martes, 17 de agosto de 2010

Buenos Aires Tango: From Arrabal to National

“Tango—previamente de ser arte—es una actitud”

[Tango—prior to being art—is an attitude] (Horacio Feerret)

The culture of tango, from its music and dance to its language and lyrics, offers a clear view into the class, gender, ethnic, and economic issues of Argentina since the late 19th Century. Through the decades, the tango has evolved from “a dance associated with the poor and criminal classes to a highly stylized dance form in which all social classes could participate” (Castro p. 6).


Tango emerged in the lower class neighborhoods of the port cities of Montevideo, in Uruguay, and Buenos Aires, in Argentina – both located on the Rio de la Plata estuary. For the purpose of this essay, I will focus on the evolution of tango in Buenos Aires and its journey towards acceptance by the Argentinean upper classes.

The disapproval of the tango by Argentinean high society is perhaps best exemplified by the words of Enrique Rodríguez Lareta, then Argentinean Minister Plenipotentiary in Paris, “when he answered complaints from both Argentines and Frenchmen as to why he forbade tangos from being played at embassy parties:

El tango es en Buenos Aires una danza primitiva de las casas de mala fama y de los bodegones de peor especie. No se baila nunca en los salones de buen tono ni entre personas distinguidas. Para los oídos argentinos la música de tango despierta ideas realmente desagradables. No veo diferencias algunas entre el tango que se baila en las academias elegantes de Paris y el que baila [sic] en los bajos centros nocturnos de Buenos Aires. [The tango is in Buenos Aires a primitive dance of houses of ill repute and of the lowest kind of dives. It is never danced in polite society nor among persons of breeding. To Argentine ears it awakes [sic] the most disagreeable feelings. I see no difference whatsoever between the tango that is danced in elegant Parisian dance halls and that which is danced in the most base night spots in Buenos Aires.]” (Zubillaga as cited in Castro p. 93)

In, The Argentine Tango As Social History, 1880-1955: The Soul of the People, Donald S. Castro describes the tango of La guardia vieja [The Old Guard], that is from about 1895 to the World War I, as “the dance and musical vehicle of the urban poor, the socially unacceptable, the disenfranchised, and the disinherited of the Argentine littoral” (pp. 89-90). In a process of selective-self-denied-identity mixed with European(or first world) cultural colonization typical of Latin America, the tango was only welcomed, in fact even considered fashionable among the middle and upper classes, “through re-importation form Europe in the period just prior to World War I” (p. 92). The changing lyrics and context of tango reflect its shifting status as it moved from bars and brothels in the poor neighborhoods of the marginalized city outskirts, to being associated with formal wear and downtown nightclubs. At the same time, the lyrical focus on economic frustrations shifted towards unrequited love (pp. 7-8).

Castro argues that through this process the tango also went from a folkloric form (spontaneous genre with improvised lyrics) to popular culture (with standardized dance steps, and published lyrics and music) (p. 7). However, he also argues that because it continued to be a product of the urban working and middle classes, the lyrics of published tangos continued to reflect the daily life and preoccupations of every day porteños (citizens of the port city, Buenos Aires, a term also used to refer to anything related to the city) (p. 7). He argues that these themes respond to a long lyrical tradition of social criticism that reflected the social discontent of the working class of Buenos Aires (p. 9).


The reality is that by the mid 20th Century, and in some places even earlier than that, tango had become the Argentinean national dance – whether because outsiders identified Argentineans with the tango, or because Argentineans had adopted it as such themselves, or a combination of both. However, it is clear that the use of tango as a metonym for Argentina by foreigners has never been completely free of assumptions, prejudices, and misunderstandings. Castro presents a perfect example when he mentions that “in the Hollywood films of the 1920s, Argentina was identified not only with tangos, but also with gauchos. In Paris at this time, these two images of Argentina merged with the appearance on stage and in cabarets of Gauchos dancing tangos” (p. 1). Almost a century later, I have been witness myself to tangos danced by men dressed as gauchos (the cowboys of the Argentinean countryside) – a mistaken impossibility, given that tango is the epitome of urban porteñidad (porteño-ness) and a cultural product of the city from the late 19th century to the present, while gauchos are an extinct incarnation of the rural Argentina before the late 19th century which now stands as the epitome of the rustic countryside life.


Baires is a colloquial shortening of Buenos Aires used to refer to the city mostly by its younger population. Because of its vernacularity, I feel the word would be part of the vocabulary of tango had it emerged in the late 20th century rather than one hundred years earlier. The matter of fact is that Argentinean tango is all about the city of Buenos Aires. In Argentina, popular culture is folklore in the countryside and tango in the city (Bayer and Canal-Feijóo as cited on Castro p. 5). Castro plainly states that tango “was and still is very much the dance of the port city of Argentina – Buenos Aires“ (p. 6) and further adds: “Indeed one might argue that the tango is less Argentine than porteño… a cultural expression of the sprawling port city …” (p. 8).

So consumed are the tango lyrics with evoking the Buenos Aires mood that Gobello and Bosso felt compelled to write: “… en la letra del tango no se busca tanto el placer de la poesía como la emoción de la porteñidad” [“in the lyrics of tango one does not look so much for the pleasure of poetry as for the emotion of ‘porteñoness’”] (as cited on Castro p. 6). Even as the popular rhythms have varied from tango to rock, contemporary Argentinean musicians continue this tradition by writing to and about Buenos Aires, as does, for example, Fito Paez. Buenos Aires streets are commonly mentioned in his lyrics. He even has a song titled Buenos Aires in which he does not fail to mention tango, and continues the tango tradition of expressing his frustration with the urban problems in Buenos Aires while somehow also expressing worshipping fascination with the city at the same time.


The lyrics of tango document the marginalization and struggles of Buenos Aires’ lower classes with their portrayal of la vida orillera (orillero refers to anything pertaining to the slums and outskirts of the city; orilla means margin, coast or border) in the suburbio or arrabal (the poorest neighborhoods characterized by tenement housing, high crime rates, poverty, and immigrants) (Castro p. 8). The social criticism present in tango lyrics did not call for revolution and social justice, simply portraying instead a painful reality. Castro brings up the concept of the tango portrayal of life as pain and suffering , by citing the tango “Cambalache” (1935) [Pawnshop] in which “life is described as a porquería [a nasty mess] where it does not matter what you do, or whether or not you are good or evil, it is all the same“ (p. 78). To me, this shows the hopelessness people found in their precarious situations. Here are some lyrics of tangos copied from Castro’s book that speak for themselves (pp. 72-3, translations my own):

“Sentencia” [“The Judgement”}

Yo nací, señor juez , en el suburbio,

suburbio triste de la enorme pena,

en el fango social donde una noche

asentara su rancho la miseria.

[I was born, Mr. Judge, in the slums,

sad slums of enormous pain

in the social morass where one night

misery set up its house.]

“Gorriones” [“Sparrows”]

El sol es el poncho del pobre que pasa

rumiando rebelde blasfemias y ruegos

pues tiene una horrible tragedia en su casa,

tragedia de días sin pan y sin fuego.

[The sun is the overcoat of the poor man

who passes by

rebelliously chewing blasphemies and pleas

‘cause at home there is a horrible tragedy,

a tragedy of days without food and without fire]

“Pan” [“Bread”]

Sus pibes no lloran por llorar

ni piden masitas ni dulces. ¡Señor!

Sus pibes se mueren de frio

y lloran hambrientos de pan

[His kids don’t cry for crying sake

nor do they ask for cookies or cake, no sir!

His kids are dying of cold

and cry of bellies aching for bread]”


Tango lyrics often evoke its alleged cradle, an underworld of brothels clearly shaped by the sexual dominance of the male in which “women are secondary characters who, as chinas [low class women or prostitutes], or prendas [“skirts”], are little more than hembras [female animals]” (Castro p. 9). The tango lyrics are full of words connected to brothels and prostitution (p. 38). In fact, Castro argues that the slang word “mina” (now utilized to mean any woman in Argentina) comes from tango lyrics where it referred to women as sources of wealth exploited by pimps (the verb minar means to mina or extract) (pp. 37, 57).

