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salsa history in parts - part 7 and 8

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salsa history in parts - part 7 and 8

Post  AnandMajumdar on Wed Nov 05, 2008 1:27 pm

Part 7: Borinquen NYC

We take up this story after the close of the Great War. The 'Hellfighters' have returned to a heroes welcome with a triumphal parade up Fifth Avenue, a remarkable achievement for a coloured (sic) band after distinguishing themselves as goodwill exemplars in France. The band itself no longer exists; it rapidly dissolved following the fatal stabbing of Jim Europe in May 1919. Black music and theatre was on the rise in Harlem and on Broadway, which meant employment for at least some dark-skinned Latin American musicians. And Cuban music, which had been steadily seeping in and building up in the United States via New Orleans, New York and its other ports, was primed and ready to burst into the public consciousness. All it needed was a spark, and indeed it came - in the form of the Prohibition.

Borinquen NYC
There were 35,000 Puerto Ricans domiciled in New York City (NYC) in 1919, and this number steadily grew as economic conditions on the island maintained an outward migratory pressure. Conversely other Latin Americans started emigrating from NYC; returning to their home nations in prospect of better lives as the Great Depression started to bite. With Puerto Rico's economy so closely coupled to that of the United States, Boricuas had no such luxury. By 1930, Puerto Ricans became officially the largest Latino population in NYC with census estimates varying wildly between 45,000 and 100,000 souls.

Musicians followed the influx; their livelihoods tied to their compatriot audiences who would be the consumers of their work. What is more, music was mostly a secondary occupation - there just wasn't enough of a practical living to be had from doing it full-time. Even the greats were erstwhile mechanics, sailors and plumbers. Upon their arrival, performers found a network of social contacts established within the Hispanic community which furnished them with the opportunity to deploy their immediately-useful skills. Musicians would come to play a central role in neighbourhood life, disseminating music that was not limited simply to that of their homeland.

The Spanish in Harlem
Boricuas found themselves living in the same areas, competing for the same jobs, and occupying the same social strata as African Americans. A common sign found in NYC apartment blocks of the time sums up their shared circumstance: "No Dogs, No Negroes (sic), and No Spanish".

Even though racial tensions did develop as Latinos sought to establish their own identity as separate from those of the blacks, their juxtaposition in physical and social spaces sparked interchange between their cultures, especially through musical collaborations. And in this realm, African Americans and Puerto Ricans were worlds apart. The former were less common on the bandstands as, having been denied training and performing opportunities by a then white-dominated American Federation of Musicians (AFM), not may of them had all of the required skill-sets.

With the Volstead Act, the wealthy were driven to drink in Havana. When they returned from their sojourn, they did so with a thirst for Cuban dance which fuelled its explosion in NYC, fixing it forever in popular consciousness. Bandleaders strove to recruit members as ensembles were assembled to satisfy demand and Puerto Ricans, due to their training and musicianship, were highly prized. They became the unseen, unattributed backbone of groups fronted by better-known Blacks and Cubans.

Prime Time
NYC was the epicentre of musical developments in the mass media. It was the major site for the publication of music, a powerhouse of radio broadcasting, home to a large portion of the recording industry, and an early exploiter of U.S. technological advantage. It was thus a unique combination of factors which turned the city into what Ruth Glassner describes as, "the virtual headquarters for an evolving Caribbean sound largely produced by Puerto Rican migrants". It retains much of this status to this day.

But Puerto Ricans were not completely obscured by their playing of Cuban music, nor were they fully eclipsed by the great Cuban names of Socarrás and Bauzá for example. Some of their countrymen did make it to the fore, like Augusto Coen, Tito Puente, and Manuel "Canario" Jiménez Otero, the latter most famous for popularising the Puerto Rican plena outside the island.

Vacuum-packed Cuba
The Puerto Rican surge to the front lines of salsa was facilitated by two things: the lowering costs of music production; and U.S. sanctions against Cuba in 1962. When vinyl pressing and electronic recording became more economical, they created conditions suitable for the establishment of independent record labels, and favoured the small ensemble over the larger orchestras. While large record companies categorised much of their Caribbean music as 'Cuban' to appeal to the mass market, independents could afford to target specific demographic groups; such as Puerto Ricans at home and abroad with music written, arranged and played by Nuyoricans. And now that everything didn't have to be recorded all at once, a small ensemble of multi-instrumentalists could produce a big sound at a fraction of the cost.

