Salsa's Past as Prologue

When Buena Vista Social Club garnered the award for Best Tropical Latin Performance at the recent Grammy ceremonies, American guitarist Ry Cooder, who produced the album of traditional Cuban music performed by a seasoned supergroup in Havana, took home the trophy. But in Cuba the prize was seen as a national victory for a country that has lately been profiting from a resurgence of international interest in its music. Two weeks ago the Cuban Music Institute celebrated the coup with a party in Havana featuring performances by los superabuelos (the supergrandfathers), as the Buena Vista crew has come to be known there. Also on hand was pianist Chucho Valdes, featured on Roy Hargrove's Habana, which won a Grammy in the Latin Jazz category. "This kind of recognition can really help us," said a music institute official. "I'm thrilled."

Others might not have been quite so happy -- and not only those Cuban exiles who regard the island's musicians as "agents of Castro." Yes, a Grammy-winning album of Cuban music constituted something of an upset, but given that music's current cachet, it was not a total surprise. What was perhaps more of a jolt to the Latin music industry was that their award was usurped by "outsiders."

After all, the Tropical category is one of the few Grammy spots open to Latin music. Miami-based mambo pioneer Israel "Cachao" López took home the prize in 1994, but generally the term "tropical" is synonymous with contemporary salsa -- lovesick, commercial Latin dance music. The nominees for Best Tropical Latin Performance included the large-lunged Nuyorican vocalist India (on salsa impresario Ralph Mercado's RMM label) and Albita (on the Sony imprint Crescent Moon, headed by Grammy-friendly Emilio Estefan -- two-time winner Gloria Estefan was one of this year's presenters). No male soloists made the list, noteworthy given Latin music's traditionally macho bent.

There is no question that Buena Vista deserves praise: It is a gorgeous, passionate album, a consummate example of classic Cuban son, a collaborative effort resulting in simply perfect music. (Cooder is currently back in Havana working on another album, this one featuring septuagenarian singer Ibrahim Ferrer.) But whether Buena Vista Social Club should have been included in the Tropical Latin category at all is debatable. As an album of folkloric standards, it could easily have been placed in the world music division (won by Brazil's Milton Nascimento). Buena Vista was released by a world music label, the United Kingdom-based World Circuit, and distributed in the United States by Nonesuch. (Another World Circuit/Nonesuch release, the Afro-Cuban All-Stars' A Toda Cuba Le Gusta, was also nominated in the Tropical category.) Furthermore, Buena Vista Social Club was produced not by a money-smart Latin insider, but by an American musician-cum-musicologist. And the CD features a band of old-timers whose craggy faces and baggy clothes fit the world music image of folkloric chic.

Granted, the Grammy Awards are voted on by members of an American entity, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, many of whom don't know mierda about Spanish-language music. At best the Grammys reflect the Latin music tastes of the Anglo or "crossover" market. They're not Los Nuestros (Ours), as the annual Univisión music awards are called, but rather "theirs."

"Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose," comments Emilio Estefan, who figures that the non-Latin voters were drawn by the novelty of the traditional Cuban sound. "With the Grammys you have 13,000 different people voting. You never know what they're going to go for."

But just because the Grammys honored Buena Vista Social Club doesn't mean you will ever hear it on local Spanish-language radio. "We have no plans to play any music by Cuban bands," confirms Keith Isley, program director at La Nueva 98 (WRTO-FM 98.3), from which sponsors threatened to pull out last year when the station added music by several Cuban dance groups to its playlist.

To date, Buena Vista has sold more than 150,000 copies in the United States, and the album is currently number one on Billboard's Latin Top 50 chart. Through a highly visible -- and inclusive -- marketing campaign, World Circuit has reached a much broader audience than is normally tapped by the Latin labels, which typically ignore the Anglo market in favor of interests in Latin America. As a result, a lot of non-Latins have discovered something "new." For established Latin music fans, however, Buena Vista is only one album among the growing number of available alternatives to mainstream romantic salsa -- the syrupy stuff with monotonous percussive backtracks that has characterized the commercial tropical sound for the past decade. It is one more sign of a renaissance in Latin music, a signal that salsa is returning to its roots.

In 1971 Leon Gast, best-known as the director of the 1996 Muhammad Ali documentary When We Were Kings, filmed Our Latin Thing, a movie about the then burgeoning music scene in New York City's Upper Manhattan "barrio." Dedicated to "the Spanish-speaking people of New York City," Our Latin Thing is basically a raucous concert movie starring the mutton-chopped, polyester-clad men who formed the original great salsa band the Fania All-Stars. The film also includes footage of barrio life, including cockfighting and a domino game.

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