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Salsa and everyday life: Music and community

Dissertation
Author: Robert Eric Siebert
Abstract:
Salsa is a musical form integrated into the fabric of Puerto Rican communities throughout the NY-NJ areas and beyond. I examine the production of Salsa in Newark NJ by working-class Puerto Ricans and other Latinos and the ways in which it affects the lives of the performers and the community itself. I explicitly look at the local level of salsa, the unknown performers for whom salsa is a way of life. Music is a significant feature of Puerto Rican and Latin American communities and a marker of their ethnicity nearly as strong as the Spanish language. I examine the history of salsa and how it has been connected to the rise in stature of Puerto Ricans on the mainland United States. Using music as a window into the local community, I am able to examine a variety of issues: the usage of music as work; the networks developed by the musicians and how they relate to more general networks of bonding between the men who play salsa; how salsa integrates multiple age groups while restricting the interaction of different racial groups; how salsa and other musical activities can provide assistance in social mobility; and how gendered issues act out in the context of salsa including ways in which the men who perform salsa may be using it to redefine machismo in a positive manner. I explore the social interaction among musicians through their rehearsals and performance. The musicians act as cultural reproducers for their local communities and are able to perpetuate characteristics that define what it means to be Puerto Rican. However, the reproduction of culture at the local level is a collective act where the audience participates in determining what aspects of Latino culture are reinforced. The research ends with an examination of how Puerto Ricans and Salsa are represented in the larger music industry and the contradictions that occur between the local and (inter)national production and promotion of music.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter 1 INTRODUCTION Page1

Chapter 2 WHAT IS SALSA Page 15

Chapter 3 THE LOCAL LEVEL Page 40

Chapter 4 WHO ARE THE SALSEROS AND WHAT IS THE LOCAL ECONOMY OF SALSA Page 60

Chapter 5 NETWORKS OF SALSA Page 82

Chapter 6 GENDER AND FAMILY Page 106

Chapter 7 SOCIAL MOBILITY Page 123

Chapter 8 REHEARSING SALSA Page 138

Chapter 9 PERFORMING SALSA Page 155

Chapter 10 SELLING SALSA Page 179

Chapter 11 CONCLUSION Page194

Glossary Page 204

Works Consulted Page 208

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Tables

Table 1: Latino Population of New Jersey 1960-2000 Page 42

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Chapter 1 Introduction

One of the single most distinguishing characteristics of the Latino population in the United States is music. Migrants from Latin America have traveled with their musical tradition, and music has thrived in the leisure and symbolic spaces of Latino communities. Music is an ethnic identifier for Latinos on a par with the Spanish language. This well of popular culture is not dominated by white or black America in production or consumption. It creates a cultural frame of reference in which white and black America is rarely fluent. Salsa is also a multi- million dollar industry, active locally, nationally, and globally. Music, an underused tool in anthropology, is embedded in the many cultures we as anthropologists study, but the integration of music into people’s daily lives has been difficult to assess 1 . Few studies capture the essence and realities of music and musical activity. A dilemma exists in using music as a means to understand culture. Our basic ethnographic methods dictate that we speak the language of our informants, but musicians always speak two languages: one with words and another with music. If a person spends time studying the history of a music or how to play an instrument or a style, one has spent time learning to converse in music. This is not participant-observation of how music is integrated into people’s daily lives because people cannot live that daily life until they know the music. This process of learning may provide excellent research and add to the musicological literature in a significant way, but it is limiting in an anthropological sense, in an ethnographic sense. I came to anthropology as a well-trained and

1 Two exceptional ethnographies that do exam how music integrates into people’s daily lives are Real Country by Aaron Fox (2004) and Wake the Town and Tell the People by Norman C. Stolzoff (2000).

