Salsa for My Frozen Heart

Living in Montreal, I don’t let go of the music that other immigrants like me created in New York City to fend off the cold during winter.

Photo: Fania, retrieved.

Being born and raised at the edge of the Venezuelan Caribbean Sea, in Valencia and Caracas, one must understand how exotic the snow that covers some of our diaspora’s cities is. In my case, it’s Montreal—maybe the largest city that gets more snow on Earth during its long winters. Here, you see it from October to sometimes May, and you must learn to distinguish its voices (which are never the same): the sound your boot makes when sinking into the snow varies according to the amount, humidity, and air temperature. Sometimes it’s crunch, sometimes it’s slosh, and sometimes it’s frrt, like the sound ice makes when it’s shaved into an ice cone, a raspado, before adding the colita soda and the condensed milk on top.

In any case, the snow creates a strange dialogue between its sounds and the percussion from the salsa or Latin jazz orchestra that I listen to while walking on those white streets. In every step I take on a frozen sidewalk, on a park covered by five-month-old mounds of winter snow, the ice breaks while the cowbell keeps the tempo, and even whispers under the thunderous timbales coming out of my headphones.

The beat changes in “Vámonos pa’l monte” and when the pause hits in “Se le ve,” from Batacumbele, right before the “yo tengo, azuquita en la cintura,” and there it goes, chaz: the snow. Like the voice of someone trying to get in a conversation whose topic and tone they don’t quite understand.

Listening to salsa in the snow is part of the experience. I do it every winter in Montreal, more and more, to fend off the danger of winter’s inner darkness.

But I’ve gotten used to it. For me, listening to salsa in the snow is part of the experience. I do it every winter in Montreal, more and more, to fend off the danger of winter’s inner darkness, in direct contact with the outer dusk. Because the best way to keep winter outside of you is to go out and insert yourself in it.

The thing is, I don’t face the storm alone: if my family isn’t with me, my music is.

Double Landscape

It never stops being weird. Listening to salsa as I run across Montreal is like going through a double landscape: a gray and brown city dusted in white in front of my eyes, with the wooden bodies of naked maple trees swaying under the Arctic breeze, hanging icicles from cornices, cars trapped in icy puddles. Meanwhile, idealized memories flow into my ears, a world where palm trees slice the whiteness of the sun, where birds don’t have to flee, the sea is always near, and your fingers never go numb or change color.

I see people listening to trap, rap, and pop music in French and English, or people coming from places similar to Venezuela who only listen to reggaeton, and I wonder what it’s like to live without salsa. Without that intimate relationship with your body, which I assume is unknown to people who dance salsa here, learning a song from “Dancing with the Stars” like acrobatic movements without getting the lyrics, unable to distinguish between salsa, son, mambo, charanga, bomba, plena or Latin jazz.

And I especially mean that range of emotions that are so specific to salsa, which makes you want to dance so badly to something that can be so sad, something so wise that it has the power to sum up the complexities of mankind in one song, capable of evoking at once many contradictory and mutually exclusive emotions.

An Afternoon at the Beach

I know that every music genre has its themes and emotional registries, besides the universal topics of love and nostalgia, but salsa has something that’s like a fullness tainted in sadness, like an afternoon on the beach.

Salsa has something that’s like a fullness tainted in sadness.

That’s probably why salsa was born in a huge city where one easily feels lost and crushed. One that is close by, in fact, New York City, where all those Puerto Ricans and Cubans and Colombians and Panamanians started to put all of their nostalgia together. I imagine they were like me, trying to remember the precise, warm feeling on their skin, those beers with friends left behind, and the vague memory of a woman you loved but can’t have anymore—who “left with silence, without replying.”

