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10/25/99

In this interesting and well thought out article, Abel Delgado argues that certain essential aspects of salsa have been lost in its commercialization.


The Death of Salsa

by Abel Delgado




Pretty dramatic title, no? What's next, Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor accompanying this piece on MP3? After all, salsa music still makes money. Victor Manuelle (by the way, why does he misspell Manuel?) Frankie Negrón and, of course, the companies, still make a nice piece of change. So it won't go anywhere, it will still be in the marketplace. Even musically, a lot of today's salsa can still get you to tap your feet, it still sounds peppy and alive. So what's with the dramatic declaration? The following: I argue that this music has certain aesthetics established over the years that are its lifeblood, its essence. And while this music has certainly changed over the years, it has maintained those aesthetics. But now those aesthetics are being lost as the commercialization of the music transforms its character to make it more mainstream, more pop. Much in the way Dracula drained Lucy of blood in Bram Stoker's novel, this has drained it slowly, leaving a pretty, walking, talking, but undead creature.

Picking out the vampire

Oooo, now that Bach really seems appropriate, verdad? Before I back this up, a definition of terms. This gets very tricky because of all that's out there these days. We have salsa gorda (salsa dura), which has a harder edge and is more traditional. We have timba, which describes what are mostly songo variants being played by bands in Cuba. Then there's the salsa romántica, the commercial version we hear on the airwaves sung by pretty boys and girls. It's what the robotic dancers move to with no concept of clave in the clubs, what the radios blare out at the beach, the majority of what you see in the stores. And then there's music from the pre-salsa era, like Buena Vista Social Club, often called Afro-Cuban or Afro-Latin.

So which one is the vampire here? Well, first let me say that I see this music existing on a continuum that stretches from 1920s Cuba to New York, Puerto Rico and elsewhere. In other words, this all pretty much the same music. Names are just for convenience. The rhythms used in the '20s are still being used today. So is the structure and instrumentation. Granted, lots of innovations have taken place since the Sexteto Habanero started their first rehearsals, but you can hear the basic similarities between DLG, Bamboleo, Palmieri and Beny Moré.

When I say salsa is dead, I'm referring to the dominant form of this music today, what is known as salsa romántica. It's what most people think of when they hear the term "salsa." This means DLG, Jerry Rivera, Corrine, and all the rest of the vacuous pretenders. But when I jump on the continuum in my argument, I'm going to use the term Afro-Latin music to describe this music in general, and that is meant to encompass the evolving traditional music from Cuba and Puerto Rico that moved to New York, Latin America and the rest of the world. It's not the best definition because it excludes other forms of Afro-Latin music like merengue, cumbia, samba, etc. But I can't sit here all day coming up with definitions to make everybody happy because it will give me (and you) a headache.

My Aesthetics Argument

Now to the nitty gritty. My argument is that this Afro-Latin music established several major aesthetics that are its essence. These are unspoken aesthetics. Nobody sat down and drafted "The Afro-Latin Funky Funky Music Constitution" with a bunch of amendments added at a nice convention. These aesthetics sprang up from the people who made the music, mostly black Cubans and black Puerto Ricans. They have their roots in African and Spanish culture. The fact that these aesthetics remained despite all the innovations and outside influences indicate that they are extremely important, that they were passed down and absorbed by succeeding generations, that they are a constant that grounds the music and links all its varied forms with the exception of modern commercial salsa. This is why they are the lifeblood.

The three major aesthetics that I see as the lifeblood of Afro-Latin music are: afrocentrism, improvisation, and storytelling. I'm going to describe each of these aesthetics and how they have been expressed in the music in the course of its history, then I'm going to explain how they're missing from today's salsa.