The remarkable events that transpired between the United States and Cuba, of which the Missile Crisis was one, caused a deterioration of public goodwill. However audiences stateside still demanded Cuban music, no matter what the name. With Cuban music cut off at the source, a vacuum started to form into which flowed music as played by Puerto Ricans - what was eventually to be called salsa. The impact of these tensions was to strip away the 'Cuban' marketing veneer surrounding Latin music in NYC, exposing a superstructure of Puerto Rican musicians who had been playing it all along.

But then, was this music truly Cuban?

They could play anything
A cursory listening of the music, to its percussion, rhythm and harmonic progression would identify it as being structurally Cuban. And if it were to be judged on that basis alone, then there would be little grounds for argument. However should you hold to the idea that music can also be a multifaceted symbol of identity, then our ears have to listen more intently.

Cuban music is itself a product of creolisation, its multilayered and polyrhythmic structure easily accommodates the embedding of cultural motifs. Gerard (1998) describes Puerto Ricans as outsiders to Afro-Cuban folklore, but that did not prevent them from incorporating artefacts in the music they played which would resonate with their countrymen.

Take for example 'Lamento Borincano' penned by Rafael Hernández as a bolero (an internationally recognised genre) in NYC. The lyrics poignantly describe the plight shared by country dwellers all across Latin America, but employ terms that are specifically Boricua. The song has been adopted into Puerto Rican cultural folklore becoming an unofficial national anthem of sorts, despite being structurally a bolero. In a way, it's not as strange as it sounds when one remembers that Cuban genres have pervaded Puerto Rico since colonial times.

As we delve deeper beneath the surface, we come to recognise that Puerto Ricans did not eschew their indigenous for Cuban forms. They were the archetypal complete musicians who could play anything. They took whichever forms they had to and made it their own by adding the cuatro here, a vocal motif there, singing songs that everyone would dance to but using themes that were uniquely relevant to their compatriots.

If you listen closely, you can hear it in salsa.
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AnandMajumdar
Founder - QuickstepSALSA Forum
Founder - QuickstepSALSA Forum

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Number of posts : 551
Location : Mumbai, India
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My Salsa Skill Level :
50 / 10050 / 100

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Re: salsa history in parts - part 7 and 8

Post  AnandMajumdar on Wed Nov 05, 2008 1:28 pm

Part 8: Who Owns Salsa?

There are fewer topics that cause more impassioned debate than the origin of salsa. Everyone claims that their version is accurate because salsa is a part of them. That they own it. So why do we think that way?

Cultural identity
Intercourse between Europeans, Africans and Native Indians naturally created a significant presence of Creoles in the Caribbean. At first these people existed in a cultural limbo: unaccepted by the white ruling elite for having impure blood; and distancing themselves from the black slaves due to the abject conditions the Africans suffered.

But as the colonies diverged from Spain through creolisation, the person of mixed blood came to represent the cultural ideotype. Evidence of this exists:

“[Manuel A., 1849] Alonso's male gaze imagines and discursively constructs a Puerto Rican woman - Creole or mulatta - who possesses both a European-associated languor and an African-derived sensuality…”
- Frances R.Aparicio

but should be examined in the context of its time; a feminisation of literature and music that had occurred due to the male domination of the arts. Aparicio explores further the association of the white woman with the danza, and the mulata with the plena. The culture of the colonies therefore came to be symbolised, at least in part, by the Creole female and the music she was associated with. The common use of the word “mulata” as an expression in salsa belies the music's role in Latin cultural identity. It reinforces male dominance by continued feminisation, and maintains the Creole ideal.

Salsa also symbolises the dream of Latin American unity: the optimism in Simon Bolivar's vision of a Gran Colombia - a single nation of a united people; the reality of a Latin America suffering from fragmentation, persistent lawlessness, economic hardship, political instability; the frustration of a potential unrealised. Ruben Blades alludes to this dream in a brief comment on his live album with Son del Solar. Salsa is an indicator of the great things Latin Americans are capable of. It is the musical identity of Gran Colombia.

The European Spanish are willing to claim ownership of salsa in the face of non-Latins through the tenuous link of sharing a similar language. But the Latin Americans would consider the Spanish as having no such right, given their past differences. Here, cultural identity begins to blur with national identity.

