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.
Spot on. Thank You for sharing your thoughts on these matters with us
Are you saying that Maykel Blanco should have a monopoly on plagiarising Los Van Van because he’s Cuban? Plagiarising is plagiarising as far as I’m concerned but at least this Porto Rican band quoted their source, in the Cuban tradition, which is more than Mr Blanco does.
The character of appropriation and assimilation of other cultures and influences is fascinating if sometimes upsetting but its prevalence today demonstrates the complete obsolesce of all nationalist perspectives. How much does Cuban music and dance “owe” to American, American to European, African and Jewish? etc etc etc. Surely the question has to be the artistic worth of something, not setting out spurious cultural “rights” as the basis for somebody’s royalties claims. Money’s usually at the back of it.
Everybody knows that Cuban music is the root of Salsa but many pay lip service to this. Most Salsa people I observe just don’t feel Cuban music, preferring all manner of excuses for it. In my part of the world they don’t even much like what I’d call Salsa but what can you do? People find what they’re looking for.
What concerns me is not non-Cubans adopting Cuban music and dance, but their adopting its external forms and investing them with an alien social content. The next step, already well under way, is taking it over with their societies, congresses, and other bodies representative of their business interests, so as to determine their version is “correct” while what ordinary Cubans do is not, or is somehow lower.
Those looking for a pseudo-exotic twist to their middle class lives have become the major market for Latin American music and dance and Cubans adapt to this pressure. On 2 is creeping into Casino now and I see a lot of Cubans now who have completely lost the flavour of Casino. I wouldn’t say it’s universal yet, far from it, but I hear “Timba” which has more in common with the worst conveyor belt Salsa than music of the 1990’s. I’m not opposed to change and development but the quest for money looks like endangering the Cuban cultural heritage.
If I understand Daybert’s essay, plagiarism is not something he is taken issue with, but rather a concept you are introducing yourself. Instead he is taking issue with the fact that Pirulo is not acknowledging the musical and sociocultural universe of the source but subsuming it in a different universe that silences and blocks economic and competitive viability of the said source.
You seem to take issue with financial interests supposedly behind what you describe as “the nationalistic perspective”. Next to that, many Cuban sociocultural agents (perhaps this is also Daybert’s view, it is certainly mine as a social scientist) very much explicitly take issue with the financial profit aimed at by the appropriators in that it goes hand in hand with an invisibilisation and silencing of the national musical culture of Cuba and an enormous pressure to assimilate to the supposedly open, mixed and international Salsa scene which from many perspectives can more accurately be characterised as USA-centric and Puerto Rico-centric led and driven, with decision making capability and profit making capability monopolised to a very large extent by agents in the USA and to a lesser extent Puerto Rico (a distinction that of course becomes blurred by the fact that the latter is a colony of the former and by the cultural ambiguity of part of the social agents across the Caribbean and Gulf).
My impression is therefore that you seem to be arguing past the core of this essay’s tenets, rather than against it in your first few paragraphs.
Even then, some of your claims are potentially interesting but could you explain and demonstrate adduced claims such as “assimilation and appropriation of cultures exhibits prevalence today” (I know many an anthropologist who could present very suggestive evidence to the contrary so I am wondering what you mean)
Could you explain why you implicitly believe that mixity and assimilatory forces can be thought of as essentially positive as you implicitly seem to assume (again, I know of significant scientific lines of enquiry that study this non-axiomatically, which point at differential applicabilities for both exoterogenic and esoterogenic approaches to cultural contact, with both being more likely to yield productive outcomes for different goals and in different ecological contexts. To point but at one example, the high levels of diversity and complexity of Casino dancing, specially in Rueda formation, would be from a scientific perspective, extremely unlikely to obtain in non esoterogenic, inward-oriented, contact-shirking sociocultural scenarios, and that seems to continue with force and vitality in Cuba today).
Can you define artistic worth and how to assess it? (suggestive lines of enquiry in discourse analysis and experimental approaches to media studies point at financial power and prestige as the main strongest predictive variable for people’s perception of music as good or bad, which I don’t know how you would accomodate or relate your claim to).
