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Making Salsa Dura Harder
By Abel Delgado
with some significant help from Orlando Fiol

The past few years have seen a focus on a “harder” salsa sound from several bands in the business, an alternative to mainstream romantic salsa. The name given to this approach is “salsa dura,” and in many ways it harks back to the days of yesteryear (read: the 1970s), even in terms of song selection: bands do covers of “El hijo de Obatalá,” “Número seis” and other tunes that were hits during this decade.

While this harder focus is encouraging, seeing as how it moves the music back to a time when the sound was both traditional and progressive, I’ve found that for me, salsa dura generally doesn’t have the same power as the music of the bands whose sounds are being evoked. This is my perception as a listener and as someone who kicks out $15 or more per CD. Like any good junkie, I want to get my fixes. And despite dabbling in music writing, I'm not associated with the staff of a major newspaper or magazine where I'd get freebies. As such, I drop cash like anybody else, hoping to mainline the same high I get from the killer bands from back in the day. But it doesn’t happen. I give the tunes a few spins, waiting to have my socks knocked off…and they remain firmly affixed to my ankles. After spending some loot and thinking about it, I believe I now know why I’m not so jazzed. Here’s what I think would significantly improve salsa dura so that it not only goes back to yesteryear, but takes the music into the future.

Going Back Further in Time

Salsa dura musicians generally seek their inspiration from the 1970s, as evinced by their song selection and—to some extent—their approach. However, they fail to realize that the great bands from back in the day were reaching back themselves. These 1970s bands often picked fairly old tunes to cover, often songs that were never very popular when first composed. For example, Arsenio Rodríguez, though prolific, was not particularly successful as a bandleader or a composer in the commercial sense. While some of his tunes were covered during his lifetime, things really took off after his death in 1970. La Sonora Ponceña scored hits with “Hachero para un palo” and “Fuego en el 23,” Roberto Roena’s Apollo Sound III featured a number of Arsenio tunes (“Soy el terror,” “Yo soy chambeleón”, among others) and several albums by Larry Harlow featured Arsenio songs that became hits for that group. And they aren’t the only ones: Ray Barretto (“Bruca maniguá” on the album Que viva la música) Louie Ramírez (“Tocororo” on the album Típico) and Eddie Palmieri (“Pa’ huele” on the album Superimposition) also had hits, among others.

Of course, Arsenio’s book was far from the only one explored. For legal reasons, the names of Cuban composers on salsa albums from the 1970s were not listed and instead the initials “D.R.”, which stands for “derechos reservados” or “rights reserved,” were used. CDs of the salsa albums from this era don’t often list the composers of the songs but this pattern is readily observable on the LPs recorded at that time. Bandleaders back then either researched old Cuban music or had a band member do it, often checking out old 78 r.p.m. records by bands that very few salsa fans had ever heard of. They’d discover songs with interesting potential and rework them for the audience, thus generating hits.

So why should salsa dura cats do this? For a number of reasons. First of all, there isn’t exactly a wealth of brilliant salsa composers out there. Folks take a stab at this and songs get recorded, but the fact is that many salsa dura songs are not particularly compelling in terms of either their cuerpos or coros. They offer few observations or satires of our culture and in fact generally don’t reflect the richness of Latin folklore or the Latino experience in barrios. In addition, their melodies are often uninspired, with none of the pervasive catchiness that will stick in your head enjoyably. In contrast, many of these old songs are clever, written by people who had advanced degrees in the school of the streets and were gifted at describing situations and people. They also offer rich melodies that can be mined quite effectively. Another advantage is that some of these songs are in genres that are not those generally used in salsa, allowing for greater creativity in covering the tune. The salseros that salsa dura musicians admire did this to great effect: “Contigo no quiero na’,” covered in Roberto Roena’s Apollo Sound X, was originally titled “Se pierde en esta vida” and was a guaguancó sung by Celeste Mendoza. The same is true of “Yo tenía una mujer”, a Papines guaguancó that Roena and his arranger reworked nicely for Apollo Sound 4.

