Renowned Cuban writer on popular music

Chiino Jams
Collage, 52″ X 40″
FALL 2004
Perspecitves on “Salsa”
In this article, the author—a renowned Cuban
writer on popular music—provides a helpful and
balanced overview of the debate on the meaning
and historical place of salsa. He gives a clear
sense of the centriUity of Cuban rhythmic traditions, particularly the son montutw, as well as the
crucial role played by Puerto Rican musicians
and the social base of the New York Puerto
Rican community. While accounting for salsa’s
multiple dimensions and international reach,
Acosta forcefully dispels the widely-held view
that salsa is a strict and unaltered continuation
Cuban musical traditions, or that its creative
origins are to be located in the Caribbean rather
than in the Puerto Rican and Latino communities of the urban U.S. [Key words: Cuban music,
Puerto Rican music, salsa, tradition, change]
ince its beginnings and
for more than two
decades now, the music
that we know as salsa
has been the source of
constant and countless
polemics, both In New
York and in Havana,
as well as in Caracas, Cali and San
Juan. Some of thc main questions
under debate are; Does salsa actually
exist as an original form of music?
Are we talking about a genre, a style,
a musical current, or ratber perhaps a
way of making music? Does salsa have
original elements, or is it a mere copy
of Cuban music of tbe 1940s and 50s,
especially the son? If it is more than a
vogue or a commercial label, what are
its contributions and in what ways
does it differ from earlier Cuban
music? And then, there is no getting
around tbe question oFwho coined
the word “salsa,” tbe term tbat
immediately caught on and became
internationally recognized?
Thc very development of salsa has
been problematic. Nobody today can
deny that its first exponents were
Puerto Ricans living or born in New
York. As early as the 40s and 50s the
Latin music scene in New York
featured a range oi boricuas, and it is
worth remembering that of the three
bands that packed the Palladium,
the legendary mecca of Afro-Cuban
music and of the mambo, two of them
were led by Puerto Ricans: that of Tito
Puente and that of the widely mourned
Tito Rodriguez. The third, though,
was Machito and the Afro-Cubans,
which was no doubt thc most important of the groups, and the one that
served as the model for Afro-Caribbean
music in its time. And if we add to
these thc presence of other illustrious
C^uban musicians and singers in the
United States it is easy to understand
why it was our music which for many
reasons won the favor of the Latin
Americans and even among audiences
black and white, not only in New York
but throughout the United States.
Aside from Machito (Frank GriUo),
his sister Graciela and the allimportant Mario Bauza, there were
Miguelito Valdes, Arsenio Rodriguez,
Chano Pozo, Chico O’Farrill, Ansclmo
Sacasas, Rene Hernandez, Candido
Camero, Vicentico Valdes, Armando
Peraza, Gilberto Valdes, Chocolate
Armenteros, Mongo Santamaria,
Marcehno Guerra and Chombo Silva,
in addition to those who arrived in the
late-5os like Israel Lopez (Gachao) and
Jose Fajardo. If we then factor in the
importance of the recordings by
legendary figures like Benny More and
Orquesta Aragon it is understandable
why the Puerto Rican and Nuyoricans
dedicated themselves even more
enthusiastically to Cuban music than
to their own; it wasn’t until Ismael
Rivera and Rafael Cortijo that
attention was duly payed to thc
bomba and thc plena.
In the 1960s Cuban rhythms and
interpreters declined in influence
for two main reasons: the break in
diplomatic relations between the US
and Cuba, which prevented the entry
of Cuban musicians, and the British
invasion, which seized the attention
of young audiences all over the world
and went to displace even African
American musical traditions like jazz
and rhythm ‘n blues, the popular genre
that gave rise to rock ‘roll in the 50s
and nourished rock itself in the 60s.
The newest Cuban rhythms no
longer got to New York, and the
success of Brazilian bossa nova and
o( the pachanga turned out to be of
passing interest in the face of the
overwhelming wave of rock. On the
other hand, people in the US never
really talked about popular Cuban
music, but of the mambo or cha cha.
