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the study of Arsenio’s life and work is a heightened attention to the interaction
between different local groups and institutions across and within national borders.
New York City, in particular, is a favored site for transnational (not to mention
translocal, transethnic, etc.) analysis, full of localities that may be temporary,
performative, in transit. The exigencies of life as a musician dictate, to a great extent,
how one must travel. Arsenio had to “ramble,” just like his musical kin to the north and west.
Garcia also emphasizes things that tend to get left out of biographies of famous
musicians—the integral roles of dance, spirituality (Palo Monte in this case), and the
transnational flows of culture that sustain particular musical traditions (e.g., the Cuba/
Curazao connection). Many will find that the book provokes further interest in the
role of Palo Monte in Cuban music. The material is tantalizing, as not much has been
written about this topic in English.
Whereas dance is traditionally thought as optional or external to the music,
in Arsenio’s mambo the musicians are locked into the dancer’s footwork by the
emphasis on contratiempo. Generally, it is not obvious how important dance is to
son montuno, but Garcia makes a strong argument about a subtle phenomenon that
would escape the untrained eye and ear. His analysis of how the dance steps interlock
with the off-beat phrasing of the music is especially noteworthy.
Arsenio Rodríguez and the Transnational Flows of Latin Popular Music
is a
terrific biography that painstakingly traces Arsenio’s profound contributions to the
growth of Latin popular music. The book was awarded a 2007 Certificate of Merit for
Best Research in Recorded Folk, Ethnic, or World Music from the Association for
Recorded Sound. Published in the Temple University series “Studies in Latin American
and Caribbean Music,” it combines strong ethnomusicology, musical analysis and
notation, and great contextualization of people, places, and sounds. While the writing
is a bit too dry to attract many readers beyond his core audience, the book is deeply
informative and most appropriate for serious researchers. Some of the most interesting
material (for general readers) appears tacked on at the end of the book and in the
endnotes, but this also rewards those who follow through to the end.
While many salsa lovers have at least heard of Arsenio Rodríguez, they will learn a lot
from this book. I would expect many readers with strong interests in Latin/Caribbean
music, the African/Congolese diaspora, Cuban studies, and U.S. Latino studies to find
this book a good and rewarding read.
Straight Outta Puerto Rico: Reggaeton’s Rough Road to Glory
Directed by James Chankin and Leigh Savidge
Produced by James Chankin
Santa Monica, CA: Xenon Pictures, 2008
71 minutes; 19.98 [dvd]
Marisol LeBrón
, New York University
Straight Outta Puerto Rico: Reggaeton’s Rough Road to Glory
is the first feature-length
documentary to trace the genre’s evolution from its “
” years in Puerto
Rico to its current international success. The film is in many ways an unapologetic
rags-to-riches story that attempts to explain how reggaeton overcame incredible
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obstacles, including social marginalization and censorship, to become an international
musical phenomenon. Although
Straight Outta Puerto Rico
can at moments seem naïve
and formulaic, a willingness to engage the subject and dig beneath the surface reveals
a useful primer explaining
and a valuable teaching resource.
Straight Outta Puerto Rico
begins by situating reggaeton’s development within
Puerto Rico’s economic climate during the 1990s. The film establishes reggaeton as
a creative response to the economic and social disenfranchisement of Puerto Rico’s
poor and often black urban youth (although the intersections of race and class are
largely left implied rather than explicitly stated). Opening with footage from La
Perla, which since Oscar Lewis’ depiction of the barrio in
La Vida: A Puerto Rican
Family in the Culture of Poverty—San Juan and New York
has become shorthand for
urban neglect and poverty, the film tries to firmly situate reggaeton, especially
early underground, as a product of
la calle
. Images of Puerto Rico’s formal
economy—American corporations, fast food franchises, pharmaceutical firms,
and tourism—are juxtaposed against Puerto Rico’s informal economy—lotto,
cockfighting, food vendors, artisans, and narcotics. Here Puerto Rico’s informal
economy is clearly being hailed as the incubator for reggaeton aesthetics and culture.
Interviews with journalists and political commentators clearly contextualize how
the rise of Puerto Rico’s informal economy can be attributed to the government
corruption, neglect, and infighting that dominated the Puerto Rican political landscape
during the 1990s. Reggaeton is positioned as part of Puerto Rico’s vast informal
economy and a result of under/unemployment, particularly among the island’s youth
sector. Although Puerto Rico’s political and economic restructuring of the 1990s
under then-Governor Pedro Rosselló is given considerable attention, the film fails to
engage with the island’s (neo)colonial status and its implications in a meaningful way.
Providing some background on Puerto Rico’s incorporation into the United States as
a commonwealth territory could have strengthened the film’s claims about the unique
political and economic factors at work in Puerto Rico that gave rise to reggaeton.
Straight Outta Puerto Rico
importantly acknowledges the crucial role that circular
migration and diasporic contact zones played, and continue to play, in the shaping
the genre. The film demonstrates that Puerto Ricans via New York City played
perhaps one of the most foundational roles in the development of reggaeton
sounds and culture. Influential producer DJ Nelson remarks that he was constantly
traveling back and forth between Puerto Rico and New York City because it was
the only place where he could buy the equipment he needed to make his music.