Besides offering a challenge and opportunity in creating the arrangement, these songs offer another advantage: it’s very likely that your target audience has not heard them before. Therefore, your version won’t suffer by comparison. For instance, let’s say you go crazy and decide to cover “Pablo Pueblo” from the album Metiendo mano. A great tune, to be sure, but how is your singer going to compete with Rubén Blades’ haunting delivery? How are you going to write a chart nicer than the one for the original, which framed Rubén’s voice so well? The result? Your version just will not measure up. This happens quite a bit with salsa dura cats as they cover famous tunes, and though they may not see this, it weakens their albums. The flip side of this cover tunes issue is that musicians resort to them to pull in an audience that knows the original tune and remembers it from back in the day. They do this for very practical reasons: they want to fill the dance floor and get their albums to move in the stores. While I can appreciate why they do it, I believe that it’s to their advantage to not focus on these songs as much. A band will be more likely to stand out with tunes that they make their own.

Another reason to explore the roots music is that it can be quite educational, improving your skills and deepening your set of resources. Focusing on the music of salsa’s heyday limits you as a musician because you’re exploring a stylized version of the music, one particular piece instead of the rest of the puzzle. In other words, in listening to that music you’ll only end up understanding one particular approach. It’s like starting a jazz band that only focuses on fusion as a reference point, excluding Ellington, Basie, early bebop, cool jazz, etc. Weather Report and the other fusion bands were great, but how musically literate do you think a band that only listens to them will be? And, just like the top 1970s salsa bands, the fusion players knew the traditional sounds inside and out; this allowed them to do what they did in terms of their fusion innovations. Going back will allow you to absorb the traditional sounds and ways of playing, giving you ideas that you can employ in your own music.

So what should you do as a salsa dura musician? Go through the archives. There are tons of tunes which have not been explored fully. Research Rene Álvarez y sus Astros, whose albums offer some interesting possibilities. Listen to Orquesta Sensación, whose charanga-style tunes can be recast into songs for salsa bands (check out “La reina del guaguancó” for some ideas, among others). Celeste Mendoza recorded both guarachas and guaguancós (La voz de Celeste Mendoza is an album with potential cover tunes like “Un congo me dio la letra”) that generally have nice cuerpos and good melodies since she worked with top composers and arrangers like Bebo Valdés and Ernesto Duarte. Roberto Faz had an extensive amount of recordings with nice numbers, as did Conjunto Casino and Orquesta Riverside, whose numbers have rarely been mined by salsa groups. (Note: Do you dig “Carnaval en Camagüey” from Eddie Palmieri’s album Molasses? That’s originally a Conjunto Casino tune. Eddie knows, my friend!) Arsenio’s extensive songbook is far from exhausted and a large number of his recordings are available on CD; you will surely find a nice son montuno with guaguancó flavor that has not yet been covered. The Sonora Matancera recorded hundreds of songs and there have to be some in there that offer possibilities, particularly during Lino Frías’ tenure (get hip to this man’s piano stylings; believe me, it’s worth it). Y hay más, boncó: check out Beny Moré (of course!), Chappottín, Julio Cueva, Orquesta Aragón, Bebo Valdés’s albums with vocals (such as Sabor a Cuba), Fajardo, Peruchín, Ñico Saquito, María Teresa Vera, Cheo Marquetti, Los Hermanos Palau, the superb Carlos Embale (force your singers to listen to this man!), y bueno, that should get you started.

In terms of guaguancó and other more folkloric genres, today it’s extremely easy to pick up recordings from Los Papines, Los Muñequitos, Tata Güines, Clave y guaguancó, Alberto Zayas, Yoruba Andabo and others. Again, with some creative listening you may find a diamond in the rough. On the bolero side, Elena Burke’s recordings offer lots of potential because she worked with top filin composers, folks who wrote poetic lyrics and offered up rich melodies. (Especially look for her stuff recorded on the Gema label with some killer bands.) Marta Valdés wrote many fine boleros and there’s an obscure CD called La música de Marta Valdés featuring versions of her songs from everyone from Bola de Nieve to Pablo Milanés that could spark some ideas for cover tunes. She also has another CD entitled Tú no sospechas featuring arrangements of her classic tunes. Boleros aren’t explored nearly enough in today’s salsa dura and they should be: they offer a nice contrast to up tempo tunes and allow for both lyricism and flavorful, jazz-inspired musical passages. Gonzalo Rubalcaba offers a nice example of this in his arrangement (and piano solo) in the Marta Valdés song “Y con tus palabras” on the CD La música de Marta Valdés. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

Explore Modern Cuban Music

Not all nueva trova is spacey poetry which makes little sense, like pretty much all of Silvio Rodríguez’s songs; there’s some that is actually good and offers the possibilities for some fun, satiric cuerpos. Frank Delgado and Pedro Luis Ferrer offer possibilities in this regard. That said, some of the nueva trova songs may need to be edited since some can end up being quite long. And timba, despite being very different from salsa in some respects, also offers the potential for cover tunes (check out El Médico’s tune “Romeo y Julieta” and “Yo tengo mi mecánica,” for instance). And there are many more artists to investigate for ideas and cover tunes: Opus 13, Nueva Generación, Emiliano Salvador, Son 14, Orquesta Revé and early Dan Den, among others.

