- The City of Musical Memory: Salsa, Record Grooves, and Popular Culture in Cali, Colombia
The musical genre known as salsa emerged from the experimentations of Puerto Rican and Cuban musicians in East Harlem in the late 1960 s and thus could plausibly be said to have its home in New York, or at more of a stretch, in San Juan or Havana. Yet by the early 1980 s, residents of Cali, Colombia, were referring to their city as the World Capital of Salsa. They did so in full awareness that they had not invented the genre and that Caleño musicians were not among the genre's most successful or innovative performers. Instead, these fans based their claim to predominance on their love of the music: they suggested that the depth and sophistication of their affection made them the rightful guardians of the genre. In this book, Lise Waxer takes this claim seriously, using it as the starting point for an unusual ethnomusicological study. Rather than investigating local music making, Waxer investigates uniquely intense local appreciation for a global style. Her study includes Caleño musicians but concentrates primarily on dancers, DJs, and the regular visitors to the city's many salsa bars. She emerges with a powerful argument against simplistic notions of cultural imperialism. Salsa may have been a well-marketed international phenomenon promoted by powerful recording conglomerates, but it took root in Cali through unpredictable local adaptations. Its success may have pushed native Colombian genres to the margins, but in their place salsa offered Caleños everything they demanded in a local music scene—a beat to dance to, a way to talk about themselves and their city, an engine for the local cultural economy, and a vehicle for the expression of local identity.
Salsa was not simply a slick cosmopolitan cultural commodity, of course, and Caleños latched onto its specific attributes. Lyrics in Spanish helped, especially the gritty urban realism of the early 1970 s New York material, which seemed to apply equally well to a Cali in the midst of rapid expansion and transition. Sophisticated musicianship and complex syncopation were equally important, nurturing local connoisseurship among both dancers and other listeners. Caleño dancers developed their own salsa style, marked by double-timed steps and complex paired maneuvers. The ability to perform these flourishes became a respected mark of achievement, displayed in downtown nightclubs and house parties for both middle- and working-class audiences. Waxer's fascinating analysis of these developments is a model of interdisciplinary methodology, ably blending history, ethnomusicology, and dance studies.
The local salsa boom of the late 1970 s also fostered the rise of salsotecas, small bars intended only for listening to records—the music was too loud for conversation and the space too narrow for dancing. The primary form of interaction came through the performance of campaneros, regulars who played along on their own [End Page 554] cowbells (although not to universal acclaim). By the 1990 s, the salsoteca crowd overlapped heavily with that of the viejotecas, affordable weekend dance clubs so named for their allegiance to salsa dura, the early New York style. Like salsotecas, viejotecas trafficked exclusively in recorded music and became a valued forum for the cultivation of expertise. Waxer celebrates these outposts as the heart of the local scene, arguing that they sustained a loyal core audience through lean years.
This argument reveals her distaste for the syrupy salsa romántica of the late 1980 s, which came to predominate in the city's few expensive nightclubs, on its radio stations, and to a lesser degree among its live bands. Waxer blames the local rise of salsa romántica on the glitzy tastes of the cocaine cartel, suggesting that the cartel's patronage of Caleño nightlife marginalized salsa dura and, by driving up prices, pushed the working class out of the nightclubs. This is a convenient but unconvincing...