Could you also explain in some detail what exactly Cuban dance owes to the USA? I would be very interested to know, as I haven’t heard a story along those lines, but of course it is just an empirical question.
Great post as always, Daybert, and no rant at all.
This is just another step in a long line of acts of cultural appropriation of Cuban culture and music by the yuma, just like “derechos reservados” on records not giving credit to Cuban authors of classic compositions and the whole “salsa” genre it self, a purely artificial term used by business people to steal and resell Cuban music.
This step just proves how fake everything about “salsa” is.
I for use have for some time stopped referring to anything music or dance related as “salsa”, using Casino and Son instead regarding dance, and the specific genre (mostly Son Montuno) when referring to music.
When somebody talks about salsa online, I always start by asking them how exactly the issue at hand is related to cooking…
@ Manuel David González Pérez
Let’s get the easy one out of the way first. Casino was, from its inception, a Cuban fusion with the American Jive arriving with US sailors and tourists. You’ll find another contributor on this site quoting a Cuban as saying “Casino was the way Cubans danced Rock & Roll” or words to that effect. This is along the lines of what I learned in the early 90’s from the Cuban from whom I began to pick up and piece together the history of the country’s music and dance. More recently, another Cuban, a sometime cultural studies teacher in La Habana, has confirmed it to me. It has been mentioned without objection in countless casual conversations. Casino was, at its inception, a fusion of Jive with Danzón, Son and other native dances.
There are those who spin a Cuban nationalist narrative, a mirror image of the Salsa narrative criticised above, who skip over this American ingredient or brush it off as insignificant when it’s mentioned. But there are simply too many Cubans who readily acknowledge Jive as part of their dance, to deny it altogether.
Does this qualify as appropriation of American culture, or “cultural imperialism?” You could put the same question in regard to the musical ingredients of Jazz, Soul, Hip Hop, Blues etc etc which have been assimilated by Cuban artists over the years. I know that music has been used (African American music in the 1950’s-60’s) and doubtless still is used absolutely consciously by politicians and their intelligence agencies as a form of “soft power.” Nevertheless, I would say, the borrowing of ingredients from outside and their integration in native culture is essentially an enriching, progressive, organic and two way process of globalisation.
While the vocabulary of a culture determines and limits what it can express, whether such fusions bear artistic fruit in any given period depends more upon the social environment than the structural ingredients produced. A comparison between periods of flourishing and enduring art will yield insights into what creates it. The worth of art is not determined by its popularity at any given moment, but- I come from a teleological standpoint- where it stands in the historical path of humanity towards realisation of its own potential. That is why some of Shakespeare’s and the Renaissance artist works still evoke an emotional response, centuries later, but they won’t always. All cultural expressions spring from our changing social relations and what is emotionally charged art in one period will become just an historical record of that journey in the next. That is the relativity of art.
Perhaps there are things of which I am not aware, but from where I stand, the idea of cultural appropriation by Porto Ricans in the sense that Daybert means, is not convincing. I run a business selling Cuban music. It’s not a large business, the market for Cuban music is small, but as a proportion of sales and interest shown, Porto Ricans (and Peruvians) hitting my site from thousands of miles away are noticeable. This is in marked contrast to the almost complete lack of interest shown by the British “Cuban Salsa” public to CD stalls literally under their noses. I would add that it hasn’t always been this way, but today, for most of the punters, music does not seem to be of any great interest or importance. As a generalisation, and recognising the exceptions to it, music is not what they’re looking for. On the contrary, music is relegated to a prop for their “self-expression” in dance.
The interest of Latinos doesn’t really surprise me given that, while Salsa was commercialised by Porto Ricans in El Barrio etc etc etc, it was always understood to be Cuban music. The number of prominent Salseros who, over the years and repeatedly, have stated that they are playing their version of Cuban music is too great to recite. Yes, I have dozens of records with song authorship attributed to “DR” (Derechos Reservados) a means, I always understood, to avoid royalties payments but this is the work of record labels, not artists, and I’m not sure whether it persists. Unless I am now very much out of touch with the consensus, the popular understanding among Salsa’s traditional audience is that it is a form of Cuban music. Even the new ballroom elements seem to know the history to some extent, they just don’t like Cuban music as it has evolved since the 1950’s. Further, to insinuate that Andy Montañez has avoided paying royalties for the Simonet/Amaray song or denies the origin of the music he plays, is a little hard to swallow.
