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Sistema de Información Científica
Red de Revistas Científicas de América Latina y el Caribe, España y Portugal
[ 294 ]
The Book of Salsa: A Chronicle of Urban Music
from the Caribbean to New York City.
By César Miguel Rondón
Trans. Frances Aparicio with Jackie White
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
340 [pages]; $20.00 [paper].
REVIEWER
:
Marisol Negrón
,
University of Massachusetts—Boston
The welcome translation of César Miguel Rondón’s
The Book of Salsa
provides
English-speaking audiences access to one of the most referenced texts in Latin
music. First published in 1980,
The Book of Salsa
provides a timeline of the music’s
development from its emergence in the 1960s through the rise and decline of the 1970s
“boom.” Rondón, a Venezuelan journalist, author, and radio and television producer,
wrote the book while on assignment in New York for various Venezuelan newspapers.
In this chronicle of salsa’s development, he details the proliferation of bands; the
personal and professional lives of musicians; the live performances, concerts, and
films produced to promote the music; the arrangements, instrumentation, phrasings,
and lyrics that fueled salsa; and the role of Fania Records, the dominant Latin music
label of the 1970s that created an infrastructure for the development of salsa as a
cultural product. Citing the convergence of rhythms that took place in New York’s
predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhoods, Rondón argues that salsa’s unifying
attribute was that “the barrio was its only defining mark” (p. 25), a characteristic that
would connect salsa to other Latin American and Caribbean urban centers in countries
like Venezuela, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.
The Book of Salsa
provides a social history of a musical form that would come to
represent a sonic soundscape that privileged New York as its site of enunciation, the
city’s predominantly Puerto Rican communities, and their collective experiences as
racialized subjects and cultural agents. Rondón begins his journey through the New
York Latin music scene with the success and spectacle of big bands in the 1950s,
the development of Latin jazz prior to that, and the general influence of Cuban
music in New York since the early 20th century. With the U.S. embargo of Cuba
situated as a turning point with regards to the access of musicians to Cuban music,
the author proceeds to describe the opportunities that developed for musicians and
the emergence of salsa in the 1960s. Rondón highlights the innovative lyrics and
musical structures of musicians such as Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colón, Ray Barretto,
Larry Harlow, and Mon Rivera, finding in their music the “still-nascent but urgent
sound” (p. 16) characterized by (1) the use of
son
as the main basis for its development
(especially in the long and aggressive
montunos
); (2) arrangements that were modest
in terms of harmonies and innovations but markedly bitter and violent; and (3) the
imprint of the marginalized barrio (p. 16).
For Rondón, the late 1960s emerge as the period of greatest innovative
achievement within New York salsa, while the four-year period between 1970 and
1974 would witness the music’s artistic apex and the first stage of the salsa boom.
Rondón takes great care to contrast the “authentic” salsa from the 1960s and 1970s,
“conceived exclusively from an urban perspective” (p. 123), from the
matancera
style
that looked not toward New York’s urban working class Latino communities,
but to Cuban musical forms of the previous two decades. This trend, epitomized by
B O O K
R E V I E W S
[ 295 ]
the recordings of Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco, produced a “commercial” music
that repackaged already established musical practices of 1950s Cuban music most
identified with that of La Sonora Matancera. Rondón critiques not the music itself,
but its release as new and innovative while lacking original elements that revealed
the music’s contemporary circumstances and identity as “music of the barrio” (p. 39).
In setting apart the matancera style, Rondón illustrates how various musical forms
circulated within Latin New York during the boom under the umbrella of “salsa.”
