The Coming of the Salsa Machine (English version)

Covers of record albums from the salsa world. 

Listening as an Experience

By Juan Carlos Quintero-Herencia 

Faced with the deceptively straightforward question: “How did you arrive at the idea for your book La máquina de la salsa. Tránsitos del sabor?” I can’t help but think on the comings and goings that led to the making of the text. Displacements, trips, solos, jam, cooking and love sessions, altogether surround and corrode my listening to Salsa. The writing of La máquina de la salsa traces a long, porous, temporal curve spanning from the late 1980’s to its publication in August 2005. Rendering, giving body, so to speak, to what it meant to listen to Salsa as a kid growing up in a middle-class subdivision in Río Piedras, also entailed being part of the critical intellectual scene of late-20th-century Puerto Rico. Contemporary with the writing of my study on the Cuban Revolution imaginary (Fulguración del espacio. Letras e imaginario institucional de la Revolución cubana. Beatriz Viterbo, 2002), and a considerable part of my poetry, the first assemblies of my Machine make no sense outside the brief revitalization of the intellectual field experimented on the Island in the mid 1990’s and early 2000s.

Listening as an experience is what gives, in part, cohesion to my book. Listening here means an immersion into both musicality and the whole array of affects and beliefs it produces in a listening subject. I lend my ears to musicality as a way of traversing and dealing with the demands constitutive of any true listening experience. Listening is not merely hearing something; it is going after that other body or reality that secretes its resonance and murmurs. I have not been interested in doing musicological taxonomy or a weak sociological inventory of forms. I am overwhelmed by musicality as a rub: a zone of touches, contacts and sensuous encounters between a resonating body and what echoes within a specific listener. The sonority pulling me by the ears in Salsa (for there is, indeed, tension and a point of inflexion for several bodies) is one among a series of quivering sound effects, which partake in an acoustic mystery: the emergence of a Caribbean sensorium. Such “effects,” their beginnings and departures, are scattered among several objects and bodies, including music, of course. With these effects it is possible to suggest some ideas on the corporeality traversing or inhabiting the Caribbean Archipelago. That is what I think I am after I listen to various songs or read certain poems. In the song,I imagine, I can listen to the beginnings or point of emanation of a Caribbean way (reason) of being (estar) in vibration. It was, and still is, about how to cross over, penetrate the opening where a world exposes itself and opens (up to) the matter of its resonances.

Much of the polemic thrust of the book responds to the early academic protocols placing their analytic kiosks on the identity tales weaved into Salsa by some salseros. I also wanted to reflect on the uneasiness generated, again and again, by the musical genre in the Caribbean, and especially in Puerto Rico. Likewise, I wanted to lay bare the placid prescription on manners that scholars and other commentators have come up with vis-à-vis the salsero body. Moralists, with square and predictable attitudes, as well as idealizations, create the daydream of progressive dorks, which characterizes analytical approaches that move away from what, I believe, Salsa lyrics communicate. I wanted, then, to think about signs of alarm, and pursue those prescriptions. I wanted to question the silences and scoldings fashioned to deal with the bodies exposed in and by the genre of salsa that, to be sure, compete with and unsettle the social body designed by the lettered and colonial utopias of the Caribbean.

The metaphor of the machine, or machinations of the genre has allowed me to write some notes for a theory of performativity and the signifying nature of Caribbean musicality, on which I am still working. The machine plots, la maquinación, can be understood as stalking or tracking down and as an aesthetic project working with, changing directions, consuming and transporting some negativity or misfortune. It is a module for the transformation of voices, faces, bodies, stories and topographies, something that re-emerges on Caribbean musical performances. The Caribbean musical machinery loves to metamorphose. It is voice, train, boat, mill, cauldron, sex or spaceship. In the end, I arrived to this multifarious machine by trying to do justice to my own intimate shudders and tremors: Héctor Lavoe’s voice pierces my chest with his clave, enclavado; Celia Cruz’s battle-cry “Azucar” gets me on my feet, losing ground; the conversation of the Gran Combo’s trumpets and trombone, the lethal front of Chamaco Ramírez and the hasty scamp (jiribilla) all drive my body into despair.

Juan Carlos Quintero-Herencia
 is Professor at the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Maryland, College Park.