A Salsa Journey Comes Full Circle
What do salsa, sea turtles and Scotland have in common? Nothing and everything, depending on your perspective. As Chief Sealth (Seattle) allegedly said, “All things are connected,” to which most contemporary Seattle residents would reply, “Whatever.”
This story begins with sea turtles, though I'm not sure where it ends...
Mexico to the Andes
In the 1980's, I spent my summers working in Alaska as a wildlife biologist, devoting winters mostly to school or other jobs. One year, I found myself assisting a biologist who was studying sea turtles in the spectacularly beautiful Mexican state of Michoacan.
The guy I worked for – a rugged adventurer who could have jumped out of an action comic book – had some recorded Latin music in his hut. One song, in particular, stuck in my mind.
I was familiar with Andean folk music, having been entertained by a group named Sukay when I attended Western Washington University in Bellingham. Three decades after my stint in Michoacan, I still remembered this haunting tune, but I didn't know the song's name. I vaguely remembered the name of the group – something like Quilapyun. But I couldn't track it down.
In mid-November, 2014, I somehow solved the mystery. I had been very close; the group's name is Quilapayun, and the song is “Susurro.”
I was interested to learn that Quilapayun was a Chilean group that pioneered a new musical style known as nueva cancion, a genre that features a lot of social commentary; you might call it protest music, similar to the musical roller coaster that swept across the United States in the 1960's.
Another exciting revelation: Quilapayun's members included Victor Jara, a famous folk singer who was tortured and murdered by Augusto Pinochet's U.S.-backed regime. Many view Jara as a martyr, sort of a musical equivalent of Che Guevara.
Anyway, I love tracking down beautiful songs and the stories behind them. No, I haven't yet learned the story behind “Susurro,” but just tracking down the melody that had lived in my mind for so many years was a treat. And as a long-time political activist deeply enamored of the Revolution that has long been firmly rooted in Latin America, I'm also a big fan of Victor Jara and nueva cancion.
So I had experienced what you might call a full-circle moment. About a week later, I was hit with another full-circle moment.
Seattle to the Caribbean
If you've read my previous writings on Latin music and dance, you know I started taking salsa classes in Seattle a few years ago – about 2010 or 11, I think. Ironically, an intriguing book review was published in The Scotsman about the same time, though I never discovered it until November 2014.
Though immediately addicted to Latin dance, I had some problems with my local salsa scene, which may be the armpit of the North American salsa scene. Rather than bore you with the details – which I've probably related a thousand times – let me tell you about that book review.
After recounting the author's discussion of salsa's roots (which have a lot to do with slavery) and subsequent adoption by Europeans (including white Americans), Christie describes a salsa convention in Zurich:
Yes! That's EXACTLY what the non-Latin salsa scene has become!
In his book, Rendell “describes the performance of a Palenque in Colombia, where the dancers quiver and shake free of imaginary chains, then brandish rods, speaking of their escape from slavery by groups who defended their freedom and often died doing so.”
Yes! For me, that's one of the most exciting aspects of Latin music. The dance is cool, but so is the culture that spawned it. And as a political activist trapped in a corporate whorehouse that has declared war on its own citizens, I often feel like a slave myself. Their story is my story, even if their suffering was far greater than I could imagine.
Rendell thinks it “rather odd to want to import from someone else’s world, an entire sub-system like a dance, with its music and its vast array of gestures, every element of which, in its original setting, has a history and a meaning which are hopelessly lost in translation.” Emphasizing his point, Christie notes, “There are even some in the British salsa movement who blame the Latin Americans for failing to keep abreast of ‘what’s happening in salsa,' thereby entirely missing the point.”
This is so true! There's a striking divide between Latin Americans and Europe (and the U.S.), which is one reason many cities have two salsa scenes, one representing the mainstream community and a generally smaller, quieter Latino scene.
It's also true that the mainstream salsa community is amazingly ignorant, arrogant and obtuse. And that's not a crime; if a person isn't interested in salsa's origins or meaning, that's their business. However, the astonishing cluelessness can feel a little insulting to begin with, and there are many individuals who are simply full of themselves. Indeed, the North American salsa scene appears to be dominated, controlled and manipulated by a collection of lounge lizards, promoters and even corporate-political propagandists.
Christie concludes with the observation that those who learn salsa by choice are simply going to have a different view of the genre than people who grew up in a Latin American culture, and those differences will manifest themselves on the dance floor.