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experienced musician. Anthropology did not bring me to music; music brought me to anthropology. My research begins with taking for granted the fact that I can play. Learning to play was not a process that started when the research began, but my skill did grow during my investigation. Having crossed the barrier of learning to be fluent in music many years ago, I will explore some questions that most anthropologists cannot. What may we learn about a population by examining how the production of popular culture intersects the lives of the people? What can the musical genre known as Salsa tell us about working-class Puerto Ricans? What does the complex marketplace of Latin popular music reveal about Latinos in the United States? These are the broadest questions I ask. This is a study of local performance networks of Salsa in Newark, New Jersey, in the near-by town of Belleville, NJ, and in Hudson County, NJ. These places are close to New York City and consequently the musicians I worked with have networks that extend into city. I document the various places where Salsa intersects people’s daily lives and examine how Salsa shapes these lives. This research documents a working-class population through its expressive culture. A number of issues, therefore, must be considered. Why Study Salsa at the Local Level? Numerous books and papers have been written on Salsa. Many are history books aimed primarily at a general audience. Some are ethnomusicological works on Caribbean music in New York (Manuel, 1995), while others are studies that textually analyze salsa lyrics (Aparicio 1998). Some studies examine various recording companies, even local recording industries (Waxer 2002). Research, focusing on Salsa in Colombia (Roman-Velazquez, 2002) and Japan

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(Hosokawa, 2002), examines this genre as a worldwide phenomenon. All of these studies tend to focus on well-known performers and compositions. But such well-known performers and pieces are exceptions: the extremely talented and/or the lucky ones. In 1968 sociologist Frank Kofsky described the political-economic structure built around the performance of jazz music. In this work, he devised a scheme representing the levels in which different musicians influenced the performance of Jazz: 1) famous musicians who influenced the performance of Jazz directly 2 ; 2) famous musicians who did not influence how jazz was performed 3 ; and 3) the “rank and file,” the unknowns, who imitated the first level and who in turn spread the performance styles of jazz and reproduced the cultural elements imparted by jazz throughout networks at the local level (Kofsky, 1968, pp. 18-22). Salsa, too, follows this schema as, I suspect, do most forms of popular music. Through my years as a jazz musician and salsero 4 , I have noticed something that Kofsky omits: The unknowns will significantly outnumber those who become famous. In their role as “rank and file,” the unknowns actually do more to reproduce cultural practices embedded in performance than the famous. By engaging in the local production of Salsa and experiencing how Salsa intersects the daily lives of musicians without the privilege of fame we see how the rank and file defines Salsa. Salsa is something beyond the readily accessible representations and institutions of

2 By Kofsky’s account, these musicians are nearly all African-American. This long list includes names such as Coltrane, Parker, Davis, Gillespie, Monk, Blakey, Armstrong, and Fitzgerald. The list of white exceptions—Bill Evans, Charlie Haden, Lenny Tristano—is relatively short.

3 These performers are overwhelmingly white: Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Phil Woods. Their “whiteness” is not a statement on their abilities or quality.

4 Refer to the glossary for a definition of all musical and Latin terms. These terms will be italicized the first time they are used.

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Latinos. Telemundo or Univision, the two most prominent Spanish language television stations in the United States, does not define Salsa. It is not RMM or Fania, two of the best-known recording labels of Salsa, or the mansions and fluid capital of the successful. Salsa is also urban, working class, and Latino. Its most prominent performers and consumers are overwhelmingly Puerto Rican. Salsa is nightclubs that smell of cigarettes and beer. It is performances that may begin at midnight and end at four in the morning. It is long hours of rehearsal and hanging out. Salsa is men who play music because they love it and who struggle to earn enough money to survive in the highly complicated world within and surrounding New York City. It is the women who both support these men and consume the music as an affirmation of their own identity. Salsa is also men and women who simply like to dance. The objective of studying Salsa in Essex County, NJ, in Newark and nearby Belleville, and in Hudson County, NJ, is simple: to study popular culture from the bottom up. While this approach is commonplace in many ethnographic studies, it is absent from the anthropological discourse on music. Salsa as Work In order to consider Salsa as a window into the lives of urban Latinos, we must first move away from the idea that Salsa is simply entertainment or that it is text contained solely on CDs, record albums, and printed lyric sheets. Admittedly, the latter perspective is much less dismissive than the former, but both miss a crucial element of Salsa: The performance of Salsa is an employment opportunity. Salsa is a source of work in the urban job market. To view Salsa as nothing more than entertainment undermines the income generated from Salsa and consequently devalues the labor involved in its production. To view Salsa as a text also undervalues the labor