National identity
The use of salsa as a symbol of national identity can be attributed to two main factors: a loss of national sovereignty due to U.S. intervention, and the relative ineptitude of U.S. troops in dance.

Whereas the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 sought to limit European influence in the Americas, the Roosevelt Corollary to the doctrine (1904) sought to justify U.S. intervention throughout the Western Hemisphere. This led to a number of U.S. military invasions throughout the Caribbean basin to protect its political and economic interests. Latin Americans adopted their music and dance as a form of cultural resistance.

For example, the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic (1916-24) generated much resentment, causing the Dominicans to adopt the Cibaeño variant of the merengue as part of their defence. However:

“Dominican creativity not only spawned 'lithe and delicate merengue rhythms' that the clumsy U.S. occupiers could not contend with, but generated a new expressive form from the marines' incompetence”
- Paul Austerlitz

Merengue is perhaps the most extreme example of music and dance as national identity, because of the extent to which it was employed. Six years later, the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo based his entire presidential campaign on the merengue, and promoted it ceaselessly throughout his time in power.

Political identity
“'Save Havana for mañana [tomorrow]” is the slogan of the Miami Cuban who can't or won't go back to Castro's revolutionary Cuba. They are fiercely aggressive in the protection of “their”music, which they perceive as predating the revolution, and symbolic of the good things before Castro. To them, revolutionary Cuba has no right of ownership, and they maintain an anti-collaborative stance to deny any hint of legitimacy.

In contrast, salsa - like the potent image of Che Guevarra, has been adopted by socialist movements abroad. Socialist Cuba possesses a variety of properties that make it a marketing dream: strong records in health, education, and culture; oppression by a foreign “imperialist” government; and subversion by militant right-wing groups. Salsa's origin as music of the underclasses, and its rise to dominance implied through the removal of class structure, make it the ideal tool in promoting socialist ideology.

But nowhere is the issue of ownership more polarised than between Cubans and Nuyoricans. For the Nuyorican, salsa is a term made by them; a music kept alive by them when Cuba lost momentum. It was through their efforts: the music labels of Fania and RMM; the radio stations and clubs; and the live performances that kept salsa going.

For the Cuban, salsa is a word created to disguise the music's true Cuban origin, to deny their right of ownership. American record labels were once in the habit of recording songs by Cuban composers without properly attributing them, using the initials D.R. (Derechos Reservados [Rights Reserved]) instead. Says Charley Gerrard (1998):

“The idea was that, due to the break in relations between the United States and Cuba, the composers would receive the moneys due them whenever relations between the two countries improved. As a result, the general public was not made aware of the tremendous amount of material by Cuban composers recorded by Fania artists.”

The collapse of RMM over unpaid royalties casts doubt on this argument, and hints at corruption similar to that experienced during Batista's regime.

Perspective: Ownership and Possession
There are two interesting definitions of ownership: 1) exclusive right of possession, 2) possession with the right to transfer possession to others. Both concern possession and the right to it.

If there ever was a word that describes salsa's genesis, it has got to be creolisation. Not hybridisation because it's too sterile a term; devoid of the racial, colourful, cultural connotations that “Creole” has.

Given the diversity of salsa's lineage, how can we consider that the Creole belongs to any particular group? If inclusion has been its heritage, what possible benefit to salsa could exclusive possession provide?

The transnationalisation, and local adaptation within each country compounds the issue further. If not now, then soon, salsa will no longer be perceived as “owned” by the Latin Americans. Salsa already means different things in different places - even though it remains the same word. There is a compelling case for saying that no one owns salsa, but at least we can all possess it - every single one of us.

At it's most fundamental level, if salsa is defined by the individual, how could we be sure that your definition of salsa was the same as mine? Instead of telling you what you should believe in, we would both have to try to understand all salsa could be. And if we chose to commit a good portion of our lives to that purpose, then perhaps some time into that pursuit, we would realise that salsa had come to own us instead.

To paraphrase an aboriginal saying: “How arrogant is the man who thinks that he can own that mountain, for it will still be there when he and his children are gone”.
avatar
AnandMajumdar
Founder - QuickstepSALSA Forum
Founder - QuickstepSALSA Forum

Male
Number of posts : 551
Location : Mumbai, India
Job/hobbies : Salsa Teacher
My Salsa Skill Level :
50 / 10050 / 100

Registration date : 2008-08-13

View user profile http://www.anandmajumdar.com

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