At the same time men are often portrayed in tango as arrogant womanizers. Tango lyrics and the culture from which they emerged also held men victim to a gendered expectation of competition over street-smart skills. Men who were ridiculed by others were referred to by another slang term that survives to the present, “gil” [fool]. Castro states that “to be made a fool was the greatest ill that could befall a person” and even asserts that it was to a “porteño worse than castration” which clearly marks its association with masculinized traits (p. 79). Tango lyrics are also sometimes filled with self-adulation used as a tool for affirming and defending one’s reputation or challenging someone else’s (Cara p. 451). Other than lady’s men and smart assess, men in tango lyrics were also sometimes victims of women’s betrayal. In any case, it is rare to find a romantic tango lyric or one that portrays men of character or admirable women, except perhaps for the figure of the mother.


Although tango is often described as a male dominated dance, dancers of social tango describe it as a mutual dialogue between a man and a woman, rather than simply a leader controlling a follower. When learning to tango, particularly the home tango style, a couple learns to read each other’s bodies and respond appropriately in a conversation without words Cara refers to as kinesthetic conversation (p. 454). Men learning to lead are encouraged to pay close attention and “attend” to the women, inviting her to perform certain steps or move in a certain direction, rather than forcing their way. In fact, women never like to dance with men who are not attentive and seem to be dancing as if they were by themselves. On the other hand, for modern independent women, who have learned to be weary of men, it is often difficult to achieve the necessary state of relaxation and trust.

Unlike mainstream perceptions that associate tango with sexiness and sexuality, the art of improvising as a couple while dancing tango socially is mainly about achieving a deep intimate connection (Cara p. 453) – which I have heard referred to as a trance, and experienced it as such myself. Furthermore, women are not passive partners, they have independent will and opportunity to add valued embellishments, set the mood and tempo, and provoke sudden changes or particular steps. Cara states that a female tango dancer can “in fact, lead, if she is an extremely well-versed dancer” and goes on to state that the proverb “it takes two to tango” holds true – as “the conversational nature of the dance requires a give-and-take, an invitation to dance and a response” (454).


Lunfardo is the word most often used to refer to the vocabulary utilized in tango lyrics. It has long been considered to have come from a secret language, or argot lunfardo¸ utilized by criminals of the early 20th Century – or at least, it was so labeled by the police. Castro, however, points out contemporary doubts that the speakers of lunfardo determined its existence and labeled it as such themselves, and rather that it was “outside observers of this linguistic phenomenon [who] determined what it was, and who were the speakers”. It is possible that the Argentinean upper classes confused a criminal argot with simple urban slang and a creole slang of immigrants (especially Italian, since the majority of the words were of Italian origin, with some coming from Spanish and just a few from Portuguese [p. 40]). By doing so members of the upper classes made “all these porteño social types into one generic group which these outsiders considered to be lunfardo.” As Castro points out, this generalization reflects the disdain of the upper classes for the urban poor and the immigrants. Furthermore, it explains why tango was rejected as a cultural expression of that world and a vehicle for the condemned linguistic phenomenon (p. 41). The confusion of lunfardo as a criminal argot and lenguaje orillero or caló porteño (simple urban slag not used by the upper classes but part of the popular vocabulary) reflects that the upper classes of the time “made no distinction between criminal groups” and “the various non-criminal elements within the urban popular classes” (p. 38).

The upper classes were so opposed to the use of lunfardo in tangos, particularly after it reached the radios in the 1930s, that they even enforced censorship (Castro p. 84). For example, when the military seized power in 1943, new cleaned versions of by then classical tangos were made in order to preserve the “correct language” (that is the pure Castilian Spanish, by changing words such “vieja” for madre and “piba” for muchacha). These versions remained in use despite popular opposition until early 1950 (p. 86).

It is also important to point out that the urban slang has enjoyed a continued usage from the first decades of tango to the present. Castro argues that “the decision to use elements of popular speech was done consciously by the tango poets who attempted to associate themselves with the popular and middle classes” (p. 87). Even as tango artists became popular and wealthy, as tango left the streets and entered the stages, musicians and dancers alike have chosen to remain street-wise, to utilize urban slang, to dress the part, often even to impersonate the brothels of years past, in an attempt to continue an urban marginal identity that has become no longer a source of national shame but rather self-exotized pride – not to mention profitable show business and tourism largely based on staged spectacular versions of tango performance.


Ana C. Cara points out in her article “Entangled Tangos: Passionate Displays, Intimate Dialogues”, that many Argentineans find their shared ethos, attitudes, emotions, and identity encoded in the essence of tango or tanguedad [tanguicity], which can be best experienced only through the body (p. 453) and which “embraces the many social, historical, geographical, and cultural dimensions that have made tango possible, indeed necessary, in the lives of Argentines for more than a century” (pp. 438-9). Tango is not just a fixed music and a dance genre, but a particular performance style and a way of dancing, embodying, and enacting tango – that is, tango steps without the proper attitude are not tango norr are the notes of a tango score played without the right feeling; nonetheless, movements and music that are not per se tango can be tangueados [tangoized] (pp. 455-6). Cara also points out, however, that tango also shifted from a social to a performance dance, and Argentineans clearly recognize the difference between two kinds of tango at the ends of a spectrum – the intimate, modest, and authentic home tango, vs the sexualized, flashy, acrobatic translation for the stage (which is both a product of appropriation and co-optation by the colonialist gaze, as well as a narrative of self-representation turned into a marketable commodity) (pp. 441-5).


Cara, Ana C. (2009). “Entangled Tangos: Passionate Displays, Intimate Dialogues”, in Journal of American Folklore 122(486):438–465

Castro, Donald S. (1991). The Argentine Tango As Social History, 1880-1955: The Soul of the People. Edwin Mellen Press

Bayer, Osvaldo, Bernardo Canal-Feijóo, et. al. (1974). El populísmo en la Argentina. Buenos Aires: Editorial Plus Ultra, pp. 91-92

Gobello, José and Jorge A. Bosso. (1979). Tango, letras, y letristas, 2 vols. Buenos Aires: Editorial Plus Ultra, Vol. I, p. 7

Zubillaga, Carlos. (1976) Carlos Gardel. Madrid: Editorial “Jucar”, p. 18.

sábado, 24 de julio de 2010

Transculturation: Cuban Music and Worldwide Rumbas

In Cuban Music, Maya Roy points out that Cuba has produced countless musical rhythms that have become popular worldwide in their original or adapted forms, from “rhumba” to conga lines, from chacha to mambo # 5. He also poses a good question: why have such rhythms transcended the island while others Cuban musical creations remain rather obscure to foreign audiences (for example, trova, guaguancó, son montuno, and charanga)? (ix). Furthermore, I wonder, what happened to the genres that did become internationally popular once they left the island and converged with other cultures? Cuban musical forms emerged from the transplanting of African musical traditions to Cuba and their merging with Spanish, thus giving birth to entirely new phenomena, a process defined by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz as “transculturation” (1995 [1947]). In an extension of the same process, newer musical formations have risen from the subsequent transculturation of Cuban music abroad.

Roy also highlights the importance of African roots in Cuban music. On page 29, she sates: “This polyrhythmic and poliphonic language, which is specifically African, is found, with some modifications and in varying degrees, in all of Cuban folk music.” As we have already seen was also the case in Brazil and the Dominican Republic, as these Latin American countries gained independence and began reaffirming a national identity “everything African was considered by the dominant elite to be lowly, vulgar, and uncultured” (30). She goes on to describe how, also in Cuba, these traditions nonetheless survived among the oppressed, through oral transmission, despite repression.

Roy tells of genres as beloved by Cubans of our times as son which were once considered lower class type of music. During the early 1900s when son was played by non-professional musicians to enliven neighborhood parties, judicial chronicles were replete with sentences of “the practice of immoral dances with African instruments” (Blanco, 1992, p. 16 as cited on page 120). However slowly, nonetheless, the local bourgeoisie started to be attracted to son, and eventually fully embraced it. In fact, Roy talks about the contemporary apparent glorification of a golden era of son and bolero perhaps best represented by the 1990s Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon. The phenomenon begun with a recording, filmed performance, and documentary made with veteran Cuban musicians, and named after a legendary dancing and music members club of the 1940s and ‘50s. Roy qualifies the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon as the exocitization of an idealized golden era that was not so golden but rather tinged with racism and inequality, but that happens to satisfy the foreign nostalgia for the retro and the picturesque (194).

Of all the Cuban rhythms I could possibly explore, I have chosen Rumba, because it is a perfect example of 1) a dance with strong African roots that climbed the social acceptance scale to become official national folklore and internationally popular; and 2) a genre (whether the rhythm or the term) that was taken up by other cultures that transformed it into their own transcultured phenomenon.

Rhumba hopping: de rumba en rumba

The term Rumba is used to refer to a family of percussive rhythms of Afro-Cuban origin. Rumba includes a series of music and dance forms that combined the musical traditions Spanish colonizers and African slaves brought to Cuba. Rumba is often described as the most African of Cuban folkloric music and dance genres. However, unlike other African-rooted genres, Rumba is completely secular, with no religious connections. The noun “rumba” also means “party” in Spanish. Additionally, Rumba has been used, particularly by Europeans and Americans, as an umbrella term for Latin rhythms, much like “salsa”. The term spread in the 1930s and 1940s to refer to the fast paced music coming from cuba, particularly after the classic the Peanut Vendor was released in the U.S. described as a Rhumba – probably because it was an easier term for Americans to understand than son.

Cuban Rumbas

Rumba developed in the Cuban provinces of Habana and Matanzas, as well as other cities and rural areas with large African communities. It is dated back to the late 19th century. It was considered by the upper class of Spanish descent to be dangerous and vulgar, and it was often censored. Traditional Cuban Ruma songs often begin with ‘dianas’, melodic meaningless syllables sang by a soloist, often a male singer. Then, he begins to ‘decimar’, improvising ten-line stanzas about the reason for the gathering. Other singers sing the somewhat fixed lyrics of traditional songs. More modern Cuban Rumba also contains elements from jazz and hip hop, and continues to be a popular street dance, especially among Afro-cuban neighborhoods. Unlike its internationalized counterparts, it is an exclusively percussive music style, with no melodic instruments, except the singers’ voices. Nowadays in Cuba, it is also performed by folklore dance troupes.

There are three types of Cuban Rumba: Yambú, Columbia, and Guagancó. Rumba Yambú is the oldest form, with a slower pace preferred by older generations. It is danced by both genders, independently or together. Columba is a faster type of Rumba, accompanied by a 6/8 rhythm. It is traditionally danced by men, who challenge the drummer to imititate their movements, which are often syncopated, difficult, or even acrobatic. There is also an on-going competition among consecutive solo dancer who display their strength and ability through their movements, which now a days are influenced by hip hop. Finally, Guagancó is the fastest and more rhythmically complex of the three types. The percussion features three drums with different pitches and playing different rhythms, and often also palitos (two sticks hit on the side of a drum). The lead singer also often accompanies with clave sticks. After the beginning lyrics followed by a call and response, the dancing begins. Guaguancó is danced by a couple. The flirtatious dynamic of the dance feature movements through which the woman both entices and keeps distance from the man, who is looking for an opportunity to perform a hip movement towards the woman called ‘vacunao’. Sometimes the sexually symbolic ‘vacunao’ can also be a movement of the leg, arm, or a handkerchief. Guaguancó is the most internationally popular type of Cuban Rumba, performed in the U.S. by popular artists, such as Gloria Stefan and Celia Cruz, in her hit ‘Químbara’.

There and back: Rumba Flamenca

Rumba Flamenca or Flamenco Rumba emerged from the influence of Cuban Rumba brought back to Spain on Flamenco music. It is often played with guitars, hand clapping, castanets, and sometimes a cajón, instead of drums and claves. It has been internationally popularized by artists such as Paco de Lucía, Tomatito, and The Gypsy Kings.

Recycled Terms: Ballroom Rumba

In international ballroom dance competitions, Rumba is the slowest of the hip-swaying Latin dances. However, the music it is performed to is actually Cuban bolero-son at about 120 beats per minute. The inaccurate terminology is perhaps due to the marketing advantage of the term rumba. The movements derive from 1940s and and 1950s La Habana dance moves, layered with more complex competition figures (Lavelle 1983).

Blanco, Jesús. 80 años del son y soneros en el Caribe 1909-1989. Caracas: Fondo Editorial Tropykos, 1992.

Roy, Maya. Cuban Music. Translated by denise asfar and Gabriel asfar. Markus Wiener PUblihers. Princento, NJ 2002 ( 1998)

Orovio, Helio. Cuban music from A to Z. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

Daniel, Yvonne. Rumba: dance and social change in contemporary Cuba. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Lavelle, Doris. Latin & American dances. London: Pitman Publishing,1983.

Ortize, Fernando, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, trans. Harriet de Onís. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995 (New York: Knopf, 1947).

lunes, 12 de julio de 2010

Religious Zeal to Urban Ghetto Global Phenomenon: From Jamaican Reggae and Dancehall to American Rap and Latin Reggaeton.

Many Jamaican rhythms have enjoyed worldwide recognition –from mento and rock steady, which predated reggae, to the more recent uprising of dub, to the numerous waves and reincarnations of ska, from the ‘60s Skatallites to Brittish 2 tone, to ska punk, all the way to South America. The borders between these styles can be blurry and their definitions tend to mutate with time. In the introduction to the book Reggae, Rasta, Revolution: Jamaican Music from ska to dub, editor Chris Potash states: “Today, ska is a tag used to describe such a range of pop music sounds that it’s about as exact as reggae” (xxiv). In spite, or perhaps because, of their mutable nature, these Jamaican rhythms have had lasting ripple musical effects all over the world.


Reggae in particular, is a fascinating cultural and religious phenomenon with myriad social and political implications – race not being the least of them. Especially during its period of highest popularity, from the late ‘60s through the ‘80s, it was considered black music, especially by the Jamaican ruling class. And yet, particularly outside of Jamaica, it was predominately white middle class people who embraced it, purchased the records, and crowded concerts. When asked about this apparent contradiction, Bob Marley, reggae’s biggest star, said: “Yeah, man. It’s a black people’s music. But I prefer all people to like our music” (xx).

One of the reasons why reggae was considered black music is because of its clear African musical roots. This is evident not only in its drums and rhythms, but in its spirituality. The spirituality that drove reggae in its inception was not, however, any of the traditional African religions. It was the bible-based Rastafarianism, which presented black Africans as the chosen people and encouraged their return to the homeland, seeing Ethiopia as Zion. As Kenneth Bilby remarks in his article From “Jamaica”:

“Reggae’s lasting qualities parallel those of African-influenced traditional and folk forms in that like them, reggae includes a great deal of emotionalism, spiritual vitality and gnomic function. For instance, nowhere else in the world is the popular music a basically religious music. And nowhere else is the popular music an integral part of the people’s way of life as is reggae in Jamaica” (11-12).

This is also particularly interesting from a cultural perspective, because it means that Rastafarians all over the world, particularly present in the Jamaican Diaspora across the Americas, consider reggae music their own. Thus, reggae becomes truly a transnational music, not just because of its international popularity, but because, as Bilby states, it becomes more about a spiritual than a national identity (13).

Although there is a clear parallel between reggae and other Afro-Caribbean spiritual practices based on dance and music, such as Candomble, Santería, and Voudun; the music from those religions has not become popular worldwide. Not even in their own countries have they transcended the particular subcultures to which they belong to and crossed into the mainstream. In that, reggae is undoubtedly unique. As Isaac Fergusson points out in his article “So Much Things to Say”: The Journey of Bob Marley, Rastafarian musicians saw music as the medium through which they spread their message to the entire world.

