Himnos Negros: Salsa as an Afro-Latinx Art Form
By Yasmina Cabrera
In global popular culture, salsa is a genre of music that is considered by many as unequivocally Latinx. However, in order for salsa to have moved into the mainstream and become a global representation of Latinidad, its Black origins and artists have largely been erased from cultural memory. In order to fully grasp salsa’s cultural importance as well as its social and political implications, it must be understood primarily as the result of transcultural work across the African diaspora in New York City, and we must consider it as a form of art that Afro-Latinxs have made possible by carving out space for themselves. Centering the work of Afro-Latinx salseros/as like Ismael Rivera, Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez, and Celia Cruz, as well as the expansive career of Afro-Puerto Rican songwriter Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso, shows us that through salsa Afro-Latinxs have been able to make their histories, lived experiences, and aspirations for society more visible.
Despite a brief period of collaboration post-World War I, divisions quickly formed between nonblack Latinx and Afro-Latinx musicians in the U.S. as they all looked for employment and opportunities that were unevenly distributed. Many white and nonblack Latinxs could either be accepted into the Anglo-American bands that were popular at the time, or could have their pick between the newly formed “Latin” bands, which played watered down Afro-Cuban music for elite white audiences, or the African American Jazz bands; In her article “From ‘Indianola’ to ‘Ño Cola,’” Ruth Glassier writes, “...it was clear that white or light-skinned Latinos with talent and ambition found success, if they were lucky, in ways that were not open to even the finest Afro-Latin musicians” (Glassier 2010, p.169-170). During this time, Afro-Latinxs with the same musical abilities could not consider joining the white bands and also faced outright discrimination from the Latin bands. In the essay “Bauzá- Gillespie-Latin/Jazz,” Jairo Moreno states that “commercially successful Latin bandleaders held fast to racial segregation. This was certainly the case for Xavier Cugat...whose orchestra became the mainstream representative of Cuban and Latin music in New York in the early 1930s” (Moreno 2010, p. 181-182).
If Afro-Latinx musicians wanted to continue playing, they would have to remain with the African American bands which didn’t always respect the complexities of Afro-Latinx identity, as well as the difficulties of the language barrier (Moreno 2010, p. 185). Despite their talent and creativity during this time, Afro-Latinxs had no space to fully express their identity through music without being marginalized. This led Afro-Cuban musician Mario Bauzá, the innovator behind Latin Jazz, to create his own band; “Bauzá again observed the lack of representation of Black Latin musicians in music he considered unthinkable without their contribution…” (Glassier 2010, p.169). Instead of trying to gain acceptance into the existing bands, Bauzá was concerned with creating something new altogether. According to Glassier, “In the meantime musicians such as Bauzá and legions of other dark-skinned Latinos were channeling their apparent liability toward the formation of an exciting uptown Latin music scene” (2010, p. 172-173).
By merging “Latin” music and African American Jazz that were both popular at the time through the band Machito, Bauzá would open up a completely new space for Afro-Latinxs. As Moreno further explains, by putting together aspects of the “dominant” music culture, Jazz, with those that make the “subaltern” stand out, in this case the more advanced drumming rhythms of Afro-Cuban music, Bauzá was able to form a new field in which Afro-Latinxs in the U.S could finally express, celebrate, and promote further creation among themselves.
In the early 1960s, the communities of El Barrio and the Bronx began to establish their own club culture and dance scenes. In these clubs the bands could nurture and further develop their music through feedback from the public; it was in this way that Latin Jazz and Boogaloo eventually led to Salsa. Their music was heavily informed by the sounds that excited the crowds and got them up to dance rather than sit in boredom. In his article “Contesting that Damned Mambo,” David Garcia argues that “groups that were not active participants of the mambo scene in Manhattan filled the unique musical needs of many Latin@s living in El Barrio and the Bronx, the cultural settings of which constituted a vibrant alternative to…the commercially driven milieu of Manhattan’s dancehalls and elite nightclubs” (2010, p. 190).
The very establishment of Salsa demonstrates how the genre exists primarily because of the unique marginalization that Afro-Latinxs from New York have faced. By analyzing the work of these salseros/as, we can honor the creation of Salsa as a space for Afro-Latinxs and consider how it has allowed them to share Afro-Latinx history as well as their own lived experiences, on their own terms, in a world that is often bent on erasing their voices.
