Carola Zertucha will be performing during Cuba Caribe. Photo by Andy Mogg

For Ramon Alayo, it’s hard to imagine a life without dancing.

“I don’t know how to do other things … it fulfills my heart, every time I dance,”  said the 42-year-old director of the Alayo Dance Company.

When Alayo came to San Francisco from Cuba in 1996, there weren’t a lot of people from the Caribbean, let alone outlets to experience music and dance from his culture. To fill the gap, he and Jamaica Itule Simmons founded Cuba Caribe, one of the biggest Latin music festivals in the Bay Area.

This year is the 15th anniversary of the festival and it will take place April 10-14 at the Brava Theater.  Over four days, musicians and dancers from the Latin American Diaspora will be brought together for a night of storytelling through the arts.  The nights will feature traditional Cuban music performances like Danzon, Conga, Mambo, and Flamenco.

Dancer and visual artist Jamaica Itule Simmons, 41, met Alayo at a salsa class in the city. She wasn’t a professional dancer but fell in love with Caribbean music and dance.  Simmons danced in a show that Alayo directed and they soon agreed there was a need for more events where Bay area artists could display their talents.

When Cuba Caribe first started in 2003, things weren’t so easy. She and Alayo had to pay for the festival costs out of their own pockets. Back then, the festival amounted to one intimate-sized show at Dance Mission Theater.

Nowadays, Cuba Caribe is a small non-profit that is an outlet for different kinds of musical expression.

“It’s grown, it’s grown a lot,” Alayo said. “We don’t just do dance, we do lectures, we do dance workshops; we bring a lot to the community.”

This year will be Flamenco dancer Carola Zertuche’s first time performing, and she’s ready to show what she can do. “When you create a movement, it’s like a movie; you have to say something,” said the artistic director of Theatre Flamenco.  The Mexican native’s dance will tell a 20-year-old story of refining her craft.

As a child, Zertuche’s mother enrolled her in classic Spanish dance classes. Her sister quit, but she continued to develop her love for Flamenco. Zertuche eventually moved to Mexico City and joined a slew of dance companies.

Flamenco has taken her all over the world, but performing in Cuba Caribe is special, she said “We are doing the influence of Flamenco in the Cuban music and exploring that,” Zertuche said. “It is [an honor] and I was really excited when they called me to do it.”

Unlike Zertuche, Visual artist and percussionist Pablo Soto Campoamor has been a part of Cuba Caribe for years. Campoamor will be giving a special talk about his dueling Cuban and American identities and “what it’s like to straddle both worlds,” he said.

Growing up, Campoamor spent time in New York and Miami, and has lived in the Bay Area for almost 30 years. Like Alayo, Campoamor found comfort in music while living in an area with little Caribbean Influence.

“There were folks but we kind of like had to find each other; there was just a handful of folks,” Campoamor said. “Tapping into music was a way for people to really create a safe place like a sanctuary and reconnect with my culture.”

Campoamor has known Alayo and Simmons for years and is excited to be part of the 15th anniversary because of what it means to the local community. “I’m in the performance group Grupo Embela and I met a lot of the percussionists through Ramon [Alayo] and Caribe, so it’s really an important focal point for a lot of artists working in Cuban and Caribbean culture,” he said.

For Simmons, the time and effort spent on the festival, “can feel sometimes overwhelming, but I always feel so full after the show and after the events … It’s so much bigger than any one person, it’s a community.”

Guaguanco Koromiyare by Pablo Soto Campoamor.

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