I recently spent 3 weeks in Cali, Colombia, and it was fantastic! The weather was nice, the people were friendly, and salsa dancing was everywhere. And by that I mean the people dance salsa like they breath air. I stayed in the Granada neighborhood, and just around the corner there was a strip of clubs on Avenida 6 that were jamming all the time, plus there were plenty of other cool dance clubs around town, for example Tin Tin Deo, Topa Tolondra, Extasis and more.
I’ll be the first to admit, my dancing skills have suffered in recent years for lack of practice, but there was a time when I did regularly cut a rug at a little place in Kalamazoo that went by the name of Club Soda. Those were the days! Not only that, around that same time I lived in Venezuela, and that’s were I really got a taste for salsa music. I lived in Mérida, in the Andes, and that’s where I polished my dancing skills and discovered certain salsa artists. What I dug was the salsa brava, which in Venezuela means the old school salsa, you know, the classic stuff. When its come to old school salsa, I learned, there’s one word you simply cannot avoid: Fania. Fania and salsa are inseparable. To put you in the know, Fania was a music label founded in 1964 by Jerry Masucci, a lawyer, and Johnny Pacheco, a band leader in New York. Fania releases tons of salsa albums, and I eventually my hands on some of the best. Since then my musical tastes have never been the same.
So now that I’m back on the dance floor (and I bet I look good), now that I got that night fever, I’ve been revisiting some of my favorite tracks, and I feel compelled to share them because they’re so damn good. Without further ado, below are five songs I think anyone with the slightest interest in Latin music or salsa dancing should know. Just click on the song name to hear the song on YouTube. Enjoy!
La Murga: Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe.
Why do I think this song kicks so much ass? First, the opening riff. Listen to that trombone during the intro! It gives me goose bumps! It’s sounds so sinister. And then it takes turns with the cuatro, which plays the high notes. I love the back and forth of the two sounds, one dark, one bright. Then shortly afterward, the bass and percussion enter and get the groove started.
I really dig the cuatro solo too. Yomo Toro jams out some really nice sounding licks. It’s definitely “air guitar” material if you ask me. I think it adds a lot of flavor to the overall mix of instruments.
If you’re wondering what “La murga” is, it’s a musical genre from Panama that’s popular during Carnaval. In this song, Héctor Lavoe sings about dancing to the Murga. I think the topic of dancing itself in this salsa song is a bonus factor. The song gets off to such a great start and really makes you want to dance, and then you hear Héctor singing about dancing, and it enhances that desire. You get me? Kind of like when in rock song, the leader singer shouts out “guitar” or “solo” right before a cool guitar riff or solo. It brings things up a notch.
Speaking of shout outs, let’s not forget about the shout out during the trombone solo calling Willie “the devil”: “Guapea Willie Colón…el diablo!” Whether or not you understand (non-native Spanish speakers) or pay attention (Spanish speakers) to the first half of the phrase about Willie showing off (“guapea Willie Colón”), when you hear “diablo,” it grabs your attention because, duh, it’s the devil, and giving a shout out to the devil is edgy (ask Nikki Sixx or Charlie Daniels). Need I say more? \m/
Pedro Navaja: Rubén Blades and Willie Colón.
