Salsa music, a product of New York, didn’t arrive on my earlobes as an American music but rather as the background music in various Tex-Mex joints around the Houston, Texas, area. It was Mexican, and existed on a fence of permissibility marred by its South-of-the-Border roots. Of course, salsa really has little to do with Mexico. Born in Cuba, the genre immigrated to Puerto Rico and then to New York where it became Americanized and codified. Like Latin jazz, which has remained outside of America’s musical scope due to its origins, salsa was primarily introduced to this country through Fania Records, a New York-based label releasing some of the 20th century’s more inspired tunes.
The names on Salsa Explosion!: The New York Salsa Revolution 1968-1985, a new “Fania Essential Recordings” release that compiles classic recordings from the label’s major artists, probably hover somewhere in your memory. Tito Puente, Larry Harlow, Alex Tobar, and Ray Barreto have all been used plentifully in soundtracks and commercials. Their music has been cemented in the public mind as an iconic product of Latino culture. Like most forms of culture, though, it’s a reflection of a reflection, transcribed by translators with little knowledge of the author’s voice. All these post-colonial yodelings across cultural and national boundaries, though, seem to have amplified the music’s robustness.
Percussionist and bandleader Mongo Santamaria had no problem taking the stylings of his native Cuba, Fela Kuti’s call-and-response chants, afro-beat drumming, and the influence of Coltrane’s Kulu Se Mama (Impulse, 1965) while bringing them all to New York stages in a coherent manner. Santamaria’s music makes cosmopolitan influences seem natural, if not propelled by their differences towards grandeur, and his inclusion here should come as no surprise.
Cleverly allowing listeners a few precious bars to suckle before its echoing choruses makes “Arsenio” one of Tito Puente’s sweetest works. The song has a surprisingly troubled narrator, though, whose alarmed calls reveal a nasty tension. Puente lets listeners ponder the goings ons before speeding up into the final, hyper-kinetic chorus ending in a fractured, cinematic flourish. The band leader’s music is like cake; you just want shovel spoonfuls of it in your mouth before it cracks your jaw with a(n un)pleasant surprise.
Conjuring up images of space-age bachelor pads, Alex Tobar’s “Pachito”was influenced by Les Baxter and other Americans exploring exotica in the 1950s. Salsa, like exotica, is a fusion music. But where exotica was an attempt to produce foreign music without foreigners, salsa’s authenticity derives from its adaptability with practitioners as far away as Africa, Chile, Thailand, and Tokyo. Salsa’s variety is part of the music’s durability; it desires to open up rhythms and to find new foreign tongues to slather over. Lacking the colonialist aspects of rock/pop music or a second world invention like reggae, salsa’s reinvent-able. It’s perhaps here that Salsa Explosion! finds its greatest problem, confining itself to just New York. Fania has produced salsa’s household names, but the music has produced countless quality tunes since the era detailed herein.Visit: Salsa Explosion | Strut
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