Asalto Navideño!

I love Puerto Rican Christmas music. One reason is because it is nearly indistinguishable from non-Christmas-y Puerto Rican music. Granted, that is due in large part to my poor knowledge of Spanish. But, it is also indicative of a culture that has a very different view of the holiday than that of most Americans.

Traditional American* Christmas songs are either religious (overtly or tacitly), or they are somewhat gentle in their celebrations of the joy of the season. Christmas is presented as great because snow and jingle bells and presents and stuff. The pleasure you derive from the season is supposed to be a general feeling of Good Will Toward Men.

* I realize I’m getting into thorny territory by saying “American” in contrast to “Puerto Rican” when Puerto Rico is in fact a part of the US of A. Please excuse this shorthand as a means to forestall excessive hyphenation and explanatory adjective chains. 

Puerto Rican Christmas songs, on the other hand, are about more earthly delights. In fact, nearly every one of them is about the unabashed merriment of eating, drinking, dancing, or any combination thereof. Christmas is sung of as a wonderful time of year because you get to do these things with your friends and family.

Of course, everyone parties at the holidays, but ever since Dickens (and maybe earlier), that is not reflected in the art we make about the holiday. Regardless of what we actually do on December 25, we feel compelled to assign a greater, more lofty meaning to Christmas in songs, movies, and stories about it. Admitting that you’re looking forward to taking a Yuletide vacation from moderation is seen as somewhat gauche, if not vaguely blasphemous.

In the world of Puerto Rican Christmas songs, however, there’s no conflict of wondering if we’ve lost “the reason for the season” because partying is the reason for the season.

In these songs, the bacchanalian element is, more often than not, offset by patriotic overtones, a celebration of/longing for home. Here’s a prime example: “La Fiesta de Pilito” by El Gran Combo, an all-star salsa group–an orchestra, really–that’s been around since the early 1960s. I tried to think of a supergroup equivalent in the non-Latin-music world, but remembered that pretty much all supergroups are terrible. Just know (if you didn’t already) that El Gran Combo is ne plus ultra of salsa, and this song a paragon of a salsa Christmas song. The chorus combines joyous cries of “Vamos Puerto Rico!” with a list of things that they’re going to eat at a Christmas party.

I fully support this hedonistic view of the holiday. However, coming from a completely different background, it took me a very long time to understand said view. For years, I would hear these Christmas songs on the radio this time of year, and my then-girlfriend-now-wife would school me on holiday salsa classics, telling me these were the kind of songs you would hear at family parties growing up. This blew my mind, because when I thought “family Christmas songs,” I thought “Deck the Halls” and “Silent Night.” I did not think of horn-filled dance songs, or eight minute Cuban jazz workouts with trombone solos, that literally tell you to eat and drink and be merry.

Eager for knowledge about this Brave New World, whenever I heard a new Christmas song I would ask my wife, “What are they singing about?”, and the answer was almost invariably “partying.”

She recently purchased a prime example of what I’m talking about. It’s a reissue of two Christmas albums from the early 1970s, Asalto Navideño volumes 1 and 2. They’re performed by a veritable who’s who of salsa, led by legendary bandleader/trombonist Willie Colon, with the bulk of the singing done by the just-as-legendary Hector Lavoe. The primary audio signal that this is Christmas music, I am told (I’m still a newcomer to this world), is that the instrumentation and rhythms contain elements that are very traditional, almost “country” (musica jibara). But these are mixed with the salsa sound that developed in New York in 1960s and 1970s (which was itself a mixture of different Latin musical styles and jazz).

Both records are amazing, full of high octane musicianship and performances, and I highly recommend them for listening to any time of year. However, taking them in while keeping in mind this is Christmas music is still difficult for my dumb brain to compute. For one thing, they have no real analogs in “American” Christmas carols–try to imagine a holiday song in English that had a chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and sang about ham. (Though now that I think about it, there’s gotta be a Hank Williams Jr. song like that, right?)

Not to mention, these records do not let up at all. No quiet Yuletide tunes here, no “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” or “White Christmas.” These albums truly are asaltos, wall-to-wall non-stop party music. Just peep this video of one of the tracks from these albums, “Aires de Navidad,” performed live.

UPDATE 12.6.12: Original video [] I posted here has been removed from YouTube. Frowny face. Sound quality on this substitute is decidedly bootleg, but should still give you an idea of the kind of high-energy performances these songs demand. You will also get a glimpse of Hector Levoe wearing a Klaus Nomi-sized bow tie.

Perhaps the biggest indication of what I’m talking about are the album covers, which indicate a very different view of the holidays than the one I was immersed in growing up. Volume one shows Santa Claus and an elf, not delivering toys but taking them away (see above). This fits in with Colon’s “outlaw” image; numerous album covers (like this one) pictured him literally as a gangster who could and would probably kill you with the pure power of his trombone.

But this idea is taken to the extreme in volume two. Viz:

Yes, Santa and his helpers are knocking over a gas station. One of his elves is actually pulling a gun on this poor mechanic. Asalto, indeed. It’s hard for me to imagine even a novelty Christmas album trying an album cover like this, let alone one that was done in all seriousness and meant for family party listening, which this record most assuredly was.

When you think about it, though, this is all much more in tune with the holiday than many of the songs I grew up with. After all, what makes more sense for Christmas: songs about having a good time, or songs about snowmen come to life and glow-in-the-dark reindeer?