“La Rebelión”- Joe Arroyo
Quiero contarle mi hermano
Un pedacito de la historia Negra
De la historia nuestra
In 1978, Joe Arroyo, an Afro-Colombian from the Caribbean coastal town of Cartagena, wrote one of the most popular Salsa songs to ever be recorded. Arroyo tells the story of the first Africans to reach Colombia, and he focuses specifically on a married couple and what ensues after a Spanish slave owner strikes the Black woman. He sings, “Y fue allí, se reveló el negro guapo, tomó venganza por su amor y aún se escucha en la verga: ‘No le pegue a mi negra!’ It is then, he sings, that the brave Black man revealed himself, seeking vengeance for his love, and to this day you can still hear him yell “Don’t hit the Black woman!”
Arroyo doesn’t tell us what happens after the Black man stands up for his wife. Whether the Spaniard retaliated, or the couple got away, is not the point of the story, but rather that there was once a man so impassioned against the racist abuse that comes from being enslaved, that he risked his life to preserve his and his wife’s dignity. His declaration carries so much power that even after the system that captured and attempted to dehumanize him is abolished, his voice remains for all of time calling out for justice. At its heart, “La Rebelión” is a compelling narrative that illustrates the power of Black love and resistance in Colombia.
“Witinila”- Ismael Rivera
El Negro Witinila
Al monte fue a parar
Porque no quizo ser esclavo
Quería su libertad, libertad
In 1973, Afro-Puerto Rican Salsa icon Ismael Rivera shared with his audience the story of Witinila, an African man on the island of Puerto Rico who decides to escape enslavement. After asking his saints to save him from the whip, he is able to flee to the woodlands, where he can be heard sounding a drum; “Witinila clamaba por libertad, por eso pal monte ye ye oh, se fue a parar, Witinila en el monte ‘ta sonando un tambo.” In the background there are singers that repeat “Witinila huye, huye,” encouraging him to run away and make it to safety.
Rivera ends the song by singing “ahora vive la rumba de Witinila, Negrito cimarrón era Witinila,” acknowledging that with this song he is depicting the history of cimarrónes, the communities of runaway slaves who were able to find freedom, in this case, in the Caribbean. Whether fictional, mythical, or a real historical figure, Witinila remains an interesting Afro-Latinx character to think about as a person who is able to find freedom and is kept alive by the power of his cultural practices.
“La Abolición”- Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez
El Negro camina
Buscando la meta
Que no se avecina
Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez sings Tite Curet Alonso’s, “La Abolición.” Released in 1976, this song tackles the persisting oppression of Afro-Latinxs long after the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean and Latin America. The chorus states, “si la abolición llegó el negro no la gozó, no la gozó, no la gozó, su libertad nunca llegó,” arguing that Black people have never enjoyed freedom in Latin America. Rodriguez is disillusioned by the promises made to his people by those in power in Latin America and feels that not much has changed since slavery was officially abolished in the region; so many promises were made, he recalls, only for nothing to be done. Through one of the most poignant lines, “levanta bandera, y cruza frontera, su lucha que e' fuerte y no tiene suerte” Curet Alonso reminds audiences that no national flags or border crossings have protected the Black diaspora from the global pervasiveness of anti-Blackness.
Despite its progressive nature, it should be noted that Curet Alonso limits his audience by centering Black men in this discourse on Blackness and power in Latin America, Rodriguez sings “Caballeros sigue falsa la abolición.” It is indicative of how male-dominated the genre has been historically, and how Afro-Latinxs of other gender identities have still not been allowed the same space as men.
“La Abolicíon,” is not only about these disappointing aspects of Afro-Latinx history, it is also a call to action and reveals Curet Alonso’s role as a visionary since he ends it by calling for another revolution for Afro-Latinxs, “Vamo acabar con la discriminación, hace falta una revolución.”
“Galera Tres”- Ismael Miranda
Aquí adentro es otro mundo
Porque no existe el derecho
Y abusan cada segundo
Si tú eres de pelo en pecho
In this song, released in 1981, songwriter Curet Alonso places us in the world of prisoners at the “galera tres.” The first line is jarring as Ismael Miranda warns, “están dando palos, golpes, bofetones, puños y empujones, allá en la galera tres,” he describes people being beaten, slapped, and shoved. Curet Alonso makes clear what kind of environment the “galera tres” is and what we’re about to witness. Miranda continues by naming some of the prisoners that he sees being taken to the prison clinic as it fills up, one of them, Turquito, is bleeding from his face and has a broken nose. Much later in the song Turquito appears once more, this time bleeding profusely from his feet, and another Matias is on his way to the clinic yet again; “Dicen que vieron a Turquito, ay! botando sangre por los pies, ya tu ves. Y ahí llevan al pobre Matias camino a la enfermería.” The song takes an even darker turn as Miranda tells us that a Black man has been cut but no one knows how, “Y dicen que cortaron al negro, oye y no saben con qué.”
By personalizing these violent scenes within the prison, Curet Alonso masterfully exposes the gross abuse of power from the people who run the prison system and emphasizes the powerlessness of the prisoners being abused. He also critiques the so-called justice system at large, stating, “en la injusticia, de la justicia, es el martirio del ser humano, es corrección lo que necesitan, y lo atropellan de palo en mano.” In the injustice of the justice system, human beings are martyrs, Curet Alonso writes, they need correction but are being beaten with sticks instead. “Galera Tres” is a heartbreaking account of the nightmarish lives of the men, usually Black and poor, who are trapped in one of society’s most cruel structures, the prison.
“El Negro Bembón”- Ismael Rivera
Mataron al negro bembón
Hoy se llora noche y día
Porque al negrito bembón
Todo el mundo lo quería
In the early 1950s, Bobby Capó, a Puerto Rican who was one of the Afro-Latinxs directly discriminated against by Xavier Cugat’s Latin band, wrote “El Negro Bembón.” It is performed by Cortijo y Su Combo, the group where a young Ismael Rivera began his career along with his best friend Rafael Cortijo. “El Negro Bembon,” is the story of a Black man who is cherished by his community but becomes the victim of a racist murder. When the police arrives to investigate, the killer confesses to murdering El Negro Bembón, “por ser tan bembón,” for having such thick lips, which is often an indication of Blackness in Latin America.
Bobby Capó wrote the score for the film Maruja (1959), in which Cortijo y Su Combo are seen performing “El Negro Bembón.” In the film, Cortijo y Su Combo are no more than background characters that are used by white Latinxs for entertainment; the delighted faces and joyful dancing are particularly strange to watch when considering the heavy subject matter of racial violence in the song. The scene demonstrates how Afro-Latinxs have historically used their music to provide meaningful narratives that speak to their lives, despite being trivialized and exoticized by white and nonblack Latinxs.
“El Nazareno”- Ismael Rivera
Cuando ya me divertía
Y empezaba a vacilar
No sé de dónde una voz vine a escuchar
“El Nazareno,” written by Curet Alonso was released in 1976. In this song, Ismael Rivera describes his relationship with el Cristo Negro de Portobello, Panamá, of whom he was a fierce follower. I was sixteen when I first heard my dad absentmindedly vocalize “el Nazareno me dijo que cuidará a mis amigos,” and I had just begun to collect songs of his childhood, trying to get a glimpse of a young Black boy in 1970s Santo Domingo. Eagerly I asked, “Papi y esa canción, quién la canta?” “Oh, ese e el Nazareno de Ismael Rivera, a Papá le gutaba mucho esa canción.” A few days later I was listening to Rivera’s own voice interpret the same words I’d first heard from my father’s mouth. Rivera’s tone, melancholic and defeated, and brand new and full of joy at once, told me to pay attention, and I listened to him tell me the story of that one party he’d gone to, and what the voice of God had told him as he began to dance.
This was my introduction to Ismael Rivera, and my introduction to Curet Alonso’s vision of God. A God that comes to him like one of his best friends and wants to see him in a moment of celebration, a God that promises to protect Rivera’s friends as long as he continues to share his gift and sing for them. A God that encourages him, a God that believes in him, a God that is Black. Towards the middle of the song Rivera inserts his own improvisational flare, a talent that established him as a master of the genre, with the line “sigue pa'lante, pa'lante, pa'lante, pa’lante como un elefante, Maelo no dejes que te tumben tu plante.” God calls him by his nickname, Maelo, and tells him to keep going no matter how hard those around him try to discourage him. By redefining God as “el negrito lindo de Portobello,” Curet Alonso assures his community that God is keenly aware of the spaces that Afro-Latinxs occupy and of the unique obstacles they face; that he is with them because he is one of them. By the end, one cannot help but also feel protected, encouraged, and believed in.