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dedicated to creating this music. Beyond this, it also strips Salsa of its integration into people’s daily lives. The production of Salsa facilitates other kinds of non-musical relationships among its performers and supporters. The work that Salsa provides can mediate and help redefine potentially detrimental cultural habits, such as machismo. To understand how Salsa interacts with daily life, I consider Salsa as work in the sense that it is a profession providing both a wage and a source of identity. It is a prestigious job potentially elevating the local status of any particular performer beyond that of his class position or ethnic standing. The income generated from Salsa can be used in a variety of ways, and I examine these within the context of my research. Few salseros among the rank and file, however, derive their income solely from the performance of Salsa. The income is secondary and supplemental but essential. The income generated from the performance of Salsa makes it an aspect of the informal economy. The income is generated outside the realm of any regulating institution and is largely “cash only.” Some salseros use their money to support leisure behaviors such as drinking and drug use. Others circulate the money further into the informal economy to use the cash to pay for car repairs or construction on their homes. However, while the income is generated within the informal economy, it may then be transferred to the formal economy. The supplemental money earned through performance sometimes buys groceries or pays an insurance bill. Many of the musicians with whom I have worked are working-class, as are the neighborhoods in which they live. The Salsero is more likely to be a cook, day laborer, fireman, truck driver, or schoolteachers than a lawyer, doctor, or college professor. Some musicians in my research are the sons of doctors and lawyers. However, these more professional jobs were held in

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Latin America and not in the United States, illuminating the working class nature of Salsa in the US. In this research, I explored the various kinds of employment the musicians found in conjunction with their work as salsa musicians. Their jobs tended to be mundane and diverse. Salseros are classically working-class. One profession, however, appears more often than others: education. In my study, many of the men work as music educators; others work as elementary schoolteachers. While teaching provides ample and predictable days off which accommodate a performance schedule, the skills that the men develop as entertainers also tend to make them better teachers. These schoolteachers come from working-class backgrounds, but they themselves have entered the middle class through their musical skills. These men often engage in the reproduction of Puerto Rican and Latino culture for localized audiences in the evening, while these same men teach children during the day. In the following pages I examine the idea of class mobility among salsa musicians. In chapter 7, we see educators have obtained a college education and thus gain status beyond those without degrees. This immediately assists in their class mobility. Mobility is also achieved through consumption, with home ownership outside of Newark as a strong marker of this mobility. An unexpected finding I encountered was that the musicians with families—wives and children—show a greater propensity for social mobility than those without families. It appears as if the men without families are not as motivated to improve the quality of their day jobs because they are not as responsible for providing for a family. While often still needing to hold a day job, the men without families make due without higher paying jobs and the responsibility that comes with them. The lack of a demanding day job and even of a family, however, makes these

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musicians available for more performances at the local level, which inspires their hopes of developing careers to national and international levels. In order to understand Salsa as work, I examine where Salsa is performed. Salseros operate within a variety of performance spaces. I detail these at length in my research. Performance is essential to maintain organized salsa bands. Some of these performance spaces are typical weddings, clubs, and dances while others are more specialized. It is here that work of performance intersects with the reproduction of culture and ethnic identity. One interesting aspect of Salsa is its use in political functions. Politicians use Salsa as a campaign tool and to generate associations of themselves with the people in the local neighborhood. Salsa can also be used to rally support for a community issue. Salsa reinforces the Latin-ness of a political issue or politician by its performance at an event related to either. Another important aspect of performance discussed in chapter 9 is how the musicians and the audience interact. Performance is where the actual experience of Salsa occurs for non- musicians. The audience places requirements on the band that affect how the cultural meanings are reproduced. A feedback loop occurs between band and audience. This aids in the recreation of Salsa from performance to performance. The feedback will also affect how other ethnically defined forms of Latin popular music appear alongside Salsa. In turn, this says much about how different Latin ethnicities are able to share space with each other. Ethnic Identity As we will shall see, Salsa is not simply “Latin music.” Its ethnicity is often more specific. It is strongly associated with two Latino ethnicities in the general New York City area: Puerto Ricans and Cubans. Salsa is in direct continuity with musical traditions derived from both

