© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In Colombian City Of Cali, A Legacy Of Salsa Music — And A Tangled History To Match


The point of a tradition is that it's been around a while. It's part of a cultural identity. But sometimes, digging around in a tradition's history reveals tangled roots, as Alice Fordham found in the Colombian city of Cali.


ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Cali is an enchanting place circled by verdant mountains, dotted with palm trees and famed for its love of salsa music and dance. They call it the capital of salsa.

CRISTINA VARELA: They call it that because we live salsa every day. You jump in a cab, and you hear salsa. You go to the streets, and there's salsa. You live it every day.

FORDHAM: Cristina Varela is a musician and daughter of Jairo Varela, the late leader of the band Grupo Niche.

VARELA: I work as a director of the Jairo Varela Museum. It's in the center of Cali.

FORDHAM: We're also actually in Jairo Varela Square and next to a vast sculpture that spells the band's name and plays their music. It's quite the tribute. Varela says salsa isn't just in her blood; it's in everyone's here.

VARELA: Your parents - they play the music their parents play to them. And it's like a generation of the same music, of the same tradition. Salsa is a tradition for Cali.

FORDHAM: And it's true. Salsa is everywhere - homes, clubs, impromptu weeknight parties and liquor stores. One friend told me if you don't dance, you don't date.


FORDHAM: It's so much a part of the culture here that the University of Cali has an anthropologist specializing in salsa on its faculty, Alejandro Ulloa. He explains that, in fact, salsa doesn't come from Cali - doesn't come from Colombia at all.

ALEJANDRO ULLOA: (Speaking Spanish).

FORDHAM: "After the Second World War," he explains, "Puerto Ricans flooded into New York, concentrating in the South Bronx." Groups of predominantly Puerto Rican musicians stirred their island's sounds into the Cuban rhythms and jazz already thrumming through the city.


FORDHAM: In the '70s, the music morphed into the genre known as salsa.

ULLOA: (Speaking Spanish).

FORDHAM: "And so," Professor Ulloa tells me, "the music isn't original. But it got to Colombia pretty quick."

ULLOA: (Speaking Spanish).

FORDHAM: "Colombians traveled to the U.S. to study and work. They brought records back."

ULLOA: (Speaking Spanish).

FORDHAM: "Merchant sailors brought LPs home, too." Salsa was popular across Colombia and beyond but really caught on in Cali.

ULLOA: (Speaking Spanish).

FORDHAM: "And there was a third way the records got over here - through the drug trade."

ULLOA: (Speaking Spanish).

FORDHAM: "Many of the people who went to New York in the '60s and '70s were involved in the drug trade." As they got rich, they brought back records to play at their parties. And even as the violence associated with the cartels ripped Colombia apart, its bosses became patrons of the arts in Cali. Being a musician became a well-paid job, so people had an incentive to learn to play the music when previously, they'd just listen to the records.

ULLOA: (Speaking Spanish).

FORDHAM: "The cartel bosses paid musicians, sponsored groups." It was both an effort to show off their wealth and to legitimize themselves among the music-loving Calenos.


FORDHAM: Thankfully, the power of the cartels has ebbed now in Cali, but the legacy of live music lives on - lots of salsa, of course, but many other live acts as well, like Latin jazz bands. And the center of gravity of salsa eventually shifted from New York, where there aren't many live salsa bands anymore, to here. The city's musicians shaped their own sound, which is still evolving today.


VARELA: I'm writing music. I'm following the heritage, the legacy.

FORDHAM: This is Cris Varela again. She co-wrote the melody on this recent track and says she strives to make a modern salsa.

VARELA: Because people like salsa. But if the show doesn't changes, like, from the '70s till now, we're not doing nothing.

FORDHAM: For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Cali, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.