Saturday, October 04, 2008

Sounding Salsa

Sounding Salsa: Performing Latin Music in New York City
By Christopher Washburne
Temple University Press

Although AMG categorizes Christopher Washburne as a jazz musician and he is known for leading the Latin jazz band Syotos, the trombonist and Columbia University academic has worked as a sideman in New York salsa bands for many years. As a result, Washburne has a unique part-insider, part-outsider vantage point on the music, which informs his new scholarly analysis of the music, Sounding Salsa.

In truth, Sounding has elements of two separate books for very different audiences. Much of Washburne’s sociological analysis of Salsa is preoccupied with issues of racial authenticity and exclusion. Most familiar with the Fania glory days will probably have some idea of how salsa expresses Hispanic empowerment in general, and Puerto Rican pride in particular. Washburne dedicates much of his time to such discussions, which quickly become repetitive.

However, Washburne deserves credit for his unvarnished description of the business practices and working conditions salsa musicians face. For instance, most jazz and classical musicians in New York are eligible to join Local 802 of the musicians’ union, but for some reason salseros are excluded. Washburne includes a transcript of a phone conversation with a union rep threatening to picket an avant-garde classical session he was to perform on. Washburne countered that they should have been picketing at his last non-union studio session instead, eliciting the following exchange:

“UNION REP: Who was the producer and what label was it for?
CW: Ralph Mercado, RMM and Sony Records. Isn’t Sony a union signatory company?
UNION REP: Oh, well then. Sony does have a recording contract with us, but . . . ah . . . Ralph Mercado is insulated. [ellipsis in Washburne]
CW: Insulated. What is that supposed to mean?
UNION REP: He’s insulated. I’m not personally aware of the details of our relationship with him.” (p. 99)

While links between salsa labels and the Columbian drug trade might be well known among musicians, I have not read it in print before. Sounding might even be newsworthy when Washburne describes business associations between Fania Records founder Larry Masucci, RMM label head Ralph Mercado, and Columbian drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). Washburne writes:

“Both men established relationships with DTOs in order to arrange these and subsequent tours [of Columbia]. Moreover, this symbiotic relationship between the salsa business and DTOs was not confined within Columbia’s borders, but extended well beyond into U.S. cities. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980, numerous salsa venues opened in New York City that served as money laundering fronts.” (p. 138)

Washburne is most revealing when writing about his personal experiences as an eye-witness to violence when playing with salsa bands. He opens the book with a particularly dramatic story of a rehearsal interrupted by a would-be hitman and relates several other such stories, leading him to reflect: “The ease with which I adopted an attitude of ‘We might as well play, get paid, and go home’ was unsettling.” (p. 117)

Clearly, Washburne loves the music and respects his fellow musicians, so he would be uncomfortable writing a book that might be uncharitably described as an expose. However, revealing secret union deals and dangerous working conditions should benefit the musicians, who find themselves in the literal line of fire, yet do not receive the proper residuals for their studio work. After reading Sounding I would very much like to see Washburne write a book for wider audiences that explores these issues in more depth. The book he has written is somewhat uneven, but at times extremely eye-opening.