Las Hermanas Salseras 

¡Viva Las Salsa Chicks! Women in Salsa Toot Their Horns

It's been a few years now since Rolling Stone put out its thirtieth anniversary issue. For this important double-size issue, the theme chosen was Women of Rock -- a topic that still seems to garner little attention in the übermag of music. At least, little critical attention. There does seem to be a fair amount of visual attention, as women, usually slim and scantily clad, are often featured on the magazine's cover. This special issue was no exception: the multiracial, musically diverse trio of artists that graced the cover -- Tina Turner, Madonna, and Courtney Love -- were women who, in addition to their considerable talents, also have strong sexual personae, and were photographed with plenty of flesh showing. As if to emphasize the point, across the cover, under the "Women of Rock" title, were the letters XXX -- actually covering Tina's and Madonna's crotches. It could take a few puzzled minutes to remember that this was the magazine's thirtieth anniversary, and that any suggestion of a triple-X rating had to be just ... coincidence.

Around the same time, the Saturday-night scene was jumping at a salsa club somewhere down in Emeryville. To a newcomer there, it was easy to feel woefully underdressed, undermade-up, and unable to dance. The mood was slick, the women were gorgeous, the men were ... manly. If you were a rookie or an outsider, you clung desperately to your drink and your table, watching the dancing and watching the band, a traditional group of salseros, all male. And as you huddled there, you might find yourself thinking about ... well, the cover of that Rolling Stone. For as much progress as women still need to make in mainstream rock, at least they've been beating on that door for a long time now, and slowly, some have broken through. But within the culture of salsa, it would seem from a glance around the club, the doors are still bolted fast. Machismo hangs thick in the air. On the stage and on the dance floor, traditional gender roles are in full bloom. When a woman joins the band onstage for a few tunes, it's as a vocalist; as has been the case in mainstream pop, the message to women still seems to be "yeah, you can come onstage, if you look pretty and sing well." To the uninitiated, the atmosphere can feel oppressive, restrictive -- and, combined with the fact that if you don't know what you're doing you'll look like a real dork trying to dance, it can easily add up to an early evening and little desire to return to the salsa world.

So it was a surprise, even an amazement, to stumble into a completely different salsa atmosphere one rainy night last year. But then, it was a surprising concept for a show: "Women in Salsa," at La Peña. And it was spearheaded by an amazing musical powerhouse: trumpeter/ singer/songwriter Marina Garza, leader of a band called Orquesta D'Soul. A petite San Antonio transplant with bleached, cropped hair, Garza took the stage like the Tasmanian Devil, stopping only to deliver lines of rap or lyric before spinning off on a sleek trumpet solo. Orquesta D'Soul, which has been together almost two years, was trying to scrape together recording money, and the La Peña show was a benefit that brought a slew of female salsa musicians -- or salseras, as they're called -- out of the woodwork to lend a hand. To put it briefly, the night rocked: the stage pulsed with original tunes backed by tight Latin rhythms, and the dance floor was packed, with no pressures about gender, attire, or flashy moves. The bands were all co-ed, some of the dancing couples weren't -- everything was live and loose. Could this be salsa?

If salsa's social customs are being relaxed by the salsera scene, so are the musical traditions. "This isn't traditional salsa; it's a fusion, a mixture," Garza says. "We'd probably be categorized as 'Alternative Latin Music' -- it's an Americanized groove." Orquesta D'Soul's CD, Remember Me, is hot off the burner, thanks to the La Peña show (and the support of the extended Garza family), and even though most of the bands that joined ODS onstage that night are no longer in existence, their members are reconfiguring groups with new lineups, sitting in or subbing with each other, circulating within a small, vibrant community of female salsa-oriented musicians. "Women in the traditional salsa scene are seen only as singers, not as band leaders or instrumentalists," Garza explains. But the Bay Area's salseras, like Garza, have eschewed the mainstream, with original music that leans on Latin beats. "We incorporate funk and hip-hop, and cater to a crowd that's just getting its feet wet with the salsa scene. I want to convey a lightheartedness, a humorous approach to the music. It's not intimidating -- just get up and dance!" If you've been one of the intimidated, you might want to make sure; one quick way to confirm it was to catch ODS last fall at El Rio in the Mission. Sunday night though it was, the mood was jolly, as Garza and her impressive singer Liza Jimenez traded gibes and banter in between songs, and searing harmonies the rest of the time. The undulating audience was clearly following the command of "Vamos A Bailar" to "move your butt like a big pincushion." The trumpet's lilting, jazzy wails combined with sharp salsa blasts. Garza can blow the house down with that horn; it's like they were made for each other.

The intimidating side of the salsa scene is something Garza understands, because she herself is a newcomer to Latin music. "I'm a Latina, but I'm totally Americanized," she says. "There's a big generation gap between my parents' age group and mine -- I've been so influenced by jazz." With formal training in jazz and classical music, and a serious affinity for funk and hip-hop, it wasn't until a friend asked her to sub as a trumpeter in Dulce Mambo, a now-defunct band, that she was introduced to salsa. "Culturally, I'm learning about my roots, and it's influenced my songwriting." The cultural journey has taken her not only to linguistic roots -- most of the cuts on Remember Me blend Spanish and English lyrics -- but into an exploration of family history: She points out the song "Es Una Desgracia Vivir Entre Sombras," which was a poem written by her grandfather, a rancher in Mexico. After his death, Garza was shown his journals full of poetry, and set this poem to music, "to keep him alive. The title and refrain means 'It's a disgrace to live in the shadows.' It's a spiritual poem. He was a pretty religious man."

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