The Sound of the City

Sounding Salsa: Performing Latin Music in New York City by Christopher Washburne (Temple University Press, $26.95)—This book about salsa and the musicians who play it goes in wildly different directions. There are stories of death threats at rehearsals, of the role of cocaine and the drug cartels in the scene, of Ruben Blades calming a crowd in Venezuela by singing about his deceased parents after a front row shooting, of the bassist who says he killed Charlie Parker by getting him drugs. Then Washburne, a Columbia ethnomusicology professor who has played trombone on dozens of salsa albums along with stints in the bands of La India, Tito Puente, and Eddie Palmieri, will go off on long academic ramblings that are almost unreadable. At other times, he’s just a smart guy—making telling points about the enduring connection of salsa to El Barrio, exposing union neglect of salsa musicians, and even in making a case that salsa romantica is the equal of classic salsa dura. Washburne brings the voices of dozens of other musicians into the mix and holds your interest even when delving into the smallest details of the salsa life—from how the current stage setup evolved to what the guys wear to rehearsals (cutoff denim shorts, pressed). Above all, he conveys the passion that he and his fellow musicians have for the art form, a passion that makes them willing to endure violence, drug abuse, canceled gigs and low pay, sleep deprivation and hearing loss in pursuit of those nights where the groove becomes transcendent and makes it all worthwhile. Examples abound—percussionists who ignore their breaks between sets at a gig in order to play along with the DJ and improve their chops or the tradition that mandates that a salsa musician who enters a room of other musicians must shake each person’s hand and introduce himself (trumpeter John Walsh: “I always find it odd when I play a jazz gig. No one says hello or greets anyone like in a salsa band.”) If Sounding Salsa is sometimes maddening to read, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a unique, vital contribution that most any musician or music fan will find their own reflection in.

 

 

Rock & Rap Confidential / 2010