Salsa Is Not About Gritty Barrio Stories
For some reason, both journalists and academics like to talk about seventies salsa as a period in which the music told stories about the barrio and the realities facing Latinos and suggest this helped make the music popular and made it pan-Latin.
First, salsa is not and was never pan-Latin. Mexican Americans make up 65% of the Hispanic population and by far they clearly prefer their regional music to salsa. There is a reason this type of music is advertised on Univisión, for example. That’s because it’s a good investment. That network has strong reach and the product fits the demographic. Advertising salsa music would not deliver the same level of return because there simply are not enough salsa fans to do so. And it’s not like there were a ton more salsa fans in 1973.
Second, anyone who says salsa was about barrio stories and Latino realities in the seventies does not have a decent collection or they never bothered to actually listen to the music they own. To show the absurdity of this idea, let’s look at some classic salsa albums to see what gritty barrio stories and heavy-duty revolutionary lyrics they serve up.
Cheo by Cheo Feliciano (1971)
This album marked Cheo’s return to music after drug problems sidelined him. It was his first solo album and it made him a star. So let’s look at songs and topics:
Anacaona: A tribute to a Taíno Indian woman that decries the cruelty of Spaniards in colonial times.
Pienso en ti: A lush bolero.
Pa que afinquen: A critique of other salseros and a challenge in which Cheo says he’s bringing a son that is tight and will oblige other salseros to tighten their music after having slacked off.
Este es el guaguancó: Basically talks about the guaguancó but the son itself is a guaracha, not a guaguancó. Seventies salseros loved to sing about guaguancó and announce their songs at guaguancós without actually playing this genre. To be clear: Yoruba Andabo plays guaguancó. Clave y Guaguancó plays guaguancó. This song by Cheo, despite the title, is NOT a guaguancó.
Si por mí llueve. This is a song that’s ostensibly about rain. The coro says Ponte un sombrero, busca una tapa que del agua nadie se escapa. One anecdote is that the song originated with Cheo teasing a friend about getting his hair wet after getting it straightened in what back then was known as a “conk.”
Franqueza cruel: A bolero in which a guy dismisses a lover.
Mano caliente: Now here we have a true guaguancó, orchestra style, in which the bongo plays quinto (the soloing drum in guaguancó, usually played on a thinner conga drum with a very tightly tuned skin to produce a higher pitch). Salsa bands are not rumba bands, so they typically have a conguero or two play bottom layer guaguancó patterns, very basic, and the bongosero solos on top while the timbalero either plays una of the bottom conga patterns or cascara on the timbal.
Anyway, the song is about a bongosero named Antero with a hot hand or mano caliente. That’s it. Nothing to do with the realities of life in the Bronx or Spanish Harlem in 1971.
Medianoche y sol: A bolero.
Poema de otoño: A bolero.
Roberto Roena y Apollo Sound 6 (1974)
An excellent album by an innovative band. Let’s look at song topics:
El que se fue: About a guy who leaves a band, is replaced, wants to come back, can’t happen. A cover of a Tito Rodriguez tune, no barrio story here.
Traición: A guy is angry because his girlfriend cheated on him. Sneaks in a quote of a guaguancó called María la Nieve, done by Los Muñequitos on a rare recording.
Cucarachita cucarachón: A son montuno by Chappotín, updated here, one guy calling another guy a cockroach.
Parece mentira: Another relationship song, guy-girl problems.
En mis rosales: an uptempo love song about a pretty girl who is like a rose.
Que se sepa: A dance number, a cover of a song originally done by Los Van Van and later, Juan Pablo Torres.
Ese soy yo: Love song.
Es que estás enamorada: love song.
Herencia rumbera: A song celebrating percussionists, the rumberos de mucha rumba, so Patato, Cortijo and Julito Collazo get name-checked, which makes sense.
Of course, Cheo and Roena were based in PR. Maybe things were more mellow there and the real suffering was across the pond. So let’s look at New York salseros to see if they get gritty and write about what they saw on the Lower East Side or across 110th Street.
Barretto by Ray Barretto (1975)
Guararé: A cover of a Van Van tune about a girl who is mad at a guy.
Vine pa’echar candela: A son montuno in which a guy proclaims he’s ready to kick some ass musically. Yay!
Eso es amar: a bolero
Ban ban quere: A song in which the rumba is the main character and tells its story. It travels around, checks on things in Cuba and then keeps traveling. Originally done by José Curbelo in the 1940s.
Vale más un guaguancó: Music is better than women and heals broken hearts, at least that’s what the singer maintains in this tune.
Testigo fui: A protest song about the treatment of Indians and Africans during colonial times.
El presupuesto: Two broke guys sing about being broke.
Canto abacuá: Ostensibly a song about the abacuá religion and the composer and singer (Rubén Blades) tries to paint a picture of what a night ritual is like among the ñáñigos, but considering that he probably never saw a plante or was allowed to enter a fambá, it’s unlikely that this tune is all that ethnographically accurate — though it sounds good!
Metiendo mano (1977)
This is the first pairing of Ruben Blades and Willie Colon.
Pablo Pueblo: Pablo is obviously a symbol of regular people, the downtrodden, poor, no rights, elections don’t help him.
Según el color: A song about how everything is a matter of perspective.
La maleta: A Latino immigrant to New York wants to go back home because it’s too crazy.
Me recordarás: A bolero in the fílin style, a Frank Domínguez classic.
Plantacion adentro: Indians being abused in colonial times.
La mora: A beautiful woman is celebrated.
Lluvia de tu cielo: a love song
Fue varón: A guy is ecstastic that he just had a son.
Pueblo: A song talking about how great the people are.
