If you were to read a book or online article which narrated the history of salsa music, in every single one I guarantee you that you will find Cuba mentioned, in some way or another. Some stories will say that what was done in New York was nothing but a rehash of Cuban music from previous decades. Others will say that, although the roots of the music can be traced back to Cuba, salsa became its own phenomenon by combining elements from different musical traditions which were not all exclusive to Cuba.
Whichever the case, Cuba always gets mentioned.
So it has always baffled me to no end why songs performed by Cuban musicians are absent from most salsa DJs’ playlists, or why they don’t get played at salsa socials or congresses (this is not true for all events, but certainly for the majority). After all, mambo as a musical genre was created by the Cuban Dámaso Pérez Prado. Chachachá—or “Cha Cha”, as is known in the States—was a 1950s musical genre created by Cuban musician and composer Enrique Jorrín. And “guaguancó,” that word that I’ve seen take hold in the salsa/mambo community, goes back to the Afro-Cuban musical tradition of the secular rumba, of which guaguancó is a sub-genre, along with columbia and yambú.
Cuba’s presence in the music that you listen to is there, and the salsa scene borrows left and right from Cuba’s musical vocabulary. So the baffling question remains: why is music by Cuban musicians not being played at salsa congresses, when music from Colombia and Puerto Rico—the two other countries that salsa histories mention—is? Why this aversion towards Cuba and its music in the United States (and I specifically say the U.S. because Cuban music is heard all across Latin America)?
Honestly, I do not know. As I have stated, I am baffled by this. After all, isn’t Cuba part of the “Latin” community, too? All I can do is attempt to provide some possible explanations as to why this happens, based on my very own experience.
Nationalisms: Some DJs use their craft to express their identity and roots to their country of origin, or to the country to which they feel connected, if they were born in the U.S. So some DJs are very reluctant to play music that is not from their countries. A friend of mine once requested Cuban music to a Puerto Rican DJ, and his response was a decisive shake of his head, followed by, “I don’t play that Cuban stuff.” (Mind you, this particular DJ was playing at Bongo’s Cuban Café. Here is to irony.)
Embargo: What to do, then, with DJs from, say, Nicaragua or El Salvador who have no national stake or agenda when it comes to the music they play because the salsa narrative does not really pinpoint the emergence of salsa to their countries? That’s where the embargo comes in, or seems to come in. The more-than-half-a-century long U.S. embargo on Cuba has made it hard for Cuban music to get out of Cuba and into the U.S., even if Cuban musicians tour Latin America. This was particularly true up until the early 90s. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. relations with Cuba have progressively taken a turn for the better. Cuban musicians/bands like Los Van Van and Eliades Ochoa, who reside in the island of Cuba, have won Latin Grammys, hosted in the U.S., since its debut in 2000.
So with this influx of Cuban music coming into the U.S., and it being accepted and awarded within the United States, why are Cuban musicians still absent from DJs’ playlists at salsa socials/congresses? This leads me to the next possible reason:
All Cuban music is timba: This has to do with the embargo, too. When Cuban music abruptly stopped being imported into the United States, for decades after, Cuban music, to many Americans, was the stuff that was played in the U.S. prior to the Cuban Revolution of 1959. That’s why when Buena Vista Social Club came out it was such a success: because it tapped into that nostalgic—and honestly, quite outdated—conception of Cuban music. It fomented a way of experiencing Cuba as a land stopped in time, with half-a-century old Chevys and people dancing everywhere, or smoking prohibited cigars, to the sounds of blissful tropical music. Indeed, it is no coincidence that this documentary was produced by an American.
But from 1959 to the 90s, Cuba musicians never stopped producing music and evolving. So when relations became less strained between the U.S. and Cuba in the 90s, and music from the island began arriving once again to the U.S., it was so radically different that many people saw it as an abrupt departure from the stuff they thought—or remembered—Cuban music was. It was everything that Buena Vista Social Club was not. A new name emerged to explain these forty years of musical production in Cuba which had gone unnoticed in the U.S. due to the embargo: timba.
This “timba” is, of course, different from the music people in the U.S. have grown accustomed to dancing. In fact, most salsa/mambo dancers who are not used to the sound will find it difficult to dance to these songs. They would argue—and correctly so–that it does not have the same “feel” than that of what they call “salsa dura” or “mambo.” Here is an example of the type of music I am talking about:
Because Cuban music has been branded as “timba”—that is, music that is arguably unreachable to salsa dancers—in many places, Cuban music does not get played at salsa socials/congresses.
With these things in mind, we might have an explanation as to why Cuban music is not included in DJs’ playlists at salsa socials and congresses, or why people do not want to dance to it.
Yet, given all that Cuba has done for the music to which we listen and dance (again, remember that no history of salsa is complete without Cuba), would it not be fair to at least attempt to find a space for it at salsa events that is consistent with the preferences of salsa dancers and DJs alike?
I hope that you join me in saying that, “Yes, it would be fair,” and also, “That actually makes a lot of sense.”
So, to that end, I propose the following: think beyond timba—or, in this particular case, think before timba.
What do I mean by this? Well, take a listen to these songs:
Aren’t these song, arguably, something that most salsa dancers would have no problem whatsoever dancing to? As a person who regularly goes to salsa events, I cannot think of a reason why people would say they cannot dance to these songs. They are very much in par with the music to which salsa dancers are already accustomed to dancing.
And the music is Cuban. What is the difference between these songs and the “timba sound”? Simple: they are decades apart. This is Cuban music from the 50s and 60s (hence my suggestion: think before timba).
So why are songs like these not being played during salsa events?
Beats the heck out of me. The best thing I can come up with is: people simply don’t know that there is Cuban music beyond the label of timba.
But as you can see, there is. All you have to do is look for it—just like you look for music from other countries—and you’ll find it. Above, I have provided you with different songs, all of which can be downloaded either from iTunes or Amazon.com. But do not take it as an exhaustive list. Take it, instead, as a starting point.
No history of salsa is ever told without taking Cuba into account. Mambo, conga, timbal, clave, tumbao, montuno, guaguancó, chachachá, guaracha, pachanga, guajira—all these words borrowed from the Cuban musical tradition, whether you recognize all of them or not, have made into the lexicon of salsa dancers all around the globe.
Cuba is part of the history of salsa. Cuba is part of the vocabulary that we, as dancers, employ.
Let’s have Cuba be part of the music to which we listen and dance, too.
Note: Special thanks to Carlos Ramírez, Carlos Cardo, and Darwin Peña for helping me in compiling the list of songs used as examples.