The Salsa is Burning

October is part of Hispanic Heritage Month. As such, it is a propitious moment to reflect on the role of music in Hispanic culture. Topics covered in this month’s celebration in Central New York include the musical styles of flamenco, bomba and plena. But we must not forget salsa; it would be pertinent to recap during this month recent events related to salsa.


In February, La Casita Cultural Center hosted a roundtable discussion spurred by the launch of the book “Salsa World: A Global Dance in Local Contexts,” edited by Sydney Hutchinson, an ethnomusicology professor in the Department of Art and Music Histories at Syracuse University.

“Salsa and scholars are not two words that you hear in the same sentence,” said Tere Paniagua, the discussion moderator, to kick the conversation off.

Besides Hutchinson, the panelists were Edgar Pagan, founder of the salsa band Grupo Pagan; Roberto Perez, a salsa instructor from Cuba, and; Barbara Balbuena, dean of the Faculty of Dance Art at the Higher Institute of Art in Havana.

Pagan said that he has played salsa in Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro, and has witnessed firsthand that different nations have their own versions of salsa. “Despite this, people from different cultures and backgrounds are able to communicate through salsa music and dance,” he said.

Perez said that he came to Syracuse a dozen of years ago and that he loves salsa so much that he has been performing it with a local ensemble every week for ten years.

Balbuena said that Cuba caught up relatively late with the global salsa phenomenon. “Although salsa has been around since the ’60s, it wasn’t until 1985 that Cubans were introduced to salsa,” she added. “It was brought to the island by Oscar D’Leon, a Venezuelan musician, when he played with his orchestra at the festival of Varadero, a resort town that serves as a prime touristic destination.”

Hutchinson said that the meeting of the experts was being held in honor of Balbuena’s career in the field of salsa studies. Balbuena completed a doctorate in arts and pre-doctoral studies in dance arts and ethnology at her institute. She teaches history of folk dance in Cuba, among other classes, at her alma mater. Both met while Balbuena was conducting a dance workshop in Berlin.

Some years back Hutchinson had gone to a salsa conference held in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic. After she hit the floor in an attempt to dance with her hosts, she felt that they kept stomping on her toes.

After surviving this grueling experience, she reviewed her notes. She confirmed that she was adhering to the “basic tenet of international studio salsa,” which is stepping forward on the left foot and backward on the right. For their part, the Dominican salseros blamed her for getting it all wrong by not following their protocol, which is just the opposite: stepping forward on the right foot and backward on the left.

This confrontation prompted Hutchinson to ponder the links between global popular culture and local practices. In order to gain a better understanding of these relationships, she concocted the idea of editing a publication addressing these issues. And, so, the book “Salsa World” was born.

“I have been thinking about editing this book since 2007,” Hutchinson said. “I took advantage of my participation in the conference in Santiago to recruit nine authors in attendance (plus Balbuena) to collaborate in the book project.” She added that it took seven years for it to come to fruition due to the amount of work involved in translating the original drafts of individual chapters submitted in Spanish by five authors writing about salsa in Cuba, Colombia, Santo Domingo, France and Spain.

About the author: Miguel Balbuena is a writer in the academic, scientific, journalistic and literary fields (in the fiction and non-fiction genres).

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