While the author refers to an unevenness in the quality of salsa as a result of
the informal training of many artists and the collective nature of the music,
he underscores the extra-musical practices, musical approaches, distinctive lyrics,
and timbre that articulated the collective identity of El Barrio. In so doing, Rondón
stresses the “motivation” and “guts” of artists like Willie Colón and Héctor LaVoe
in moving beyond the parameters of orthodox aesthetic formulas to produce a music
that captured the wholeness of El Barrio through “strokes of genius and blows of
failure” (p. 177). Rondón thereby shows how artists exceeded the boundaries of
traditional aesthetic categories that critics utilized to evaluate the music’s “quality”
and created music that reflected, articulated, and reinforced what Juan Flores
has elsewhere referred to as a “New American identity” (1993: 213). Rooted in the
lived experiences of New York’s predominantly Puerto Rican communities,
salsa became “a culturally valid music because it was one they could identify with,
one that authentically represented them” (p. 39).
The portrayal of Puerto Ricans within
The Book of Salsa
as an imprisoned,
isolated, and culturally deficient community distances them from exterior influences.
Within this context, code-switching, or “Spanglish,” within Latin music functions
as a way to identify with a foreign culture that engulfed Puerto Rican communities.
As a result, the advent of boogaloo, a short-lived musical form that fused Latin
rhythms with African American styles and dance and party music of the broader
U.S. music scene (Flores 2000: 89), represents a cultural aberration. Rondón rejects
boogaloo as music of Latino youth in the 1960s who “abandoned Spanish in order
to babble in an English that no one understood…[and] surrendered their cultural
identities in an attempt to crossover into mainstream music markets” (p. 13).
This perception of boogaloo fails, however, to consider alternative expressions of
Latinidad by framing the music solely within the context of U.S. economic and
cultural imperialism. This perspective also fails to consider the agency of Puerto
Ricans in creating multiple and varied musical and social relationships with other
ethnoracial groups, particularly African Americans, since World War I.
1
It is important to stress that Rondón’s critique of U.S. economic and cultural
practices does not undermine his analysis of salsa as a popular musical form
that articulated the lived experiences of New York Puerto Rican communities.
Moreover, Rondón’s anti-imperialist stance does not extend to sustaining an
opposition between salsa as a commodity and cultural sign. In fact, he argues against
an opposition between “
pure
, spontaneous, and
truly popular
art” (p. 56—original
emphasis) and “that other art created by the industry with the express purpose of
becoming an international and millions-making enterprise” (pp. 56–7). Maintaining
that “music that really matters is never limited or subordinated by the accolades of
the market,” (p. 69) Rondón cites the artistic and commercial success of the film
Our Latin Thing
(Nuestra cosa)
(1972), a musical documentary of the now legendary
1971 performance of the Fania All-Stars at the Cheetah lounge in New York.
In addition to the extended excerpts from the concert that highlight the innovation
and improvisational talent of the artists, the film contains a series of scenes filmed
throughout Latin New York, including East Harlem’s El Barrio. An instant classic
when released, the film emphasized the relationships of musicians to the spaces,
discourses, and cultural and musical practices of “Latin” New York, reinforcing the
identifications and recognitions between musicians and fans within New York’s
predominantly Puerto Rican communities while allowing Fania Records to capitalize
on salsa’s role as a cultural sign.
2
While recognizing that the boom allowed “for an extraordinary diffusion of the
music” (p. 27), Rondón also reserves his most strident critique for Fania Records.
Arguing that the very boom the label facilitated “would be both its [Fania’s]
achievement and undoing” (p. 40), Rondón points to the label’s increasing creative
control over artists’ endeavors and the desire to make the music more palatable to
mainstream audiences. The author refers specifically to a series of three albums
recorded with Columbia Records in the mid-1970s that, despite all efforts,
failed to broaden salsa’s audience. Rondón also cites Fania’s “managerial chaos”
(p. 285) and secretive business practices as partial causes for the decline of the
salsa boom, particularly as the label’s stable of artists began to leave.
Highlighting the artistic achievements that continued in New York with songs
like “El Cantante” by
sonero
[improvisational vocalist] Héctor LaVoe and the music
of avant-garde bands like Conjunto Libre (which later became Manny Oquendo
and Libre) and Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquino, Rondón illustrates
the continued saliency of salsa as a cultural sign even as the boom went into decline.