Artists like Bob Marley and the Wailers were immensely successful at this. In that same article, Fergusson quotes Jamaica’s ex-prime Minister Michael Manley commenting on this achievement: “Marley took what was a subculture in Jamaica and elevated it to a dominant culture. He took a folk art and he elevated it into a universal language of communication” (55). Fergusson also points out that the universality of the Rastafarian message, pro-black but not racist, was pivotal in allowing reggae as a music genre to transcend barriers of race, color, class, and, I would add, nationality or even ethnicity (55). It still remains clear, however, as Lester Bangs points out in his article How to Learn to Love Reggae, that the varieties of musical genres that have emerged from Jamaican rhythms are more or less accepted by outsiders depending on their “level of tolerance for the musical other … from styles close to American soul to very African drums” (76).

Because it is such an African-identified rhythm, particularly with its connection to Rastafarian spirituality and repatriation ideals, reggae was at first a marginalized music genre in Jamaica. Upper class Jamaicans disapproved of it and associated it with a criminal urban lower class, dangerous behavior, and violence. In her article Reggae, Rastafarianism, and Cultural Identity, Verena Reckord states that Bob Marley did not expect reggae to become popular internationally, because in the beginnings so many were trying to hold back the genre’s popularity. She also points out that the success of reggae and its stars is a “self-perpetuating Garveyist prophecy” that has “encouraged artists like Brazil’s Gilberto Gil, Zimbabwe’s Thomas Mapfumo, and Gil Scott-Heron to explore their African roots” (xxviii). Thus we see that the acceptance and growth of reggae had a subversive effect, not only with black musicians in Jamaica, but around the world.


Perhaps one of the largest worldwide influences of Jamaican music comes from the 1960s practice of Jamaican DJs who, at sound systems, talked over the rhythms of popular songs, stripped from the vocals into pure beats. It is said that this practice, known as toasting, was taken to New York, where it became rap (Lelland 187). Rapping spread from there to cross-fertilize numerous music styles the world over. Back in Jamaica dancehall became the rage in the 1970s and ‘80s, particularly ragamuffin style, in which lyrics were rapped over electronic beats, often created through sampling.

Dancehall is the faster and barer descendant of reggae, with often violent ragga-rapped lyrics, of famous performers, such as Yellow Man, Shabba Ranks, Ninjaman, Mad cobra, and Buju Banton. The dancehall movement was centered around urban daily life struggles. In his article When Rap Meets Reggae, John Lelland quotes a dancehall artist saying the style was “all about the hard core: survival, facts of life” (187). Lelland, writing in 1992, calls dancehall “the vernacular, often sexually nasty sound of Jamaican dance clubs … that has become harder, simpler … and more conspicuously market wise.” He also states that dancehall “all but eclipsed the more spiritual ‘cool reggae’ of Marley … as kids became less Afrocentric and more New York-centric” (187).

Dancehall, ragga, and rap, in countless fused and refused styles, quickly spread around the world in the last decades of the 20th Century. As Louis Chude-Sokei states in his article, Postnationalist Geographies: Rasta, Ragga, and Reinventing Africa, in Jamaica and the Afro-Caribbean diaspora “the narratives of dancehall investigate the … street-level intricacies of a postcolonial underclass navigating a global network of immigrant communities” (218). A similar reality was rapped about by youngsters in Latin America and other Third World countries, as well as by the inner city minority youth in developed nations.

Although there has always been a more or less strong presence of socially conscious rappers, reggae, and hip hop artists, particularly in the Jamaica of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the dancehall lyrics focused on gun talk, gangs, crime, “ghetto morality”, and “graphic depictions of murder” or “very explicit and pornographic details of the bedroom” (218). Chude-Sokei argues that although “outsiders tend to find these narratives rude, crude, scatological,” the truth is they only reflect a lived reality. I would have to argue that music, like any other art form, not only defends but influences and, in this case, condones and perpetuates a particular reality. When it came to ‘90s dancehall lyrics, gun violence, physical and sexual aggression, and homophobia, raged rampant.

Nonetheless, Chude-Sokei presents very interesting thoughts about how it came to be that Jamaican youth and their popular music strayed away from the ideals popularized by roots reggae. He points out that the Rastafarian principles early reggae musicians preached about were drastically out of touch with Jamaican youth’s quotidian experiences. The emerging music reflected rebellion as Rastafarianism began to lose momentum. Chude-Sokei argues that for the youth of the time, Africa was less important – in fact it got “on the way of contemporary Third World ghetto life.” He quotes a British rudie that told him: “Africa nah go mek me bullet proof.” This reality spread from “gun-loud poverty Kingston” to South London to “that place Raymond Williams located as the center of the modern exile – New York City” (219). Thus it appealed to youth not only in Africa and Latinoamerica, but in what feminist scholars have termed “the Third World within the First World.” I can’t help but wonder, could raw exposure of oppressive lifestyles, even as it seems to exalt them, also be a form of protest?

In his article, Chude-Sokei skillfully depicts his perception of the sound-scape of cultural identity created by the dancehall reality about which inner city youth the world over rapped:

“Here we can witness an attempt to connect the various points of black/Afro-Caribbean disembarkation into one transnational, commodity-based space. One postnationalist city of blackness – but with many, many, suburbs. Maybe this is the only Zion possible: a place where the subversion and redefinition of First World Technology and the loosening bands of racial/nationalist ideologies allow dancehall to create a new ‘Africa’ within the postmodern networks of multinational capital; a virtual ‘black’ community informed by the very arbitrariness of the racial signifier itself. And, like the Rastafari before them, they use sound to invent this space of black belonging. Sound which conveys cultural and historical meanings encoded in beats, grooves, and samples: digitalized culture production” (221).

I find it important to point out that the discourse presented by these dancehall narratives was particularly aggressive towards women. It was charged with explicit depictions of sexuality and testaments to male domination. The mostly male rappers were most certainly concerned with the female body, often perceived as dangerously alluring or even threatening. Chude-Sokei argues that Jamaican dancehall youth saw the black female body as “an aggressive and predatory figure to be guarded against and in some cases catered to” (222). The music, he says, articulated a world “devoid of sentimentality or intimacy.” He presents poignant examples of dancehall lyrics of the time:

“titles raging from ‘Want a Virgin’ and ‘Love Punaany Bad’ (Punaany it is so nice/Punaany it is so slick/Come put your lips on a twelve inch d**k), and …. horrific celebrations of male sexual aggression (‘Me ram it and jam it till the girl start to vomit’)” (223).

Chude-Sokei argues that to “Western liberal feminists … these lyrics … seem very sexist and objectifying of women” because they are “boldly heterosexual and disdainful of bourgeois sentimentality.” However, he argues, it is a form of power, which he describes as a rare and prized commodity in postcolonial reality. He further states that “it allows [women] the freedom and security to navigate in and around a world of beauty, violence, and economic privation” (222). In fact, he states that women purchased most albums and thus set pace for the market, and even that women who picked up the mike only sustained the discourse by demanding that their men “ride and provide” (223).

I don’t deny that sexual attraction can be yielded as a form of power – and the dancehall discourse of obsession with controlling the female body certainly reeks of fear. However, the truth is that a widespread mentality of not mire admiration but outright possession of women’s bodies and sexualities (not to mention the simplification of whole women to mere bodies and sexualities) is no fertile land from which to harvest the ability, much less the freedom, to navigate the world with any semblance of safety, security, or integrity. Why should women settle for such demeaning illusions of power?


Of course, the spread of reggae and its popularity beyond Jamaican borders, quickly created a number of reinterpretations and fusions that pushed the boundaries of what was considered reggae. I grew up in Panama, where there is a strong Afro-Caribbean presence. The country is now home to the descendants of numerous Jamaicans who migrated to the country, particularly during the construction of the Panama Canal. Not surprisingly, in the 1990s one of the popular rhythms on the streets in Panama was homegrown reggae. We called it plena (not the Puerto Rican rhythm) or regué (written phonetically in Spanish, as the accent was placed on the last, not the first syllable). I have now come to understand it was actually an offshoot of what Jamaicans called dancehall. The reggae and rap being performed by Panamanian artists like Nando Boom and Chico Man, and to a certain extent even Puerto Rican hip hop rapper Vico C, was unique because its lyrics were in Spanish. Thus, it has also come to be known as Spanish reggae or Spanish dancehall. One Panamanian musician in particular, El General, became internationally famous with a distinctive calypso influenced style of rapped reggae, and international hit songs, such as Te Ves Buena and Muevelo.