Other artists similarly commented on the impact of cassettes and mixtapes from
New York City in changing the Puerto Rican music scene. The circular migration
between New York City and Puerto Rico during the mid-late 1980s created a
pathway for the hip-hop sounds of groups like Public Enemy, Run DMC, and Eric
B. and Rakim to reach the island. Theses sounds eventually planted the seeds for
Puerto Rico’s Spanish Rap scene, which Vico C helped to pioneer. Simultaneously,
reggae exploded onto the New York City music scene in a big way. It was in New
York City where Panamanian
reggae en español
artist El General began versioning
reggae songs and transforming them with Spanish language lyrics. The sounds of
Panamanian reggae artists such as El General, Aldo Ranks, and Renato were soon
among the cultural remittances making their way into Puerto Rico’s soundscape.
The film shows that reggaeton’s Jamaican influence is perhaps most clearly heard
through the “dembow” beat, popularized by reggae artist Shabba Ranks’ song of the
same name, which forms the backbone of many reggaeton tracks. Tellingly,
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the dembow riddim most likely reached Puerto Rico via reggae mixtapes from New
York and Panamanian reggae en español tracks, again illustrating the central role of
diasporic contact zones in reggaeton’s history.
Straight Outta Puerto Rico
traces reggaeton’s multiple circuits and the rich
interplay between various genres and locations without validating the narrow
battles over claims to reggaeton that have ensued in recent years.
Straight Outta
Puerto Rico
tries to convey what Raquel Z. Rivera, Wayne Marshall, and Deborah
Pacini Hernandez, editors of the anthology
, have termed reggaeton’s
“socio-sonic circuitry,” or intersecting and multidirectional movements.
In highlighting the role that diaspora and circular migration play in reggaeton,
the film forces its audience to take seriously the impossibility of constructing
a hermetically sealed Puerto Rican nation. The film challenges nationalist
assumptions about cultural purity and instead asserts that reggaeton is a Puerto
Rican product precisely because it accounts for, and incorporates, expressions of
that are not spatially bounded.
While reggaeton might now be embraced as Puerto Rico’s biggest cultural export,
Straight Outta Puerto Rico
demonstrates that this was not always the case.
Straight Outta
Puerto Rico
provides valuable documentation and testimony from artists, producers,
record distributors, and storeowners about the genre’s literal trials and tribulations.
In February 1995 the Drugs and Vice Control Bureau of the Police Department of
Puerto Rico raided a number of record stores in the San Juan area. The police confiscated
hundreds of underground tapes and issued citations to sales clerks arguing that the
records violated obscenity laws and incited youth to commit acts of violence and
consume illegal drugs. Zero-tolerance policing and targeting of those who fit “the
stereotype” was the norm in the period directly following the police raids. Reggaeton
artist Mexicano 777 recalled that listening to reggaeton in one’s car would often result
in getting pulled over in order to have the tape confiscated. Students’ backpacks were
routinely searched and if they were in possession of an underground cassette it would
swiftly be confiscated. The seizures took place without prior approval from the courts,
and as a result the ban on reggaeton tapes was overturned. Although the case was
overturned, reggaeton continued to provoke heated public debate over obscenity
and the limits of artistic freedom.
Lisa M points out that from the
outset the record seizures were about policing culture and taste in the public
sphere. She notes, “In the beginning they said that reggaeton is not good for Puerto
Rico, but the people want reggaeton.”
Straight Outta Puerto Rico
fails to explicitly link the policing of the public sphere
and attack on civil liberties that played out during the 1995 tape seizures to Rosselló’s
Mano Dura
policies. The militarized style of policing that was central to
“Mano Dura” disproportionately targeted not only
, but also those of the
poor and working classes and racial and sexual minorities more generally. As scholar
Raquel Z. Rivera notes, “Policing and restricting underground could… be easily
portrayed by government authorities as a logical extension of anti-crime State
The policies of “Mano Dura” are very clearly implicated in Puerto Rico’s
neoliberal restructuring during the 1990s. Neoliberal reforms instituted during this
period led to the informalization of labor that the film points to as the material
circumstances that bred reggaeton. Although the film doesn’t draw out the role
of economic reform as an important catalyst for the policing of underground, and
the public sphere more generally,
Straight Outta Puerto Rico
’s archival footage and
interviews provide a rich entry point into these discussions.
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The increased public scrutiny over reggaeton’s lyrical content prompted the release
of “clean lyrics” records as a means to avoid more government intervention and
secure access to wider distribution networks. Starting with the mixtapes
The Noise 3
, DJs would release two versions of the same album, one that censored
explicit content and one that was left uncensored. This move, without a doubt,
paved the way for underground to receive airplay and eventually move aboveground.
Gus López, President of Machete Records, tells the filmmakers,
Record sales for reggaeton did take a hit after everything that happened politically.
It’s almost like everything slowed down for the good because everyone knew that they
had to clean up their act and come back with real music, original music, and they knew
that they couldn’t count on just sampling anything. It was almost like a wash happened.
