ON A chilly evening in an empty theatre in Bogotá an unusual assortment of musicians prepares for a concert. Violinists, cellists and flautists from Colombia’s National Symphony Orchestra join players of maracas and timbales. The rhythms are those of salsa. The song, “Banano de Urabá”, tells of a slaughter of banana pickers in 1928. The voice belongs to Yuri Buenaventura, a diminutive salsero. He is the first to collaborate with the orchestra, in a concert on July 4th and in an album to be released this year.

This is Mr Buenaventura’s latest attempt to conquer his home country, where he is less famous than salseros with more conventional approaches. His music adds African influences and harks back to salsa’s rebellious beginnings among immigrants in New York and its later evolution in the Caribbean, when the themes were poverty and violence. In “Where Are You” Mr Buenaventura laments God’s apparent indifference to the plight of landless farmers and poor children and to the extinction of animal species. His band’s descargas, improvised jamming, sound like polished compositions. Mr Buenaventura’s music is probably the “maximum expression” of Colombian salsa, says César Pagano, who hosts a salsa radio show. 

But it is unfamiliar to Colombians, who take their cue from Cali, which considers itself to be salsa’s new global capital. A faster, more upbeat version that is more fun to dance to developed in the city’s salsatecas and griles, clubs dedicated to salsa. Members of the Cali drug “cartel”, which flourished in the 1980s and 1990s, brought in salseros from other countries to perform at glitzy parties.

Salsa became more romantic, incorporating “themes that women can sing”, says Sergio George, a producer who has won 12 Latin Grammy awards. The horns blare less and the descargas have become more mellow. This is in part a response to the growing popularity of merengue, which is politics-free. Tropipop, a blend of pop and music from the Caribbean coast, and hip-hop-influenced reggaeton have pushed both aside. 

Mr Buenaventura refuses to adapt. “I defend a salsa that is urban, conscious and joyous,” he says. Born Yuri Alexander Bedoya Giraldo in Buenaventura, a poor city on the Pacific coast, he left to study economics at the Sorbonne in Paris. But he dropped out, finding economics an elitist field of study, and began playing bongo drums on the metro. The money ran out, Mr Buenaventura became homeless and tried to drown himself. Floating in the freezing Seine on a January night, wearing his underwear and one sock, he decided to try again. He graduated from the bongos to a band and from the metro to cafés and made his first album, “Herencia Africana”, with money from Colombian friends. Its salsa version of “Ne me quitte pas”, by the Belgian singer Jacques Brel, piqued the interest of a producer, whose record company, Universal, distributed the album. It sold more than 1m copies.

In joining up with the orchestra, Mr Buenaventura is trying to fuse his socially-aware salsa with high culture. Critics say he is gussying up a form of music that is meant for ordinary people. Mr Buenaventura retorts that he is showing prosperous Colombians that “the Pacific is not just a black man dancing around a drum.” The concert went well. Cali’s verdict is not yet in.