Staying True to Salsa

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Miguel Rajmil / EPA / Corbis

Salsa singer Willie Colon performs at dawn at the Copacabana Club.

Willie Colon hasn't even taken the stage yet, but the first three notes of an opening riff by his saxophonist tip the screaming crowd at the Poliedro arena that the legendary salsa star is about to sing "Gitana." No matter that many in the audience weren't even born when Colon released the hit song in 1984, they sing it word for word, at times so loud that the singer's voice is drowned out.

Despite the dedication of his following, aging greats such as Colon know that salsa music is long past its 1970s heyday. And, he laments, these days its offerings are somewhat sterile. "There was a lot of passion in the old salsa," Colon says, backstage after his set. "The passion is gone, you know. They sound like perfume commercials now."

Oscar D'Leon, Venezuela's best-known salsa vocalist, voiced similar concerns in an interview before a show in Caracas this month. A veteran of more than three decades on stage, D'Leon is still showered with affection wherever he goes in Venezuela. But, he feels, there's a much smaller generation of salsa superstars to whom D'Leon and his consort can pass the torch. "We have had a lot of losses of talent," he said. "Those of us who are left haven't had the accompaniment of new substitutes."

Salsa has been knocked off its perch by new Latin rhythms, and that has forced D'Leon and others to adapt by fusing salsa with reggaeton, an urban music that mixes hip-hop, Jamaican dance hall and Latin genres. In fact, D'Leon won his first Latin Grammy award this year for Fuzionando — an album featuring a collaboration with reggaeton star Tego Calderon, and also the reggaeton song "Mirala." Salsa stars Andy Monta´┐Żez and Gilberto Santa Rosa have also put out reggaeton songs.

Reggaeton artists have repaid the compliment by sampling classic salsa tunes, which Colon says helps introduce young listeners to salsa. "You look out in the audience today and I think the average age was about 20," he said of his show in Caracas. "And that's thanks to reggaeton and their meshing with salsa."

Not that it's possible to grow up in Venezuela unaware of salsa: The music emanates from houses and car speakers across Caracas, and dancing to it is an essential feature of most social gatherings among the rich and especially the poor. "It's a genre that will stay because it's legitimate popular music," says Venezuelan journalist and radio host Cesar Miguel Rondon, author of The Book of Salsa, a comprehensive history of the genre. "When I say it's popular music I want to emphasize that it's music that belongs to a tradition, to a way of seeing the world, to a way of belonging in the world."

A fusion of mostly Afro-Cuban rhythms, salsa was born among mainly Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants in New York City. New York-based Fania Records promoted the new genre in the 1960s and '70s, presiding over a salsa boom and launching the careers of greats such as Colon, Hector Lavoe and Ruben Blades. Colon and Lavoe's "Calle Luna, Calle Sol" depicts two dangerous San Juan streets, while their "El Dia de mi Suerte" conveys the desperation and hope of overcoming hardship in the barrio.

Reggaeton, like salsa, is a raw expression of life on the streets, although often more explicitly violent and sexual. Colon says it has gained popularity because it is "able to say a lot of those funky, ugly nasty things young kids need to hear." Salsa has lost some of that edge these days, and Colon blames record companies for producing what he calls "bubblegum" salsa. "The reason that reggaeton was able to gain so much ground was that it came from under the radar," he said, "and it was saying and doing things that are not being said in a salsa that wants to be all things to all people."

Success in the Latin music market today often requires mastering more than one genre. "Marc Anthony does salsa and he does it well," said Juan Jose Leandro of Emporio Group, a Caracas-based promoter. "But he does ballads and he does them very well. And he does it in English and he does it very well. That's what I'm telling you. Music isn't boxed into just one segment anymore, into just one genre."

But not all salsa acts are buying into the fusion trend. Luis Perez, manager of La Dimension Latina (which opened for Colon), says his group won't change its formula. "We will preserve ourselves, always preserving what we represent, not doing fusions," he says, "because I don't think salseros will take it well. I don't think they would accept it."

The dedication of the salseros was clearly on display at the seven-hour Caracas showcase, despite the uncertainties of an election weekend in Venezuela. Tensions ran high in the city two days before the country was to vote on President Hugo Chavez's proposed constitutional reform — which it rejected — and an enormous pro-Chavez march had ended downtown shortly before the concert began. That didn't stop nearly 10,000 fans from turning up, dancing in the aisles and singing themselves hoarse until 3 a.m.

The dedication of the fans is one reason Oscar D'Leon isn't worried for salsa's future, even if he records a reggaeton song once in a while. "Life is cycles," D'Leon said. "Each cycle ends and in time it opens again, and I think this will happen soon. It has already been many years that new talent hasn't come out, and I think we're on the eve of something good."