Pablo Pueblo could be interpreted as being about Latinos in New York but it’s quite non-specific. It could well be about people in Latin America and probably is, given Ruben’s focus on Latin America in his songs. There’s certainly nothing that suggests that it’s about Latinos in the United States.
La maleta is probably the only true barrio song on this album and discusses a reality. New York was crime-ridden in the seventies and lots of recent immigrants were (and still are) assaulted by thugs. But even so, this serious situation is given quite a humorous take in this song and it’s not really an indictment or protest so much as an observation.
Willie Colón, La gran fuga (1970)
Ghana E: Kind of a novelty tune celebrating Africa as being cool; some sources suggest this is a Ghanaian folk song like Che che colé but it’s hard to confirm.
Pa Colombia: A tune dedicated to Colombia.
No cambiaré: A guy who says he won’t change.
Sigue feliz: A guy gets his heart broken, figures that he’ll get over it and have fun.
Barrunto: A guy gets a premonition that something bad will happen.
Abuelita: A tribute to a grandmother who is fond of quoting popular sayings, i.e. refranes.
Panameña: A tribute to a beautiful Panamanian woman.
Canción para mi suegra: A goofy little finishing tune, basically a little joke.
Willie Colon, Cosa nuestra, 1969
Che che colé: A dance tune based on a folk song from Ghana (Che Che Kule).
No me llores más: A guy tells a girl to stop crying.
Ausencia: A guy misses a girl.
Te conozco: A guy tells another guy, Hey I see right through you, you friggin scam artist.
Juana Peña: Heartbreaker woman eventually gets her heart broken, the singer tells her not to cry because she was a jerk before and is getting what she deserves.
Sonero mayor: Focused on who is the baddest sonero or singer
Sangrigorda: A goofy song about a fat woman.
Tú no puedes conmigo: One guy tells another, I am badder than you.
Salseros Were Not Social Workers
So, where are the barrio stories? Most of these songs are characterized by fairly universal themes, such as relationships . There are some critiques, but they are focused on abuses of the past. There’s no question that Spanish conquistadores were monsters and should all still be roasting slowly in Hades, but no comments were made about the issues facing Latinos right then, like drug abuse, teen pregnancy, poverty cycles, factories closing, layoffs, being a single mom, gangs recruiting teens and more.
Why not? Because most salseros were not social workers. While there were a few bands here and there that tackled social or political issues (like Orquesta Revolución), most of the mainstream acts did not, as shown by the quick look we just had at some classic salsa albums. It doesn’t seem like salsa musicians had much of an inclination toward addressing hardships. They were well aware of them, since many lived in the same neighborhoods as their fans. But it seems obvious that they preferred to focus on more universal topics — like relationships — or write straightforward dance songs with catchy hooks and rhythms.
Now, does this mean that salseros NEVER wrote about barrio problems? No. Certainly they did. Examples include Calle Luna, Calle Sol, Juanito Alimaña, Pedro Navaja and others. But these types of songs are very much in the minority. Most seventies salsa tunes are either about relationships or dancing, with some esoteric Afro-Cuban topics thrown in because many salseros had the habit of re-recording Cuban songs. That’s how “Hachero pa un palo” becomes part of the salsa canon, along with “Un toque de bembé,” “El abacuá,” “Angayú,” “Aguanile” and others.
The Inception of the Misconception
Unfortunately, this reality-based analysis doesn’t seem interesting to certain academics, so they focus on the idea of salsa telling barrio stories. In academia, this idea of the people protesting their conditions with rootsy music is kind of cool, so it gets play, especially if the professorial types can somehow work Marxist philosophies into their analysis. And with that, a talented conga player can somehow become Che Guevara Jr., at least in some goofy article, though he may never know it and will probably go on enjoying capitalism…just like the academic who wrote the goofy article.
In other cases, people who lived in that era conflate the protest politics of themselves and their friends with the music they loved at the time. Now, sometimes musicians of the era say that they were trying to address the realities of the barrio in their music. Well, I would argue that they either have selective memories or they emphasize the idea of barrio stories because their images may be tied to being social chroniclers, so saying they mostly did dance songs is not good for business. In addition, salsa is a music with an identity problem in that it’s often been accused as being nothing more than a knock-off of Cuban music. As such, chronicling the barrio is a differentiator and gives salsa a personality aside from Cuban music, which never really focused on barrio realities all that much. This could well be why some seventies salseros may say that they were focused on this topic.
So that’s how it kicks off. How does it spread? Well, journalists will pick up something inaccurate written previously, not question it and robotically repeat it. Actually looking into the matter…yeah, well, that’s often not their thing. And to be fair, it’s not easy for a journalist to know who to ask. How many people think of asking a collector when it comes to certain type of music? We’re not expected to think of collectors as experts. We’re conditioned to be more likely to think of professors as experts, or perhaps the musicians themselves. And that’s because journalism in the U.S. is more driven by people than data. But that’s another 20 pesos.
The key takeway here is simple: seventies salsa was often about daring experiments and harder-edged playing than today’s mostly limp, sweetie pie salsa as practiced by Moaning Marc Anthony, a man who sounds like he’s getting his prostate checked with medieval torture implements in each and every song. Or Victor Manuelle, nasally and noisily proclaiming his love for some random chick in every other song, while the other ones focus on how the chick dumped him and how bad he feels. However, seventies salsa was not about barrio stories or calling for Latinos to rise up against the man or to become Marxists because Fidel and Che were super sexy and our heroes. Anyone who says this is wrong or lying. The recorded evidence that refutes this is abundant, and I could prove my point over and over again with hundreds, if not thousands of albums of the era.
So all you academics and journalists: shaddup already! Also, let data drive conclusions, not random comments.