‘Música es parte de nuestra cultura’: How Philly’s Centro Musical shop focuses on salsa y comunidad

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Centro Musical, located in the heart of El Bloque de Oro, is a music shop and gathering for Latinos in the community. | Centro Musical en el corazón de El Bloque de Oro, es una tienda de música y un encuentro para latinos en la comunidad. (Photo by Bernardo Morillo for WHYY)

This story is part of The 47: Historias along a bus route, a collaboration between WHYY’s PlanPhilly, Emma Restrepo and Jane M. Von Bergen. 

This article is written in a combination of English and Spanish. To read entirely in English, click or tap here o para leer en español, haga clic o toque aquí.


Salsa starts in the heart, moves to the hips and feet in a joyous rhythm that is the latido del corazón, or heartbeat, of the city’s Latino community. And nowhere does it beat more fervently than at the bustling corner of 5th and Lehigh – heart of El Bloque de Oro and home of Centro Musical, probably the most important salsa music-and-instrument store in Philadelphia.

The iconic metal palm trees of 5th Street line the block right outside Centro Musical. | Las icónicas palmeras de metal de 5th Street bordean la cuadra justo afuera del Centro Musical. (Photo by Bernardo Morillo for WHYY)

“La salsa fue es y será el mejor género de música y nunca morirá. Es algo que llegó para quedarse. Cuando comparas otro tipo de música todavía la salsa está en el tope”, dijo Reinaldo Meléndez, propietario de El Centro Musical.  

Serving North Philadelphia’s busiest Latino business district, SEPTA’s Route 47 bus stops practically outside Centro Musical’s door. Inside? Rows of glistening guitars hang on the walls, maracas and güiros fill bins. Bongos, congos, tambourines and cowbells crowd aisles and counters, along with racks of compact discs and records featuring tunes by all the past and present Latino greats.

En el exterior, los murales retratan el corazón y el alma de lo que hay dentro. Pintado en una puerta corrediza, hay un músico tocando una conga.

A painted keyboard unfurls above the door, the width of the entire storefront providing a backdrop for a guitar, saxophone, bongos, maracas, and a cowbell. Below a window, a line of music, annotated for percussion, pulses out a rhythm, while a musician plays a bongo on a sliding metal door.

The iconic metal palm-tree sculptures lining the curb seem to bend to the beat. Or they might be listening to musicians playing inside. An impromptu concert may break out at any moment — guitarists, percussionists, vocalists. They feel welcome at Meléndez’s store.

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“Seguimos la misma tradición que tenía el anterior dueño”, dijo. “Se ha hecho una bonita amistad con los músicos, quizás con algunos es una relación de hace 35 años”.

The players gather inside, or outside and the música begins – snacks and beer on the side.

“La música los atrae, vienen, comparten, se dan su traguito, su cerveza, cantan, tocan y la pasamos bien siempre”, Meléndez dijo. 

Reinaldo Meléndez took over Centro Musical in 2014 after the former owner, Wilfredo Gonzalez, retired. | Reinaldo Meléndez se hizo cargo de Centro Musical en 2014 después de que el ex propietario, Wilfredo González, se retirara. (Photo by Bernardo Morillo for WHYY)
Reinaldo Meléndez took over Centro Musical in 2014 after the former owner, Wilfredo Gonzalez, retired. | Reinaldo Meléndez se hizo cargo de Centro Musical en 2014 después de que el ex propietario, Wilfredo González, se retirara. (Photo by Bernardo Morillo for WHYY)
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At Centro Musical, it is a celebration all year round and at Christmas they have parrandas, aguinaldos, villancicos or Christmas carols, several names for the same celebration.

“Filadelfia es donde más músicos yo he visto en mi vida. Y las escuelas ofrecen muchos talleres. Muchas clases para tocar instrumentos. Y hay muchas entidades nonprofit como Taller Puertorriqueño que infunden la cultura puertorriqueña y para el boricua, la música es parte de nuestra cultura”, dijo.

Salsa is alive throughout the world, especially for Latinos. Puerto Rican New Yorkers, or Nuyoricans, popularized the musical genre, melding the rhythms of the island with influences from Cuba, and Latin jazz. From New York, the infectious beats migrated through Central and South America, especially to Colombia.

