Ok, I concede it’s a provocative title, but it’s a sentiment that I have heard a few dancers express to me when I’ve been talking to them about the local salsa scene here in Brisbane. Recently, I was talking to a good friend of mine, who is more of a zouk and kizomba dancer. I asked him why he thinks that people in the local scene tend to gravitate towards styles other than salsa. His response was that he doesn’t really like the music, and it just sounds like a bunch of noise to him. Another girl I was talking to went as far as to say that, to her, salsa music sounds like “someone banging on a tin can“. I found this interesting, because that’s not what I hear at all when I listen to salsa music. To me, salsa music is very complex, multi-layered, diverse, and stimulating. However, not everyone hears it that way. When I probe a little deeper into what sort of salsa these people are listening to, and which socials they attend, some patterns start to emerge. So why is that some people think that salsa music sucks? The following is my attempt to explain this perception.
Personal taste – Firstly, I should make the point that, from my point of view, it’s not really possible for music to “suck”. Music is art, and, as with any art form, ultimately people’s opinion is subjective and comes down to personal taste. It’s a little bit like asking someone their favourite colour. My favourite colour is blue. Yours might be red. Does red suck? Does blue suck? No, we simply have different preferences. The same goes for music. I love salsa music. You might love death metal. This doesn’t make either style better or worse than the other. We simply have different musical tastes. However, beyond personal taste, there are some reasons that some people might not appreciate salsa music as fully as they otherwise might.
The DJs suck – There is a lot of salsa music out there, and, like with any other musical style, there is a lot of crap salsa music out there. Most of the people I have spoken to, who complain that salsa music sucks, attend events where the DJs play a certain type of salsa. If this is the only salsa music that these people are getting exposed to, then I’m not surprised that they think salsa music sucks. Also, beyond song selection, there is so much that a good DJ can do to make music more danceable and enjoyable, such as slowing down songs, editing songs to be shorter, mixing levels to make songs more listenable, using lossless digital formats, organising set lists to have themes, and so on.
Some DJs might as well just hook up a laptop and hit shuffle on their iTunes playlist (in fact, I’m pretty sure that’s what some of these guys are doing). I call these people selectors. We’ve all seen these guys at work. They seem to spend more time chatting up girls next to the DJ booth, than actually mixing any music. Real DJs are worth their weight in gold, and can totally make or break an event. DJs are our conduit to the music. You should be demanding quality DJs at your events.
The facilities suck – Whether it’s a venue with poor acoustics, a cheap PA system, poor quality cabling, crappy DJ software, or all of the above, there are many factors that can ruin a perfectly good set list. Salsa music is not like the music you are likely to hear on the average radio station. Salsa music is mainly about the rhythm section, which is typically complex and has many different instruments complementing each other, such as bass, piano, congas, bongos, timbales, campana, clave, to comprise the groove of the song.
This is quite different to many of today’s R’n’b tracks, which typically have more basic and sparse, bass drum, snare and hi-hat based grooves. If the mixing is poor, and/or the facilities can’t cope with a very wide range of sonic frequencies (especially at the low end), then the result is a cacophony of inaudible mush. This can turn a perfect good salsa night into a total disaster. It’s easy to spot a cheap PA system. You just have to put on a track with a wide range of bass frequencies (which is pretty much any salsa song) and crank up the volume. Cheap speakers will not be able to cope and will soon start “farting”, even at moderate volumes.
Pop culture – A lot of what is rated as “good” or “bad” music is simply to do with what is popular with the particular niche of people at any particular venue. You could hire The Three Tenors for the evening, but, if your audience doesn’t like opera, they are going to complain that “the music sucks”, even if they are treated to a world class show by virtuoso performers. Popular culture trains people’s ears to be biased towards particular styles and sub-genres of music. Music is a lot like wine. You could pour someone a glass of vintage Shiraz from the Barossa Valley, but, if all they are used to drinking is cask wine, then they are probably not likely to appreciate the difference. Good music, like good wine, is an acquired (and educated) taste. Pop music is like cask wine for the ears. Typically, little time and effort goes into producing it, which makes it cheap, easy to produce and more palatable for the masses, but it’s usually lacking in depth and quality.
Accessibility – Admittedly, salsa music is not the most accessible style of music for people from western cultures. Much of this has to do with the language barrier, since the vast majority of salsa songs have lyrics in Spanish. Many people connect with music by singing along to the lyrics, which is a little difficult to do, if you don’t understand the language the vocalist is singing in. Also, the subject matter in salsa songs covers a much wider variety of topics and themes than the average pop-music track.
A lot of pop songs on the radio are centred around the theme of romantic love. Some salsa music is romantic, but salsa music also explores a range of grittier topics, such as politics, religion, oppression, depression, suicide, and so on. Also, a lot of western music, including classical music, is very melody oriented, where as salsa music, with it’s Afro-Cuban roots, is more rhythm-centric, and this requires listening to the music in a different way. Of course, these are generalisations, but, generally, salsa music is not as accessible as other form of popular music. However, if you’re willing to invest a little bit of time training your musical ear, and/or invest some time learning some of the Spanish language, then your enjoyment of the music will dramatically increase. Remember when you were forced to read Shakespeare in high school? A lot of people didn’t like it or “get it” because Shakespeare used an older form of English, which is not very accessible to English speakers of today. However, for anyone who was prepared to invest a little bit of time learning about the language and culture of the day, even by just buying a Cliff’s Notes, then they were rewarded with some incredibly witty, satirical, hilarious wordplay, which far surpasses anything you’re likely to here in most of today’s rap music. So I encourage dancers to invest a little bit of time in learning more about the latino culture and language that is not so familiar to them. The rewards are worth it, and you’ll expand your horizons a little.
So there is my analysis on the perception by some people that “salsa music sucks”, but this could easily be applied to a number of other styles of music as well. The major take-away point, is that, if you’re prepared to invest a little bit of time in exploring a different musical style and/or culture, then you’ll probably be very pleasantly rewarded, and, who knows, you might even discover a life passion. If you’re new to salsa music, here are a few songs you can check out to whet your appetite:
- Larry Barrileau and The Latin Jazz Collective – Los Unicos
- Los Hnos. Armas – Morenita Verde Luna
- Sierra Maestra – Al Vaivén De Mi Carreta
Note, that I’m using “salsa” in the broader sense of the term, which was coined in the 70s by the people at Fania records. Really, this covers a number of sub-genres, including, but not limited to, mambo, cha-cha-cha, guajira, son-montuno, guaracha and so on. Some of this music was conceived decades before the term “salsa” gained mainstream acceptance as a commercial, umbrella term to describe many of the Afro-Cuban rhythms coming out of New York City in the 60s and 70s. If you want to hear what I’m listening to at any given moment, you can always check out my Spotify playlists which I make available on my personal blog, although, unfortunately, plenty of salsa tracks are not available on Spotify.