Yes, a Colombian woman once exasperated me with her conviction that Ponce was a city in Colombia, La Sonora Poneña (who openly explain the Cuban origin of their name in La Sonora Matancera) a Colombian band. But doesn’t that just show how nationalist narratives corrupt geographical orientation as well as the history of dance? If there is any Latin American nation, or perhaps city, which has appropriated both Cuban and Porto Rican music, it would be Cali, the alleged capital of Salsa, music from which always reminds me of a TV car advert of a few years back which boasted of its production line, “untouched by human hands”.
So, if no amount of referencing of Cuban artists and tributes to them by Porto Ricans and others is sufficient to explain the marginalisation of Cuban artists from the Salsa scene, it might be better to look elsewhere.
Cuba suffers from most of the disadvantages of a small country in a world dominated by rival, aggressive, giant economic blocs. On top of that, while its state institutions and companies still provide a modicum of refuge for the country’s cultural heritage from the ravages of commercialism, they impede its competition in the world capitalist market. The two go somewhat hand in hand and this has nothing to do with cultural appropriation by other nations, but the way in which Cuban contemporary music enters the global market.
It is, I suspect, the lack of infrastructure and native expertise in global commercialisation of the islands cultural resources that has led to a back catalogue leasing agreement between La EGREM and Sony Spain, perhaps also a means to circumvent the vicious US extraterritorial sanctions. Many artists self-publish today, or sign to foreign labels, yet the penetration of modern recorded Cuban music into the Salsa market, I suspect, remains small. While Sony have “remastered” a large number of works and made them available on large digital platforms, their marketing strategy, if any, remains a mystery to me. Something appears to be working as the deal has been extended, though what “working” means for the two parties or the sales they are achieving is beyond my knowledge. They also appear to be sitting on a number of works.
I think the greatest obstacle to Cuban music and dance in the global market is the current nature of that global market for Latin American and Cuban music. There are no small number of Cuban acts which, given that some are demonstrably capable of music of some artistic sensitivity, seem to be bending over backwards to accommodate a lower cultural and, importantly, social level. What is salient in the music I hear locally as well as that most promoted on social media, is its inability to disturb or disconcert musically, to confront with or even insinuate to the consumer, social reality for the poor and discriminated against. It was with such themes that both Salsa and Timba began, not in separate universes, Cuba and Puerto Rico, but “de un pájaro las dos alas, reciben flores y balas sobre el mismo corazón.” It was after these people, though they are in no way of exclusively African descent, that before Salsa, Machito named his Afro-Cubans, and surreptitiously, Bebo Valdés named his Babalú. Great art, of any epoch, translated into whatever medium and however it is transmuted, speaks of social reality and the struggle to advance society and humanity within it, towards realisation of its potential. It is this which resonates and gives rise to powerful feelings and without such resonance music remains, at best, a catchy tune.
I get the feeling that great art is not what the mass of the Salsa public, of any denomination, is looking for today. The inquietude of bloques that miss the beat, a shouted coro, harmonies that jar and flurries of tangential notes are calls to the ostrich to unbury its head from the sand. They speak a contemporary truth the Salsa public generally does not yet want to know.
Generally blacked out in the mass media, there is a global upsurge, beginning last year, in mass wildcat strikes and protests against inequality and burgeoning authoritarianism. As this develops, and it will, it will work its way through to fundamentally alter what large layers of the population need from art. This may, or may not, make it receptive to progressive Cuban music. The popular rejection of culture as anaesthesia in favour of culture as expression of reality, has always gone hand in hand with an optimism for social progress. People bury pain where they see no end to it or it suits the comfortable to hide from it. The future of Cuban music, like all culture, is bound up with politics, economics and the mood changes these engender, today not just in the Caribbean and Latin America, but globally.
