The Book of Salsa by César Miguel Rondón (translated by Frances R. Aparicio with Jackie White), University of North Carolina Press, 2008, 340 pp., $20 paperback
Originally published in 1980, César Miguel Rondón’s The Book of Salsa is, according to the translator’s introduction, “the only book-length and systematic study of the production, performances, styles, movements, and musicians within salsa music, not only in New York but also in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela.” In approaching salsa as a pan-Caribbean, transnational phenomenon, Rondón, a Venezuelan media personality, addresses some of salsa’s contradictory features, such as its status as both an “urban folklore,” in the words of Rubén Blades, and as a cash cow for music-industry elites who are often, though not always, located in the United States. “This music was produced not for the luxurious ballroom,” Rondón maintains, “but for hard life on the street.”
For this edition of the book, its first English translation, Rondón wrote a new chapter titled “All of the Salsas,” a jaunty survey of developments in the genre since 1980—the rise of Dominican merengue; innovative new salsa artists in Colombia and Venezuela, even as New York salsa transformed into the slick, radio-friendly “romantic” version; the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon; and the loss of some the genre’s legends, like Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and Ray Barretto. A solid introduction to salsa studies.
Tango: Creation of a Cultural Icon by Jo Baim, Indiana University Press, 2007, 214 pp., $19.95 paperback
This slim volume on tango mostly confines itself to the music and dance genre’s early, mythical era, roughly 1875 to 1925, and focuses on the evolution of the dance. The author hews to the “relative terra firma of extant written source material,” she says, “in the hope of offering a fresh, strong, yet transparent foundation for the study of many sides of the tango.” Though the dearth of such documents makes definitive history impossible, this account nonetheless locates tango’s moment of consolidation in the 1880s, with the rise of a “new group of people”—urbanized gauchos from the pampas who “re-created themselves within the context of the new waterfront culture of Buenos Aires.”
This new tango subculture, composed of compadritos and minas, and marked by the urban patois Lunfardo, likely created its singular dance out of the raw materials of other ballroom social dances, which were not exclusive to the upper class. The author describes early tango dancing as a “contortionist,” more theatrical style, before it gave way to a “smoother” version, amenable to the middle- and upper-class theater stage. Noting that the Buenos Aires of the day was home to few women, the author includes three photographs of man-on-man tango, hinting at the homo-social origins of the dance, which in some accounts evolved as a ritualized conflict, replacing the duel.
Black Rhythms of Peru: Reviving African Musical Heritage in the Black Pacific by Heidi Carolyn Feldman, Wesleyan University Press, 2006, 308 pp., $24.95 paperback
In this study of the Afro-Peruvian “revival,” ethnomusicologist Heidi Carolyn Feldman offers not a definitive history of a genre, but rather a “multisited ‘ethnography of remembering’ about performed reinventions of Afro-Peruvian music in Peru and the United States.” Recently made available in paperback, Feldman’s book riffs on Paul Gilroy’s well-known concept of the Black Atlantic—a vast, transnational cultural world marked by double consciousness and circulating ideas—and proposes the Black Pacific as a newly imagined diasporic community, one that “negotiates ambiguous relationships with local criollo and indigenous culture, and with the Black Atlantic itself.”
The book’s chapters offer detailed analyses, ranging over the landmark 1956 performance at the Lima Municipal Theater of Pancho Fierro company, “usually cited as the first major staging of Black Peruvian music and dance in the 20th century”; the rise of Afro-Peruvian theater in the 1960s and 1970s under the lead of choreographer Victoria Santa Cruz; the work of her brother, the poet Nicomedes Santa Cruz; the Perú Negro dance and music company, a key institution in the movement based in Lima; the 1990s “discovery” of singer Susana Baca in the United States; and a short overview of a new generation of Afro-Peruvian artists.