Then in 1999 and 2000 things began to pick up again.
The “wash” that López alludes to had do with securing copyrights and “legitimate”
distribution networks, and toning down some of the more “unsavory” aspects
of reggaeton culture. These efforts on the part of artists, producers, and record
labels made reggaeton a more profitable and marketable commodity within Puerto
Rico and the diaspora. Just as reggaeton seemed poised to move aboveground and
break into the mainstream music industry, the genre was once again the object of
censorship and public outrage.
In 2002 Senator Velda González launched an effort to ban music videos depicting
(doggystyle) dancing from television airplay. While perreo was the central
focus of her campaign she also chastised the
for their use of crude
language and violent imagery and lyrics. Influenced by videos by hip-hop group 2
Live Crew and other artists in the Miami Bass scene, reggaetoneros began to emulate
the styles of their videos. With scantily clad women performing sexually evocative
dances and simulating sexual acts with the artists the music videos were soon
decried as “
.” An opportunity to censor the videos presented itself when
authorities were notified by a parent that her daughter, a minor, was in a reggaeton
video “inciting” sexual acts. Backed by the conservative watchdog group Morality
in Media (also a major force behind the 1995 tape seizures), González launched a
crusade to “protect [Puerto Rico’s] children and youth from the bad influence they
were presenting.” The irony, as Raquel Z. Rivera and entertainment lawyer Daniel
Niva point out in their interviews, is that the Senator’s efforts actually created more
press and interest in the genre —rather than becoming social pariahs, reggaetoneros
became the next big thing. Niva comments that he feels “very sorry for what Velda
tried to do….By the year 2000 the state was not capable of controlling reggaeton
anymore.” Although the state could no long control reggaeton, its scare tactics
once again forced producers and artist to make their material less explicit and more
palatable to the mainstream. Producer Jorge Orquendo argues, “Instead of holding
it back [the scare tactics] promoted it even further, and I would say they did a
great favor to the reggaeton movement.” While it is debatable whether sanitizing
reggaeton was really a “favor,” many agree that it was this second so-called “wash”
that would enable reggaeton to gain international notoriety.
The film ends on a high note celebrating reggaeton’s seeming dominance over
the Latin music market and the emergence of superstars like Daddy Yankee, Wisin
Y Yandel, Don Omar, and Tego Calderón. Because of
Straight Outta Puerto Rico
triumphant approach, the film largely fails to engage with issues of sexuality, gender,
and race in a nuanced way, focusing almost exclusively on issues of masculinity and
class. Despite these glaring absences the film is still extremely useful as an entry
point into more complex discussions of how race, sex, gender, class, and nation
intersect not only within the genre of reggaeton, but also within Puerto Rico and
its diaspora. The archival footage of early rap and underground performances alone
makes this a valuable resource for fans and scholars alike.
Rivera, Raquel Z. 2009. Policing Morality,
Mano Dura Stylee
: The Case of Underground
Rap and Reggae in Puerto Rico in the Mid-1990s. In
, eds. Raquel Z.
Rivera, Wayne Marshall and Deborah Pacini Hernandez. 111–34. Durham, NC:
Duke University Press.
Jesús María Sanromá: An American Twentieth-Century Pianist
By Alberto Hernández
Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2008
340 pages; $45.00 [paper]
Edgardo Díaz Díaz
, The City University of New York—John Jay College
of Criminal Justice
A book-length assessment about the life and deeds of pianist Jesús María Sanromá
(a.k.a. “Chuchú”) has been long overdue—until now, when one of his pupils,
Alberto Hernández, fulfilled a great deal of the task with an unprecedented volume,
Jesús María Sanromá: An American Twentieth-Century Pianist
In the lifetime of Sanromá (1902–1984), the number of published essays or
articles about his career (other than concert reviews) came to be relatively
minimal if one considers his world-class stature as concert master of the piano.
No more than twenty-nine publications in Puerto Rico and the United States
are accounted for until 1990 by Donald Thompson and Annie F. Thompson
(1990: 321). Even before the release of Hernández’s book in 2009, only Emilio
S. Belaval, a lawyer, playwright and essayist, had written a 58-page essay about
performances by Sanromá as a child-prodigy (Belaval 1952). But recent re-issuing
of some of the pianist’s recordings may have triggered the appearance of countless
of internet references and, with it, a surge of public interest in his legacy.
Hernández’s volume of about 340 pages is more about the performances and
accomplishments by Sanromá between 1918 and 1952, than about his life and
passion as a proud Puerto Rican before and after that period. Through the book,
however, one sees a vast amount of data unearthed from the pianist’s family
collection and memorabilia donated recently to the Archivo General de Puerto
Rico. Although the materials of this collection still remain to be exhausted,
Hernández included and digested to his best as much of it as he could possibly
deal with, for the sake of English-language readers willing to appreciate the true
magnitude of Sanromá as a world-ranked concert pianist. Hundreds of pages of
data may have precluded for this book a just deliberation of the information,
but one must at least praise Hernández for his feat in selecting key aspects of
the legacy by Chuchú from such a vast memorabilia, for further elucidation.
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