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Salsa Music and Puerto Rican Identity

Marisol Negron
Department of Spanish & Portugese
Stanford University
December 2001

By focusing on salsa music in the 1970s, my dissertation examines the relationship between market forces, the music industry, and the development of Puerto Rican identity. For many, the commodification of salsa (that is, its condition as a product to be marketed and sold) and its eventual conversion into "pop" represents a shift away from its historical, political and cultural relevance in favor of cross-over success and mass appeal. My dissertations shows that this relationship between economics and culture is more complex than traditionally believed. I argue that the production of salsa created a mutually reinforcing relationship between the music industry and Puerto Rican identity.

"Salsa" music originated from Afro-Caribbean rhythms brought to the United States by immigrants from Cuba and Puerto Rico. In the 1960s, it came to designate a specific blending of these different musical genres in the urban context of New York. Since its emergence, it remains at the core of the several "Latin booms" in the U.S. musical and cultural market since the 1960s. It emerged from the spaces where Puerto Rican and other Latino immigrants established themselves since the beginning of the twentieth century and quickly became a global phenomenon eagerly consumed in Europe, Asia and Africa. It also developed into a significant cultural symbol in many Latin American countries. For Puerto Ricans, salsa became a "national music" at the center of a growing interest in its cultural significance. However, no one has addressed the market factors related to its production or their relevance to the development of Puerto Rican identity during this period. In order to discuss this relationship, I focus on the trajectory of salsa music in the1970s through a case study of its principal recording label, Fania Records.

Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians based themselves in New York since the 1920s, creating a vibrant music scene that eventually became the center for the emergence of salsa. When Fania Records was founded as an independent label in 1964, a few independent labels controlled the "Latin" music scene. By 1970, however, Fania dominated the industry. The zenith of the Fania controlled "salsa boom" of the 70s lasted until mid-decade, during which time salsa re-energized the circuit of clubs, bars and theatres where Latino musicians performed. By mid-decade, however, Fania signaled a shift in its musical direction away from salsa. Columbia Records eventually purchased Fania in the early 80s. By this time, Spanish language ballads and pop songs were effectively challenging salsa's dominance on radio stations, although it continued to flourish in the club scene. Throughout the 70s, Fania's roster included the principal recording artists of that period and produced the majority of seminal salsa recordings.

Early approaches to the commodification of cultural products assumed an oppositional relationship between culture and the market that presumed a passive "mass" public that merely consumed products without any critical understanding of the product's purpose or content. The emergence of consumer focused studies during the 1980s, however, challenged these assumptions by arguing that audience members actively participate in the production and reception of cultural products. Meanwhile, contrary to cultural critics, economists traditionally have not been concerned with the origins of consumer demand or shifts in taste. In my own work, I argue that salsa was not a cultural product outside of this market, but that market forces alone cannot account for its production and consumption by Puerto Ricans.

As the dominant label for the production of salsa in the 1970s, Fania Records provides the economic structure for the consumption of salsa, including its performers. Through the case study of Fania Records, the dissertation maps the cultural and economic relationship between Puerto Ricans and the music industry. This dissertation will show that the emergence of salsa provided a space within the music industry where Puerto Ricans could challenged dominant images of them created outside the Puerto Rican community and influence how Puerto Ricans saw themselves. The importance of this work also reaches outside the boundaries of Latino Studies. For ethnomusicology, it provides insight into music's economic context and its role in identity formation. Moreover, as Puerto Rico remains the oldest colonized country in existence, this research provides an increased understanding of how a colonized diaspora can negotiate its economic position and exercise its right to be different from the dominant culture. More broadly, my findings elucidate the relationship between economics and culture, particularly with regards to how cultural issues are fundamental in fashioning economic decisions.