Quick Detour: Why Cuba?

I realize I’m pushing the Cuban thing quite a bit, but I have my reasons for that. For one, it’s very likely the richest lode in terms of songs because historically Cuba has had an enormous amount of groups and songwriters. And although this may ruffle some nationalist feathers, let’s face it: this is where a lot of this music started, and I don’t think that it was a coincidence that there was a “back to roots” movement in salsa in the 1970s and a corresponding boom, both artistically and commercially, with the music.

Another significant point to consider is that Cuban songs tend to tell stories and reflect culture. And for a long time, so did salsa songs. Salsa romántica changed this by converting the music into a tropical vehicle for bland, generic ballads that could have come from anywhere. Folklore, storytelling, costumbrismo: these are some of the elements that make this music special and we need to recapture that spirit. Now, I understand that the target salsa audience may not know who el Caballero de París was or what Coco Solo is. So what? I’d argue that they probably didn’t know what the hell “nagüe” meant when Machito started singing it back in the 1940s. Or who Malanga was or where Unión de Reyes is located. The tunes mentioning these Cuban cultural artifacts caught on anyway because they were catchy and well-played. And this could still happen today if you play the music with flavor, verve and creativity.

If people get curious about the topics referenced, explore them and manage to hip up on them, all the better. The more the audience knows and the more the musicians know, the better it is. Because audiences then expect more and musicians deliver more. Otherwise, you have a situation in which people go nuts for an ex-freestyle singer masquerading as a salsa singer, yelping out lyrics with a weak, screechy voice while having no understanding of the nuances involved in singing this music. Like it or not, because of the power of the mass media, this singer then becomes who represents us and our music to the world. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be represented by some freestyle reject who doesn’t understand clave and can’t distinguish a guaracha from a danzón.

So explore those old tunes because they reflect life, much more than some song that sounds as if it were derived from a telenovela plot.

In addition, given salsa’s strong Cuban base, this lode offers cover tune options that are more easily adaptable to the salsa modality. In other words, it’s easier to convert a son or a guaracha to a salsa tune than it is to do so with a joropo or a tango. That said, this does not rule out the possibility of exploring other musical forms: perico ripiao, música jíbara, plena, bomba and vallenatos, among other genres, may also offer salseros interesting possibilities.

However, keep in mind that these genres are generally in different tempos, usually do not employ clave and as such may be harder to adapt. Despite this caveat, the point is that you should indulge in musical exploration and go beyond just listening to Marvin Santiago or Cano Estremera.

Mix It Up

As stated before, it very much seems like the salsa dura practitioners want to evoke the smokin’ 70s in their music. But they generally put out albums with 8-10 tracks of the homogeneous salsa rhythm. They apparently didn’t listen to their old Palmieri, Barretto and Pacheco albums hard enough. All of these artists, in addition to many others during that same time period, played a variety of rhythms. It is rare to pick up an album from this time period and get 8-10 homogenized salsa rhythm tracks. Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a look. Pacheco’s Celia and Johnny features a bolero (“Vieja luna,” an inspired cover that was rarely done before then), “Quimbara,” of course, with its guaguancó/guaracha stylings and “Ña Mercedes,” a bomba. Barretto’s album Barretto has a son montuno (“Testigo fui”), a spacey guaracha (“Canto abacuá”), a bolero (“Eso es amar”) and a son done with a charanga flavor (“El presupuesto”). Palmieri’s Justicia features guarachas, Latin jazz experiments and an ancient Ignacio Piñeiro cover tune, “Yambú,” done as a son montuno.

If you observe, the homogeneous salsa rhythm takes over in the late 1970s. Bands forgot about variety and I believe that this less inspired homogenization, in part, helped pave the way for salsa romántica. As such, despite the commercial impact of this sweetie-pie salsa, this approach has not been to the benefit of the music, unless of course you actually like Jerry Rivera and Rey Ruiz. If that’s the case, I suggest a despojo with two gallinas prietas performed by your friendly neighborhood santero para quitarte lo malo. ¡Siá cará!