Afrocentrism

This means the African roots of the music are expressed in an overt way. How does Afro-Latin music do this? For starters, one word: rhythm. Whether it's son, guaracha, bomba or danzón, the different subgenres in Afro-Latin music are united by rhythm. The rhythm is strong and syncopated, tailor made for dancing, whether elegantly to a danzón or lasciviously to guaguancó. This music is meant to make you move. And it does it with polyrhythms interlocking. Congas blend in guaguancó, bongó and clave in traditional changüi, conga bongó and timbal in a band or batá drums can season conga licks. But it's not just getting some drums together and playing. The drums have life and vitality, they dominate and pop. You can hear this in Septeto Piñeiro's bongó riffs, Papa Kila's bongó in Arsenio Rodríguez' conjunto in the '30s and '40s, Patato Valdez' conga work for Conjunto Casino in the 1940s, Cortijo's rocking bombas in the '50s, Manny Oquendo's burning timbales skins in La Perfecta in the '60s, Barretto's hard hands in the '70s and Giovanni Hidalgo's percussion revolution in the '80s. Aggressive, creative drumming, one of the direct lines to Africa this music has, is a valued and essential part of this music.

Even in boleros, where the focus is on love, you clearly hear the percussionists working to add a subtle rhythmic subtext to the singer's crooning. Listen to any Tito Rodríguez bolero, even those drowned in violins like "Mío" and "Inolvidable": the conga and bongó are always there, guiding the dancers. It would make sense to remove them or turn the sound way down so they wouldn't interfere with the honeydripping. This is what Luis Miguel did in recording boleros for his "Romances" CDs. But Tito, Beny, Tito Puente and salsa bands who perform boleros to this day don't. Why? Because the rhythm--either gently popping or exploding during an up-tempo tune--is key to this music.

The Santería angle

Afrocentrism is expressed in other ways in this music. Since Afro-Latin music's inception, musicians have been playing to or singing about the Yoruba gods in the Santería religion. Santería is an Afro-Cuban version of the polytheistic Yoruba religion from southwestern Nigeria. The core beliefs of this religion involve invoking the gods to help humans in their daily lives. This is done through rituals, divination, sacrifices, drumming and singing. Songs about this religion have abounded in Afro-Latin music. "Bilongo," which is about a man enslaved by a love potion a woman spikes his food and drink with, has been recorded dozens of times since the early 1940s by everyone from Conjunto Casino to Tito Rodríguez to Eddie Palmieri to Ismael Rivera. Other examples are "Mayeya," recorded by early son groups, the all-female group Anacaona and the Sonora Ponceľa in the 1970s. Changó, the god of drums, appears in dozens of songs; a notable example is "Devuélveme la voz," performed by Héctor Casanova and Monguito Santamaría. Ray Barretto recorded "El Hijo de Obatalá" in 1972 in his album Indestructible and Héctor Lavoe recorded "Yemayá y Ochún" in the early 1980s. The gods appear in the music for several reasons. Many musicians believe in them and are initiated in this religion. Or they consult practitioners at some point in their lives. Many Latinos also believe in this religion, so the songs reflect their interest. And, most importantly, the songs are a direct link to the African heritage of this music. This is why salseros often stop the son-derived music they play in homage to a god to switch to a 6/8 rhythm that approximates the batá music used to summon the gods in Santería. Then the singers often employ chants. Are they actually calling the gods in the middle of a concert? Of course not. They're tapping into this part of the essence of this music because of its unique energy, showing the audience where this music comes from and what it's all about. Listen to "Changó" performed by La Lupe live in Carnegie Hall or "Un Toque de Bembé" sung by Celia Cruz. These are reaffirmations of this music's Afro-Cuban roots.

Salseros at the Improv

The second major aesthetic of this music is improvisation. Whether it's by using horns, drums or vocals, the musicians find a way to express themselves and communicate to an audience. In recorded music, the singers in the first son groups, the progenitors of modern salsa bands, were improvising lyrics. Sometimes they would do this over a repeated riff, following the Spanish décima tradition, or between choruses, a call and response that is yet another reflection of the afrocentrism aesthetic. Drummers always soloed; in rumba music, the quinto player has traditionally laid down improvised licks over the interlocking bottom rhythms established by the other players. This carried over to son and son-derived music. While there isn't a lot of early recorded evidence of this because recorded songs were so short in the 1930s and 1940s, you can hear Chano Pozo soloing on a live recording of "Manteca" with Dizzy Gillespie from 1948. There are other short solos by drummers in different 1940s sessions, although it requires a close listen to detect them because they were so short. Oral tradition and folkloric heroes like Chano Pozo, Roncona, Macho Mumba and others indicate clearly that improvisation didn't just spring up when musicians started recording this music. It was already there, and that's why these heroes became heroes. They were great soloists and the resulting implication is that they took solos.