“Las Caras Lindas (De Mi Gente Negra)”- Ismael Rivera
En Portobello, Panamá
Yo vi la cara más bella y pura
Y es por eso que mi corazón
Se alegra de su negrura
In 1978, Ismael Rivera released yet another song written by Curet Alonso titled “Las Caras Lindas (De Mi Gente Negra),” which literally translates to “the beautiful faces of my Black people.” Today it is remembered as Rivera’s ode to Afro-Latinidad. Curet Alonso’s poetic talent is on full display as he crafts elaborate similes and metaphors looking for ways to describe the lives of his people. The song begins, “las caras lindas de mi raza prieta, tienen de llanto, de pena y dolor, son las verdades que la vida reta, pero que llevan dentro mucho amor,” the beautiful faces of my dark race, Rivera sings, they cry from hurt and pain, they are the truth of life’s challenges, but inside they carry so much love.
Curet Alonso is aware of the painful history and everyday experiences that Afro-Latinxs are faced with, which he himself has written about, and with this song he provides an anthem, a way to remember the beauty of Afro-Latinxs despite of the xenophobia and anti-Blackness ever present in their lives. Despite the constant attempt to erase Afro-Latinx voices, Curet Alonso describes them as life itself: “somos la melaza que ríe, la melaza que llora, somos la melaza que ama, y en cada beso que conmovedora,” we are the molasses that laughs, the molasses that cries, we are the molasses that loves, and that inspires with every kiss. Curet Alonso hopes that, like Rivera, Afro-Latinxs can have a heart that rejoices in its Blackness.
“Nací Moreno”- La Sonora Ponceña
El día que me bautizaron
Yo no sé ni quién lo hizo
Yo sé que fue en el paraíso
Y la salsa me dejaron
“Sin Negro No Hay Guaguancó”- Lebron Brothers
Vamo a brindar a los negros
Vamo a brindar a los negros
A los negros del Malecón
La Sonora Ponceña and the Lebron Brothers, two musical groups from Puerto Rico, both have songs that recognize the unique role that Afro-Latinxs occupy as the creators of Salsa. In their songs “Nací Moreno” and “Sin Negro No Hay Guaguancó,” Afro-Latinxs are claiming Salsa as uniquely theirs. La Sonora Ponceña sings, “Nací moreno porque así tenía que ser, y en mi cantar yo voy a explicar por qué. Yo nací y mi madre fue la rumba, y a mi padre lo apodaban guaguancó.” It directly translates to, “I was born Black because I had to be, I’ll explain why, I was born and my mother was rumba, and my father was nicknamed guaguancó.” In this song, they acknowledge the direct link between being born Black and having an affinity for playing Rumba and Guaguancó, two of the Afro-Cuban genres that fall under the umbrella of Salsa. This link is symbolized as an inheritance and it highlights the importance of Afro-Latinxs playing the genres they have created for themselves. In their song, the Lebron brothers assert that without Black people, Rumba, Guaguancó, and therefore Salsa, would not exist; “Sin negro no hay, sin negro no hay la rumba, ni guaguancó.”
“Quimbara”- Celia Cruz y Johnny Pacheco
La rumba me esta llamando
Bombo, dile que ya voy
Que me espere un momentito
Mientras canto un guaguancó
As a testament to their global popularity, the Fania All-Stars were invited in 1974 to perform in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a packed stadium of 80,000 people. During this live performance, Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco perform their classic hit “Quimbara,” in which Cruz sings about her love for Rumba and Guaguancó. In this particular performance Pacheco and his orchestra play down the brass instruments, the American Jazz influence, and play up the percussion instruments in the song, the very Afro-Cuban elements that Mario Bauzá brought to Latin Jazz. Cruz and Pacheco purposely emphasize the elements of Salsa that come from African roots, and despite the language barrier, this forms a clear connection between them as performers and the concert audience.
This performance represents a diasporic homecoming for Afro-Latinxs and for Salsa. It was a long journey from the enslaved African people that arrived in Latin America and held on to their musical roots, to the Afro-Latinxs who brought those roots with them as they migrated to New York City and created Salsa as a response to their exclusion from the American music industry, to finally reach Africa again, this time in celebration. This live performance exemplifies the resilience, talent, and joy that come from the Afro-Latinx experience.
Want all of the Himnos Negros in one place? Check out the Spotify playlist here!
You can find Yasmina on Instagram or Twitter @yasmidk
Garcia, David. “Contesting that Damned Mambo,” In The Afro-Latin@ Reader, 2010, p.190.
Glassier, Ruth. “From Indianola to Ño Cola.” In The Afro-Latin@ Reader, 2010, p.169-173.
Moreno, Jairo. “Bauzá-Gillespie-Latin/Jazz.” In The Afro-Latin@ Reader, 2010, p. 181-185.