The City of Musical Memory


The City of Musical Memory: Salsa, Record Grooves and Popular Culture in Cali, Colombia

Lise Waxer (2002)

Wesleyan University Press

This 316 page book explores the reasons behind the adoption, and feelings of ownership of, salsa music in Cali, Colombia, and it’s claim to be the salsa capital of the world by the 1980’s. The particular importance of recorded rather than live music in this process is extremely well explored by Waxer, who spent considerable time living in Cali in order to gain first hand impressions from the many people involved in the local scene(s). It was a huge loss to the world of Latin music literature that Lise Waxer; scholar, musician, author, activist, died at the age of just 37 in 2003 – this superb book is a fitting tribute to her life and work.

Why you might buy it:

Some of the most active collectors of Latin music live in Colombia, and Cali is home to many. The importance of recorded music in creating a “salsa culture” is thoroughly examined and anyone interested in collecting or performing this music would find little here to disappoint. Whilst primarily about the Cali scene the reader is given a good grounding in the development of twentieth-century Latin music in general. For example, Waxer does a good job of handling the thorny question of “what is salsa?”, in fact the question is particularly well considered, and answered. By reading this book you will learn, among many other things, why current Colombian salsa is often considered to be “too fast” (to dance to) and why Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz are held in such high regard by Calenos. This is a website about Latin music in print on that matter this is one of the best books available.

Why you might leave it:

Waxer does position her writing from within an academic framework, this is ethnomusicological field research after all, and whilst certainly not stuffy or particularly challenging as a read, it does use the occasional “big word” or “scholarly phrase” and so might not have enough pictures for some. Not particularly expensive when it first came out, and as is typical of many of the books featured on this site, due to its niche appeal once copies begin to dry up it quickly becomes more and more pricey. ABSTRSACTO tip of the week: don’t wait for these books to drop in price, they generally become more expensive over time and are most wisely purchased soon after publication.


– List of illustrations and tables
– Preface
– Introduction
1. “In Those Days, Holy Music Rained Down”: Origins and Influence of Musica Antillana in Cali and Columbia
2. Memory and Movement in the Record-Centered Dance Scene
3. Life in the Vinyl Museum: Salsotecas and Record Collectors
4. “Heaven’s Outpost”: The Rise of Cali’s Live Scene
5. Taking Center Stage: The Boom of Local Bands
6. “Cali Is Feria”: Salsa and Festival in Heaven’s Outpost
7. Epilogue: Del Puente Pa’lla
– Appendix I: Map of hubs of salsa and Musica Antillana in Cali
– Appendix II: Map of socio-economic zones in Cali
– Appendix III: Important international and national bands appearing at the Cali Feria, 1968-95
– Notes
– Glossary
– Bibliography
– Selected Discography
– Index

Selected extracts (from):

– Introduction

As its title suggests, this book is concerned with the nexus of music and memory as a particular affective site for understanding Latin American modernity. Particularly, I am interested in the bridges created between the mass media forms of music (e.g., records, radio, and film), cultural practice, and popular memory, and how these serve as effective links in the formation of subjective experience and popular identity in Cali. When I arrived in Cali to commence field work in late 1994, I was immediately struck by the way so many of the popular practices surrounding salsa’s localization had to do with records of salsa and its Cuban and Puerto Rican antecedents. Indeed, sound recordings have acquired the status of fetishes in Caleno popular culture. Dancing, collecting, listening to, and talking about salsa records are activities common to salsa consumption around the world; what is different about Cali is that these practices have often superseded an emphasis on live music making. Cali’s case displaces the prevalent academic notion that live music is more “real” than its recorded versions, since in this city salsa recordings were until recently much more important than musicians themselves. Salsa records were the focal point of popular culture during the 1960’s and 1970’s, when a unique local style of dancing to salsa emerged. These same records provided the basis for the rise of salsotecas and tabernas (specialty bars for listening to records) in the late 1980’s, and later in the 1990’s, for the viejoteca (“oldie club”) revival of the early dance scene. Even when local live salsa boomed after 1980, recordings continued to exert a strong influence on performance practices.

1. “In Those Days, Holy Music Rained Down”

Through radio broadcasts, musicians and fans were introduced to the sounds of Cuban son, played by groups such as the Trio Matamoros and conjuntos such as the Sexteto Habanero and Septeto Nacional. The sounds of danzon were also popularized, played by such charanga ensembles as that of Antonio Romeu and, later, the famed radiofonica of Antonio Arcano. In these early decades of radio, from the 1920’s through the 1950’s, bands performed live-to-air in radio theater studios (see Lopez 1981). Hence, those perched by their short wave radio sets in Colombia actually heard the music as it was being performed in Havana.

Records have comprised the most important avenue of diffusion for musica antillana in Colombia. The first 78rpm records arrived with sailors docking in Barranquilla, Colombia’s principal port on the Caribbean. Indeed, Barranquilleros, when challenging Cali’s claim to be the Colombian stronghold of this musical tradition, often point to the fact that musica antillana arrived first in their city.

