HOME

CAPAS DE RITMO
Subversive pop songs from Latin America, Volume I


Early Labyrinth presents a small collection of Spanish-language songs from Latin America which touch on social issues, whether through overtly political lyrics or more obscured messages hidden in Cuban rhythms, merengue beats, funk riffs, or 80s pop music. For non-Spanish speakers most of the songs sound like Caribbean party music (which they also often are), but lyrically they contain further socio-political layers beyond the much more typical topics of longing and heartbreak.

This mix originally appeared live on Threads*sub_ʇxǝʇ

1. Cheo Feliciano - Anacaona (1971) [0:00]
2. Joe Arroyo - Rebelion (1986) [4:11]
3. Héctor Lavoe - Mi Gente (1975) [8:55]
4. Celia Cruz - Burundanga (1953) [14:19]
5. Fruko y Sus Tesos - El Preso (1975) [16:57]
6. Willie Colón - El Gran Varón (1989) [21:50]
7. Frankie Ruiz - Como Lo Hacen (1983) [28:40]
8. Rubén Blades & Willie Colón - Plastico (1978) [33:45]
9. Joe Bataan - Mestizo (1980) [40:17]
10. Las Chicas Del Can - Que Goviernen las Mujeres (1984) [46:54]
11. Gloria Trevi - Dr. Psiquiatra (No Estoy Loca) (1989) [51:00]
12. Juan Luis Guerra - El Costo de la Vida (1992) [54:39]
13. Aníbal López- Pancho Malandro (1984) [58:48]

 

Notes on the mix:

I'm admittedly a novice in the world of Latin music despite having grown up just a few hours from one of its meccas– New York City– where Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Latinos from all over the Caribbean and continent came together to forge a new era in Latin music in the 40s and 50s. "Salsa" as a term for the genre originated there in the 1960s, partially a marketing ploy by Fania Records. "Salsa" music is essentially Cuban Son, combined with several other Caribbean influences, but due to the economic blockade against Cuba in the 1960s, radio stations were sometimes getting bomb threats from exiled Cubans (called "gusanos" or "worms" by Castro) who insisted that playing Cuban music broke the embargo. To get around this, and also to create a more pan-Latino market, Fania and its associated acts began promoting the music as "Salsa", a term which initially drew hostile reactions from legends like Tito Puente who refused to obscure the fact that they were explicitly playing Cuban music.

The general guideline for this particular mix (aside from all material being by Spanish-language Latino artists) was to include songs with socio-political messages, but that were made by artists who worked within the world of Latin pop music. The long and incredible tradition of protest folk music from Latin America including greats like Victor Jara and Silvio Rodríguez is excluded here in favor of feel-good, danceable songs by artists whose catalog or approach is not explicitly political. Also excluded (with one exception) are songs which don't include "Latin" percussion and rhythms. This generally means percussion patterns influenced by Afro-Caribbean music, leaving a large number of Latin American political rock music ineligible this time around.

Going through hundreds of salsa, son, mambo, and merengue songs, it was surprisingly difficult to find songs that were not about romantic or sexual relationships, and most of those are from a macho perspective. Female singers are shockingly almost non-existent in the Golden Age of Salsa, despite Cuban legends like Celia Cruz and La Lupe predating and influencing its rise. It was certainly a boys club, and an entrepreneurial one at that.

But here is a collection of songs whose content ranges from Pan-Latino pride to stories of the difficulty of survival in the barrio, to liberation movements to the superficiality of the wealthy. Further notes on each track are below, especially for non-Spanish speakers who can't understand the lyrics.

To quote a line from Gabriel García Márquez's Nobel Lecture (well worth reading in its entirety): "Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude."

1. Cheo Feliciano - Anacaona (1971) [0:00]
Anacoana was a Taíno chief from Yaguana (in present-day Haiti) who was arrested and hanged by the Spanish in 1504. She was also a poet and composer. This song is a lament for her death sung by Puerto Rican Cheo Feliciano.


2. Joe Arroyo - Rebelion (1986) [4:11]
This song is "a little piece of Black History, our history", as he says at the start, and tells the story of the Spanish treatment of African slaves, and their rebellion against slavery and violence. Joe Arroyo was from Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.


3. Héctor Lavoe - Mi Gente (1975) [8:55]
"Careful because here come the abnormal ones... and with straight-jackets!" begins Mi Gente, a salsa classic sung by El Cantante himself, Puerto Rico's beloved Héctor Lavoe. "My People", with its anthemic choral refrains, is addressed to Puerto Ricans, but could also be taken to refer to Latinos in general, or perhaps, as the first line implies, anyone who is a bit different. "If anyone doesn't sing along, it's because he has bad breath!"


4. Celia Cruz - Burundanga (1953) [14:19]
There is an overwhelming lack of women in the Salsa movement, and until the new wave of salsa in the 90s there were almost no women singers. Cuban legend Celia Cruz's career predated Salsa by two decades, but she was later brought into the fold as Fania Records in New York tried to consolidate their hold on the Latin music market. "Burundanga" is an early song about defending each other, and practicing love. It's also the street name of hyoscine, a drug often used in Latin America to subdue robbery and kidnap victims.


5. Fruko y Sus Tesos - El Preso (1975) [16:57]
"El Preso" (The Prisoner) is a song inspired by a letter to Colombian percussionist and songwriter Álvaro Velásquez from a friend who was serving thirty years in prison for drug charges.


