It’s fair to say to that most of us have probably learned to fear salsa. To be clear: I’m talking about the musical genre and not the tomato-based condiment, although they are both heavily associated with cheese. That’s right – the dreaded label “cheesy” is what makes salsa something to be afraid of. Tinny and synthetic versions of it play on and on in offices and elevators and waiting rooms around the world. At some time or another, we’ve all been put on hold and had to endure ricky-ticky fake percussion clicking on endlessly, and choppy electronic pianos plucking out the most middlebrow melodies, and boxy artificial horns farting out their lines. Go to any every street festival or open-air party and you’ll see straight-as-straight-can-be white people playing a straight-as-straight-can-be facsimile of the real thing.
The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Salsa will change your preconceptions.
Before we go on, there is something that needs clarifying. Those of you expecting some kind of outer-space mash-up of wailing-grating-blanketing contemporary psychedelic rock with the driving percussive groove of real-and-proper salsa would do best to look elsewhere, as would those looking for some combination of salsa and the heavily layered and overdriven guitar-driven sound that came to dominate the genre, or those looking for some blend of salsa and the acoustic campfire weirdness that marks the psychedelic pastoral scene. Instead, The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Salsa showcases the strange and heady influence of psychedelic music on salsa, ranging from early examples featuring fuzzed-out tropical-sounding guitars and other sundry ear-candy effects, to more contemporary examples that burble and squelch with analogue-synth doodles and electric organ noodlings, or are awash with layers of tripped-out dub-style delays, reverbs and echoes. And so, on with the show…
La Mecánica Popular’s “La Paz Del Freak” opens with a typically funky salsa beat, its cyclic tick-tock percussion and angular piano phrases contrasting incredibly with mellow synthesiser bleeps and sweeps of electronic noise that wouldn’t be out of place on The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request. A heavily-delayed tremolo guitar soon joins the mix, heavily referencing the West-Coast psychedelic sound. This ushers in the rest of the band – drums, horns, bass, multiple voices, more percussion – and away they go, red hot from the very first beat, creating a joyful hip-shaking groove filled with the sounds of the cosmos. “Recordando los Soneros” by Ray Pérez Y Su Orquesta kicks off with a collage-style wall-of-noise that blends processed violins, backward guitars and random found-sounds, and strongly evokes The Beatles’ White Album period.
The wall-of-noise cuts abruptly, leaving an instant of silence, and then the band begins. They pump out a beat; the horns grow louder and bring things to a climax. And then the dynamic shifts suddenly, leaving just Ray Pérez’s voice and a distorted electronic organ. The organ chunks out blocky chords that evoke video games from the 1980s, and bit-by-bit the band start back up until the process can begin again. Los Sander’s De Ñaña’s “Recuerdos” proudly flaunts its psychedelic influences. Its slightly out-of-tune twin-guitar line; the busy organ and synth lines; the somewhat breathless nature of the rhythm section; the wah-wah guitar punctuation; the frenetic pace that pushes and pushes; the simple earworm melody and ragged vocal – they all show the same raw-and-rough attitude that was behind the garage-influenced psychedelic rock of the mid-to-late sixties.
These three songs aren’t even the tip of the iceberg – The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Salsa is something to behold. It’ll make you dance and feel weird at the same time. It’s a very strange ride.