[ 8 ]
And nobody showed up to replace
the earlier musical generation with
something new. Meanwhile, talented
musicians in New York, the center for
the diffusion of Cuban music, got ready
to fill the void: their names were Johnny
Colon, Llector Rivera, Joe Cuba
(Gilberto Calderon), the Palmieri
brothers Charlie and Eddie, Joe
Bataan, Ray Barretto, Willie Boho,
Bobby Marin, King Nando, Rafi Pagan
and Larry Harlow.
In those years, the mid-6os,
a new dance style emerged among
the African Americans called the
boogaloo, which inspired the Latinos
to create the fusion known as Latin
boogaloo. The proponents of this new
fad were Richie Ray, Johnny Colon,
the Lebron brothers, Joey Pastrana,
Pete Rodriguez, Willie Colon, Ray
Barretto and the Joe Cuba Sextet with
Jimmy Sabater and C^heo Feliciano.
Some of them even used lyrics in
English and Spanish, and were able
to cross the boundaries between the
different cultures. Significantly, in 1967
they managed to have an impact on
African Americans, since in the midst
of the Civil Rights movement some
of the lyrics of Latin boogaloo voiced
solidarity with their cause. There were
even some numbers that became hits
at a national level, and a musician like
Joe Cuba and his band were the first
Latin musicians to make it onto the
Billboard charts of top selling hits.
As Cesar Miguel Rondon points out
in his book El libro de la salsa (1980),
the immediate success of boogaloo
and the heyday of improvised jams
{descargas) contributed further to the
marginalization of the great bands
of the 50s as well as the traditional
Cuban musical genres. The reaction
was not long in coming, and some
of the “monsters” of this current,
like Tito Puente, along with some of
the industry people and disk jockeys.
conspired against boogaloo,
which eventually died out.
Shortly thereafter, at the end of the
60s and beginning of the 70s, certain
changes in the rhythms, orchestration
and musical orientation paved the way
for what soon came to be called salsa,
which according to music writers
Charley Gerard and Marty Sheller
“overcame the competition by virtue
of the new technology of the recording
studio.” Salsa was no doubt the first
style of Latin music in which the
production process itself took on
central importance. Salsa was received
to enormous acclaim thanks to the
promotion it enjoyed on the part of
those who had a financial interest in its
success. In large measure, salsa came to
be the creation of Fania Records.
Toward the end of the 60s Fania began
to distribute records with its own label
and those of the small independent
Latin music companies. Fania had an
interest in controlling the direction of
the music that it helped to popularize
and which it distributed so successfully
throughout the world.
In line with this tendency, there was
an effort to persuade the artists not
to stray from the sound which was
characteristic of those who were intent
on making it known and recognizable.
Fania insisted on the commercial twist
that it effectively gave to the music.
With all the ups and downs and
shifting fortunes, under the artistic
direction of Johnny Pachcco that
label was able to achieve a heyday
for the Cuban charanga in New York
(a trend initiated by Palmieri),
and more generally the prevalence
of what Rondon (in El Ubro de la salsa)
called the Sonora Matancera tendency.
In the long run, though, Fania lost
its hegemony because it was putting
obstacles in the way of the more
progressive currents of the musical
developments called salsa.
The Cuban reaction to salsa
Whether on the island or in New York,
Cubans railed against salsa ever since
the term was first coined. Mario Bauza,
Machito, Cachao, all of them were
united in denying that salsa was anything
other than the music they had played
in the 1940s. Tito Puente, who totally
identified with Cuhan music from the
resplendent days of the mamho, cha cha
and Afro Cuban jazz, never tired of
saying that the only salsa he knows is
“tomato sauce.”
In Cuba it wasn’t only the musicians
who voiced their displeasure but the
journalists, musicologists and the whole
apparatus for the diffusion of popular
music, to the point where they even set
up an unspoken prohibition against
salsa. (As has often been the case,
Cuban national radio helped to free us,
at least to some extent, from another
ridiculous music taboo: that which had
previously been imposed against rock.)