Bongos and congas adorned with the Puerto Rican flag. | Bongos y congas adornados con la bandera puertorriqueña. (Photo by Bernardo Morillo for WHYY)
Bongos and congas adorned with the Puerto Rican flag. | Bongos y congas adornados con la bandera puertorriqueña. (Photo by Bernardo Morillo for WHYY)

It was a movement – not only of hips and feet – but of race and identity. Salsa was roiling in Queens in the 1970s and still in 1985 when Reinaldo Meléndez moved from Puerto Rico to New York.

When a Latino music store in Queens closed, he bought the records and became a street vendor.

“I was like this for years, selling on the street, until I was able to rent a location,” Meléndez said.

He opened El Barrio Music Center in Manhattan’s East Harlem – and still runs that store, along with a wholesale music business. Meléndez met Wilfredo González, then the owner of Centro Musical, at wholesale shows in Manhattan. González had bought the business from his father, Nestor González, who opened the original store in the old Teatro Puerto Rico movie house at Sixth and Germantown Avenue in 1960.

“Comencé a visitar Wilfredo [en Filadelfia] todos los miércoles, me compraba e hicimos una bonita amistad”, dijo Meléndez. “Y para el 2014 él estaba decidido a retirarse y me insistía mucho en que le comprara el negocio”.

At first Meléndez was reluctant, but then he reconsidered, taking over the business on Nov. 1, 2014. What sealed the deal was his ability to buy the building.

Since then, “the business is a roller coaster,” Meléndez said.

“Hay días buenos y días malos, pero nos mantenemos que es lo importante”.

At the store, salsa sales remain high. Customers — Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Peruvians, Venezuelans, “even Mexican salseros,” as well as Americans  — purchase music by bestsellers Marc Anthony and Héctor Lavoe.

Friend and regular, Johnny Cruz playing the guitar at Centro Musical. His guitar features Betty Boop wearing the Puerto Rican flag. | Amigo y habitual, Johnny Cruz tocando la guitarra en Centro Músical. Su guitarra presenta a Betty Boop con la bandera de Puerto Rico.
Friend and regular, Johnny Cruz playing the guitar at Centro Musical. His guitar features Betty Boop wearing the Puerto Rican flag. | Amigo y habitual, Johnny Cruz tocando la guitarra en Centro Músical. Su guitarra presenta a Betty Boop con la bandera de Puerto Rico.

Over the years, Meléndez has seen the music business move from records to cassettes to compact discs, and now to streaming.

“La tecnología ha matado un poco este negocio, por ende el negocio ha decaído mucho y yo para suplementar la caída del CD pues trato de traer otro tipo de mercancía”, dijo.

Sales of musical instruments, particularly guitars and horns, help the bottom line. He also sells machines that grind dough for cake and domino tables.

José “Cheo” Rivera and Rosita Benitez playing the bongos and güiro together inside the shop. | José “Cheo” Rivera y Rosita Benitez tocando juntos los bongos y el güiro dentro de la tienda. (Photo by Bernardo Morillo for WHYY)
José “Cheo” Rivera and Rosita Benitez playing the bongos and güiro together inside the shop. | José “Cheo” Rivera y Rosita Benitez tocando juntos los bongos y el güiro dentro de la tienda. (Photo by Bernardo Morillo for WHYY)

But the heart of the business remains the music – and the community.

“We also offer services,” Meléndez said. “They call us as if we have to know the answers to everything they ask us to do. We try to help them in whatever way we can.

Route 47

“¡Me preguntaban de todo! Que si yo conozco dónde pueden conseguir una plancha barata o dónde está el city hall, yo tengo que saber de todo prácticamente”, dijo Meléndez entre risas.

Meléndez will distribute flyers from the city, and he has a place in his store where business owners can leave their cards.

For Meléndez, it’s continuing a Philly tradition of friendship by being “always cordial with people, and yes, if we can give the information, we offer it to them,” he said.

“Aparte de tener clientela me gusta que se conviertan en amigos”, dijo Meléndez.

That friendship has been key to Centro Musical’s keeping its doors open in tough times.

“Estoy contento a pesar de todo, a pesar de este año que ha sido excepcional, diferente”, dijo.

“I am happy to be here. We are surviving. The store, thanks to the public, has not fallen. We are still on our feet in this battle.”

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