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Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area – DAPA

Salsa music and agrobiodiversity

Music as an expression of culture is often one of the most accessible mediums by which those not native to a culture can come to understand, enjoy, and in some ways participate in culture. Here in Cali, Colombia, self-proclaimed “world capital of salsa”, tourism is focused first and foremost of the sights and sounds of the city’s own unique form of salsa music and dance, rather than landmarks or environmental beauty.

Salsa is actually a fairly recent arrival to Colombia. True to its name, salsa is a mixture derived from a long history of migration and adaptation. Both African and European rhythms and instruments came together in the Caribbean, particularly in Cuba, and birthed a number of progenitor musical forms. But it was in New York, where the whole world was crammed together into one small space of mega human cultural diversity, where these “Latin” rhythms mixed with jazz, swing, rock, disco, and other styles, and the modern form (and name), salsa, emerged. Salsa in recent years has become a global phenomenon, with clubs and classes in virtually every sizable city worldwide, from Toronto to Buenos Aires, Oslo to Rangoon.

The popular street music in number of centers of salsa’s origins have moved on to other styles, but in northwestern South American countries, the music and its dance forms continue to hold a central position, and to evolve. Supermarkets pipe salsa into the shopping aisles, taxi drivers blast salsa, and the local salsa festival in Cali hosts literally thousands of professional and semi-professional dancers, along with their own bands.

Music not only reflects culture, but also reinforces and even creates it. This is quite evident in this city, where not a day can pass without hearing Cali salsa band Grupo Niche‘s classic “Cali Panchanguero”. This is a salsa love ballad, from a band that has persisted for over 30 years, devoted to the city itself. An excerpt:



“todos los caminos conducen a ti, si supieras la pena que un día sentí, cuando en frente de mí tus montañas no ví” (translation): all roads lead to you, if you knew the pain that I felt, when in front of me I could not see your mountains.

The song ends with the great classic line, indeed the city’s motto:

“Cali es Cali señoras, señores..lo demás es loma”. This iconic sentence means, in effect, that Cali is the center of the world, the only place to be, and anywhere else is nowhere at all. This line sources from another great Cali salsa band, the Latin Brothers’, song “Las Caleñas Son como las Flores”, where the women of Cali are likened to the diversity of violets, gardenias, roses, and other flowers.



Agrobiodiversity in salsa music

Agrobiodiversity often appears in the lyrics of salsa music, both old traditionals and modern anthems, in celebration of culture and in yearning for traditional foods. Songs that mention crops and foods speak of the iconic dishes, the ones that people miss when far away. Salsa songs often refer to tropical fruit, coconuts, and rice. One of the first songs from Cuba that became a sensation in the United States, paving the way for a “Latin” music revolution in the 1930s, was “El Manicero”, the peanut vendor. The peanut, of South American origin, was widely cultivated in Cuba, and the vendor in the song walks the streets offering his salty goods:


“Dame de tu maní, que esta noche no voy a poder dormir, sin comerme un cucurucho de maní” (translation): Give me your peanuts, because tonight I won’t be able to sleep, without eating some peanuts.

Here is Venezuela’s great salsa singer Oscar D’Leon, with “El Frutero”, mentioning pineapples, also from South America , as well as mangoes of South Asian origin:



“frutas quien quiere comprarme frutas, mango del caney y bizcochuelo, piña…piña dulce como azúcar, cosechados en las lomas del caney, que bonito mango de caney, piñas que deliciosas son como labios de mujer” (translation): who wants to buy fruits? mango and sponge cake, pineapple sweet as sugar, harvested in the hills of caney, beautiful mango from caney, pineapples as delicious as a woman’s lips.

Here in Cali the songs often refer to the crop that spreads across the alluvial plains of the Cauca valley. Sugarcane, which could be said to be the reason for the existence of this city and the surrounding towns in the Department, is so much part of the identity that it is said that Caleños don’t like rain because they are made of sugar (and so would dissolve in the rain)! Here is Orquestra Guayacan, with “Oiga, Mira, Vea”:



“Si huele a caña, tabaco y brea, usted está en Cali, ay mire vea… con salsa de ají, con mucho maní” (translation): it smells of sugarcane, tobacco and pitch, you are in Cali, check it out, with chili pepper and peanut salsa.

Rum, made from sugarcane, and aguardiente, its anise flavored relative, are preferred drinks in the salsa clubs, with a bottle shared by a table of partiers along with lemon juice. Here is “Cali Aji”, another from Grupo Niche, a song which also mentions the important South American lowland tropical starchy root staple, cassava, consumed in a bread called pandebono:



“no hay cañaduzal que se esté quieto y quiere que lo pique pa’ que se vuelva aguardiente” (translation): there is no sugarcane field that isn’t moving, because it wants to be harvested to become aguardiente”.

Sugarcane, from Southeast Asia, was introduced early in the Colonial period into the Caribbean, so it is not surprising to find it in salsa songs from Puerto Rico and Cuba. The legendary “Nuyorican” duo Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz describe the daily work of a slave during the sugarcane harvest in “La Zafra”:



“Echa pa’ lante mi buey, que tenemos que avanzar, hoy vamo’ a dar veinte viajes, de caña pa’ la central” (translation): keep moving, ox, for we must keep moving, today we need to do 20 trips, moving sugarcane to the factory.

In a more modern version of somewhat similar sentiment, here is the great El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, telling us that most of the year, life is a grind of work and stress, but when the holiday comes, it is time to celebrate and eat the best foods:



“vamos pa aqui, vamos pa´ya, todo Puerto Ricooooooooo…a comer pastel, a comer lechon, arroz con guandules, y a beber ron, que venga morcilla, venga de toooo” (translation): Let’s go here, let’s go there, all of Puerto Rico…to eat cake, to eat roast pig, rice and pigeonpeas, and to drink rum, to serve blood sausage, to serve everything.

Many of the crops mentioned in salsa, like the musical genre itself, have an interesting and complex history of migration and mixture of cultures. Guandul, or pigeonpea (Cajanus cajan) is among those Old World crops that are important in the Americas particularly in communities of descendents of slaves. Along with watermelon, okra, and cowpeas, pigeonpea came to the Caribbean via West Africa, although this particular pulse’s origin is in India.

Medicinal herbs also have a place in salsa music. “Queen of salsa”, Cuban-born Celia Cruz, immortalized a list of herbs, providing the traditional medicinal uses associated with them in the “Yerberito Moderno”:



“Traigo yerba santa pa’ la garganta, traigo keisimon pa’ la hinchazón, traigo abrecaminos pa’ tu destino, traigo la ruda pa’ el que estornuda, tambien traigo albahaca pa’ la gente flaca, el apazote para los brotes, el vetiver para el que no ve” (translation): I bring yerba santa for the throat, casimon tree for swelling, abrecaminos for destiny, ruda for sneezing, basil for skinny people, epazote for outbreaks, vetiver for blindness.

Much has been written on the loss of native foods and food traditions in modern times. How much this will change the lyrics of salsa and other songs celebrating culture remains to be seen. On the other hand, music may serve to keep alive these foods in the memory of those who listen, and to generate new interest in keeping these foods alive.

blog by Colin Khoury and Nora Castañeda

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