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The little fiesta that could

[Publicity photo]
New Vision El Grupo Energia will brings its Latin music sound to La Fiesta de San Juan.

By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 9, 2000

It started out small, La Fiesta de San Juan 2000, but careful planning and tending turned it into a big winner that sports some of the top talent in Latin music.

One of the largest Latin festivals in Tampa this year is being planned in the upstairs office of a car rental office on Spruce Street.

Yes, that's right, a car rental place. Downstairs, a Japanese couple with designer luggage wait at the counter to step into their Buick. Upstairs, the telephones ring like crazy with calls from promoters, agents and music fans wanting to know about the event.

It's a scene that seems perfectly natural to Joshua Gonzalez.

"We wanted to do this for the community," said the part owner of Accurate Rent-a-Car.

For three years, Gonzalez and Kenneth Luciano have operated Accurate Rent-a-Car. But they also love music. Latin music.

So on Sunday, after one year of planning, they will present La Fiesta de San Juan 2000. It's a celebration of Latin heritage for the entire Tampa Bay community.

Approximately 20,000 people are expected at the daylong event, which will include back-to-back live music on two stages, amusement rides and lots to eat: Rice and beans, beef empanadas (pastry stuffed with ground beef), alcapurrias (fried green bananas stuffed with ground beef) and more.

Twelve acts are scheduled, the lineup a mixture of local and international talent. It's a chance to see authentic Latin music at the kind of show that artists popular in today's Latin craze -- such as Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony -- would have played before they crossed over to the mainstream market.

"We were going to do something small," Gonzalez said. Then, they hooked up with Tampa promoter Narciso "Ciso" Saavedra, owner of Papagallo Promotions, who has been in the business for 30 years.

From Puerto Rico comes headliner Eddie Santiago, who has given salsa music some 20 years of love ballads: Lluvia (Rain), El Triste (Depression) and James (Never).

Two other Puerto Rican classics are Johnnie Rivera, known for his salsa, and Cana Brava, known for merengue.

Kontrol, with lead singer Jose Feliz (a.k.a. Jochy Rey) -- is sure to perform its Latin chart-topper Merengue Party.

Also performing: Guayacan de Miami, Grupo Control Desde Santo Domingo, Bienvenido Rodriguez Ademas, The Mambo Dancers, Lovo & Radio, Bacharengue and New Vision El Grupo Energia.

It's going to be a big party, Saavedra said. But it will include some serious moments.

[Times file ]
Tito Puente
Last week, Latin music lost its Mambo King, Tito Puente, 77, who died of complications from heart surgery. An international bandleader and percussionist who gave the world 118 albums and six decades of rhythm, Puente also was a fixture in the Tampa Bay area.

He visited often because his cousin, Millie Puente, a musician in her own right, lives here. One June day in 1994, Tito Puente even gave an impromptu outdoor concert, hopping on two flatbed trucks and playing a six-pack of timbales with a local Latin jazz combo backing him.

The show, for the grand opening of his cousin's beauty salon (which has since closed), was so Tito, Saavedra said.

"He was real down to earth, not one of these celebrities surrounded by bodyguards. He would shake hands with you, talk with you about his family, about his music."

Fans at last year's Clearwater Jazz Holiday saw the same side of Puente -- a friendly, down-to-earth guy you'd never suspect was a superstar of Latin music.

A tribute will be paid to Puente during Sunday's festival, said Saavedra, with some of the lineup and timbales players from New York performing his tunes.

Accurate is hoping to organize more Latin music events in the future.

"Every year cities like Chicago, New York, Miami, Orlando and Los Angeles stage major Hispanic music festivals that now are very traditional and became engraved in the cultural landscape of these Hispanic communities," Saavedra said.

In Tampa Bay, Latin festivals have come and gone: Carnival En Tampa near Columbus Drive, Ybor's Festival Ritmo Del Caribe, Latin Heat Wave 2 held at Tampa Catholic High School's athletic field.

[Times art ]
In recent years, La Mega, which operates Spanish radio stations throughout the nation (locally, it has WBDN-FM 96.1 and 820 AM), hosts MegaFest every October. It is part of a traveling show, with acts performing at all the cities in which La Mega has a radio station.

Last year's Tampa MegaFest drew 40,000 people. (Another is planned for October).

In Clearwater, Uno Latin Festival attracts about 3,000. It also is held in October and is in its second year.

One key is intense promotion: La Fiesta de San Juan promoters have advertised on the television stations Telemundo and Univision and five local Spanish radio stations.

But it isn't just a Spanish-speaking audience that the promoters are trying to reach.

Advertisements for Sunday's festival were aired on Wild 98.7 (WLLD-FM), which targets young, English-speaking listeners, said Melissa Morales, another organizer.

"Anybody and everyone can come."

With so many Latin artists making it big on Billboard's Top 40 charts, the English-speaking crowd probably won't need an engraved invitation.

At a glance

La Fiesta de San Juan 2000, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday at the Tampa Port Authority, Terminal 6, Channelside Drive, Tampa. Admission is $5; children under 12 free. Parking is $2 near Florida Aquarium. Call (813) 207-0939.

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