Just a few years earlier, much further South in Argentina, reggae had mutated into another similar Latin version, sometimes denominated reggae rock. It dates as far back as the ‘80s and ‘90s bands Sumo and Todos Tus Muertos, but became particularly famous with the success of Los Pericos, who sold record albums and placed international hits like Me Late and Parate y Mira throughout the 1990s and into the 21st Century.

Another Argentinean band that reached international success is Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, interpreters of such international hits as Matador and Mal Bicho. Although they are known for mixing rock with other rhythms, such as reggae, cumbia, punk, samba, and salsa, they are perhaps best identified for their fusion with ska. Cadillacs, however pivotal, is only one of the many bands that have starred in the Latin ska phenomenon, with internationally renowned bands such as Venezuelan Desorden Público, Maldita Vecindad from Mexico. Although ska was rather quickly replaced in its native Jamaica by many rhythms that followed it in sequence, it clearly found fertile soil, not just in the U.S. and Europe, but also in Spanish speaking Latinoamerica.

There are a few more internationally successful Latin reggae and roots reggae bands that deserve to be mentioned here. One of them is Puerto Rican Cultura Profética, whose first album was recorded in Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong studios and whose social and political protest lyrics continue reggae’s legacy, adding a 21st Century environmental consciousness spin. There is also the Chilean band Gondwana, as well as Argentinean band Los Cafres, just t mention a few.

Meanwhile in Panama during the ‘90s and into the 2000s, the reggae-rapped-in-Spanish genre continued to flourish with a second and third generations of artists, such as a Aldo Ranks, Papa Chan, Ness, Kafu Banton, Danger Man, Wassabanga, DJ Black, and Jam & Suppose. Their music was still characterized by violent lyrics, but it was soon followed by the beginnings of what is today known as romantic style, with artists such as Tommy Real and El Roockie.

Meanwhile, a slightly more hip-hop influenced genre continued to develop in Puerto Rico, known as underground, with artist like Ivy Queen and DJ Playero (in fact, I have been told that the genre as a whole was known as “playero” in Honduras at the time). By the late ‘90s Panamanian musicians, such as El Chombo, Lorna, Los Cracker Jacks, and La Factoría, produced the first large scale international hits, such as the singles Papi Chulo and El Gato Volador, and the Los Cuentos de la Cripta albums. By the mid 1990s a new genre, called reggaeton had emerged in Puerto Rico. It mixed their reggae-hip-hop “underground” and Panamanian Spanish-reggae “plena” utilizing a particular beat known as Dem Bow. The beat comes from a 1991 dancehall song by Shabba Ranks, but was popularized in Puerto Rico by Panamanian artists, such as Nando Boom, who utilized it after El General recorded a Spanish version of Shabba Ranks song, called Son Bow.

Reggaeton became an international hit through all of Latin America and the U.S after the success of N.O.R.E.’s single Oye Mi Canto quickly followed by Daddy Yankee’s Gasolina in 2004. As far as discussion of pan-Latin identity in the U.S., Oye Mi Canto, is a tangible example (or tactful marketing scheme, depending on interpretation) of a growing identification between Latinos of different nationalities. The song calls out women to women from numerous Latinoamerican nations with a list of gentile nouns. Honoring long lived stereotypes of Latinos obsessions with the curvy female body, the song’s popular music video showcased a line of Latinoamerican flags, each with a bikini clad woman standing next to it.

In 2005, the reggaeton phenomenon continued to grow as Shakira recorded a reggaeton remix version of her hit song La Tortura. Soon afterwards, other Puerto Rican reggaeton artists placed numerous international hit songs; including, Tego Calderón, Don Omar, Wisin y Yandel, Tito El Bambino, Héctor El Father, and Nina Sky. Meanwhile Panamanian artists continued to lead with what became “romantic style” reggaeton with artists such as Makano and Flex. For another interesting side line, when considering cross-cultural racial issues, I will mention that Flex is known as Niga in Panama, but changed his stage name once his international career was launched – arguably to avoid controversy in the U.S. over the use of the term, particularly considering he is not black.


Dub is the most recent Jamaican style to have conquered the world. It started when producers began working with reggae or dancehall tracks, taking out the vocal track, and laying over (or dubbing) pieces of lyrics, original or otherwise. Soon, producers where manipulating all the tracks in a song, deconstructing it and reconstructing it in remixes often characterized by constant reverberation and unexpected changes. Chris Potash calls it “the result of producers playing their mixing tables like instruments” and quotes Luke Ehrilich commenting that “ if reggae is Africa in the New World, then dub must be Africa on the moon” (xxv). In his article Instrument of Expression, Greg Kot points that dub “is the spice that flavors” the most significant musical innovations and movements of the 1990s, from techno to trance, from trip-hop to alternative rock (149). Dub, he states, “evokes an alternative world, a suspension of time, a complete reconfiguration of musical space” (150).

The global scale phenomena Jamaican popular rhythms and innovations have been initiating for decades now, are particularly good examples of what Kenneth Billby labels “the tension between local identity and globalizing trends.” From Indian bhangramuffin, to British drum & bass, to Latin reggaeton, non-Jamaicans have appropriated Jamaican music and trends, and remade them into music forms that represent and reaffirm their own (sub)cultural identities. In the case of Latin-America, reggae and the styles it influenced, are up there with Salsa, merengue, and cumbia, when it comes to widespread popularity. Furthermore, like bachata, banda, samba and tango, reggae has come a long way from its marginalized origins. In this case, its was not a marginalization caused by a rural vs urban antagonism; but due to social class and racial struggles, with a unique plot of religious oppression to universal dissemination. Whether it be with its spiritual fervor, with its raw depiction of urban working class life, or reaching out to a 21st Century electronic generation, reggae has been and will remain an integral part, not just of Jamaican culture, but of pan-Latin identity.

lunes, 14 de junio de 2010

Traditional and Hybrid Music Crossing Class and Generational Boundaries on This and That Side of the Mexican-American Border

The rise of the quebradita dance, to what Helena Simonett, author of Banda: Mexican Musical Life Across Boders, calls technobanda took place in California during the 1990s. Quebradita was danced to a mixture of northwest Mexican music, such as banda and tambora, and other Caribbean rhythms, such as cumbia, played with electronic, rather than the previously standard acoustic instruments, and tropical instruments, such as congas. The dance itself was largely influenced by American swing and two-step, featuring almost acrobatic lifts, and a characteristic move in which the man tilts the woman backwards, the quebradita, which literally means little break. The phenomenon gave Mexican-American youth a music to call their own, fostered a sense of community, and allowed them the opportunity to feel proud of both their Mexican heritage and their dual cultural identity. The vaquero outfit, with its jeans, riding boots, and tejana hat was an important symbol of this identity (for themselves and for outsiders who could read it as a sign), as well as required clothing for quebradita dancing gin L.A. clubs during the ‘90s (64).

This phenomenon was particularly significant at a time of economic decline in California in which Hispanic immigrants were often target of racism and xenophobia. An informant Simonett interview at an L.A. nightclub for her book stated: “To say that there is Latino pride in El Puente tonight would be an understatement. It’s more like a cultural revolution. We’re Mexican, speak Spanish, dance quebradita and are damn proud of it” (80). His statement makes it clear that , at least for Latinos, the music you dance to defines who you are in terms of ethnic and cultural identity as much as the passport you hold and the language you speak.

Banda, a minority’s music within the U.S., has its roots in marginal musical expressions even within Mexican society. Simonett states that scholars have historically disregarded the music of the Mexican northwest, and that “even in more recent works on Mexican popular music, the northwestern states are either ignored or subsumed within the vast north” (9). Simonett states that people in Mexico City often thought of banda music as vulgar and lower class. In fact, she was once asked why she was not studying some “nice Mexican music such as mariachi” (130). Clearly, the traditional music of the northwestern states did not fall within the discourse of “national folklore” the upper classes in central Mexico had defined as official and institutionalized. It was not considered reputable music, at least until it became popular and commercially successful abroad. Simonett compares this process of overcoming local prejudice through outside approval to what happened to bachata en Dominican Republic and tango in Argentina (18-19).