Have you see that movie, Braveheart? It's one of my faves. Like Last of the Mohicans, it's a bloody yet touching, very emotional tribute to courage, backed by an unforgettable soundtrack.
So no one was more stunned than me when the Scots voted AGAINST their own indpendence in 2014. I had pretty much written Scottish people off as the most stupid race on Earth (or second most stupid, next to U.S. residents) when I read this book review, which made me reconsider.
I've been studying Latin music and dance fairly diligently for a few years now, even though I long ago gave up on dance classes in corporate Seattle, which is hopeless on so many levels. Let's say it's an intriguing topic, one that can be incredibly hard to understand or discuss.
The weird thing is that some of my biggest mainstream critics have been saying the very things they criticized me for saying. They moan about people dropping out of salsa and complain about dying salsa scenes.
A Seattle salsa instructor who posts anonymously as “Salsa Student” on a popular forum long told people that my complaints about the Seattle salsa scene were BS. This same clown is now telling people that he goes to Vancounver, Canada for salsa, switching to tango in Seattle, primarily because the boy-girl ratio in the Seattle salsa scene is badly skewed. Wait a minute – this guy's an instructor and claims to be associated with the great Santo Rico dance company. Shouldn't women be swooning over him?
Reading between the lines, it sounds like women don't like to dance with him, either because he's a lousy dancer, a jerk or all the above. (In one thread, he criticized one of Seattle's best known dancers by name because she wouldn't dance with him.) The climax was a forum post (Has your local salsa scene contracted over the last few years?) in which he virtually pronounced Seattle's salsa scene dead.
A former Microsoft heavyweight (I once saw a photo of him with Bill Gates on his website), he appears to have some association with Seattle's best known instructor, who's so sleazy, many women refuse to dance with him. And there's a third very sleazy instructor, a woman, who's associated with both of these creeps.
Salsa Student has further become friendly with a Romanian-born wannabe salsa starlet who works as an investment banker in New York City. She calls herself Sabrosura, and she made a name for herself when she started bragging about sleeping with a salsa superstar on the forum. Later she told the world that she had discovered her boyfriend was sleeping with everyone. In yet another thread, she lectured her audience on women's almost mythical ability to spot creeps, insiting that her woman's intuition was flawless.
The final straw (for me) was when Sabrosura announced that she's an investment banker and that everyone in America should send thank you cards to her and her fellow Jewish bankers for all they've done for America. Seriously.
It's really quite funny. And that's about all the average person can get out of the North American salsa scene - a few laughs. It's more like the Marx Brothers than Braveheart.
Speaking of Braveheart, lots of salsa fans like to claim that Latin dance builds character and somehow enhances the mind. So why are people so reluctant to talk about salsa? And why do so many of the scene's biggest big-mouths only post on forums anonymously? What are Salsa Student and Sabrosura afraid of?
At any rate, I think Matt Rendell and Janet Christie hit the nail on the head. However, I'm not in complete agreement with Christie's closing admonition: “Should we worry about that [the stuff I wrote about above] and avoid salsa? No, we probably shouldn’t.”
That's essentially true; salsa means different things to different people, and you shouldn't be expected to hang up your dance shoes just because you don't share someone else's heritage, experience or values.
On the other hand, Latin music and dance really are so much bigger than most non-Latin Americans realize. It seems almost obscene to take a beautiful genre and transform it into something resembling Microsoft or McDonalds.
And there is a lot more to this story than most people realize. Matt Rendell and Janet Christie wrote the first chapter, but I'm working on the second chapter, which focuses on yuppies, lounge lizards and the political manipulation of salsa. If you've seen videos of salsa stars performing for Obama and even dancing with the Whore of Whores, you know what I mean – if you have a brain, that is.
Unfortunately, far too many North American and European salser@s don't, an ironic state of affairs considering the fact that dance is supposed to stimulate the brain as well as the body. In the meantime, Salsa Student is commuting to Vancounver in search of women who will dance with him, while Sabrosua is skipping this year's Seattle Salsa Congress for a five-month tour of Latin America, perhaps an escape from the New York salsa scene, where she's become an embarrassment, according to some.
Want fries with dat dance?
• Book Review: Salsa for People Who Probably Shouldn’t, by Janet Christie (The Scotsman)
• Salsa in Cali, Colombia (video by Matt Rendell)
I thank Kim Cliffton for introducing me to “Susurro” and Matt Rendell and Janet Christie for confirming much of what I've been saying about salsa for a few years now. I never learned how to dance salsa, but I was right about the other stuff. ;)