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Puerto Rico and Cuba throughout the 20 th century. I briefly explore this continuity, its history and development, in my first chapter. Cubans held a more prominent role in popular culture than Puerto Ricans prior to the Cuban Revolution in 1959, and some argue that Salsa is far more Cuban than it is Puerto Rican. In its folkloric roots, Salsa may be more a Cuban music, but Puerto Ricans have developed and produced Salsa far more than any other Latino group. While many other Latinos and non-Latinos consume Salsa, Puerto Ricans have provided Salsa with its strongest and most continuous support both as musicians and audience. Salsa musicians and dancers are from a variety of ethnicities at the local level: Cubans, Panamanians, Colombians, and Peruvians all perform Salsa. White and black Anglophone Americans perform Salsa. Salsa will not be the primary music at a specifically Mexican or Colombian event, although it may be the primary music at a specifically Cuban event. These Cuban-community events are limited to the geographic areas of Miami in Florida and Hudson County in NJ. More than likely, a Cuban event in Hudson County will involve Salsa or salsa-like music such as Timba from Cuba. However, Salsa is associated most with Puerto Ricans. Salsa as an expression of Puerto Rican ethnicity is a theme woven throughout my research. Its contested role as a Cuban music is a secondary theme as well. In this research, I focus primarily on two Puerto Rican bandleaders and their overlapping networks in and around Newark, NJ. I also include another “sometimes bandleader” of Cuban ethnicity from North Bergen in Hudson County. While my focus is on the networks in Newark, the Cuban musicians in Hudson County provide a source of competing views on Salsa and Latin popular culture. The geographic demography of Latinos in New Jersey often illuminates the ethnic segregation of various Latino groups. Some neighborhoods are more Dominican or Colombian

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than Puerto Rican, and there one will find more venues for Merengue or Cumbia—popular music from the Dominican Republic and Colombia respectively—than those for Salsa. Often there will be overlap in neighborhoods. Currently most Latino neighborhoods throughout New Jersey are experiencing a rise in Mexican immigrants and consequently a rise in venues for Mexican music. Salsa music and its performance have a direct role in the everyday reproduction of Puerto Rican and Latino culture as well as ethnic identity. To explore this idea, I examine the aspects of rehearsing Salsa and of actually performing it. Most bands tend to rehearse far more than they perform. They do this until they gain enough performance opportunities to make frequent rehearsing redundant. In rehearsal, decisions are made as to precisely what salsa songs are selected and how they are performed. As the rank-and–file’s role is to spread the work of the innovators and the cultural codes contained within the music, these practices are refined and disseminated through rehearsal and performance. Choices, however, are made about performance in the rehearsal and, consequently, these decisions affect how and what aspects of “Puerto Rican-ness” and “Latino-ness” are passed on to the audience. Gender, Family, and Kinship Another major theme in my research concerns the ways in which Salsa is gendered. The performers are overwhelmingly men. Women are largely absent from the networks of performers for a variety of reasons. There are social norms that frown upon the same familiar interactions between unrelated men and women that we find common among unrelated men. The absence of women from the networks also stems from the ways in which teenage women are dissuaded from hanging around with groups of teenage men—specifically the kinds of activities teenage musicians engage in when learning to play. Therefore, young women do not get the opportunity

