Wherever I am in North Cyprus, I always seem to meet someone who dances salsa. I’ve thought about it several times; How is it that salsa has such a great impact here? From what I know this Latino dance has no cultural affiliations or historical ties to our Mediterranean island. When I also heard that one of Europe’s most popular salsa festivals, Salsa Jam in Cyprus, takes place in North Cyprus every year, I just had to find out more.
I decide to meet with Salsa Jam’s founder and DJ, Mehmet Aslan, a sunny morning in Kyrenia. We sit down on the terrace of Carob Restaurant where we have a beautiful view of the harbour. We order coffees and I ask Mehmet to tell me about his relation to Latin music.
“Music is my passion in life. In my youth I was a DJ at several clubs around the Kyrenia. At that time it was mostly reggae, dance and 80s music in force”.
Mehmet, who was born in 1977 in Nicosia, explains that he came in contact with Latin music for the first time in the late 90s. The Romanian dance instructor Helen Karayman had begun to teach Latin dance and Mehmet attended her classes. The trend was new and attracted relatively few participants, but Mehmet learned dances like Samba, Cha Cha Cha, Tango, Waltz, Merengue and Mambo with Latin Ballroom style.
Throughout his childhood Mehmet had received postcards from relatives in Australia, and the desire to one day travel to the other side of the world was strong. In 2000, the same year as Sydney hosted the Olympic Games, he settled the matter and travelled there. During the next eighteen months he came to fall in love, not only with the country but also with salsa. Mehmet smiles as he thinks back: “Some friends took me to a salsa club and I fell for it instantly, salsa enchanted me!”
He tells of how he immediately started taking salsa lessons and how evenings and weekends were spent at salsa clubs where he started DJing. “I have always loved to go to record stores to buy CDs with great music. Salsa tunes took my interest in music to a new dimension. I could feel it in my body, in my blood, and it spoke to me,” says Mehmet with lively movements.
There is no doubt that he is passionate about salsa, it shines from his eyes when he committedly talks about the dance that captured his heart. Salsa is actually an umbrella term for different kinds of salsa styles. Cuban style is usually mentioned as the original style, while you can also dance the New York salsa, Los Angeles salsa and Colombian salsa. “The key is to listen to the music and let it guide you through the various dance styles,” he explains.
When Mehmet a year and a half later left Australia, he literally brought salsa to Cyprus in his own suitcase. “I filled the bag with CDs I had purchased and took them home. You could say that it was then, in early 2001, that salsa officially came to North Cyprus.”
When I realise that Mehmet is not only the founder of the biggest salsa festival in Cyprus, but also the one who introduced salsa here, I just have to ask the question of why he believes the salsa has had a great impact on the island. He leans forward in his chair and says: “When the salsa music came here, it was something new and exciting. During several years, I used to play at Nostalji Bar in Nicosia. People came there to dance and socialise, it became a gathering place, a community that evolved from there,” he explains, while adding that it was not always easy to establish salsa: “It has been a great challenge, it is a culture which has emerged slowly over the years.”
When the border to the south side was opened in 2003, salsa finally got the push it needed to get bigger in the north. Mehmet had by then begun to tire of North Cyprus which felt small. He lacked the international vibes and had thoughts of once again leaving the island. But when the border opened, and suddenly he could go and play all over the island, he changed his mind. “Being able to move freely through the island was the energy I needed to continue my job to establish salsa,” says Mehmet, who had always dreamed of what it looked like on the other side of the border.
On the south side, he was warmly welcomed under the name DJ Salsero and he quickly became the biggest salsa DJ on the whole island. “Today salsa has grown to become something more than a dance, it has become a way of life that brings people together from both sides of Cyprus, where politics are left completely aside and where borders are erased.” He adds: “The country does not always give something to the people, but I want to give something to the people. I want to open people’s minds to the world.”
It was with those thoughts that Mehmet came to organise the first Salsa Jam Festival in 2006. It was an immediate success, and in September this year is the time for the eleventh festival in a row. Latino lovers from all over the world come to participate in the seven-day festival that is described as one of the most unique and colourful salsa festivals in Europe. Anyone who wants to, from beginners to experienced dancers, are welcome to participate in the festival which is packed with workshops, competitions and glittering dance shows. It also offers non-stop pool parties and boat parties, all to the sound of wonderful salsa tunes from internationally renowned DJs and bands. The week ends with a big party at sunset at the Golden Beach in Karpaz.
Salsa Jam, which attracts over 600 participants every year, and counts as one of the biggest international events on the island, has become a very valuable part of North Cyprus’s tourism industry. Mehmet has previously had his own dance studio but in recent years Salsa Jam consumes all of his time. Every month he visits different countries around the world to promote Salsa Jam and North Cyprus.
When Salsa Jam in Cyprus kicks off, on September 1, Mehmet will obviously be involved and play his salsa tunes. “I love to DJ, but also to dance! Not a night goes by without me leaving the DJ booth to be on the dance floor,” he says with a big smile.
Read more about Salsa Jam in Cyprus, got to www.salsajamcyprus.com