“What I Bring is Salsa, But Pardon Me If I Sound Like Timba”: A Case of Musical Appropriation
I fiddled with this piece for a while. To publish, or not to publish. I wrote it in one sitting months ago, but when I read it, I did not like how it had come out. I can’t quite explain what it was. I just knew deep down that I did not like what I had written. I didn’t even have a title. Essentially, I had vented and ranted for about a thousand words or more, and gotten something off my chest. It felt good. But was it publishable? Not by a long shot. Today, however, I opened it by chance. As I read it again, the ideas for how to edit it into something I would want to publish here began pouring in, and the incoherent mess I had written began taking shape. The rant was not a rant anymore; in my head, an argument was weaving itself into something more carefully constructed. (Whether or not the argument is successful or even convincing, that’s for you, the reader, to decide.) From that moment on, it was a matter of sitting down and writing it. And so I did.
And here it is.
I hope you find it thought-provoking.
So the other day a really catchy tune popped up on the Maykel Blanco station I have on my Pandora application. I was hooked within seconds. But when I looked at my phone to see who was the singer/band, the name didn’t even sound familiar: Pirulo y la tribu. I did a bit of research on them, and it turns out that this is a Puerto Rican band that plays a more contemporary son montuno—or what people call timba—than what I am used to listening from Puerto Ricans. The song in question was this one. Take a listen:
Then I came across this song, and things got…interesting. Listen carefully to the first 25 seconds.
Did something sound familiar in these first 25 seconds? I am going to venture that if you have listened to Cuban music for a long time and, specifically, you have listened to los Van Van’s older recordings, these first seconds of this song sounded extremely familiar. Namely, they sounded like “Aquí se enciende la candela.” Let’s compare. Listen to this version of “Aquí se enciende la candela” exactly from 0:10 to 0:19:
Now go back to Pirulo’s song and listen to it from 0:10 to 0:19.
The influence from Los Van Van is clearly there. The way that the chorus sings its line in Pirulo’s song is derivative of the pattern of the violins in Los Van Van’s song.
Best thing is, Pirulo’s borrowing is made explicit later in his song. Play the song from 2:08 to 2:12 and you’ll hear the chorus doing the familiar pattern, and then Pirulo singing the words—and confirming the influence—“La candela”, just like it’s done in the Los Van Van song.
This reference to Los Van Van, however, was not why I found this song “interesting.” There are plenty of Puerto Ricans who have not only referenced but made covers of hundreds of songs originally recorded by Cuban musicians (you can access the list here). This is nothing new.
What I found “interesting” was the way that Pirulo addressed, in the lyrics, what he and his band were playing.
You see, I bet that when you first started listening to Pirulo’s song, you recognized the sound of “timba”—or if you’re like me, a “modern, more progressive son montuno” sound. And indeed, this song would definitively get played at a Cuban dance social, no questions asked.
But that’s just the thing: Pirulo doesn’t acknowledge that he is playing “timba.” Instead, the title very explicitly says that this is “salsa”—Lo que traigo es salsa: “What I bring is salsa.”
Yet what’s even more important—and this is what propelled me to write this entry—is the way in which he situates what he plays within a Puerto Rican musical narrative, not a Cuban one.
Which is ironic, to say the least, because Pirulo y la tribu isn’t a band whose music would be played at a typical salsa congress, where music by Puerto Rican musicians dominates the playlists. (When I say “salsa congress,” I mean dance events that aren’t typically casino-dancing/timba-friendly.)
At different parts of the song, Pirulo acknowledges that his “salsa” does sound different; yet every time he makes this acknowledgment, he doesn’t fail to assert the continuity with the Puerto Rican musical narrative of salsa (i.e. salsa came, mainly, from Puerto Rican musicians). Let’s see the examples from the song:
La misma salsa de siempre con el sonido de ahora. (1:45—1:49)
The same salsa as always, with today’s sound.
Sabes que esto es la bendita salsa pero como con un saborcito distinto. (2:27—2:35)
You know this is the good ol’ salsa, but with like a different flavor.