As the nation state comes into sharper conflict with globally integrated economy, its ideological expressions once again become ever more toxic. From the last century, and with state sponsorship it is reappearing in numerous countries. Fascism with its kitsch art is not just the most extreme, but the logical outcome of this society in insoluble crisis. Socially progressive movements may begin on a national basis, for that is how the world is now politically divided, but will necessarily become international if they are to realise their aims. This is the flavour of our epoch. Art particularly, does lag behind reality, its creation is a more complex process than something purely intellectual. I believe, though, we are not far from a cultural leap of some sort or another.
I’m afraid that with all the will in the world I cannot address what you have said regarding exoterogenic and esoterogenic approaches as even the various online dictionaries I have consulted offer no definitions of these terms.
Thank you for taking the time to provide such a detailed and appropriate reply with not only good-will and intelligent wording but also plenty of interesting and useful details and reflections, some of which I would like to embrace, and others perhaps qualify or complement with things I have some knowledge of myself as a scientific researcher of linguistic and cultural diversification, contact and evolution. I am in rural China about to set out for a remote village for linguistic fieldwork, but I will try to reply if the Internet and the intensity of Tibeto-Burman village life allow (might take a few weeks).
Just briefly though:
esoterogenic: inward-oriented, contact avoiding, defining identity through opposition to outsiders, triggering evolutive mechanisms of faster change in cultural practice (language, dance, sexual rituals, etc). It is a recently identified phenomenon in anthropology, linguistics and evolutionary science, but it seems to be much more common than one would assume in the age of globalisation (of course, it has been mostly studied in societies from Pacific islands, Papua New Guinea, Amazonian societies, South-East Asian rural groups, the Caucasus, and other pockets of megadiversity and tiny groups, but its principles seem to apply to an extent to big societies with national institutions behind them as well). Tends to lead to some of the most complex and unique cultural patterns in the world’s societies. Tends to be more useful and productive as a general problem-solving strategy for certain types of problems..
exoterogenic: the opposite, i.e. outward-oriented, outgroup-oriented, contact-seeking, identity-fluid, populationally expansive, etc. Seems to be evolutionary significantle less common and likely to emerge, but once a society becomes exoterogenic it is likely to expand militaristically, commercially, technologically, etc, and absorb surrounding groups (willingly or not). Although it tends to arise in and requires multilayered, stratified, technologically complexified societies, tends to lead to simplification of cultural practice and code (simpler grammatical structures, ethnochoreographic and ethnomusicologic designs, etc). It seems to be particularly useful to solve certain types of evolutionary problems, not so good for others. Despite globalisation, seems to not be the general rule in terms of measurable cultural and behavioural patterns.
Wow! Have a good time and thanks for the definitions. Maybe see you on the other side.
Timba / Salsa / Son / Sol / … – It’s dance music /// just give credit – where credit is due …
Finally I found an article about this phenomenon. We really need a push on this. Right now there is a boom of Timba in PR and nobody is talking about it cause the rarely acknowledge it as Timba. Band like Los Oquen2, Onda Moderna and othes. I have to say that Onda Moderna’s guys are honest about playing Timba and even mentioned Klimax as their inspiration. Pirulo kind of play with the idea. He got a song named Salsa con Timba. But is not clear and yes he seems at time to imply is a PR think born in La Calle y Barrios. The truth is that these musician almost never mention or honor Cuba, Havana and the Cuban bands in there songs. Something that on the contrary the Cubans feel the urge to do very now and them, like in Mi Salsa Tiene Sandunga just to give one example. I have to say that I like Pirulos music and I would like for them to change and timba can continue to flourish in PR and be supported by the Cubans and probably be heard and danced in Cuba, cause they have talent but they need to be good brothers and professionals. I’m afraid that it could happens like in the past. They may come up with a comercial name like Melao or Sandunga and declare that is their Like was done with Salsa ignoring Piñeiro, Cheo Marquette and Beny. This article should be sent to their FB. Thank you.
The “Ya llego” songs reminds me quite a bit of this 11 year-old Timbalive song. Hmmm… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-3oxfzpa34