However, Rondón argues that in the latter part of the 1970s the most creative and
vital salsa emerged not from New York but from parallel sites like Puerto Rico, citing
the popularization of salsa there and the innovation of groups like the Puerto Rican
All-Stars. Rondón also points to the increasing significance of Venezuela by the end
of the 1970s, not only as a site of consumption, but also the production of salsa with
the emergence of groups like Dimensión Latina and Sonero Clásico del Caribe that
reflected a Venezuelan context. Contrary to this success in both Puerto Rico and
Venezuela, Rondón refers to the schism that developed between salsa and
merengue
in the Dominican Republic. As Pacini-Hernández has since documented,
the establishment in the mid-1970s of a Fania Records office in the Dominican
Republic and the music’s considerable financial backing created a direct competition
with the island’s merengue—a competition that moved beyond control of the market-
place to a struggle over the meanings of music and national identity (Pacini Hernández
1995: 107–108). The different trajectories of salsa in each country speaks not only to the
proliferation of multiple “salsas,” a term used by Rondón, but to the ways the music
could also be employed to reproduce U.S. neo-imperialist economic practices.
Rondón follows the routes of salsa in New York, Latin America, and the
Caribbean in his final chapter, added for a 2004 Spanish-language edition of the
book. Conceding the impossibility of summarizing the period since the book’s initial
publication, he brings attention to the varied trajectories of salsa since the boom, citing
some of the most important trends and moments in “Latin” music since
The Book of
Salsa
was first released in 1980. While Rondón mentions the influence of salsa on various
genres, he does not address these musical and cultural markets, including
rock en español
,
reggaeton
, pop music, or the innovations of a group like Dark Latin Groove,
which combined salsa with reggae, rap, and rhythm and blues. Focusing on the principal
trends in salsa itself, Rondón dismisses the salsa “
erótica
” [erotic] that emerged in the
1980s with its emphasis on romantic ballads and sexual innuendo. Rather, he calls
[ 296 ]
B O O K
R E V I E W S
attention to the artistic and commercial contributions of various artists and their music,
including Ruben Blades’ politicized lyrics, Juan Luis Guerra’s significance to merengue
and
bachata
, and Gilberto Santa Rosa’s adherence to an aggressive salsa reminiscent of
the 1970s. Rondón also highlights the artistic achievements of various bands, including
Grupo Niche’s success in internationalizing Colombian salsa and credits Venezuelan
Oscar D’León for taking salsa “to all the corners of the world” (p. 290).
By detailing “a story now disappointing, now inspiring” (p. 250) that traces salsa’s
creative and commercial achievements, Rondón challenges nostalgic recuperations
of the music that seek to somehow distance artistic development from commercial
successes. As Rondón demonstrates, salsa originally developed as a cultural marker
for urban, working-class Puerto Ricans in New York during the 1960s and 1970s.
Nevertheless, with each recurring Latin boom in the U.S. cultural and music markets,
the separation of the music from its temporal and spatial context increasingly
ignores how salsa informed and was informed by the material circumstances of these
communities.
The Book of Salsa
, with its emphasis on mapping the music’s development
in New York, privileges salsa’s initial role as a cultural sign for Puerto Rican
communities without neglecting the music’s transnational context. His emphasis on
New York also recognizes the ways in which the city became not only a site for the
representation of Caribbean music, but for the articulation of diasporic Caribbean
identities, particularly for New York’s primarily Puerto Rican communities.
The full index to
The Book of Salsa
is a welcome addition to the book, as is the
decision to not translate words related to music genres, instruments, and concepts
that do not have sociolinguistic and cultural equivalents in English. Instead,
the translators provide explanations of each of these terms. Most of the song lyrics,
however, are provided only in English, a loss to Spanish language readers and those
interested in the original text. Also lacking are the extensive photos and cover art
from the original publication. Neither of these two issues, however, detract from
the translators’ ability to convey to the reader the context and meaning of
The Book
of Salsa
or the translation’s significance for Latin music fans and scholars alike.