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early in life to establish many fictive kin relationships with other musicians, who are the basis for any performer’s musical networks. Women performers often have more limited roles than men. Women are more likely to be singers than trombone players. Another role, which objectifies the women, is dancing alongside the band. However, women are able to take on a variety of different roles in the production of Salsa and are involved significantly in the journalistic roles surrounding the music, writing for magazines, and working in forms of promotion and in management. Salsa is a source of work that exists in public space. Performance of Salsa, therefore, allows men to dominate public space and engage in work activities not readily open to women. Performance becomes a way for men to express themselves and to remain the dominant gender. In this way, they may act out machismo in a manner which is potentially unthreatening to women. Machismo is more than simply the domination of women by men; rather, it is a man’s display of power and authority over other men. Dominating women is the traditional way of expressing this ideal. Performance of Salsa allows men to display their musical skill and to embrace the prestige that comes from performing. With this latent role as a cultural reproducer, male prestige is further enhanced and respected. The performers are authorities on cultural knowledge that has direct ties to Puerto Rico or Cuba or elsewhere in Latin America. This is cultural knowledge usually unknown—or poorly known—to non-Latinos. Within the context of a performance group, the men tend to treat one another as equals. Certainly some men are more experienced or skilled than others in a group. In this situation, the men are more likely to help one another rather than try and flaunt their advanced skill or

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knowledge. This camaraderie generates feelings of fictive kinship among the men. Networks emerge that cross generational lines, and the men eventually create something of a support network for each other where advice can be given to younger men from the older generation and vice versa. Musicians are organized into networks that revolve either around these feelings of fictive kin or around professional arrangements guided by contractual obligations. An important aspect of Salsa is how these networks form and whom they exclude. Absent from most familial networks are women and African-Americans. This has gendered and racial consequences. Gender does not exist in isolation. Gender is embedded in family life and it is in families that gender practices are reinforced and passed down from one generation to the next. The family is often the strongest motivating force in the salsero’s drive towards social mobility. My research explores how family affects the salseros’ individual lives and their general attitudes towards women. It also examines how the salseros’ lives affect their families and relationships. Performance and its role in acting out a redefined machismo mediate feelings of helplessness and anomie that working-class men may encounter. Playing Salsa is a means by which the men are able to validate their lives. Methodology My main method of research was paticipant-observation as I rehearsed and worked with salsa bands. I informed the band members of my research and then continued to act like a pianist in a salsa band. I was a salsero for my research. I actively rehearsed and performed with two bandleaders: Juan Pedro and David. The two bands provided a steady flow of different musicians needed to attend rehearsals or to

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participate in performances. With a third bandleader—Miguel—I spent time discussing our experiences in the 1990s performing Salsa together. Overlap existed among the musicians in these bands as it was common for musicians to work with multiple bandleaders. Many performers who had worked with Juan Pedro also worked with Miguel. Participating in salsa bands went beyond rehearsing and performing. It also meant becoming a part of the bandleaders’ everyday life. Together, we shared the ordinary activities of friends and family: eating and drinking, celebrating success and supporting people through difficult times. The bonds of friendship existed prior to my research with the bandleaders, but I began to participate in the deeper connections came later through the research. The bandleaders provided access to three different networks of musicians although overlap in these networks occurred. In total, I spoke to 67 musicians from three networks. In many cases, the interviewing was informal. We had conversations during rehearsals and performances and during the time spent simply hanging out. The bandleaders themselves were subject to frequent interviews and members of Miguel’s network, in particular, were interviewed in order to clarify events and stories I had heard prior to the research. Most musicians would themselves instigate conversations with me about how to play Salsa. They would tell me which pianists I should model myself after, or they would tell me stories from the history of Salsa. I did not engage in actively studying how to play Salsa with anyone. While I told people I was writing about the lives of Puerto Ricans in Newark through Salsa, this often seemed to be interpreted as if I were writing a history book on Salsa. Ethnography was a more foreign concept, while a book about music made more sense to musicians. However, the discussions of how to play salsa and the history of the music told to me