The fact is that falling outside of the official cannon of folklore musical traditions, has left these “music of the people” genres free to adapt to the changing times and morph as social and cultural factors do, particularly in a today’s globalized world. I have noticed that, along with process of acceptance through outside approval, there are also ongoing processes of assimilation through “techno-ization.”. That is, banda became popular with Mexican-American youth after replacing the traditional acoustic instruments with an all electronic set, which Simonett refers to as technobanda, just like Deborah Pacini Hernández referred to tecno-bachata in her book Bachata: A Social History of a Dominican Popular Music. It also brings to mind the early ‘90s hit by Selena, the queen of Tex-Mex, precisely titled Technocumbia, one of many technocumbia hit songs of hers and other ‘80s and ‘90s musicians. Another parallel process is that of the popularization of punta-rock in Honduras, off traditional Garifuna music, particularly after the song Sopa de Caracol by Banda Blanca became internationally popular, also in the ‘90s.

In the case of Mexican and Mexican-American banda and norteña music, the step from lower class stigmatized genre into mainstream popularity was largely aided by mass media. Californian radio stations, the record industry, and television, especially Televisa in Mexico and Univisión, its co-owned U.S. network, all played a major role. In her book, Simonett does not miss the opportunity to point out that Televisa actually owns Melody Records, which is affiliated with Musivisa, a label that signs norteña grupos and bandas. It is, therefore, no surprise that they have helped promote numerous musical groups.

Banda, tex-mex, and norteño, hybrids of regional music genres that became transnational, have been able to create a new narrative of identity that embraces the realities of Mexicans, Central Americans, and second generation Hispanic-Americans in the Southwestern states, such as California and Texas. Therefore, they have been widely accepted across nationalities in the Hispanic U.S. community and remain largely popular within the youth today. Current consumers this side of the border, however, are often unaware of the traditional, noncommercial, regional music genres from which these new hit styles originated, or of their association with the lower socioeconomic classes in peripheral states such as Sinaloa and Durango, which are in turn commonly associated with drug trafficking in popular lore (95).

sábado, 15 de mayo de 2010

Urban, Immigrant, Pan-Latin Identity and Sociopolitical Issues in Salsa Music

What is Salsa?

The Cuban band leader and composer, Dámaso Pérez Prado, known as the King of Mambo, once stated that there was no such thing as Salsa. Famed Cuban percussionist, Tito Puete, who perhaps ironically starred with the quintessential group of early Salsa musicians, Fania All Stars, not only agreed with Pérez Prado, stating that the only salsa he knew was sold in a bottle called ketchup, he further added: “Yo toco música cubana” [What I play is Cuban music.]” [1]

Although closely associated to Cuban son, in fact, claimed by many to be one and the same, Salsa is also claimed by Puerto Ricans as their own. In fact they presented a concert in Expo 92 in Seville, Spain titled “Puerto Rico es Salsa [Puerto Rico is Salsa].”[2] Personally, I agree with accomplished Nuyorican musician, Willie Colón, in that, historically speaking, Salsa as we know it today emerged in the U.S. in the 1970s. Colón considers Salsa to be “una suma armónica de toda la cultura latina reunida en Nueva York [a harmonic sum of all Latin culture that meets in New York].”[3] It is undeniable, however, that regardless of its heritage and birthplace Salsa has long been a global/transnational phenomenon.

In her book, Listening to Salsa: Gender, Latin Popular Music, and Puerto Rican Cultures, Frances R. Aparicio states that because of its semantic polyvalence contingent on the cultural context in which it is listened to, produced, and performed, this particular music, fluid in its social values and cultural meanings, [Salsa] eludes a fixed definition” (66). Furthermore, she argues that it is precisely the plurality of ideologies, discourses, locations, and concepts of Salsa which enhance its value as “as metaphor for national identity, difference, hybridity, and oppositionality” (68). Aparicio also claims that Salsa exists simultaneously in two conflicting realities: as a central aspect of Puerto Rican society, and as a marginalized cultural Other in the United States. Thus, she suggest that need “for a postmodern approach to understanding current forms of Afro-Caribbean music, that is, an analysis that considers Salsa in its ideological plurality: as national discourse, as international mass culture, and a continuing double-edged value as culturally appropriated musical form in the United States” (61).

Although I acknowledge these issues, in order to limit the scope of exploring a phenomenon as broad as Salsa, this essay is not concerned with finding the authentic national origins of Salsa; tracing its history and key players; or dissecting the appropriation or colonialist othering of Salsa in the first-world mainstream discourse. Instead I have chosen to work within the following definition of Salsa (spelled with a capital letter, precisely to differentiate it from the sauce): “a syncretic cultural expression” of the urban working-class, “central to Latina/o urban communities in the United States and across Latin America” (Aparicio 68). I will mostly concern myself with exploring Salsa as Rubén Blades defines it: “un folclor urbano a nivel internacional [urban folklore at the international level]” (as cited in Aparicio 65).

As a feminist cultural scholar, I am interested in the gender, race, and class issues present in the historical development and present circumstances of the genre. As a Latina immigrant in the U.S.,I am also concerned with the role Salsa plays in the U.S. “as a Pan-Latino expression of cultural hybridity and resistance” (Aparicio 66), and as a source of connection with immigrants’ cultural heritage. For example, Aparicio cites in her book a Puerto Rican immigrant in Michigan who states: “the music reminds me of Puerto Rico.” The author adds: “These phrases ,most revealing of the multisensorial associations that the act of listening provokes … stand as a compelling testimony to the role of Salsa music as a bridge between a trans- or dislocated present and a past home … the sense of familiarity that these formulas evoke for colonized peoples, such as Puerto Ricans and Latinas/os in the United States” (91)

Aparicio reflects on the past and present sociocultural and political context of Salsa in the U.S. and abroad when she states that it:

“becomes a metaphor for race, class, and gender conflicts within the diverse Puerto Rican communities (the island and the diasporas), as well as across Latin America, the United States, and the international scene. While Salsa has been identified as the music of the urban, working-class black and mulatto sectors in Puerto and historically rejected as such by the upper classes on the island, in the United States it has functioned as a cohesive force among latinos in general, syncretizing, in fact, an array of Latin American musical styles into its repertoire.” (66)

Salsa as Pan-Latin Urban Folklore

According to Aparicio, the fact that Salsa originated in the 1970s in New York, is “evidence that it was a social result of the gradual industrialization and migratory movements from rural areas to urban centers that have characterized many Latin American countries through the second half of the twentieth century … Historically, then, Salsa is the music of the immigrant and the urban working class” (81). As César Miguel Rondón has documented, Salsa also functioned as the music of the urban poor all over the Caribbean, including islands such as Puerto Rico and Cuba, but also the mainland countries that surround it, such as Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela (as cited in Aparicio 81).

Thus, Salsa lyrics, from the 1970s to the present, have often included political commentary and dealt with urban social issues, including street violence, as attested by many famous songs immortalized by Héctor Lavoe, Willie Colón, and Rubén Blades, such as Calle Luna Calle Sol, Pedro Navaja, Buscando América, Decisiones, and Plástico . Aparicio states that “while much commercialized Salsa repertoire has been influenced by the romantic ballad since the 1980s, the most important salseros – El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, Willie Colón , Rubén Blades, Celia Cruz, Ismael Rivera, Ismael Miranda, Cheo Feliciano, Ray Barretto, Héctor Lavoe – have consistently responded to historical events and social issues that affect Latina/o communities” (82). She argues that these artists speak to “the collective realities of Latina/os in the United States and Latin America,” despite their ideological differences. “Their songs,” as she states “ether address race, gender, and class conflicts or reaffirm cultural practices usually marginalized, such as santería and other African-based traditions.” (82)

Salsa and Caribbean Cultural Identity

In Listening to Salsa, Aparicio highlights a number of Salsa music elements identified with Latino cultural heritage and values. For example, she cites Angel Quintero Rivera’s allusions that the jamming-improvisational style sessions or sections typical of Salsa performances known as descargas “may be constructed as an instance of freedom … virtuosity, and creativity.”[4] She also points out that “the perception that many cultural outsiders have of this type of music – that it is primitive, loud, chaotic, and subversive – constitute historical repetitions of the same vestigial fears expressed b the Spanish colonial government about the performance on drums by African slaves in Cuba” (83-4).

