’ That interview led us to a contract with the prestigious label, Putumayo. We toured England, France, Australia. We even performed in Israel. I was thrilled to be on the Alma stage to celebrate its 50th anniversary.”

More than 3,000 attendees spread across the campus lawn in beach chairs, elaborate tents and tables of food. But it was a poignant sight from the stage — Eddie Lopez, an “Alma del Barrio” legend, was absent. He had passed away In January 2023.

Lopez, a mentor to every current Alma DJ, as well as to many throughout the decades, had been one of the early hosts dating back to the days of Soto, Villa and Resendez. Eddie’s tenure at the program spanned a stunning 46 years of service to KXLU and the community.

José Cristobal, a practicing attorney and an ADB host for 23 years, remembers Lopez well. “I joined ‘Alma del Barrio’ as a second-year law student. Eddie Lopez was the program director. Eddie instilled a sense of community service in me — it was part of the ‘Alma del Barrio’ culture,” he says. 

“During the COVID lockdowns,” Cristobal continues, “Eddie insisted that we create a bit of normalcy in the community by remote programming. We never let up throughout the pandemic. So many of our listeners thanked us for bringing that connection into their homes during that long stretch of isolation. It was my proudest time on the show. Eddie Lopez inspired it.” 

Resendez, now looking back on the show he had hosted for its first 13 years, says, “‘Alma del Barrio’ was originally intended to be passed on to new students — but that it is still here 50 years later is not something that I, a once 20-year-old, could have ever imagined back then.”

Alan Geik was an on-air host of Afro-Cuban music programs at KXLU and KCRW in Los Angeles.  In 2000, his production of “Caravana Cubana: Late Night Sessions” was nominated for two Grammy awards.