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High Holy Groove

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The airbrushed mural behind the stage of Club Paraiso paints icons of Latin bandsmen and dancers against a Cleveland skyline in shades of fire and black. On a Saturday night, Sammy de Leon y Su Orquestra pump out macho merengue and salsa fortified with horns and three essential percussion instruments. It's not the Sistine Chapel, and the band is no boys' choir, but rhythm is definitely religion in this Near West Side tropical escape, and a trip there is full of rituals.

The ceremony begins at the door, where everybody is scanned with a metal detector. The crowd's party-night best includes sequined dresses, short skirts with little red blouses, Hilfiger jeans, and slick white suits. One plump woman in a slinky knit dress has a pager attached at her waist.

Sammy de Leon and his orquestra are high priests on the local Latin club scene, having earned their rank with years of practiced talent. Sammy is a self-taught timbalero, but the Lorain native has recruited two Oberlin Conservatory graduates--saxwoman Bhinda Keidel and pianist Jackie Warren--to join the order. Last year, after a brief break from performance, most of the band regrouped under Sammy's leadership, following an eleven-year run as Impacto Nuevo. More than a decade of rehearsal is evident in their tight sound. The players know each other well.

The crowd knows them, too, and follows their gigs, even when the going gets tough. Club Paraiso isn't listed in the newspapers, not even in the fine print.

"I've never been to a place like this," says Yvette from Berea, looking sharp in a neatly creased black pantsuit. "I only came because of Nelson." She's pointing to her date, the man on the stage with the bongos. "Do you think I could bring my mother here?"

The middle of the room is fully occupied by a bar serving drinks on both sides. Huge silk bouquets of tropical flowers decorate the walls, evenly spaced like the Stations of the Cross. The dance floor, marked like a garden with a low lattice fence, is at the end of the hall where the altar would be. Stepping up to dance is like going to communion. Guests can shoot pool or play a video game called Pit Boss at the bar, but no trip to paradise would be complete without a turn in the garden of boogie.

Yvette leans over and asks, "Do you dance to this music? Not even a little, like me?"

--Michael Gill

Cleveland merengue band Grupo K/non performs on Saturday, May 29, at Club Paraiso, 5004 Storer Avenue. Sammy de Leon y Su Orquestra will play at the club on Saturday, June 5. Doors open at 8 p.m. 21 and over. $6 cover. Call 216-651-6707.

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