In any case, veteran musicians like
F-nrique Jorrin, Antonio Arcafio,
Rafael Lay, Rosendio Ruiz Quevcdo,
Richard Egiies and others all rejected
salsa, assuming an attitude very similar
to that of their counterparts in exile.
It became nothing less than a matter
of national honor. There were those
who thought in terms of generational
differences, but the negative reaction
against salsa no doubt stemmed in part
from the sad truth that the imitations
and plagiarizing of Cuban styles and
tunes on the part of some unscrupulous
US-based musicians directly affected
the Cubans and made it impossible for
them to lodge legal claims of any kind.
On the other hand, there also emerged
a politicized salsa, as in the releases of
Ruben Blades and Willie Colon, which
was wholeheartedly accepted in Cuba.
Furthermore, the cultural blockade
against Cuba, antl in particular against
our musical groups, began to thaw around
T978. CBS recorded an album by Irakere
and sponsored a US tour, which included
the group’s participation in the Newport
Jazz Festival. They also promoted the
Encuentro Cuba-USA at the Karl Marx
Theater, where along with Columbia
Records’ own jazz and pop stars the Fania
All Stars had an opportunity to play
before Cuban audiences. Unfortunately,
the lack of promotion compounded the
wall of silence already in force, so that
the event went almost unnoticed except
for a few musicians who struck up
friendly contact with the visiting saheros.
The event didn’t even occasion a
controversy, as later occurred during the
eventful visit of Oscar de Leon, which
made for a political about-face on the
part of the official musical apparatus.
y the 1980s the salsa scene in the
US was on the decline; the I’ania
dynasty was falling apart and the
critics were predicting the end of salsa.
There set in the reign of the “singersongwriters” (los Q2intautores) and the
darlings of that insipid, saccharine
commercial music fittingly referred
to as “Spanish pop” for it was nothing
but a slavish imitation of the worst
of English-language pop music.
Some salseros tried to respond with
what came to be called “erotic salsa,”
which was but another case of commercial promotion with little success.
In Venezuela, Colombia and
Puerto Rico, on the other hand,
the popularity of salsa was upheld,
along with a genuine passion for
Caribbean rhythms and musical
groups true to the tradition.
Meanwhile, in Cuba dance music
continued to languish, making for a
kind of paralysis, unprecedented in
the history of our music, which had
begun to set in around 1968-70 when
young people only seemed interested
in Nuevd Trova or heavy metal and
other styles of rock. That it was
actually a somewhat artificial situation
was made evident in a 1979 TV show
called Para Bailar, which showed very
clearly the continuing interest in dance
rhythms. What it showed, in fact,
was that Cuban youth had become
“distanced” from their music only
because there were no places to dance,
and because the bands had nowhere to
play to a dance audience.
Almost imperceptibly the conditions
were being created during the 1980s for
what could be declared a genuine explosion
of Cuban dance music groups. These bands
were adept at taking advantage of the
most confined space and the slightest
occasion available to them in those years.
In this regard, we can make note of
developments such as the foilowing:
1. The so-called Jazz Latino Plaza Festivals,
where musicians and groups had a
chance to show their strength and get
to know each other, while tending also
to move from Latin jazz to dance music.
2. Thearrangement of some clubs and
other spaces for dancing.
3. The resumption of international tourism.
4. The creation of TV shows like Mi Salsa.
5. The opening to the outside world,
which allowed for our musical groups to
play live in diverse settings throughout
the Americas, in Europe and in Japan.
6. The growing interest on the part of
record companies and radio stations
in a range of countries in our latest
dance music, such that some songs
and bands rose to the peak of their
popularity, including in New York.
7. The international rebirth of salsa and
Afro-Cuban music, to the point where
there emerged highly competent practitioners in the Scandinavian countries.
Spain, Switzerland, Holland and Japan.
Such far-flung popularity helped to
break the impasse of the 1980s.
Components and contributions
of salsa
With all of this said, we still seem to have
side-stepped the key question, which is
the actual debate about salsa and the
arguments advanced as to its nature.