The influence of jazz encouraged more improvisation and improving recording technology permitted longer tracks where players could stretch out. Later recordings in the late '40s and '50s would feature horns, piano, and, of course, drums. Mongo Santamaría, Willie Bobo, Patato and others would team up to create Puente in Percussion, an album which clearly displays the importance of both the improvisational and afrocentric aesthetics, respectively. And the examples go on from there: Papo Lucca's and Palmieri's piano pyrotechnics on dozens of songs; Héctor Lavoe's extraordinary string of soneos in "El Cantante" and many other numbers; Oscar D'León's vocal nimbleness in a live performance in Matanzas, Cuba, in 1983; Chocolate Armentero's astounding trumpet solo during Palmieri's version of "Bilongo"; Barry Rogers' trombone work on many Palmieri recordings. This is just off the top of my head, folks. Bottom line, this is a no-brainer. This music has a serious tradition of improvisation.

Cuentos e Inventos

The third major aesthetic detectable in this music is storytelling. The songs are generally narratives of some kind. This is hardly unique in music, since almost all genres of music involve storytelling to one degree or another. Nonetheless, it still is an important aesthetic in Afro-Latin music and the Afro-Latin take on storytelling is unique for two reasons. First, it allows the singer to put his or her spin on the original composition by ad-libbing new lyrics, which can change the song significantly. For instance, in the aforementioned "El Cantante," which is about how people don't see the pain artists often suffer, Lavoe uses the montuno part of the song to criticize other singers--"unos cantan con falda, yo canto con pantalones"--and express his admiration for Celia Cruz, Ismael Rivera and Cheo Feliciano. He even advises singers to listen to them sing, "aprende de los mejores." Second, there is a rich variety to the types of stories told. This is in direct contrast to most popular songs today, which are mostly about love, sex or a mindless exhortation to dance to an electronic rhythm that would only delight Mike Myers' "Saturday Night Live" character Dieter. (Personally, I'm afraid of techno and refuse to pet anyone's monkey.) Back to the variety: Afro-Latin songs tell you a wide range of stories. Some are about how it sucks waiting for a subway ("El Número Seis," recorded in 1975 by Bobby Rodríguez), eternal love ("Inolvidable" by Tito Rodríguez), classism ("Juan Albañil" by Cheo Feliciano), sex ("El Reloj de Pastora"), cultural pride ("Soy Boricua" by Bobby Valentín) the lives of simple country people ("Soy Guajiro" by Beny Moré), the price of progress ("El Jíbaro y la Naturaleza" by Bobby Valentín), breakups ("Ya No Puede Ser" by Celia Cruz) and many more. Again, a no brainer. The bigger your collection, the clearer the connection. Granted, many songs in this music are also simple exhortations to dance until you drop. But it's far from being the only message.

Putting It All Together

And obviously, these aesthetics don't exist separately, broken out when needed. They run together in varying degrees, and when mixed right, they make Afro-Latin music extraordinary. Witness "El Viejo Barbero" by Gene Hernández, "El Santo de Tía Juliana" by Beny Moré and "El Rey de la Puntualidad" by Héctor Lavoe, for starters. Narrative force, improvisation and afrocentrism create an energy that no other kind of music can duplicate. It doesn't just make you dance, it brings and keeps you alive. Michael Bolton can't do that. Neither can Puff Daddy with all his laced tracks, Jennifer López with her pathetically thin voice warbling to warmed over R&B or Tom Jones' heir apparent to cheesy popularity, Ricky Martin.