Now, some folks have tried the variety thing and have gone a little overboard. They were forcing it so it seemed more like a stunt than something creative. The trick is for it to be natural: finding tunes that lend themselves to certain genres or which were originally written in a particular genre. And you don’t necessarily have to represent 10 different genres. What’s important here is to think outside of the homogeneous salsa box: keeping an ear out for a nice bomba, a slick son montuno, timba, a bolero done filin-style, etc. And do what the old-time bandleaders did: try the tune out on audiences and see if they roll with it. If so, you know that it will be good for the album. I realize that there’s a pressure now to be a “salsa” band and play/record nothing but that because that’s what people expect. However, the same way you can broaden your musical sensibilities, you can broaden those of the crowd. If the tune is catchy, believe me, they will roll with it.

Dare to be Different

If you’re already going in the salsa dura mode, you’re already bucking the system. If you really wanted to play it safe, you’d hire one of the freestyle rejects I mentioned earlier and coach him or her through the rudiments of Spanish pronunciation and the concept of singing on key, among other things.

But you didn’t do this and don’t want to. You want to play slamming music just like the great bands did back in the day. So listen closely to them: the top tier bands favored a slick approach full of rich details that show how musically informed they were.

Three words: La octava maravilla, a.k.a. Apollo Sound VIII. “Rico guaguancó” and “Para ser rumbero” are in the salsa cast, but they’re not generic, play-it-safe tunes for people to do their standard turns and steps in some bar. “Rico guaguancó” uses Brazilian talking drums, a well-harmonized cuerpo sung by the chorus, not a lead singer, as well as batá drums in a break, after which the band seamlessly goes back into a salsa rhythm. And even then, listen to their marcha and groove: rock-solid, relaxed and easy to latch on to for dancing. “Para ser rumbero” works guaguancó into the salsa mix, with Rubén Blades guesting for a verse or two, then features a tumbadora solo over some spacey organ (or could it be a synth?). “Apelo” is a salsified samba. Although the singer should have studied Brazilian cats to have more carioca-like phrasing, it’s still an inspired choice and fine arrangement. “Una mañana linda” is a pretty son montuno that has pop breaks, making a José José song actually sound good for a change instead of frighteningly cheesy. “No lo corras” is a funky son in the charanga vibe, sounding similar to Original de Manzanillo in some respects, using violin and flute.

This is just one example, and I didn’t even go over every song on the album. Bottom line: the more you listen to the music from this era, the more you will find wrinkles, touches and innovations executed by its main stars. Rarely were they content to play a simple salsa tune with a cuerpo, a montuno, a mambo with two bars of trombones followed by 4 bars of trumpets on top of the trombones, more montuno, a quick moña and a theme restatement, all in the basic salsa rhythm. Nonetheless, far too many salsa dura bands take this generic approach.

Here are more examples of what I mean in terms of wrinkles by top tier bands from the 1970s: Justo Betancourt’s “Palo pa’ rumba” (on the album Lo sabemos) working in guaguancó to explosive effect; Willie Colon’s experimenting with genres like murga or doing unusual numbers like “Ghana’e,”; Sonora Ponceña incorporating samba on “Homenaje a las gordas” in the album Tiene pimienta; The Alegre All Stars working in almost funk-like syncopation during the cuerpo of “Y yo gangá” (from the album Perdido), then creating a bridge in the middle of the song to build tension that was then released with an electrifying mambo, followed by a trombone solo, then a 6/8 coda while the flute player soloed; Ismael Rivera’s Traigo Salsa (from the album Esto fue lo que trajo el barco), a tune in which the conguero plays a caballo throughout and in which while belting out guías Rivera briefly matches his vocals to a slinky piano run by Javier Vázquez; Típica 73’s nod to Onda Areíto in “La candela” and “Yo bailo de todo,” as well as their slickly executed “Salsa Suite” in which they explored various genres with smooth changes. The bottom line? A close listen to the albums of the era will reveal constant wrinkles that created memorable songs.