6. Willie Colón - El Gran Varón (1989) [21:50]
One of the most profound salsa songs of all time, El Gran Varón begins in a hospital with the birth of a boy named Simon. He's raised strictly and told "one day you will be a great man". Simon grows and moves away. He begins wearing a skirt and lipstick. When his father pays him a surprise visit, a woman appears, "It's me, Simon, your son, the 'Great Man'," she says. When the father discovers Simon's new lifestyle he never speaks to him again. The song ends in another hospital ward, this time where Simon lays alone in a hospital bed, dying of a strange disease (implied to be AIDS). The mournful song proclaims "You have to have compassion, Enough with morals... You can't correct nature."


7. Frankie Ruiz - Como Lo Hacen (1983) [28:40]
"Como Lo Hacen" revolves around the question of how some people are so rich when they never seem to work. "How do they do it? I don't know! What is their business? Who knows!", the song repeats, alluding gently to the corruption of the rich, particularly from Latin America, who travel in luxury, wearing diamonds and the latest fashion yet never seeming to work. Frankie Ruiz was an American-born Puerto Rican singer. He tragically passed away from cirrhosis at the age of forty.


8. Rubén Blades & Willie Colón - Plastico (1978) [33:45]
Rubén Blades is a Panamanian salsa singer and activist, likely the most lyrical and political in the genre, who got his start in the Fania Records mail room. His partnership with Bronx-born trombonist and band leader Willie Colón produced some of the most iconic and successful salsa albums of the late 70s/early 80s including the smash hit Siembra. Plastico is the first track of the album which details a superficial couple, a woman who "sweats Chanel No. 3" and a man who "talks about what brand of car is better", who tell their children not to play with children of a different color. "Que fallo." (What a loser). The song ends with a plea for Latin pride, giving a roll call of Latino countries. As it fades out you can head Blades yell "Nicaragua sin Samoza!" (Samoza was the Nicaraguan dictator who was being overthrown by the Sandinistas the year the album was released.)


9. Joe Bataan - Mestizo (1980) [40:17]
Joe Bataan was born in Spanish Harlem, son of a Filipino father and African-American mother. "Mestizo" is his powerful English-language disco anthem that probably came out just a few years too late to break through as a cross-over hit as disco was already on the wane in 1980. Its catchy hook lists mixes of Latin American cultures (ie. Latino-Taíno, Chicano-Cubano), as well as various foods and cultural signifiers, before preaching an emphatic message of Mestizo pride. Its universal message over a danceable extended beat takes notes from other American disco-soul tracks such as "Love Train"(1972) by The O'Jays and "YMCA"(1978) by the Village People.


10. Las Chicas Del Can - Que Goviernen las Mujeres (1984) [46:54]
Las Chicas Del Can, hailing from the Dominican Republic, were the first all-female Merengue group. On stage they were a large band with several singers, and released a number of hit songs in the mid-80s and early 90s. "Que Goviernen las Mujeres" states that since men don't know how to do it properly, women are now going to govern. The rest of the song goes through various departments of government and appoints various band members to head them.


11. Gloria Trevi - Dr. Psiquiatra (No Estoy Loca) (1989) [51:00]
This song (Dr. Psychiatrist, I'm Not Crazy) is one of the more exceptional of the mix in terms of style, but included for its potency and context. Its sound is 80s heavy electro pop, and it set-off Mexican singer Gloria Trevi's most legendary performance, a chaotic live TV appearance in which she rolls on the floor, climbs up a balcony, runs along its edge in heels, pulls the host to the floor by his tie, etc etc. All while the lyrics insist she wants to live her own life, she won't pay the doctor's bill, and no, she is not crazy. The story of her life behind-the-scenes is equally chaotic, going to prison in 2000 after being accused with her former partner Sergio Andrade of sex trafficking and grooming minors. She was herself groomed and abused from a young age by Andrade. "Dr. Psiquiatra" nevertheless set a new bar for Latin women's independence in music.


12. Juan Luis Guerra - El Costo de la Vida (1992) [54:39]
Dominican Juan Luis Guerra is a Latin superstar, made famous by his brand of Afro-Latino fusion merengue. "El Costo de la Vida" sounds almost like a Caribbean version of Paul Simon's Graceland or a Peter Gabriel album, its sheen fitting cleanly into the era of "world music". Its lyrics lament the rising cost of living and plays with various languages, stating that since they don't understand English there, no one cares what they think.... "We are a hole in the middle of the sea and the sky, five hundred years later a glowing black, white and Taino race, but who discovered who?" The bombastic music video for the song juxtaposes political violence and environmental degradation against a sound stage of red leotarded dancers, Guerra playing the role of a newscaster.


13. Aníbal López- Pancho Malandro (1984) [58:48]
Aníbal López was a Peruvian salsa singer and band leader known as "El Emperador del Timbal" (The Emperor of the Timbale). The song of a Cuban musician, he went on to play as a touring percussionist with Celia Cruz and other superstars of the 70s and 80s. His solo material never gained much attention outside of Peru, but is outstanding for its unique energy and sound, as well as thoughtful and poetic lyrics. "Pancho Malandro" tells the sorrowful story of a boy who grows up facing poverty, abuse and hunger. One day he steals bread, then fruit, then money. He becomes a criminal and ends up in prison unrepentant and later dies in a fight. The song is in the narrative tradition of other salsa classics like Blades/Colón's Pedro Navaja (1978) and Lavoe/Colón's Juanito Alimaña (1982).