As one of the first chronicles to document a transnational social history of
salsa, Rondón’s
The Book of Salsa
lay the foundation for tracing the music’s cultural
history in Latin America and the Caribbean (e.g., Manuel, Bilby, and Largey 1995;
Santos Febres 1997; Quintero Rivera 1998; e.g., Otero Garabís 2000; Waxer 2002,
2002; Quintero Herencia 2005) and for moving beyond this nexus to explore salsa’s
moves through Japan, Montreal, and London (Hosokawa 2002; Román-Velázquez
2002; Pietrobruno 2006). Likewise, Rondón’s shift away from the emphasis on
Cuban music toward the cultural agency of local communities in transforming and
resignifying musical and cultural practices has facilitated explorations of the social
and diasporic meanings of salsa for Puerto Ricans (e.g., Valentín 2002; Flores 2004,
2008) as well as other Latinos (e.g., Padilla 1990; Berríos-Miranda 2000; Washburne
2008). In addition,
The Book of Salsa
provides a central reference point for the music’s
history as scholars move beyond the contours of salsa’s masculinist discourses by
incorporating gender as a central category of analysis (Aparicio 1998, 1999, 2002;
Waxer 2002; Aparicio and Valentín 2004).
Rondón’s
The Book of Salsa
remains an invaluable resource for fans of Latin music,
as well as journalists, ethnomusicologists, and cultural critics, and is often cited as a
reference in music encyclopedias and similar texts, including the Garland handbooks
of African and Latin American music as well as the Encyclopedia of Latino Popular
Culture and
Encyclopedia Latina: History, Culture, and Society in the United States
. Fans of
[ 297 ]
[ 298 ]
Latin music whose first encounter with
The Book of Salsa
occurs through this translation
will find that this “chronicle of urban music” helps the reader recuperate a watershed
period through an understanding of salsa as “the first full systematic expression that
urban Latinos identified with and claimed as their own” (p. 39) in New York.
N O T E S
1
On the shared musical relationships between African Americans and Puerto
Ricans since World War I, see Glasser (1995).
2
On this relationship between music and its audiences, see the chapter on
“Black Music and the Politics of Authenticity” in Gilroy (1993).
D I S C O G R A P H Y
LaVoe, Héctor.
Comedia
. Fania Records, 522.
R E F E R E N C E S
Aparicio, Frances. 1998.
Listening to Salsa: Gender, Latin Popular Music, and Puerto Rican
Cultures
. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.
_______. 1999. The Blackness of Sugar: Celia Cruz and the Performance of (Trans)
Nationalism.
Cultural Studies
13 (2): 223–236.
_______. 2002. La Lupe, La India, and Celia: Toward a Feminist Genealogy of Salsa
Music. In
Situating Salsa: Global Markets and Local Meanings in Latin Popular
Music
. Ed. Lise Waxer. 135–60. New York: Routledge.
Aparicio, Frances and Wilson Valentín. 2004. Memorializing La Lupe and Lavoe:
Singing Vulgarity, Transnationalism and Gender.
CENTRO: Journal of the Center
for Puerto Rican Studies
16 (2): 78–101.
Berríos-Miranda, Marisol. 2000. The Significance of Salsa Music to National and Pan-Latino
Identity. Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.
Encyclopedia Latina: History, Culture, and Society in the United States
. 2005. Ed. Ilan Stavans
and Harold Augenbraum. Danbury, CT: Grolier Academic Reference.
Encyclopedia of Latino Popular Culture
. 2004. Ed. Cordelia Candelaria, Peter J. García,
and Arturo Aldama. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Flores, Juan. 1993.
Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity
. Houston: Arte Público Press.
_______. 2000.
From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity
. New
York: Columbia University Press.
_______. 2004. Creolité in the ‘Hood’: Diaspora as Source and Challenge.
CENTRO:
Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies
16 (2): 282–293.