Back to the Death Thing, Starting with Afrocentrism

Gratuitous jabs at easy pop targets aside, this brings me back to the main point. Modern salsa, by and large, doesn't use these three aesthetics. Again, you don't have to be a NASA astrophysicist to draw this conclusion. Afrocentrism is gone. Changó could tap Jerry Rivera on the shoulder and "El Niño de la Salsa" wouldn't recognize him. The percussion tracks in salsa still use polyrhythms, but they don't really pop. The rhythms are weak and soft to fit the moaning, keening ballads. If you don't believe me, ask Eddie Palmieri; he said as much in "Para que Escuchen": "los tambores están callados". Rather than draw on the rich rhythmic heritage and integrate different rhythms, mixing in batá when appropriate, modern salseros use caballo and the son-derived main salsa rhythm played very weakly. No cymbal crashes by Nicky Marrero or Orestes Vilató. No percolating bongó by Roena. Just a lot of percussion patty-cake. Besides the desire to fit the ballad structure, the patty cake is probably also due to the fact that when recording, musicians often don't play together. They record each percussion track separately and it's later mixed. No spontaneous energy, no room to feed off each other. Also, there are no more bands where musicians can get used to playing with each other and develop a musical rapport; most recordings these days are produced with hired guns who lay down some licks and leave. This is why today's salsa has such an artificial sound, especially in the rhythm section.

Solos are a no no

In terms of improvisation, solos are gone. Sure, you may hear a bar or two of a horn, an extra lick here and there, but I can guarantee there are no flute solos like Art Webb's work on "Canto Abacuá" or scintillating pailas artistry like Oquendo's on "Anabacoa." The focus is on the singers and the band is not supposed to shine. It's no longer a team effort. It's all about the pretty boy or girl fronting the band. So there's no time for a saxophone player to let loose or for a timbales player to tear things up like Endel Dueño did on Roberto Roena's "Herencia Rumbera."

And the pretty ones themselves don't improvise in spite of the aesthetic tradition of doing so. One famous salsa producer told me in an interview that he writes the "improvisations" for the singers before recording and rehearses them with the phrasing so they repeat it right like good little parakeets. If you go to see modern singers live, they repeat word for word and note for note everything they said on the record. No audience interaction, no commentary, nothing new. Just the prepackaged saccharine soneos señoritas can sing along to.

Don't Ask, because They Don't Tell

Lastly, the storytelling aesthetic is a joke. Modern commercial salsa is about love, love and more love until you either give in and sway along moronically or your ears bleed or you don't listen. You left me, I left you, you really drive me crazy, let's have sex, hey you look good but your sister looks better, I can't believe you cheated on me-it's the Ricky Lake and Springer shows rolled into one and translated. The only thing they're missing is the chant "Je-rry! Je-rry!" and who knows, if it's a Jerry Rivera record you may hear that soon enough. No songs about the realities facing Latinos, nothing about anything that doesn't involve love. Again, this is obvious.

Why I Explained the Obvious

All these points are obvious and any salsa fan with a timeline that stretches beyond 1986 could make them. The reason I bothered to do this today was to explain why salseros who know the greats are disenchanted. It's not just about older people resisting young people's music out of notalgia for the days of their youth. What I've tried to show here is that the older music was rich for a reason. These aesthetics are the reason. They made the music unique. Because of them, Afro-Latin was traditional and yet modern, constantly evolving with the times yet preserving the links to the cultures that spawned it. It not only reflected Cuban culture, but also Puerto Rican and other Latin American cultures, not to mention the experiences of Latinos in the United States. It taught without being boring. It was dance music without being frivolous or overly commercial. It was a highly ethnic form of music that brought together different ethnic groups. And still does. Although crass operators have tried to manipulate it for money at various times, it still remained a music of the people, all people, an affirmation of people's positive life energies. (I know, break out the crystals, the kid is getting New-Agey. But if you have ever listened to a great band take off, like Eddie Palmieri, Los Van Van, Típica '73, Beny Moré's Banda Gigante, and many more, you know exactly what I'm talking about.)