Is it then true that salsa is no more that
an amalgam of traditional Afro-Cuban
rhythms? If that’s the case, the polemic
could really end before it starts, since just
about every salscro would acknowledge
that the base of this music is the Cuban
son and other important components,
like the giiu^^tiancd. mambo and cha cha,
which are also from Cuba. As tor other
Afro-Caribbean rhythms, it is true that
some musicians have achieved excellent
fusions with plena and bomba, merengue,
aimbia andjoropo. But these are isolated
cases, outside of the norm, and it would
be hard to talk about a musical genre that
isn’t Cuban and constitutes an integral
part of salsa. In addition, the botjm of the
merengue has only gone to highlight and
deepen the gap already evident between
that genre and salsa, and in tact both
sides emphasize their differences in
an exaggerated and sometimes hostile
way, one healthy exception being Juan
Luis Guerra and 440.
The contributions of the salseros
therefore lie elsewhere. In the days
when you were either a salsero or an
anti-salsero, in other words, when
the use of reason had been suspended,
the great Armando Romeu gave a few
talk— or rather, master classe — where
he illustrated the major differences,
at least at that time, between salsa
and the music that we practiced here.
With simple, basic examples, he explained
the differences having to do with timbre
and orchestration: there they had
changed and modernized the wind
sections, while maintaining the traditional rhythm; here it was the opposite,
characterized by the introduction of
electric base and keyboard. TA’enty years
later we would say that in general terms
there are differences in the way of playing
and combining the percussion instruments, in thc piano montunos, the use of
the base, the arrangements and formats,
the inflection and improvisation in the
vocal parts, in thc stage performance,
and in the song texts. It is well known
that the lyrics used by salseros refleet
thc everyday life and social struggle of
the more or less marginalized Spanishspeaking minority in New York and other
large cities of the US and the Caribbean.
And the fact that the song texts of a
musical genre or style have characteristics
that are appropriate to that genre is
significant, as is evident in xhc ffiaracha,
the guaguanco, the tango, the ranchera,
the blues, thc bolero, and more recently
the NuevaTrova. As for strictly musical
differences, we have mentioned
arrangements and formats: in the case
ot salsa there is the preeminence of the
trombone, which stems from a Puerto
Rican tradition ranging from Mon Rivera
to Willie Colon and which is taking hold
in Cuba in our times. Another example
is the base, which in New York and
the world of salsa follows that lineage
established by Cachao, Julio Andino
and Bobby Rodriguez, while in Cuba
thc guitar base is more common.
Andy Gonzalez rightfully laments this
change, involving as it does the loss
of depth and swing which the acoustic
base lends to the Afro-Cuban rhythm
sections, as well as to jazz. Andy, who
has visited Cuba, attributes this loss to
the fact that thc so-called “baby base,”
which is produced solely by the US
company Ampcg and which has thc
advantage of electronic amplification
without losing the base’s sound quahty,
never got to thc island. And finally,
as for the singers, from listening to
some salsa vocalists it is clear that they
owe a lot to xh^ pleneros and other nonCuban vocal traditions of thc Caribbean.
In this way, and by means of the
analysis of a highly selective
discography, we are able to identify a
range of contributions of this music
to the Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean
tradition. Suffice it to say in this
context that it is thanks to the
“updating” (actualizacidri) and “reintcrprctation” of our music by the
Nuyoricans and other Caribbeans that
it has continued to spread around the
world for three decades which have
otherwise witnessed the isolation of
Cuban music. By now we can attest to
the fact that this contribution has been
positive. Happily, with no loss to our
own characteristics and in a spirit of
innovation, in Cuba we have now taken
on salsa as part ot our common
heritage, and no longer view it as
something alien to be fought against.
Yet there is no sign that there will be
an end to the polemics surrounding a
phenomenon born under conditions of
struggle, as is clearly demonstrated by
the controversy over who invented salsa
and coined the term salsa in the first
place. But that’s the subject of further
debate, and maybe of another article.


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