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.”

When she was a kid, rather than pushing her toward the rancheros music of her Mexican heritage, Garza’s parents signed her up for the school band, where she was forced to play a euphonium, a tuba-relative that got pretty heavy on long walks to school. She made the move to trumpet, and it’s been with her ever since.

That trumpet has certainly led her on a varied musical journey: During her stint playing big band music on a tony cruise ship, she was “the only girl in the orchestra — they roomed me with the ship’s hostess”; at the other end of the spectrum was playing in an all-female German polka band, which involved wearing a hat with a big sausage on it, and bloomers which, when finally revealed to the audience with a flip of the dress, sported the word “Applause” written across the butt. “No one could really read it. Of course, we were a polka band, so we had a lot of older folks in the audience — they thought it maybe said ‘Appaloosa’ or something.”

And nowadays, the trumpet earns her daily bread offstage as well; Garza gives lessons at a music store in San Francisco. Although most students of the instrument are male, “I have three female students right now … two of them are little girls,” she says. “When girls get to a certain age, they put the trumpet down — guys don’t like it. It’s an aggressive instrument; it’s LOUD, it’s not feminine.” Not only is a woman blowing a horn loud, it is, apparently, goofy: “It’s something that gets spoofed — remember the nightclub scene in Airplane? There’s this music playing and people dancing, and you see a woman’s legs, in high-heeled shoes and a dress. The camera moves slowly up her body, and then it turns out she’s playing the trombone, and that’s ‘funny.’ It’s comedic when women play instruments.” And if blowing a horn is for men, what about leading a whole band? “Louis Armstrong got his start playing in his wife’s band,” says Garza. “Yeah, she was a bandleader, but you don’t hear about her. There’s a lot of women’s history that we don’t know about.” Her eyes flash — not with anger, but excitement. She’s fascinated by the history of women in music, and dreams of putting together a course on the topic, perhaps to teach at the Berkeley Jazz school.

In fact, despite any mention of gender inequity, Garza is both incredibly modest and immensely positive — there’s neither gloating about her own work as a female musician, composer, and bandleader, nor griping about the difficulties of working with male musicians, bookers, and club owners. So finally you have to ask her point-blank: What about the unfairness? The discrimination? That damn Rolling Stone cover? “It’s so easy to get paranoid, to say ‘they don’t want me because I’m a woman,’ ” she admits. “There’s discrimination all over, but it’s how you choose to see it, whether you let it hinder you. Because, come on, there are closed doors for everyone. But you have to make your own door — you have to do your thing. You have to just get up there and be who you are.” Just a moment at an Orquesta D’Soul gig, with that crazy twirling trumpet, will make it clear she’s already taken her own advice.

Not one to sit around and whine about sexism, Garza is busy on a new mission: to make the “Women in Salsa” show an annual event at La Peña, a celebration of salseras in the Bay Area. The 2002 event is set for March 1, to kick off Women’s History Month. And now that Remember Me is out and the band is gigging solidly behind it, the show will not be a benefit: “All the money that comes through the door is going straight to the musicians.” A newly formed band, Cha-Cha-Boom, will be highlighted, and will certainly be joined by some of the musicians from last year’s gig, many of whom are now in new groups. And, of course, ODS will be there, led by that twirling trumpet. It seems like the words of Garza’s grandfather were, in a sense, a prophecy for her, and for the whole hopping salsera scene: It’s a disgrace to live in the shadows.

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