Tuesday, February 08, 2011

"The Book Of Salsa" by César Miguel Rondón. Translated from the Spanish, by F.R.Aparicio with J.White

Cover Illustration Copyright © 2008 J.T.Morrow. All Rights Acknowledged.

The original version has acquired near-mythic status as THE reference guide on the impact and development of salsa in the Caribbean with emphasis on Venezuela. This translated version finally makes this work accessible to the English-speaking audience.

Rondón's chronicle doesn't disappoint, providing a join-the-dots genealogy of salsa replete with interesting musical examples. His division of salsa into movements - the avante garde and matancerization; and by locale - salsa of the north (New York) and salsa of the south (Caribbean), are well argued; as his is take on the origin of gender narrative being guaperia, although his handling of the topic of sexism is far from deft.

The author's role in broadcast media placed him in prime position to witness and comment on salsa's impact on Venezuela: right from the very start as an imported music adopted by the urban underclasses facing censorship by the elite, through to Oscar D'León's productions for international consumption. His access to musicians and inclusion of interview material adds a much-needed counterpoint to the main narrative; I found Tite Curet Alonso's theory about love and the position of the bolero as being enriched by confrontation especially enlightening.

The storyteller is not above hyperbole and sensationalisation, and one would to well to remember that "The Book of Salsa" is no more than a personal account, and as such benefits (as above) and suffers (below) from all that that entails. It has instances of:
  • absolutism - "those Cuban examples... were always isolated experiments that had no support from dancers and music fans"
  • vague value judgement - "Lavoe did not (capitalize on the potential that Curet's lyrics)... show off through the montuno in new or creative ways"
  • lack of detail - failing to clarify what he means by "mediocre arrangements" and what constitutes a good one
  • blatant author filtering or poor editing - "however, for the purposes of this book, that does not matter much"
  • getting out of his depth - weak knowledge of resident Cuban musicians; misrepresenting an artist as two separate ones e.g. Francisco Repilado and Compay Segundo, Manuel Licea and Puntillita; poor gender commentary
  • poor internal consistency - "but those same nuances acquired a special, if negligible value" (under what conditions would something deemed special be also deemed negligible?)
  • affectation - where he confesses that there are "other erudite books free from intellectual prejudices"
It is a credit to Mr.Rondón that despite its faults, his work remains important. It provides the salsa researcher with the precious gift of investigative direction; admittedly one which, due to shortcomings in its stringency and internal consistency, requires corroboration with other sources.

Loo Yen Yeo