Having fled New York with his family after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Brooklyn-born Luis Hidalgo was settling into his new life as a plumber in Richmond when he decided to stop by a local radio station, WCLM-1450 AM on Hull Street, to inquire about buying some advertising spots to help his business.
Much to his surprise, he got right in to see owner Preston T. Brown.
“Me and him start talking, and he impresses me,” Hidalgo recalled. “I’m looking at a true entrepreneur who’s not afraid.”
They had a long conversation, covering a lot of ground, including Hidalgo’s love and knowledge of music, and Hidalgo walked out with what he thought was a contract for some plumbing commercials. He took it home to show his wife, who looked at it and said, “No, honey, you don’t have advertising, you have a half-hour radio show.”
His mind started spinning, and he began wondering how he was going to host a half-hour program on the radio about plumbing, when his wife corrected him: “The show’s about music, and the commercials are about plumbing.”
As we sat in his office at Master & Sons Plumbing, Hidalgo leaned back in his chair, smiled and punctuated that part of the story by saying, “There goes the beginning, dude.”
The launch of “Sweet Lou” Hidalgo’s radio career — his first weekly show aired in 2005 and has expanded to other stations over the years and now also can be heard on the internet on the Oasis Broadcasting Network from a studio at his South Richmond plumbing office as well as on WHAP, 96.9 FM, 1340 AM — also proved to be the origin of the Latin Jazz and Salsa Festival that he started a couple of years later. The 12th annual event will be held Saturday at Dogwood Dell, 1-8 p.m.
“I must have put a good selling job on him,” Brown said with a laugh in a phone interview. “I told him, ‘You have a good voice’ and how he could really do something for the Spanish community. He took it and stayed with it. He’s got a great following.”
The first festival wasn’t really envisioned as a festival but more of an outdoors version of his radio show, an opportunity for Hidalgo to meet fans of the show face to face. It was held in the parking lot of the radio station — a small-scale event with music and hot dogs and free school supplies for kids — and 150 people showed up.
“It was packed,” recalled Brown, who enthusiastically supported the idea.
The next year was a little bigger, and so was the next. Eventually, it landed at Dogwood Dell, where 3,500 music fans showed up last year, many from elsewhere along the East Coast. This year’s festival features Tito Puente Jr. and Melina Almodóvar among others.
Admission is free to the event, which Hidalgo also describes as a tribute to veterans and first responders. Sponsors provide the backing to attract the musical acts. The event also will feature community outreach programs and food vendors.
The gregarious Hidalgo is a plumber by trade and an ex-fighter, but he has the heart of a musician. He grew up surrounded by the music of his community in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, and his cousin taught him to play the congas.
“I learned how to play … in the parks of Brooklyn,” he said. “When you graduated from Brooklyn, you would go to Washington Square Park and play in the drum circle, and if you could hang in the drum circle there, oh, yeah, you’re good, all right!”
Hidalgo is quick to point out that he is not the festival — “I want to stress that it’s not me, man,” he says — and that many others have helped make it happen through the years, from volunteers to sponsors. But without Hidalgo’s enthusiasm, the festival likely would not have made it this long or far.
“What better way to share our culture than with music and food?” he says. “If that doesn’t make you my friend, then you don’t have a soul, man.”