Esto es lo mismo con lo mismo pero diferente. (4:28—4:33)
This is the same as always, but different.
In other words, Pirulo is saying, “Yes, this is different, but it is still salsa.” And since is the “same old, same old,” well, it’s still, by default, Puerto Rican music, born in the New York barrios, and all that stuff that the current salsa narrative foments.
Now, Pirulo can market his music however he wants. He is a Puerto Rican musician whose sound is very unlike most Puerto Rican salseros out there. Indeed, he is entering a market where that sound is not associated with Puerto Rico, but rather with Cuba. Pirulo uses this song to assert his nationality, his roots, while acknowledging that he is playing “today’s sound.” The lyrics provide a counterbalance to the frenzy of the sound. With his words, he is assuaging his audience, putting them at ease. Don’t be afraid, fellow Puerto Rican, of this sound you may not recognize as traditional. This is the good ol’ salsa, but with like a different flavor.
Of course, he doesn’t tell the audience that what he’s playing is heavily influenced by Cuban music. Quite the opposite, in fact. Toward the end of the song, Pirulo begins naming bands and musicians who play “salsa all around the world” (5:12). This list begins with a small sample of popular and well-established Puerto Rican salsa bands/musicians such as El Gran Combo, Roberto Roena, Andy Montañez, and then goes on to name a few Cuban artists such as Alexander Abreu, Van Van, Paulito FG. Last time I checked, these musicians were known for playing “timba.” And, yes, someone could argue that he is recognizing the work of Cuban musicians; but someone more cynical could also make the case that he is, in fact, subsuming their work and music under the salsa label so that whatever musical innovations/contributions Cubans are making, always come back to a narrative of salsa that began with Puerto Ricans.
All of this said, let’s not forget that Cuban musicians such as Paulo FG, Issac Delgado, Manolín, and many others all marketed their music as “salsa” in the 90s, the very decade where the “timba boom” occurred.
But here is the big difference.
When Cuban musicians marketed their music as “salsa,” they were attempting to reenter a market that they had dominated prior to 1959, but from which they had been left out ever since the U.S. put an embargo on Cuba in the early 60s, which in turn paved the way for musicians of other nationalities to copy Cuban music and reap the benefits of the work of Cuban musicians, but under a different label: “salsa.” The best example of Cubans trying to enter the international salsa market is “Mi salsa tiene sandunga” (Mi salsa has flavor) by Elio Revé, which throughout the song traces a genealogy of Cuban music only so that they can reclaim a term “salsa”—a term coined by non-Cubans to popularize Cuban music after the 60s—as theirs.
When Pirulo does it, it is different. Because when he says that what he is playing is “salsa”—instead of “timba”—and consciously links it to Puerto Rico by describing it as the same sound (of salsa) but with a “different flavor,” he is bringing all that historical baggage of musical appropriation that occurred in the 60s: Puerto Ricans—and others—singing, Oye mi guaguancó (“Listen to my guaguancó”) when guaguancó is an Afro-Cuban musical genre; talking about the life in the solares, which are crumbling buildings in Havana; or blatantly switching “La Habana” in Manolito Simonet’s Locos por mi Habana for “Puertorro” (I’m looking at you, Andy Montañez) so that a Cuban song fits a Puerto Rican narrative. Even the “Para la niña y pa’ la señora” line from the Pirulo song that the chorus begins repeating at 3:20 has been around in Cuban music for so long that I don’t know how many Cuban songs have this line.
Pirulo may be bringing the “salsa,” but in doing so, he has inserted himself within a complex history of cultural appropriation, unacknowledged contributions and influences, and unpaid royalties.
 This, to me, is futile, as using the term “salsa” not only legitimizes the term, but erases the name the music had before it was rebranded “salsa” by international musicians. A much more well-realized approach to this was “Llegó la música cubana” (Here comes Cuban music) by Manolito y su Trabuco, which at the end of the song begins listing popular bands from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, but begins with “For all the soneros who love son”, thus subsuming all these bands under the label of “son,” which is closer to the truth.