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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Salsa Politics

From Slavery to Guantanamo Bay

I love music and dance, and I’ve also become fascinated by politics. In fact, I’ve become accustomed to looking for politics all around me, so it isn’t surprising that I found it in Latin music.

That will doubtless come as a shock to people who think Latin music is about nothing more than sensuous fun. Surely, Latin music can’t be political!

In fact, Latin music, as we know it, wouldn’t exist without the African slave trade. That’s a very heavy political topic itself. In the mid-twentieth century, blacks and Latinos were banned from New York City’s Palladium, which had become a beacon for Latin music and dance in the U.S. Coming full circle, I recently read about some Cuban musical group that performed in Seattle - after being banned during the George W. Bush years. I’d say all the above make salsa very political.

However, being relatively new to Latin music, I really know very little about what I loosely refer to as “salsa politics.” In fact, my knowledge of this topic can just about be summed up by the few following paragraphs.

The New Song Movement

Nueva canción (Spanish for “new song”) is a movement in Latin American music that originated in South America’s Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile and Uruguay) during the 1950s and 1960s. Combining traditional Latin American folk music and some popular rock music with lyrics that were often politicized, it became popular throughout Latin America.

These protest/social songs focus on poverty, human rights, imperialism, democracy and religion. They were most popular in Chile.

In 1973, the genre’s growth was harshly impacted by the Chilean coup, which drove the movement underground. Victor Jara - perhaps the New Song Movement’s most popular figure - was tortured and killed by the new right-wing regime led by General Augusto Pinochet. Other groups fled Chile. Pinochet’s government banned many traditional Andean instruments in its efforts to suppress the Nueva Canción movement.

Rubén Blades

Rubén Blades wears many hats, though he’s best known as a Panamanian salsa songwriter and singer. His mother’s great uncle, Juan Bedillo de Luna, was active in the Cuban revolutionary movement against Spain, so it isn’t surprising that Blades also has an interest in politics.

In fact, Blades is also a lawyer and politician, having served in government. He even received 18% of the vote when he ran for the office of President in 1994. As you might have guessed, Blades was also a pioneer in the Nueva Canción movement.

From Wikipedia: “Blades’ first notable hit was a song on the 1977 album Metiendo Mano that he had composed in 1968: ‘Pablo Pueblo,’ a meditation about a working-class father who returns to his home after a long day at work. The song later became his unofficial campaign song when he ran for president of Panama.”

Blades wrote another song (Plantación Adentro?) which addressed the brutal treatment of American Indians in colonial times. Many people consider Blades’ song “Patria” (Fatherland) their second national anthem.


I’m sure there’s enough information on this topic to write an encyclopedia. It will just take me some time to learn more about it.

In the meantime, my left-wing brain has been nursing a wicked thought. Seattle boasts a thriving salsa community, but the city can’t begin to compare to New York City, Miami, San Francisco or LA. I wouldn’t expect to see any new dance styles invented in Seattle in the near future, so how could the Emerald City ever make a blip on the radar screen of Latin music and dance?

Surely not through politicized salsa music. After all, Seattle is virtually owned by Bill Gates. Seattle’s Discovery Institute is the virtual capital of corporate creationism. Seattle is the home of grunge music, which is almost the polar opposite of Latin music - dreary, gutless, defeatist.

But all things change in time. As our economic train wreck continues, might Seattleites one day give up their trademark “deal with it” apathy and embrace political activism? Could they even reject grunge in favor of a brighter, less spineless musical genre, like salsa?

Just imagine if someone in Seattle wrote a smash salsa hit bashing Bill Gates. That would truly be both a musical and socio-political milestone.

One Latinish group based in Seattle, Children of the Revolution, has released a CD titled Life, Love (and Guantanamo Bay . . .), which includes the song Guantanamo Bay. The group’s members include one of Seattle’s leading salsa teachers. In fact, this is another example of Latin music coming full circle, from the African slave trade, which was combined with Spanish music in Cuba to form what we known as Latin music, to Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. facility that treats people like slaves on Cuban soil.

But what excites me more than this album is the tantalizing possibility that it might be an omen of things to come.

* * * * *

Can you contribute anything to this topic? Are there any political Latin albums, songs, singers or songwriters I should know about? What are your views on this topic? And if you’re a salsa fan and a political animal, do you love Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez or hate him? (There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground here.)

Please share your ideas with us!


  1. I dont have songs in mind but I am curious about finding out more songwriters with political salsa songs!

  2. LOL - Thanks for reminding me this blog still exists. ;)

    I want to write some stuff about political songs and songwriters when I find time. Calle 13 is a Puerto Rican group that's very political. I love their song La Vuelta al Mundo, though it isn't really salsa (or even close). Someone told me about some Venezuelan songwriters who are very political, but I buried the information in my notes somewhere.

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