Hire Perico, José Madera, Sonny Bravo, Oriente Lopez, Luis Bu and Carlos Averhoff, Among Others, to Arrange Your Songs

A cursory look at the arranger credits on classic 1970s salsa albums will show you that Luis “Perico” Ortiz, José Madera and Sonny Bravo arranged many of the explosive songs from this era. I’m not sure if their creative energies are turned towards arranging any more, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask; I’m sure that if they wanted to, they could still write innovative charts like they did way back when. Luis Bu, on the other hand, was responsible for many of the charts that made El Médico de la Salsa a star and could offer a group some inspired horn voicings and piano montunos. While he primarily works with timba, I doubt that a guy at his level would have trouble writing a cool chart in the salsa dura vein. Carlos Averhoff is one of the legends behind Irakere and while more inclined to write Latin jazz, could easily apply his talents to salsa; remember that Irakere was also a dance band. Oriente López was one of the driving forces behind Afrocuba and I’d bet he has excellent ideas about horn phrasing and working in drums to the rhythm section for very danceable music. I have no idea what the legendary Cachao would charge for a chart, but why not contact him and find out? The list doesn’t stop there. Besides the legends, keep an eye out for progressive younger arrangers with good ideas. Ask around; they are indeed out there. One example is Orlando Fiol, a yunta of mine, a fine pianist and a master batalero based in Philadelphia. I know, this smacks of nepotism, or, in this case, “yuntaism,” pero no me importa. What does matter is finding good people who know the music to write you hip charts. You don’t need to take my word for it; call up the people I’ve mentioned and sound them out to see if they would be a good fit for what you’re doing.

Vary Your Approach

In listening to older recordings, you’ll notice that often the timbalero did not play the bell and, in fact, played cáscaras throughout the tune, occasionally adding in some sharp, well-timed golpes and rolls. The bongosero rarely played a dry, dull martillo; he often riffed sharply, then drove the song in the montuno and mambo playing a straight 123 123 123, with no extra 12 kick as done by salsa bongoseros. Why not do a tune like this? I know that the two bell sound is very popular in salsa and is always used but it ain’t no sacred cow. With a good timbalero that plays hip, you can have nice fills and offer a real different sound. Go back and listen to Cachao’s descargas (a good CD compilation of them is Descarga guajira) and see how Guillermo Barreto on timbales and Rogelio Iglesias on bongo work things out. Or go back to El Beny’s stuff or even early Tito Puente albums, such as Mambo with Me.

Another possibility for variation: there’s an Ismael Rivera tune called “Sala gente” (from the album Vengo Por la maceta) in which no bongosero is used, at least that I can hear. Instead, the conguero fills the spaces with riffs on multiple drums and the timbalero helps drive things with the bells and a nice break where he rides the high hat. Cop it! You can’t get sued for borrowing an approach!

And why do bands feel the need to play so tight? The Areíto All Stars and Ritmo Oriental show clearly the possibilities of a more open groove that’s more relaxed. The New York sound is supposed to be more aggressive and fast, I understand. But why not lay back on a tune or two? Although salsa dancers here are used to a tight beat, why not let them learn a brand new groove? It won’t kill them, and shoot, something needs to break the majority of them out of their repetitive, robotic monotony on the dance floor where they execute steps and turns like they studied at Arthur Murryrock’s School of Salsa Dancing. ¡Ayúdalos a soltar las caderas un poco más!

You can also add natural two bar breaks of bomba, samba or bossa to certain tunes. Again, go over the old recordings and observe closely how pros like Apollo Sound and Willie Colón did it; it’s very slick, subtle and generally doesn’t disturb the dancers’ flow. People who know how to move will adjust, believe me. Y los que no, ¡que se queden bota’os hasta que se pongan pa’ la cosa!

You could also make the mambo a trumpet solo on top of previously established lines rather than play the lines first and then have the solo. Beny Moré’s Banda Gigante employed this inversion in “El agarrao.” Saxes play a simple figure under the cuerpo and the montuno, then comes the mambo. The sax figure keeps playing, a trombone line is added, then Chocolate lays down some wicked lines. Steal another idea from Beny: “Soy guajiro” (don’t confuse this with “Soy campesino,” a different tune) opens with a couple of bars of horns, then the rest of the band comes in. The percussion does this neat little golpe to open things up, which is really funky. It’s a tiny little detail, but it adds impact.

Beny’s band also offers another lesson in terms of space and volume. In “Trátame cómo soy,” the mambo is kicked off with two bars of low horns, what sounds like baritone saxes. Then Beny lets out a yell and screechingly funky trumpets cascade over the low sound. The effect is startling and really adds intensity to the number because of the counterpoint. Again, little details that most people won’t notice—consciously. But I’d bet that they’d respond in terms of how they move. All these details are what made the great ones great: it wasn’t just rum, enormous talent and luck, believe me. They took music making very seriously, and so should salsa dura musicians.