Salsa was invented by people like me, trying to defend their spirit from the cold by invoking music from their origins. They unleashed a complex and diverse wonder that, on its own, created a unique geography, because from New York, other salsa cities bloomed: Caracas, Cali, Lima, La Habana, San Juan de Puerto Rico, Barranquilla and, more recently, Miami. Not to mention the musical breadth, from Tito Puente or Eddie Palmieri’s jazz, all the way to the fusion created with the Venezuelan cuatro virtuosi of C4 Trío and the Nicaraguan salsa star Luis Enrique that led them to win two Latin Grammys. While the conceptual and expressive splendor of the golden age from the seventies and eighties isn’t surpassed, and although so many people in our continent don’t know how rich it is, salsa keeps growing.

We Venezuelans should be clear on this: to my knowledge, there isn’t a more complete book on the subject than the one written by fellow journalist César Miguel Rondón, and the legacy by our musicians in the genre is notable. We have global stars like Oscar d’León and Berkley alumni like pianist Gonzalo Grau; many musicians working in the United States and Europe, very busy as session players, arrangers or composers; and the close relationship that American-born salsa titans like Willie Colón or Marc Anthony have with the Venezuelan audience and the situation of our country is very well known.

Salsa was invented by people like me, trying to defend their spirit from the cold by invoking music from their origins.

Salsa really is a part of our culture, not just of our cultural consumption. Without salsa, Caracas would be a very different city: another would be its voice, another would be its character.

A few days ago, a Mexican friend of mine told me, to my surprise, that she thought that salsa came from Venezuela.

The Treasure Cove

I just read an article in 1843 that not only mentions the risks of using headphones at high volume, it alsoand especiallygoes into detail about how these devices can contribute to the unraveling of social fabric by isolating us from the world while we’re in public spaces. And it’s true: in this city, we use headphones to ignore those asking for directions or money. What the Englishman who wrote the article might ignore is the urgency you might feel to go back to certain regions of your acoustic memory when you live in a foreign city (which, for me, Montreal still is, because I’ll never be from here like I’m from Caracas or Valencia), and how you might need those headphones to dissolve the thick anguish of displacement with Yomo Toro’s tres in “Mi Sueño,” or the trumpet solo in “El Nazareno.

Many artists complain about Spotify (and other platforms), and the little money it pays to musicians every time you listen to their songs. And it’s true: a brilliant and popular songwriter like Pierre Lapointe complained in an awards ceremony in Quebec that he had received only CA$500 in an entire year from Spotify. 

The music has the same effect as a shot of neat rum; the sun finally comes out and I remember that this winter shall pass, too.

But he doesn’t know what it’s like to feel like a survivor in a lost world and then finding out that Alfredo Naranjo y el Guajeo, Alberto Naranjo y el Trabuco Venezolano, Oscar d’León y La Dimensión Latina, Caribe by Soledad Bravo, and all of New York’s Fania label (the Motown of salsa) are also on Spotify. All the salsa you know, and that you never had the opportunity to know before, along with an immense amount of Venezuelan music, and from all over the world. It’s arguable that Spotify might be unfair to artists, but to castaways like myself, it’s a treasure cove. A shelter.

I’ve had dreams where I’m in a huge house and there’s a party with all my people and we can dance until the sun rises, without disturbing the neighbors. In those dreams sometimes it’s nighttime and sometimes it’s daytime, but it’s never that extended salmon-colored twilight of the winter afternoons.

Then I wake up and it’s still dark because the sun doesn’t come up until after seven. The cold feels like -28°C. While I imagine the possibility of that dream ever coming true, the winter breaks through the insulation, the windows, the four layers of clothing, and it reaches my core like radioactive particles.

Twenty minutes later, however, I’m listening to “Nadie se salva de la rumba,” Ray Barreto is setting those congas on fire, and Celia Cruz yells “Ay, Dios mío, pero quién me habrá metido en esto?!” Although I’m out on the street, coming back after dropping my daughter off at school, the warmth enters my body again. The music has the same effect as a shot of neat rum; the sun finally comes out and I remember that this winter shall pass, too. 

That party doesn’t seem so impossible anymore. Maybe not with everyone, but at least with several of those I want there. And if it can’t be right now, maybe later it will.

In the meantime, there’s a lot of salsa to listen to and a daughter I better teach how to dance.