_______. 2008.
The Diaspora Strikes Back: Caribeño Tales of Learning and Turning.
New
York: Routledge.
Gast, Leon and Jerry Masucci. 1972.
Our Latin Thing
(Nuestra cosa)
. Movies & Pictures
International.
Gilroy, Paul. 1993.
The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness
. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press.
Glasser, Ruth. 1995.
My Music Is My Flag: Puerto Rican Musicians and Their New York
Communities, 1917–1940
. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hosokawa, Shuhei. 2002.
Salsa no tiene fronteras:
Orquesta de la Luz and the Globalization
of Popular Music. In
Situating Salsa: Global Markets and Local Meanings in Latin
Popular Music
. Ed. Lise Waxer. 289–311. New York: Routledge.
Manuel, Peter Lamarche, Kenneth M. Bilby, and Michael D. Largey. 1995.
Caribbean Currents:
Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae
. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
B O O K
R E V I E W S
[ 299 ]
Otero Garabís, Juan. 2000.
Nación y ritmo: “Descargas” desde el Caribe
. San Juan:
Ediciones Callejón.
Pacini Hernández, Deborah. 1995.
Bachata: A Social History of Dominican Popular Music
.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Padilla, Felix. 1990. Salsa: Puerto Rican and Latino Music.
Journal of Popular Culture
24(1): 87–104.
Pietrobruno, Sheenagh. 2006.
Salsa and Its Transnational Moves
. Lanham, MD:
Lexington Books.
Quintero Herencia, Juan Carlos. 2005.
La máquina de la salsa: Tránsitos del sabor
. San Juan:
Ediciones Vértigo.
Quintero Rivera, Ángel G. 1998.
¡Salsa, sabor y control! Sociología de la música “tropical.”
Havana: Casa de las Américas.
Román-Velázquez, Patria. 2002. The Making of a Salsa Music Scene in London. In
Situating Salsa: Global Markets and Local Meanings in Latin Popular Music
. Ed. Lise
Waxer. 239–87. New York: Routledge.
Santos Febres, Mayra. 1997. Salsa as Translocation. In
Everynight Life: Culture and Dance
in Latin/o America.
Ed. Celeste Fraser Delgado and José Esteban Muñoz. 145–88.
Durham: Duke University Press.
Valentín, Wilson. 2002.
El hombre que respira debajo del agua:
Trans-Boricua Memories,
Identities, and Nationalisms Performed through the Death of Héctor LaVoe.
In
Situating Salsa: Global Markets and Local Meanings in Latin Popular Music
. Ed.
Lise Waxer. 161–85. New York: Routledge.
Washburne, Christopher. 2008.
Sounding Salsa: Performing Latin Music in New York City
.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Waxer, Lise. 2002.
Llegó la salsa
: The Rise of Salsa in Venezuela and Colombia. In
Situating Salsa: Global Markets and Local Meanings in Latin Popular Music
. Ed. Lise
Waxer. 219–45. New York: Routledge.
_______. 2002.
The City of Musical Memory: Salsa, Record Grooves, and Popular Culture in
Cali, Colombia
. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Arsenio Rodríguez and the Transnational Flows
of Latin Popular Music
By David F. Garcia
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006
274 pages: $25.95 [paper]
REVIEWER
:
Halbert Barton
, Long Island University
As a young boy in Cuba, Arsenio Rodríguez, was kicked in the head and blinded by
a donkey. Later, he was dubbed The Marvelous Blind Man (El Ciego Maravilloso),
and became known for his aggressive musical style. David F. Garcia claims that this
theme shaped Arsenio’s approach to music: “dale cocimiento” (p. 135), he would say
to his musicians, meaning “let’s kick some ass” (p. 50).
Despite his visual impairment it was not uncommon for Arsenio to get into
fistfights. His brother Kiki once saved him from a potentially fatal beating and spent
several years in jail for stabbing to death his assailant. The perenially pugnacious
Arsenio continued to fight back through his music, especially against the whitewashing
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