Find New Ways to Play

If there’s been one constant in this music since its inception, it’s change. Musicians constantly experimented with instrumentation, orchestration and structure: this is why salsa bands are not currently sextets playing “Acuérdate bien chaleco” with a cornet and a botija. Tradition and innovation were always bedfellows in this music, yet salsa musicians are relatively static in the way they play, at least on recordings. While I have to give credit to the musicians on Marc Anthony’s “Valió la pena” for an inspired performance that far outshone MA’s usual screamy vocals, this outside-the-box approach is fairly rare. In most salsa dura, the piano tumbaos, horn voicings, percussion licks and general phrasing are all pretty homogeneous. Even working within the confines of salsa, there’s still room for musicians to stretch and find new approaches with the music. Proof of this is timba, which offers longer, more sinuous piano tumbaos, funky basslines, sophisticated drumming, slick drop-outs, different conga tumbaos, the use of sax breaks called champola and other innovations strictly in terms of playing.

Don’t like timba? Check out AfroCuba’s album entitled Eclecticism. Staccato horns, different drive to the rhythm section—not timba, not salsa and quite different. The point is, these musicians have shown that it is possible to find new things to do with this music. It’s not easy, but new approaches are definitely needed to take salsa dura forward.

Woodshed, Woodshed, Woodshed

One way to move towards discovering new variations and wrinkles is through lots more rehearsal, both as an individual and as a band. Often, today’s salsa piano players use 5 or 6 generic piano tumbaos. To break out of that closed circle, it may be helpful for pianists to develop 20-30 montunos based on a single chord progression. This will help them expand their musical vocabulary so they can play more interesting figures. Listening to charanga music may also help them in this regard because in this format the piano player, the bassist and the strings all played guajeo figures. Fajardo’s recordings from the 1950s, like Una noche en Montmartre, feature Cachao on bass and may be very instructive in this regard. Musicians can also focus on studying soloing more and focusing less on being strictly marcha players. For instance, congueros could learn some really dazzling licks, including quinto riffs, as well as more virtuosic phrases like those that Giovanni Hidalgo has made so famous. Timbaleros should learn how to really solo rather than simply punctuating hits. Orestes Vilató, Nicky Marrero, Guillermo Barretto and Amadito Valdés all can offer some lessons through their recordings. Paila players should also learn to solo with one hand while playing the clave or bell with the other. Pianists can try playing split sounds rather than doubling everything on both hands. The essential point is that individual musicians should improve their individual playing through solitary practice rather than relying entirely on ensemble rehearsals to develop chops.

Besides individual practice, bands need to rehearse a lot more. One of the smart strategies that many Cuban bands employ (as per Lázaro Valdés of Bamboleo) is using rehearsals to develop nice little passages called bloques for different tunes, options for varying the performance in different ways. With a signal, his band knows which bloque to employ on which tune. Developing these for live performances can allow you to discover which are the best ones and those you can employ when recording. And of course, it goes without saying that, depending on the talent of the players, lots of rehearsal produces a rich, unique sound for the band, another telling characteristic of the great 1970s bands. While in today’s world this is quite challenging for most bands because of time constraints and such, it is well worth doing your best to make it happen: la práctica hace el maestro, señoras y señores.

Explore Brazilian Music

There has never been a huge tendency among the old-time salsa bands to do this, but this was their loss and it definitely would be a loss for salsa dura musicians. Not only does this music offer numbers with sensual, lyrical cuerpos that can be translated and adapted, the horn voicings of samba bands offer the potential to take certain songs in a totally different direction. The recordings of singer Alcione, particularly her album Valeu, may be an interesting starting point in exploring Brazilian sounds. In addition, the songs of Joao Gilberto, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso may well have potential in terms of offering good cuerpos. I’d really pay attention to the horn voicings and the integration of samba percussion instruments; both can really transform a salsa tune.