Another example, is the section of Salsa songs in which the singer improvises within a call-and-response structure with the chorus, known as soneo. Aparicio equates its loose improvisational format with freedom and spontaneity. She also points out that the call-and-response structure “is a trait that represents continuity with older forms of Afro-Caribbean musical folklore and with West African music.” Perhaps, more importantly, the chorus section “allows Salsa music to articulate a collective voice … and to establish a dialogic texture.” Finally, she points out that the singer improvises on the theme of the song by creating “new utterances” and also rearticulating “phrases from others songs or various traditions.” Thus, “the singer opens up a sonorous space of freedom, improvisation, and innovation, clinging simultaneously to musical tradition and reaffirming collective memory” (84).

Finally, Aparicio points out to the “polyrhythmic basis of Afro-Caribbean music embodied in the clave – a rhythmic pattern of 3-2 or 2-3 set against a 4-beat measure and performed by the clave sticks” as an “equally oppositional and dialogic element in Salsa” (89). She concludes then that the call-and-response structure, the intertextuality of improvised lyrics, they polyrhythmic nature, and the performance of Salsa, “constitute the material embodiment of a plural, nonindividualist (read anticapitalist), yet free site of artistic expression, a multivocal locus, musically speaking” (91).

I would like to add that such an collectivist, pluralistic, and spontaneous nature is not only characteristic of Salsa music, but of many other aspects and expressions of Latin cultures and communities. Perhaps because of this, Salsa has managed to construct for itself a niche of Pan-Latin identity that cuts across national, class, gender, and race boundaries in Latin-America and the Latin diaspora like no other musical form or cultural expression. As such, it was unavoidable for Salsa to become an anchor to the homeland and symbol of Latin identity for Latino/as who have migrated to the U.S. and other first world countries. This shared nostalgic connection to music as cultural heritage is perhaps best identified by the internationally famous song Mi Tierra, from Gloria Stefan’s first all Spanish CD, of the same title, in which she states she “hears the drums” of the beloved homeland she left behinds and misses painfully.

Race and Class Issues

As we have seen has been the case for many other Latin music genres, the Afro-Puerto Rican plena and bomba, which largely influenced the development of Salsa, were “by the turn of the century … historically and discursively marginalized, erased, and dismissed as música de negros (music of Blacks),” in a process that negated “the racial hybridity of the Puerto Rican people as well as the basic processes from which its transcultural manifestations emerge” ( Aparicio 27). Nowadays, however, Salsa has been accepted by the Puerto Rican, and other Latin-American, upper class and dominant sectors as a valid musical style representative of national/ethnic culture. Aparicio argues that this is due largely ot the globalization and international popularity of Salsa. She states that it was only embraced locally after it had acquired “visibility – audibility, we may say – among European audiences.” “This reception, a posteriori,” she points out, “signals a colonialist structure of cultural circulation: the music is produced locally yet remains in the margins; then it is exported and mainstreamed by foreign audiences, to return with the endorsement of others. Like the transatlantic circulation of the tango and the analogous development, Salsa music has been mainstreamed in Puerto Rico because of its newly found international westernized legitimacy.” (73-4)

Aparicio also points out that the process that has popularized and validated Salsa at home and abroad, has also often tried to “whiten” it. For example, she explains how it has been sometimes recontextualized as concert music, “to be only listened to, unidirectionally consumed as another commodity.” However, she argues that the danceability of Salsa as a social festive encounter has prevailed. As “Salsa concertgoes will notice,” she states “whenever a Latina/o audience is present, there I dancing in the aisles and in any available open space within the confines of the theater or auditorium” (97). Nonetheless, in the constant tension between what is considered classical and what is considered popular music, Salsa has yet to earn a respected position for its own musical value. As Aparicio affirms:

“music educators have generally focused and trained students to read music, insisting that such training is the only valid method for becoming a musician, but improvisational skills also require training and practice. This ‘differential’ expertise, rarely valued and in fact repressed in conservatories and music programs, requires a different kind of training based on practice ,ear, pitch, acuity in rhythm, and most important, a true sense of dialogue with other members of the group. A collective sound emerges from the dialectic balance of improvisatory freedom and formulaic entrenchment.” (84-5)

Mass Media and Authenticity

Many argue that Salsa emerged as a commercialized and diluted version of authentic Caribbean musical forms. Aparicio argues that “the tensions between hegemony and resistance in Salsa music stem basically from its modes of production and dissemination. For better or for worse and unlike its folkloric antecedents transmitted orally, Salsa, like all contemporary popular music, is as part of mass culture” (92).She continues,“Salsa … brings to the foreground issues of cultural authenticity … rejected by … scholars … For years, the metropolis has critiqued the nationalism emerging from the colonized countries, yet it simultaneously appropriates these very nationalist-informed expressions” (114). The entire issue, however, is based on a failed logic that opposes authenticity/national folklore to commercialism/mass culture.

As Aparicio states, “to reify Salsa music as merely a victim or object of hegemony is virtually to preempt its powers for creativity, cultural resistance and reaffirmation, and possibly social change. And to sort Salsa music as either ‘commercial’ or ‘sociopolitical’ is, again, another reifying practice that takes into account only the moment of initial production or the isolated text and that fails to consider listening practices and the larger sociopolitical context within which ha musical performance is embedded” (93). Salsa musicians, Aparicio affirms, have “reappropriated the tools of the master – technology – to reaffirm the musical and cultural presence of the marginalized.” “Indeed, to speak about technology and about media only as hegemony,” she continues, “… is to miss the strategic appropriations of that media by marginalized sectors, a process that historically has led to innovation and experimentation and to new traditions” (34).


Salsa, as the heir to previously repressed Afro-Caribbean musical genres, and the cultural torch of contemporary urban Latino/as in their home countries or abroad, presents and represents political issues, cultural values, and social realities. In its multiple forms and contexts, it becomes, as Aparicio so eloquently explores in her book, “the cultural locus through which gender politics, sexuality, and cultural identity are continuously defined and redefined, contested, negotiated, and ultimately, even internalized” (238).

[1] Both Tito Puente and Dámaso Pérez Prado citations from Aparicio, p. 65.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Angel Quintero Rivera , Music, Social Class, and the National Question in Puerto Rico (Rio Piedras: University of Puerto Rico, Centro de Investigaciones Sociales, 1987).

lunes, 10 de mayo de 2010

Dominican Bachata: Another Cinderella

Deborah Pacini Hernandez’s book, Bachata: A Social History of a Dominican Popular Music, is the third book I have read this semester with the rags to riches narrative of a marginalized music genre that becomes socially accepted if not emblematic of national identity. The author conducted her research in the 80s and early 90s. Up through the ‘80s bachata had been “thoroughly rejected and stigmatized by mainstream Dominican society” (p. xxii). During her first years in the Dominican republic, she found that “Dominicans were reluctant to accept bachata as a legitimate music form and that listening to bachata was considered incompatible with their desired self-presentation” (p. xiv). She states that when she asked some of her friends about bachata, they told her it was “a guitar-based Dominican form of music listened to and made by uneducated campesinos (country people) and the urban poor”(p. xiii).

In other cases explored thus far in this blog of the music of the oppressed being absorbed or appropriated by the dominant group, the issue has centered largely around race and the denial of African cultural roots. However, in the case of bachata, it was much more of a class and social issue of the urban vs rural/newly-urban or the lower vs the middle/upper class.

