Music is widely considered as the universal language, one that every single person on this planet could understand and embrace, regardless of their cultural or religious background. However, to define music as only a source of dialect would be an unconscious effort of simplifying the matter. One should also consider music to be a source of identity, not only of a culture but of the self. It is not a secret to fully identify a country or someone’s cultural background when you discover what music they listen to or prefer to listen to for their pleasure. However, it is not regarded to be our identification card; an inner-depth look into our soul, our brilliance, and our understanding of other societies. The above is not written in an attempt to produce a psychoanalytic article for your viewing, no. It is written to explain my understanding of why my favorite music is more than just my favorite sequence of melodies and beats, but my I.D. card and an inner look into the soul that keeps this body functioning.
Paradoxically, this short essay was a long and tough one to write for me, to express in writing what my favorite music is required some deep soul searching on my behalf (hence, the introduction gives that away.) Why? Because I love all types of music, this being the product of all my encounters with different ethnic groups, my will to embrace diverse cultures and enjoy the expressions of their societies via art. However, it would be unfair to author an incomplete essay and not fulfill the curious soul of you who reads this. So, after shedding away many layers of my outer musical experiences, I found one genre clapping the following sounds in counts of five, in my soul: Pa, pa, pa, pa, pa. Si, es la clave! Indeed, la clave plays in my soul at par with the count of my heartbeats that leads me to move my feet to the cencerros, maracas, guiros, and timbales, yes Salsa is my I.D. card.
Raised in a modest household that traditionally played salsa for breakfast, lunch, and dinner religiously. The Fania All Stars by heart became our apostles; their musical arrangements were our hymns and their lyrics were preaching about our social reality in New York City during my childhood. Salsa during the 80’s and early 90’s spoke to me like no other history teacher at elementary or junior high school did. They taught me that “la calle es una selva de cemento”, so be weary when walking down it of Juanito Alimaña. I dearly remember my friend Pacheco traditionally accompanying us at our holiday dinners, and he even once brought a lady named Celia, she told us that Willie told her that “Dos jueyes en la misma cueva, mira, no pueden vivir.”
Los salseros gave me my first tour down the grand halls of social awareness, Ruben Blades spoke to me about “Plastico” and “Siembra”, highlighting the issues of Central and South America. He woke me up to the effects of the cold war era and its proxy wars hurting my people, when he taught about a bishop who was murdered in Guatemala in his song “El Padre Antonio.” Salsa is not just a musical genre to dance merrily for the club goers, or to cry away those old flames that crush your dreams. It is a genre that if listened to intensely would allow you to experience your African Caribbean roots and our hurt and struggles as “oppressed people.” Salsa like Hip-Hop was breed in our urban city, in our neighborhoods by our own to speak about our realities.
As a person who passionately loves music and people, I couldn’t ask for a better genre to be my sentimental favorite. Now comes the hard part, who to pick as my favorite artist of the genre. I love the style of so many and honestly there are many great singers and talented musicians that have a part in the life of Salsa. The easy choices and almost likely kind of cliche-esque, would be to naturally pick the usual artists like Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe or el Gran Combo and Maelo. But on this occasion, there is a three-way tie on my official list, talented artists who until this present day I still pay to go enjoy their repertoires; Ruben Blades, Oscar D’ Leon and Jose Alberto “El Canario.”
The three-way tie is undoubtedly the product of very simple reasoning for me, I instantly identify with their styles all different and unique within the musical genre. You undoubtedly have a genius composer and his socially awareness lyrics in Ruben Blades. Then you have Oscar D’ Leon playing brilliantly the bass with great style accompanied by great vocal skills and range. Then you have the confident swagger and distinctive style with a raspy soul jazz voice in El Canario. Now if allowed to write more, the official list will grow as a cultivated plant naturally does with an abundance of water. But for the sake of your eyes and time, those three will sit today at the top of my list. I must reiterate there are many talented artists who have performed and who still perform the genre, and in no way is this list an affront to the many brilliant artists and newcomers out there.
Music is widely considered as the universal language, rightfully so. However, music is also representative of one’s soul and their cultural roots, their views of society and its path to tomorrow. Salsa is all of that to me, it embodies who I am by heart and where I grew up, my views today of mi gente and where we wish to be tomorrow. Todos libres de las cadenas bailando y gozando con la clave.
¡Que viva la Salsa!
Edwin Rosario Mazara is the founder of Spanglish Voces, a non-profit promoting community building through the arts. He also founded La Sala Talks, an outlet that communicates diverse perspectives within our cultures. Currently serves as a Communications Director at the NY State Senate—an activist who loves reading, la música & conversations & las miles de historias de los desconocidos.