The story is what sets this song apart. Rubén sings about Pedro Navaja (Peter Knife), a villain on the prowl in a bad part of town. Listening to the lyrics, you might think he’s a pimp or a panderer, and it’s a strong possibility, but it’s not stated explicitly. He’s walking down a sidewalk wearing a trench coat and sombrero, sporting a gold tooth (so you know he’s hardcore) and carrying a knife in his pocket, which he uses to rob a woman walking on the other side of the street, a woman who, we presume, is a prostitute. Again it’s not explicitly stated, but we do hear she’s been walking up and down the sidewalk, that it’s been a slow day without customers, and she hasn’t made any money to buy anything to eat. So there’s a good chance she’s a hooker. An unmarked police car passes by, on the look out for trouble, which only adds to the sense of danger, while Pedro’s gold tooth glimmers menacingly in the half-light. And then no-good Pedro crosses the street to rob the woman. She’s easy prey, so he thinks, but what he doesn’t know is that she’s packing heat: a .38 Smith and Wesson. Unaware, Pedro goes all in and cruelly stabs the woman, but he gets a rude awakening when the revolver goes off. Mortally wounded, they both fall to the ground while the woman mocks Pedro. After the fatal climax, Rubén tells us that the whole scene didn’t cause any reaction from anyone in the area. It was just a normal, everyday occurrence in that part of town. As Pedro and the woman lay dying, a bum comes stumbling by and picks up the knife, the gun and their money while drunkenly singing out of key, “la vida te da sorpresas, sorpresas te da la vida, ay Dios.” Life gives you surprises, i.e. life is a box of chocolates and you never know what you’re gonna get. Pedro got his: a belly full of lead! And the bum got some free money! Rubén wraps up the moral of the story singing, “quien a hierro mata, a hierro termina,” i.e. you live by the blade, you die by the blade: you reap what you sow. And then he tops it off with sardonic humor, singing a line from West Side Story, “I want to live in America,” pointing out that the American Dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be for immigrants seeking a brighter future, particularly in a vast jungle like New York, which is mentioned specifically.
In summary, if you can appreciate a good, dark story – like I can- this song is for you. And, really, nothing beats a gold tooth!
Buscando Guayaba: Rubén Blades and Willie Colón.
For me guava is a quintessential Caribbean fruit, so when I hear this song, it immediately transports me to an imaginary Caribbean paradise in my head. Curiously in this song, “guayaba” is used as a metaphor for a woman the narrator is looking for but can’t seem to find. He can’t find the woman with the “flavor” he’s looking for. It’s a solid metaphor, but what rocks my world is the refrain, its cadence, how it descends. It’s so damn catchy. You only need to hear it a couple times – it repeats plenty – and you find yourself singing it yourself, “buscando guayaba ando yo.” And let’s not forget the trombone solo. The trombone melody has a lot of personality and the tone is pure butter, warm delicious butta!
Plástico: Rubén Blades and Willie Colón.
The intro to this song is outstanding. The disco groove is undeniable. The bass and strings really seize you right off the bat, too. Once the intro gives way to the main body of the song, what charms me are the lyrics. Ruben sings about fake people, whose only goal in life is material satisfaction, people who keep up appearances and keep up with the Jones. And there’s an anti-racism element that I really like as well. He criticizes parents who tell their kids, “No juegues con niños de color extraño,” i.e. don’t play with kids who have odd colored skin. This reminds me of 60s music in the U.S. during civil rights, e.g. Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” which has a lesson in social harmony as well. On top of that, the rhymes Blades weaves in the lyrics are tight. Lastly, by the end of the song I think what sticks with you is the refrain, and it should because it’s repeated often, “Se ven las caras, se ven las caras, vaya, pero nunca el corazón,” i.e. when dealing with people, you see their face (the surface), but never their heart. Looks are deceiving, so be careful with the outward appearances people project.
Ah Ah Oh No: Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe.
This short list wouldn’t be complete without a love song, I guess. The first thing that gets me in this song is the trombones. The opening melody has a great cadence, and the last note of the phrase rings out loud and clear. And of course, there’s the triangle. That’s right, the triangle! Step aside Blue Oyster Cult, don’t fear the triangle! This triangle wraps its burly arms around you in a big bear hug and doesn’t let you go! The next thing that gets me good is when the backing singers belt out, “Yo no sé lo que es…” It’s so damn catchy, I just have to sing along. Things get even better mid song during the breakdown. A whistle blows loud and clear, and right after, the backing singers come in with some great “la la la” action. That’s not all, though. The cherry on top comes in the outro, where the background singers sing “ah ah” and “oh no” as Willie professes his love to his girl and while the triangle takes you back in its welcoming embrace, in that nice big bear hug.
These are the five salsa brava songs I think you should check out right way. However, there were some other songs I considered. For the sake of brevity, however, I just stuck with 5, but I’m including links to a few other old school salsa songs you might like as well. Here they be:
Tiburón, Rubén Blades and Willie Colón
Che Che Colé: Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe
Periódico De Ayer: Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe
The world of salsa music is vast, and there’s so much out there. This is really just the tip of the iceberg, but I do hope you like this small introductory sample. There’s something about salsa brava that always gets me in a good mood, and I love to share those good vibrations!