Tag Archives: salsa

Musica para las Fiestas!

Just before Christmas, my wife borrowed some LPs from her grandmother so we could digitize them. These were albums her family listened to every December for decades. I was not familiar with any of them because these were albums of traditional Puerto Rican holiday music.

While digitizing these records, I was able to listen to them for the first time, enjoyed them immensely, and thought they would make excellent listening any time of year. This is in part because my knowledge of Spanish is limited, thus blunting the Christmas-ness of the lyrics for me. It’s also due to the unique qualities of Puerto Rican holiday music, which tends to be more about partying and patriotism than it is about things Americans think of as “traditional” Christmas song topics. (Lots more on that subject here.)

I couldn’t find out too much information on these albums online, at least not information I could understand (see above in re: Spanish, difficulties with). Nearly all of these albums were released on small specialty labels that are now defunct and, near as I can tell, have not been reissued by anyone. So I figured I might be the world’s last best hope to preserve these albums in all their glory, which show an interesting transition point between traditional musica jibara (“mountain music,” more or less) and the music that came out of New York starting the 1960s that came to be known as salsa.

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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.

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Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: El Gran Combo

Pitchers and catchers are a mere five weeks away, and it can’t come soon enough for me (even after last night’s hideous Carlos Beltran news). I am done with winter this year, at a record pace, and I’m normally a cold-weather guy. Or at least more of a cold-weather guy than a hot-weather guy. The sun is not my friend.

grancombo.JPGSo from now until players report, I will have a daily bit of baseball-iana to get you through the rest of the winter. The inaugural submission comes to me courtesy of WFMU’s Beware of the Blog, via Give the Drummer Some. Yesterday, he put up his weekly post of mp3s, and it included a beisbol-centric jam by Puerto Rican musical legends El Gran Combo.

They’ve been around for almost 50 years and are probably the most famous salsa group in the world. This tune, entitled “El Caballero Pelotero”, is about exactly what its title states: a horse who plays baseball.

My Spanish isn’t good enough to translate all the lyrics to this song. Or even most of them. In fact, all I can really catch are the lines “jugaba a beisbol” and “los Yanquis”. But apparently, this horse was quite the hitter.

Still, it puts me in the baseballing mood, and I hope it does the same for you. In addition to the original audio below, you can also see/hear El Gran Combo playing the song with another salsa legend, Hector Lavoe, on YouTube (which I would have included here, except the sound is sub-bootleg quality).

Download here.

George Michael: The Universal Language

I find foreign languages funny. And I find them especially funny in song form. I have no idea why, I just do. I don’t question it. I might as well ask, “Why is the sky blue?” or “What is this lump and how long has it been there?”

One format that always kills me is traditional salsa. Again, I can’t truly express why. But traditional salsa groups (and even some non-traditional ones) do something that always makes me laugh: the horn section singing the chorus in unison.

Why does this crack me up? Again, no idea. Something about the timbre of the vocals, how they sound vaguely distant, like the singers are shouting through paper towel tubes. And how, no matter what group is playing, the Horn Player Chorus sounds exactly the same.

I find this so funny, in fact, that I often think of songs that could be done in a salsa style, just to imagine a fictional horn section singing the chorus. For instance, I can make myself laugh by just imagining the semi-obscure early 80s synth-pop hit “Poison Arrow” as a salsa song. Because in my head, I hear a horn players singing “shoot that poison arrow!”, intercut with the keyboard lick recreated by a five-piece brass section.

In that spirit, and knowing full well no one else may find this amusing, I present this clip of a band called La Palabra doing their rendition of “Careless Whisper” (retitled “Rumores” for no discernible reason). The Wife tells me this was a pretty big hit on Spanish radio back in the day, not too long after the Wham! original climbed the charts.

If forget how/why she discovered this, but I am oh so glad she did. Enjoy!