2. Memory and Movement in the Record-Centered Dance Scene

Fast dance tempos became key for Caleno dancers. The upbeat pachanga was ideal for this, but other rhythms were felt to be too slow – especially bugalu, a fusion of son with rhythm and blues that was all the rage in the mid-1960’s. In a creative use of media technology, Caleno youth began playing their 33rpm bugalu recordings at 45rpm …(snip) … The teen aguelulos were central to the development of this rapid dance style, since teenagers – more than anyone else – had the requisite physical energy and stamina. In Que Viva La Musica, a celebrated novel about teenage life in Cali at this time, the author, Andres Caicedo, described the ethos of dancing salsa at this accelerated tempo: “The 33rpm recording at 45rpm is almost as if one were flayed while dancing, with that need to say it all, so that there’s time to repeat it sixteen times more and see who can stand us, who can dance with us” (1977: 138). The aguelulos became an important site for youth subculture, where youngsters vied for prestige on the dance floor (Arteaga 1990: 109).

3. Life in the Vinyl Museum: Salsotecas and Record Collectors

During the 1980’s a new space opened up for Caleno salsa fans. By the time the record –centered dance scene was in decline, displaced by the boom in live music and local media that was clearly orientated toward new commercial trends in international salsa, particularly salsa romantica. In response to these changes, small drinking spots sprang up in working class neighborhoods, dedicated to keeping alive the older strains of salsa dura that had shaped the vibrant local dance scene of earlier years. These “vinyl museums”, as one DJ called them, are the salsotecas and tabernas, and they emerged as public extensions of private record collections. The salsotecas feature classic salsa, while the tabernas also promote traditional Cuban son, Latin jazz and contemporary Cuban songo and timba. Unlike the earlier scene, however, which was geared toward dancing to salsa dura records, the salsotecas and tabernas are oriented specifically toward listening – often because there is not enough room to dance.

4. “Heaven’s Outpost”: The Rise of Cali’s Live Scene

During the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s, Cali’s live scene began to grow considerably. In my conversations with various people about this period, one name often arose – Larry Landa. Many point to this individual as the single most important influence on the rise of live salsa in Cali. Larry Landa was a mestizo fashion boutique owner who, according to legend, became involved with the cocaine trade during the mid-1970’s. In contrast to the later barons of the Cali cartel, with whom Caleno citizens had an uneasy relationship, Landa is fondly remembered as a Robin Hood sort of figure – a man who plowed most of his illicit profits into bringing famous New York salsa orquestas to Cali and nearby Buenaventura. He was responsible for the Colombian debut of the Fania All Stars in a landmark concert tour of the countries major cities in 1980. Featuring the major artists signed to the Fania record label, the Fania All Stars were then considered to be the most important and prestigious of all salsa orquestas. Their performance in Cali on 9 August 1980 drew a record forty thousand people and stands in most people’s minds as the turning point in Cali’s scene.

5. Taking Center Stage: The Boom of Local Bands

When the cartel began pouring money into the local economy, new local orquestas were already staring to emerge. While most bands, such as the Octava Dimension, were formed from established networks of musicians, local empresas (businesses) also began forming orquestas from within its own ranks of employees, in much the same way North American firms put together amateur softball teams. These “company bands” would perform at parties and other social functions of the empresa, and although most are now defunct, a few still exist. One of these ensembles, founded in 1981 by the employees of EMCALI (the municipal utilities company), went on to become La Identidad, an independent and successful orquesta in its own right. According to the bands director, Edgar Diaz del Castillo, the EMCALI band was founded among musically inclined salsomano workers who decided to form a salsa dura band. During this time, many local orquestas (especially Formula 8 and La Gran Banda Calena) mixed salsa with musica tropical and were perceived as flojo (limp). The founding of this band during the same period that Grupo Niche emerged on the national scene as an all-salsa orquesta suggests that the tide was beginning to turn for local salsa performance on a number of levels.

6. “Cali Is Feria”: Salsa and Festival in Heaven’s Outpost

As Cali’s major annual celebration, the Feria de la Cana de Azucar has become an important symbol of Caleno popular culture. Its festive orientation places it in the same cultural space as Carnival celebrations elsewhere in the Americas. To some, however, Cali’s Feria may seem a relatively tame celebration in comparison to its counterparts. Although Cali’s Feria has elements of masquerading, parades, floats and costumes, they are not central to the event, as they are in Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and Port of Spain, Trinidad. Human stamina and imagination are certainly pushed to their limits during the Feria, but one could also argue that this also occurs throughout the year in Cali – even though the week long, non-stop partying in griles has declined. One might point to the fact that salsa – a style of the oppressed black and mixed-race working class – is upheld as the musical emblem of the Feria, just as samba is for Brazil’s Carnival and calypso for Trinidad’s. The valorization of salsa legitimises not only Clai’s racial past, rooted in the history of enslaved Africans brought to the region, but also its refashioning in the modern present, with increasingly cosmopolitan ties and sensibilities beyond national boundaries.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews:
A great document of the surprisingly huge influence Columbia has had on the growth of salsa at the end of the 20th Century — done as a detailed ethnographic study that really gets at all aspects of the scene. Author Waxer seems to really understand the circulation of music at a level that most other writers never really get — and she even goes so far as to talk about specific record dealers and collectors in Cali who have helped develop an audience for salsa in the city. The tone’s a bit academic at times, but we can forgive that, given how much great information is in the book!

George Lipsitz, University of California
Waxer’s detailed ethnographic and archival research, clear explanations and interpretations of musical forms, and sophisticated theorizing about the changing meaning of culture in an age of global economics and politics combine to make this an extremely important book.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: