The Problem with Most People Who Try to Prove Salsa is Cuban Music


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Is salsa music Cuban music? This question has sparked debates which have been happening for decades. Even now you’ll find very heated exchanges online about this topic. In short: when it comes to this, nothing has been settled. And the debates keep occurring. Every now and then, upon surfing dance or music forums, you’ll stumble across one. Facebook, at times, also becomes a battleground for this. What I’ve noticed most of the time is that most debates concerning this topic are started by people who propose, as the premise of the discussion, that salsa is nothing but Cuban music.

Personally, I’m really tired of reading or listening to those debates. And it is not because nothing ever gets resolved—because it doesn’t.

I get tired because there is really nothing behind the intent of starting those debates, other than to prove something. What I mean is, people are ready to debate this point, and some are very intent on doing this at any chance they get, yet there is zero-to-no interest in engaging—and dancing to—the music that they like to call “Cuban.”

Let me explain. For a moment, let’s posit something. Let’s say that, hypothetically speaking, everyone in the dance community agrees that salsa is nothing but Cuban music. Let’s say that this debate gets resolved once and for all in that way.

What then?

Well, you will still have people who, on the one side, like older Cuban music of the 60s and 70s (the salsa dancers); and, on the other side, you’ll still have people who like more current Cuban music, produced post 1990 (the casino dancers).

Even if everyone hypothetically agreed in favor of Cuban music, nothing will change. Salsa dancers will not incorporate current music produced by Cuban musicians because that’s not what they are used to dancing, and they will argue that even if it is older Cuban music, they are dancing to Cuban music nonetheless. Furthermore, they won’t have to change their playlists. They can still play Cuban music produced by non-Cuban musicians. According to those who started the discussion, whether a Puerto Rican or a Colombian plays it, that still is Cuban music, anyway. Right?

On the other hand, the Cuban dance community won’t incorporate the music that salsa dancers play at their events because, well, that music is not produced by Cubans, so it is “not Cuban enough” (but I thought it was all Cuban music!?); or because it is “too old” for their taste (but, again, I thought it was all Cuban music!?). The most incisive proof of this is the fact that pretty much nothing but “timba” gets played at Cuban dance events nowadays.

Everything would stay exactly the same in this hypothetical scenario in which salsa is now seen as Cuban music. Sure, there would be an acknowledgment, a nod of the head, a tip of the hat; but things would stay the same. People wouldn’t play or dance to anything different than what they are already playing and dancing to. Don’t get me wrong: a more historically-accurate description of where the music comes from is needed because in most narratives out there Cuba get relegated to the “roots” of the music, its musicians glossed over–or at least those who didn’t live in New York, where most of the “salsa narrative” seems to take place. So yes, that correction in the historical archive needs to happen. Cuba needs to be given more credit than it has been given, specially at salsa congresses.

But again, once that happens, if it does happen, things wouldn’t really change.

And they wouldn’t necessarily change, the way I see it, because the people who are so intent on proving that salsa is Cuban music are doing one thing fundamentally wrong: though they may know a great lot about music history on which to base their arguments (some don’t and simply repeat hearsay), they are not dancing or listening to the music that they posit is also “Cuban,” be it produced by Cuban or non-Cuban musicians.

In short, people in the Cuban dance community are not willing to dance to anything other than “timba”, or the occasional traditional son, but that’s mostly for performances. (Also, when I say “Cuban dance community,” I am specifically referring to the people outside of Cuba who like Cuban dances. People in Cuba dance casino to music from everywhere.)

At any rate, that’s a problem. A big one. At least I see it as one.

You see, because a lot of these discussions stem from nationalism and national pride, when someone attempts to persuade people that salsa is really Cuban music but said person doesn’t even like to dance, or finds it difficult to dance, to what they are trying to argue is Cuban music, then that person ends up losing credibility, looking like a hypocrite, and ultimately turning off people from other nationalities who may have a stake in this discussion. If a person tells people that Sonora Ponceña, El Gran Combo, Ismael Rivera, etc. produced Cuban music, but said person won’t listen to their music because he or she does not like that Cuban music, then those on the other side of the argument, specially if, say, they are Puerto Ricans, would be turned off. They won’t listen, because they would realize that, at the end of the day, that person doesn’t want to acknowledge the complex, international network of music that stemmed out of Cuba’s musical tradition. No. That person wants to take all the credit and leave every other country who has contributed to the proliferation of this music, in whatever way they have, however little or much, out of the picture.

That’s what’s happening in the salsa scene nowadays, which I condemn. Indeed, the salsa scene takes care of shutting out anything Cuban. But doing the reverse, shutting out everything non-Cuban, is not the answer. An eye for an eye leaves the world blind, right?

This is what brings me to be so critical about this. Because at the end of the day, it all comes down to petty nationalisms, to people wanting to prove their allegiance to whatever country they feel connected to. This is what it comes down to: my country, and its music, against yours.

If you truly want to begin and engage in a discussion about salsa being Cuban music, then prove that you can dance to salsa, but not like a salsa dancer. Dance to salsa using Cuban dancing. Figure out, first, whether or not you like dancing to this type of Cuban music—because that is what you are arguing this is—before attempting to “fight” for something you may not really like, to begin with.

If you truly want to begin and engage in a discussion about salsa being Cuban music, then prove that you can listen to that salsa music that you like to argue so much is Cuban. If you like Cuban music, then you should be able to listen to this music just fine because it is Cuban. Right?

Otherwise, you are simply wasting everybody’s time, including your own.

(If I sound angry or confrontational, it is because I am tired of nothing ever getting resolved on this topic. And because we also have to question things from within, not just start blaming others though, yes, there is plenty of blame to go around; but careful introspection also has to be part of the picture.)

I personally don’t like to argue that salsa is Cuban music. That argument uses too broad of a brush stroke. I like to narrow it down, and then specificy some things. For me, salsa is really son montuno, as I have argued for in this post. Seeing salsa as son montuno acknowledges the Cuban roots of the genre—because son montuno was developed by Cuban blind tres player, Arsenio Rodríguez, but it also opens up the genre to be affected by local idiosyncrasies.

Indeed, I find it illogical to assume that the genre of son arrived to other places of the world and wasn’t modified by the different cultures with which it came into contact. That is why, for me, there is such thing as “Colombian son,” “Puerto Rican son, “New York son,” and so on. This acknowledges that other countries or places also had their own take on this Cuban musical genre. The same thing happened when bachata dancing got to the U.S. Likewise, the same occurred when reguetón arrived to Cuba. Or with the English language: though it is still English, U.S. and British people speak it with different accents. So should we be so closed minded and say that that couldn’t happen with the musical genre of son? Heck, the very fact that some people who like Cuban music do not like salsa speaks volumes about this phenomenon, about these local idiosyncrasies coming into play with the music.

The point is not to get salsa DJs to play only timba. The point to embrace son montuno in all its aspects and from everywhere–and yes: give Cuba the credit it deserves in the process. But if all you want to do is dance to timba and discard everything that came before, then you’re better off refraining from entering or starting a discussion about salsa and Cuban music that, because it’s pulling so much to one side (Cuba), it ends up being nothing but a not-so-concealed form of tribalism (this post’s picture is a reference to that).

Leave that discussion to those who would like to truly bridge the gap between the two dance communities, or at least would like to attempt it.