Coda: Put Away the Stake for a Second

I've been talking about Afro-Latin in past tense as if there were no hope whatsoever. Fortunately, things aren't that grim, although they're close. While commercial salsa is dominated by a bunch of non-singing knuckleheads, there are a few artists out there that give us hope. For instance, Jimmy Bosch is trying to be a salsa dura commando and blow away the pretty Pharisees with his mighty trombone. And he deserves your 15 to 17 bucks without question. José Alberto hasn't forgotten he's a sonero and records popping CDs, even celebrating Machito's legacy a few years back. Oscar D'León and Cheo are still in the game, gracing us with their vocal expertise. Celia, of course, is still around, as regal as ever. The problem is that these and other legitimate, talented musicians face an uphill battle to survive in the world of today's salsa, where looks and marketing win out over talent and tradition.

The Cuban Connection

Personally, I've been jonesing for the high that only pre-salsa romántica era music can provide. Lately, I've found a new source, and I think that it has a great supply. Where's the source from? The place where a lot of Afro-Latin music started: Cuba. Now, lots of old-time salseros don't like modern Cuban music, it doesn't sound enough like salsa to suit them. Lots of people also didn't get bebop when it first came out. They thought Charlie Parker was a maniac. Now it turns out he was the greatest alto saxophone player of all time. Do we have Charlie Parker-type geniuses coming out of Cuba? Hard for me to say. I'm not a musician or a great judge of talent. After all, I think the girl who plays Xena the warrior princess is a good actress. But I do think the Cubans stick to the three main established aesthetics. Here's how.

Keeping It Real Afrocentrically

In terms of afrocentrism, many of the bands still sing to the Yoruba gods. NG la Banda's "Santa Palabra," which urges people not to hide their belief in the gods, and Los Van Van's "Soy Todo," a cry for help to Orúnmila, the god of divination, are two prime examples. Even when they don't sing to the gods, Cuban musicians make references to them or use words derived from Yoruba. For example, in the song "Ina," Paulito F.G. says "no tengo nada que ver con achelú." "Achelú" is a common word used among certain santeros that means justice or police. Another aspect of the Afrocentrism aesthetic Cubans maintain is knowing the importance of rhythm. They don't play weak, hollowed-out percussion in their songs. Their songo variants are tipped with drum and timbales licks, conga riffs and, on occasion, crackling bongó. One of the most rhythmic Cuban bands is Orquesta Revé, which mixed batá drums with conga, bongó and timbal. While they haven't had any new recorded material released in the U.S. recently, albums like Mi Salsa Tiene Sandunga and Papa Eleguá feature a powerful, driving rhythm section. While commercialism has penetrated to varying degrees and in some cases is diluting the once-aggressive sounds of some Cuban bands, overall they have preserved and furthered this afrocentric aesthetic with rhythmic innovations like songo and instruments like pailatería.

Improvisation a lo cubano

Improvisation is certainly valued. The Cuban bands I've seen performing live have rarely repeated the soneos used on a CD. They interact with the audience and create new lyrics on the spot, and not just between choruses. Often, they will stop and improvise over 4 bars in an ABAB poetic pattern like the punto guajiro singers do in the countryside. Cuban musicians I've interviewed tell me of frequent duels between young singers at El Palacio de la Salsa and El Tropical, which suggests strongly that this aesthetic is alive and well and being passed down to the younger singers as something they must learn, albeit the hard way, onstage. Recorded examples include Mayito's explosions in Van Van's "Soy Todo," "De La Habana a Matanzas" and "El Tren Se Va" not to mention Vannia Borges' clever and well-phrased ad libs in Bamboleo's "Ya No Hace Falta." Like Héctor Lavoe, Justo Betancourt, Cheo and other great soneros, she quotes old boleros and twists them to fit the song: "Ya no estás en mi corazón y lo que siento no es soledad." Instead of using the original song lyric, which was lamenting a lost love, she's saying she's doing just fine. She continues on in this vein, even improvising briefly over mambos and moñas with some particularly inspired phrasing. Other examples are Isaac, Roberto, Van Van and even Paulito, who despite his romantic salsa leanings seems to be quite capable when it comes to improvising.