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by the musicians illuminated an interesting take on the development of salsa. The informal oral hisory of salsa emphasizes performers and patterns not always recognized with equal qeight in salsa's official documented history. This oral history is reflected in my own historical description of salsa in chapter two. My association with Puerto Ricans and Latin music began when I was quite young. Growing up as a child in suburban New Jersey, my best friend’s family was from Puerto Rico and Spain. I first experienced becoming fictive kin to Latinos when I was five years old. Later in life, in my early twenties when I was a music student in the Jazz Studies program at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ, I took lessons in how to play Latin piano from the legendary composer, arranger, and pianist, Chico Mendoza. I was a member of the school’s “Latin Jazz Ensemble” and we won awards and competitions and were given the opportunity for some high profile performances including one at the now defunct “Village Gate” in Manhattan. I began playing Salsa, Cumbia and Merengue professionally in 1990 when I was twenty-three. When I began my doctoral research at the CUNY graduate center, I continued to play Latin Jazz frequently and became a regular performer with percussionist Raphael Cruz. I appeared on Raphael’s 2005 Grammy nominated CD, “Be-Bop Timba,” which included a composition I wrote. My musical career brought me to my research with a skill set that allowed me to bypass the process of learning to play Salsa. Finally, in order to keep up in conversations with the performers and to better understand the context of my research, I listened to music and I read the many history books on Salsa. The norm for musicians is to refer to past recordings and performers in conversations. The onus was on me to be familiar with the recordings of Héctor Lavoe, Willie Colón, Tito Rodriguez, Marc

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Anthony, and others. Organization Beginning with a brief review of the history of Salsa, I explore how the music became identified almost exclusively with Puerto Ricans. I place Salsa in continuity with several trends in Latin popular music that begin early in the 20 th century. I also use this chapter to discuss changes in the Latin American population of the United States and how it affects Salsa and Latin popular music. Like playing Salsa, this was not a new experience for me, but became more in depth during my investigation. Chapters three through six deal with the everyday aspects of the lives of the salseros. Chapter three describes the neighborhoods where I conduct my research and the three bandleaders my research mainly involves: Juan Pedro, Miguel and David. Chapter four engages the political economy of Salsa and discusses how it fits into the salseros’ individual economic situations and into the local informal economy. Chapter five explores the kinds of networks that organize the salseros. This allows for exploration into the relationships between the men and the ways in which some are excluded from the networks of Salsa. Chapter six examines family relationships and some gender issues. Chapter seven engages a discussion of social mobility and relates this process to the issues of family. Chapters eight and nine work together to discuss the presentation of Salsa. Chapter eight engages the idea of rehearsing Salsa while chapter nine deals with its actual performance. These chapters are important for the discussion of the reproduction of Puerto Rican culture. Chapter eight also further engages relationships between the men while chapter nine involves the relationship between the performers and the audience.

Full document contains 227 pages
Abstract: Salsa is a musical form integrated into the fabric of Puerto Rican communities throughout the NY-NJ areas and beyond. I examine the production of Salsa in Newark NJ by working-class Puerto Ricans and other Latinos and the ways in which it affects the lives of the performers and the community itself. I explicitly look at the local level of salsa, the unknown performers for whom salsa is a way of life. Music is a significant feature of Puerto Rican and Latin American communities and a marker of their ethnicity nearly as strong as the Spanish language. I examine the history of salsa and how it has been connected to the rise in stature of Puerto Ricans on the mainland United States. Using music as a window into the local community, I am able to examine a variety of issues: the usage of music as work; the networks developed by the musicians and how they relate to more general networks of bonding between the men who play salsa; how salsa integrates multiple age groups while restricting the interaction of different racial groups; how salsa and other musical activities can provide assistance in social mobility; and how gendered issues act out in the context of salsa including ways in which the men who perform salsa may be using it to redefine machismo in a positive manner. I explore the social interaction among musicians through their rehearsals and performance. The musicians act as cultural reproducers for their local communities and are able to perpetuate characteristics that define what it means to be Puerto Rican. However, the reproduction of culture at the local level is a collective act where the audience participates in determining what aspects of Latino culture are reinforced. The research ends with an examination of how Puerto Ricans and Salsa are represented in the larger music industry and the contradictions that occur between the local and (inter)national production and promotion of music.