For example, Pacini Hernandez states that “dictionaries of Latin American Spanish define the term bachata as juerga, jolgorio, or parranda, all of which denote fun, merriment, a good time, or a spree … get-togethers that include music, drink, and food”(p. 7). This is not the only case in which the same term is utilized to refer to a party than to a type of music in Latin America – which makes me think of how truly inseparable the concept of “celebration” is from music and dancing in Latin America. I wonder, for example, whether the term rumba for example was also first used to refer to a party and then to the music genre or viceversa. In any case, Pacini Hernandez reaffirms the lower status conception of bachata by pointing out that in Dominican Republic “the word bachata also had certain class associations; upper-class parties would never be called bachatas” (p. 8).

Pacini Hernandez also ventures that the actual development of bachata was due to the new realities of migration to the city. “In the 60s,” she explains, “massive rural to urban migrations sent thousands of peasants into urban areas. Unable to find employment, people of rural origins were condemned to working for subsistence in the informal sector ad to residence in shantytowns, where traditions patterns of making music were transformed by the urban experience” (p. 32). Like many other music genres often associated with lower class in Latin America, such as tipico in Panama, bachata found its particular niches: like popular working-class bars and private parties. Pacini Hernandez’ argues, for example, that while bachata encountered “stiff competition from foreign music on the radio, the field was wide open in terms of live performances ... For example, the fiestas patronales (patron saints’ festivals) of towns of villages all over the country” (p. 80).

However, by the ‘90s and in part because of the release of Juan Luis Guerra’s, a well-respected and sophisticated musician, album Bachata Rosa and its worldwide success, bachata had become a popular and well accepted genre across Dominican society (p. xxii). Pacini Hernandez states that as “well-educated, middle class musicians like Juan Luis Guerra” started producing “sophisticated versions” of bachata, with different instrumentation and arrangements, they were differentiated from the “low-status, street-level, originals by being called tecno-bachata” (p. 15). If she labels Juan Luis Guerra tecno-bachata, I can’t imagine what she would think of today’s much more fast paced, urban-flavored, and synthesized bachata.

Pacini Hernandez’s book was published in 1995. Since then bachata’s popularity has transcended the Dominican borders and become a world wide phenomenon, with crossovers in other countries such as Colombia, Mexico and the U.S. In the NY based Latino music industry it has also become closely related to current music rage, reggaeton. In order to reflect contemporary popular lore, I will take the liberty of quoting from Wikipedia’s current entry on bachata (music):

Aventura, based in New York City, is today the best known bachata group. Their 2002 single "Obsesión" dominated airwaves in Latin America countries, the US Hispanic market, and Caribbean Spanish speaking Islands. Other popular modern artists include Toby Loe, Monchy y Alexandra, Andy Andy, Antony Santos, Zacarias Ferrerira, Luis Vargas, and Xtreme. (retrieved May 10, 2010)

Many aspects of bachata seem to have remained the same since its origins decades ago. For example, Pacini Herandez describes the sinuous bachata dance as consisting “of an alternating “one-two-three-kick” pattern, in which the “kick” is a toe step or a small hop” (p. 7), which is exactly how it is danced today. Again, Wikipedia’s entry on bachata (dance) describes (very accurately, in my experience) the contemporary step thus:

Counts 1 through 3 and 5 through 7, when taken, generate a natural hip motion. Counts 4 and 8, consists of a “pop” movement. The "pop" depending on a person’s style is executed lifting or tapping a foot or using stylish footwork while popping the hip to the side opposite of the natural Cuban hip motion. Bachata music has a slight accent in rhythm at every fourth count, indicating when the “pop” should happen. Note: The “pop” will always be done in the opposite direction of the last step, while the next step will be taken on the same direction of the pop. The dance direction will interchange at every 4th count.

However, other aspects of the genre have undergone significant changes in the past decades. For example, Pacini Hernandez states that “when the first bachata songs were recorded in the early 1960s, they were still unequivocally part of the broad, Pan-Hispanic tradition of romantic song … usually modeled after the quintessentially romantic bolero, they tended to be highly emotional expressions of lost and unrequited love” (p. 158). She argues that by the 1980s the most common themes had shifted to lust, sex, deception, bars and drinking (p. 159). The lyrics suggested “that women were unreliable because they had no sense of self-control and therefore could not resist sexual desire.” She points out that “the idea of women’s sexuality as a potentially dangerous natural force that can only be controlled by containment was part of the culturally baggage inherited from the country’s Spanish/Mediterranean colonizers.” Her argument for the rise of non-romantic lyrics is that it was caused by the changes in family structure and gender roles that came about with immigration to the cities and women joining the work force. On page 66, she states: “Women’s sexuality had been kept under control in the confines of patriarchal rural home and community settings but was unleashed when they discovered freedom of movement in the city.” She adds that “In bachata, men could also compensate for their inability to control women by bragging and other sorts of posturing that reaffirmed their masculine authority” (p. 167). Finally, she grants that “while we must consider the verbal denigration of women as a form of violence, physical violence towards women was seldom if ever mentioned in song texts. When physical violence was mentioned, it was directed at other men” (p. 168).

The truth is I came to known bachata for the first time in the 00’s and the style of bachata that has become internationally popular is characterized, once again, by romantic lyrics. Reggaeton is the only urban contemporary genre I would consider to be more popular with contemporary Latino teenagers than bachata – which in my opinion have started to displace salsa and merengue which had been the uncontested favorite Caribbean rhythms for generations. Until very recently, reggaeton largely featured violent lyrics, aggressive or diminishing towards women, sexually charged, and often inciting to physical violence and guns. Bachata, was in fact, differentiated from reggaeton, not only because they are obviously different rhythms, but because of its romantic lyrics and formal (though close) embrace for dancing. In the past year or two, however, a new form or reggaeton, literally termed “romantic styled,” which also tends to downplay the hip hop influence that become dominant in reggaeton, while featuring fusion with other Latin danceable genres, such as cumbia or, of course, bachata.

Pacini Hernandez argues that “bachata clearly belongs with a category that Charles Keil has called ‘people’s music.’” Keil coined that term in his article “People’s music comparatively: Style and stereotypes, class and hegemony” published in Dialectical Anthropology in 1985, “to define a space between ‘folk’ (with its strong connotations of ‘rural,’ ‘illiterate’) and ‘popular’ (with its denotation today of ‘mass mediated’); … he also used the term ‘working-class music’” (p. 23). As we have seen in previous entries, most if not all of what we consider to be Latin music belongs to this genre, and emerged out of the fusion of Native America, African, and European music, which became popularized and co-opted by the local and international music industries in the ‘60s.

Although considered ethnic and picturesque, if not mistaken by folkloric music, by outsiders, many of the contemporary Latin music genres are also urban music genres. As Pacini Hernandez points out: “In Latin America, the simultaneous processes of migration, urbanization, and industrialization intensified in the 1960s, spawning a new generation of ‘people’s musics,’ which … emerged at a time when the recording and broadcast industries were promoting hegemonic middle-class-oriented popular musics – some of which, such as orquesta merengue in the Dominican Republic and later salsa throughout Latin America, had started out as ‘people’s musics’ themselves” (p. 232). This statement, however places an unnecessary dichotomy, in my opinion, between the music of el pueblo (the people) and marketable or commercial music. By Pacini Hernandez’s definition, in the 21st Century bachata has now joined the ranks of salsa and merengue and ceased to be “people’s music.” In fact, on page 38, she states: “ the term music of marginality ceases to be appropriate when a musical style created by musicians and fans who are economically and socially marginalized begins to be produced by the dominant elite and marketed to non-marginalized audiences”.

Is the popularization and commercialization of working-class music a form of cultural appropriation, then? What would that say of those of my generation who have grown up with salsa, merengue, cumbia, and bachata, not to mention reggaeton, as essential elements of our cultural Latin identity? I don’t feel the original creators of the genres been deprived of their music in any of this cases (although, yes, they have changed considerably while adapting to the mass market, but also just like all music genres form do through time), in fact I have found they are often proud of the fame the music their consider their own has achieved. Of course, both aspects of the issue are to be considered in a full picture, but ultimately the expansion of the popularity of bachata, and other such genres, from marginalized to fashionable, has increased a market that benefits Latin musicians, while at the same time fertilizing and supporting a national and sometimes pan-Latin identity for generations to come.