Instrumental solos are also used, although not as frequently in recordings. Generally the soloing instruments are horns or flutes, as in Manolito y su Trabuco's work. Sometimes percussionists are turned loose, as in the Dan Den song "El Que la Lleva la Lleva," but this is rare. I'd have to investigate a bit more to find out why there aren't very many percussion solos. What I do know is that unlike romantic salseros, who don't give out many solos to bandmembers when performing live, the Cubans stretch out a lot in performances and most of the bandmembers get a chance to shine.

Cuban fractured fairy tales

Finally, we come to storytelling. This is hugely important in modern Cuban music, but to pick the stories out sometimes requires some reading between the lines. For instance, Manolín's assertion in "Somos lo que Hay" is that "unos dicen que somos la paz, otros dicen que somos la guerra," which doesn't make sense with a casual listen, especially after the first part of the tune, in which he almost seems to be singing to a woman. What's going on is that Manolín has many rivals in the Cuban music scene and he was referring to his band's conflicts. So here the song is telling the story of the band's struggles and then reaffirming how popular it is ("somos lo que hay, lo que se vende como pan caliente...") in a sort of a "up yours" gesture to his rivals. Other songs like this abound. Van Van's numbers are mostly all social chronicles of life in Cuba set to music. For example, "La Shopimaníaca" refers to a woman who's a compulsive shopper at the malls that recently have opened up in Cuba. Other songs tell stories of love, but with a strange twist. In "La Tremenda," by Bamboleo the singer explains he's in love with a beautiful woman who's a prostitute and happily resigns himself because she has him tied down. In Charanga Habanera's "El Temba," the singer tells his girlfriend he can't marry her because he's broke but that she should go find herself a sugar daddy to take care of her. As bizarre as these numbers sound, they reflect Cuba's fragmented society where Cuban women sell themselves to foreigners on a regular basis and hope to marry one to escape the island.

Wrapping up

So what are we left with? I'd say a struggle. Despite what the Cubans are doing, their music doesn't sell. Besides no promotion, there's a little thing called the embargo that gets in the way. Even with that removed, people who like romantic salsa aren't too crazy for Cuban music. I've seen it in several salsa clubs around the country. Romantic salsa plays, people dance. Cuban music comes on, they flee. It's too unusual, too hard for salseros to dance to. So it will have a difficult time displacing pop salsa. Some say salsa dura is coming back, but the sales don't show this as of yet.

What's especially chilling is that our legends are dying off and no young people are stepping up to replace them. Case in point: in the '60s and '70s, we had Miranda, Lavoe, Colón, Marrero, Blades and many more. In the 1980s, Frankie Ruiz, Luis Enrique, Luisito Quintero, Giovanni and a handful of others. Who can you name in the 1990s? Huey Dunbar, with the screechy voice and technicolor hair? Frankie Negrón? Yikes. Many of the Cubans are young, but that's not enough.

I don't know, kids. Maybe we're not witnessing the actual death of salsa, and maybe it's not even completely undead, ready to go out and seek victims. But it's close, and even if you hold up a record of Maelo like a cross to ward off corny music, Marc Anthony is still a huge seller and what most people think of when they think of salsa. Considering the guy can't spell improvisar, let alone do it, has the stage presence of a wind-up toy monkey and has the incredibly, impossibly bad taste to do "I Will Survive" in salsa, our protections aren't working so well. So what do we do? Aside from educating kids so they see how bad romantic salsa is, not much. And education doesn't work so well. Believe me, I've tried it. You can't talk about aesthetics to a demographic that buys millions of Backstreet Boyz records. Since I can't protect the airwaves and the clubs from it, I'm going to have to protect myself. Rather than give in to salsa monga, I'll barricade myself in with a insulating wall of sabor spanning 70 years. I definitely use modern Cuban as part of the insulation. Pardon me for exhausting the vampire metaphor, but I need new blood. And I'll hold out as long as it takes, until reinforcements show up.



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