Although commonly considered the quintessential Latin sound, salsa actually came of age in New York City, where Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants mixed their Afro-Latin whatnot with American big band and jazz. The maturation of salsa is an ongoing dialectic between the countries of the Americas, to the extent that perhaps salsa is the music of the Americas, the heartbeat of the Western Hemisphere.
Well, that’s my stab for the week at the big-picture pulse of musical geography. And I have another observation too, along those same lines. Dig this: Salsa (the pulse of the Americas) is experiencing a new wave.
But since the term “New Wave” is already taken, we need another. Maybe “New Blend?” No, sounds like a coffee. Maybe “Salsa Refusion?” Hmmm. Whatever. The point is, it’s happening. The spirit of salsa has reawakened, and we in Missoula have been fortunate enough to have front row seats. Three bands in particular—two have just been here, one is about to play—are prime examples of what I’m referring to: Using salsa as a foundation, these groups play a musical version of the game “Blob,” cannibalizing other flavors of groove into their sound.
One important feature of the new wave of salsa is the seamless quality in the fusions. These are expert musicians with intimate knowledge of the musical landscapes in which they tread. There are plenty of bands willing to toss a set of congas or bongos on stage, blow into a saxophone, and call themselves “Latin-Funk.” But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about jam band. I’m talking about something that is big and real and precise, and you know it when you hear it.
This January, San Diego’s Agua Dulce played to a packed house at the Blue Heron on a Monday night. Agua Dulce frosted their salsa cake with layers of samba, R&B, and Santana-esque Latin rock. Incidentally, Agua Dulce kicked so much ass and had so much fun that they were re-booked to return March 28 (and as your arts reporter, I strongly advise you to attend). Yes, yes, yes. It’s happening. Missoula is turning into a veritable ground zero for the Salsa Refusion Meltdown Revolution. Viva!
Next came LA-based Ozomatli, on Feb. 27 at the Wilma, as part of the SnoCore tour. Ozomatli combines traditional Latin rhythms and melodies, such as son or merengue, with strong doses of Hip-Hop and West African sounds. They were especially heavy on the rap battle-rhymes, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish. And of course, their salsa was primo. From the get-go, Ozomatli had the crowd in a sublime state of ecstatic “Ay Caramba!” from which pulses have yet to settle.
Enter the B-Side Players, another So-Cal ensemble, coming this week to the Blue Heron. Their flavor of Salsa mixes a turntable-oriented brand of hip-hop with jazz and rock. The authenticity that the B-Side Players bring to all of these genres is top-notch. When they play rock, it sounds like real American rock, complete with borrowed signature riffs from the likes of Jane’s Addiction and Metallica. And their funk would make the Mothership spin a U-turn.
Along with this seamless switch from one genre to another is a careful mixing of these elements into something new. This new creature has not yet settled into a single form, as salsa eventually did. It’s like a house with many different interconnected rooms, rather than a one-room studio. But these rooms are getting closer together. For their part, the B-Side Players combine elements like salsa groove with English lyrics, Public Enemy-style rapping to Afro-Latin rhythms, roots rock reggae in Spanish, and some flute or sax jazzed into the mix from time to time. Whatever it is, the new blend is definitely American. When the B-Side Players stop playing and you hold up your lighters, you won’t know whether to yell “Bravisimo!” or “Free Bird!!”
Interwoven throughout the lyrical side of the B-Side groove is a conscious message of social justice, peace, and suspicion of corporate power. As with Ozomatli and Agua Dulce, this proactive, positive, Zapatista-style message is a crucial element of the New Blend.
And when it is time for the B-Side Players to play the salsa...it’s an ecstatic release, straight out of Music Theory 101: tension and resolution, tension and resolution. When it’s time, they dive seamlessly into native authentic salsa, full-on, mid groove. Viva la Resolution!