Write Songs that Mean Something

I realize that songwriting is a gift and that not everyone is Rubén Blades or C. Curet Alonso, but fellas, someone should at least try to make interesting numbers. When you analyze the old Cuban tunes that are the backbone of salsa, they consist of observations about their world. That’s why the songs are about rumbas, Santería, how great Guantánamo is, a country tresero jamming in a guateque, a tamales vendor with a nice pair of tamales and more. It’s not rocket science. “Un brujo en Guanabacoa” is a simple tune. Guanabacoa is a Havana suburb where there were and are lots of santeros. The song simply tells of going to see one. But in telling this, it’s reflecting a unique cultural practice in Cuba. The listeners may well have been to a santero so it spoke to them. This is true folklore: reflecting people’s lives back at them in a tasteful, articulate, fun way. And that’s what this music is all about. Of course, listen closely to that tune: it has a nice melody, is inspired and features a true master in singer Abelardo Barroso. So it’s not that easy—but still is possible.

In the U.S. Latinos live in barrios and don’t share all the cultural reference points that one ethnic group like Cubans would. Regardless, there have got to be barrio stories to tell in a similar way. There have to be characters in neighborhoods that deserve a song. Shoot, I grew up in a neighborhood where there was this guy named Bon Bon, a transvestite who wore batas de casas and chancletas and had linebacker arms. Then there was el Viejo Matamoscas, who looked like a frog and always had a flyswatter in his hand and spent the whole day swatting flies, then fanning himself with the swatter. Another character was La Gorda María, who once chased her boyfriend Blackie down the street with a machete. I’m not the only one who grew up with these kinds of characters and all of them are good material for songs.

Hell, listen to your elders and you’ll find sources for songs. My uncle tells me fascinating stories of fights his large family had with colorful names in the Cuban town of Altosongo: my father apparently had a brawl with “Mututungu,” was losing, was helped out by my uncle and won. But Mututungu had his revenge later on, cracking my uncle in the jaw just as he was eating a banana in the schoolyard. “The Revenge of Mututungu,” there’s a song right there. Or “Los tres sapos,” three brothers who looked like bullfrogs and were terrific street fighters. Believe or not, characters like these are not only good song material but are quintessential parts of our culture as Latinos. I don’t care what anybody says, no U.S. suburb produces anyone as interesting as Mututungu or Bon Bon.

But there’s more: Latino kids face problems with drugs, dropping out of school and many other issues. You don’t have to preach, because that’s a turnoff. But telling a story about these situations would make for interesting lyrics. “El gran varón” (from the Willie Colón album Altos secretos) is a fine example of this. It is not a preachy song but still covers some powerful issues. And why not satirize dirty politicians or people who are bad for the community? If you hate my article, write a tune called “Delgado es un anormal.” I won’t take you to Judge Judy, I promise; in fact, I’d applaud your efforts in stepping out of the usual song theme box. Or you could write about a new trend happening among Latinos. A few years back, I remember going to clubs watching certain characters who loved to wear shirts open to the navel and Mr. T. starter kits on their chests, nearly knocking themselves out with Caridad del Cobre figurines as they gyrated on the dance floor. A simple thing, but you can write about it and goof on it. Latinos are always doing unusual things that you can goof on, whether it’s wearing Jheri curls years after they were fashionable or gluing plastic saints to the dashboards of their cars. Making the music part of Radio Bemba is a lot more interesting than telling the same old love stories or urging people to rumbear.

Hire Guests

There are dozens of great, legendary musicians that would be happy to guest on albums and I can’t imagine that it would be that cost prohibitive to hire them to play or arrange. Want a nice chart for violins and some string lines? Hire Pupi Legarretta. Want to add a monstrous timbales solo to a tune? Call up Nicky Marrero or Orestes Vilató. Hell, call them both and have them duel. Pick a Cachao descarga to cover and hire Cachao to do it, along with Patato, Chocolate, Walfredo de los Reyes and any other remaining monstruos from that era. Cheo Feliciano would be a remarkable guest for boleros or up-tempo music. I’d call Juan Carlos Formell or Juanito Márquez and have either of them write a fílin-style chart for a lesser-known bolero gem, give it to Cheo and let the magic happen. Put together a batá-rumba/descarga and invite Totico, Cachete, Milton Cardona, Puntilla, Francisco Aguabella and Armando Peraza to add their talents. Have the esteemed Mr. Aguabella add some tambor yuka or mula flavor to a song; vaya, there are lot of options. I would also especially focus on the fine singers from the past and seeing who is available. I’m sure that there are many who’d love the work and can do an excellent job. (Not for nothing, one of the reasons the Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s Across 110th Street was so great was Rubén Blades lighting up some tunes and showing clearly that he’s the funkiest Tourism Minister that Panamá has ever had.) The point is, there are still many legendary performers around who could truly enhance your album if you are willing to make it happen. Again, I recognize that this suggestion has its drawbacks: guests may charge a lot of money, not have the greatest chops any more or not be easily accessible. Despite this, I think it’s worth exploring because of the rich musical possibilities such guests can offer.

Cover Ketama

This Spanish group writes fusion flamenco and have a number of very interesting tunes that have both melodic cuerpos and catchy coros. There’s an album called De aki a Ketama that offers a number of potential cover tunes. And that’s not their only album: their recordings from the early to late 1990s could well be a potential source for good salsa tunes. Check’em out! ¡Esos gallegos están vola’os!

Have Fun

You press play and the music starts. I realize that this is what most people expect when they pop the CD in, but do you have to give this to them, necessarily? Often studio chatter can be quite funny and interesting. It also gives the music humanity; people are obviously playing this because you hear them goof between tunes or during the tunes. Examples would be the Alegre All Stars recordings, Joe Cuba’s “El pito” (check the crazy giggling the band members do), Louie Ramírez/Pete Bonet’s “De ese mismo trago,” the two descarga tunes on Tito, Tito, Tito and many more. Also, if you listen to some of the older recordings, singers introduced soloists or made reference to some of the musical shifts and generally vocalized not only the lyrics but the energy of the song, sometimes adding in grunts or yowls of pleasure (listen to Chocolate’s “La mula” on the album Chocolate caliente for an example.) I don’t think you should force it and have your singers sound like freakin’ Wild Kingdom; I’m just saying that a relaxed vibe in the studio may encourage this sort of thing to happen naturally in reaction to the tune.

Record Together—and On Analog

I realize that few studios are big enough to accommodate most bands but I think that this is worth exploring whenever possible. Recording on separate tracks lends an artificial sound. Sure, the sound quality is nice and polished but that actually works against the music rather than for it. I think that the band's recording together not only sounds more natural and real, it allows band members to feed off each other in their playing, to react to what each other does and throw in improvised wrinkles right on the spot. Recording separately will not capture this, even if you go back and redub a solo to a track already laid down. It’s not the same because you’re no longer in the moment. I actually don’t know for sure exactly how bands recorded back in the 1960s and 1970s. I believe that sometimes some sections were divided up and maybe the human sound comes from the fact that the band played together so much. However, listen to Cachao’s descargas closely: they did record together and created an interplay that would become legendary. I think that salsa dura cats could give their music a real lift if they tried this, depending, of course, on how tight and well-rehearsed the band is. As far as analog goes, I just have a preference for it myself. I think that this was partially responsible for the warmer sound of older recordings. This may sound crazy, but to me, the difference between digitally recorded music and music recorded on analog is almost like the difference between a blow-up doll and a woman. However, years of listening to old vinyl LPs may have brained my damage, so take this with a grain of salt.

Final Thoughts

There are more things that salsa dura cats can do, but at this point my fingers hurt from typing, your eyes probably hurt from reading this and this freakin’ article is practically book-length. If the length says anything besides the fact that I’m extremely wordy, it says that there are a number of interesting possibilities salsa dura musicians can explore in taking this music further. Perhaps my suggestions are no good and I need counseling. Duly noted—but what can’t be disputed is the spirit of innovation that has driven this music from the beginning and that current salsa dura is concerned more with rehashing than innovating. As such, as a consumer I would like to see them try something, actually, a lot of things, to snap out of the rut and do what the best examples of this music do: shock us, amaze us, charge us up and make us feel alive and connected. That has been the point of this music from the beginning, ever since Failde Pérez created the danzón, soneros started playing with clave and rumberos got whole solares rocking with only some spoons and some empty bacalao boxes.

Abel Delgado has been a Descarga contributor for years, mostly because Latin music—his passion—happens to dovetail with his profession, writing and editing. Abel has edited books, magazines and marketing materials in both English and Spanish and currently operates an editorial services firm focused in these areas. Based in Miami, when not working on a project he’s looking to expand his ever-growing Latin music collection of 1,500 LPs and 700 CDs.

Pianist and master batalero Orlando Fiol is based in Philadelphia, where he plays with a number of local Latin and jazz groups, and also teaches a wide variety of students both the intricacies of Latin piano playing and also those of the batá drum.

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