Proposal: Cuban Women and Salsa

Delia Poey, Associate Professor in Spanish, Florida State University, USA

Title originally proposed: To the Beat of their Own Drum: Cuban Women and Salsa
Format: Monograph
Also available: sample chapteroriginal review


Proposal © 2014 Delia Poey

1. Aims, scope, and rationale
2. Chapter-by-chapter synopsis
3. Market and competition
4. Additional information

1. Aims, scope, and rationale

Although Salsa as a musical phenomenon has garnered academic interest from various disciplines in the last fifteen years, the contributions of female performers has been largely ignored. This book adds to the field by tracing the participation of Cuban and Cuban-American women as either solo artists or lead vocals in the development and popularization of Salsa, highlighting the performers’ staging and voicing of conceptualizations of gender, race and nation.

While there are ongoing discussions among scholars as well as performers regarding Salsa’s influences and roots, the one point of consensus is that New York City is its birthplace. The city provided a space where various groups and communities came together in close proximity, promoting vigorous exchange between musicians from Puerto Rico, Cuba and other locations in the Caribbean as well as those rooted in African-American forms such as Jazz.  The degree to which Cuban musicians and Cuban musical traditions shaped the development of Salsa is a point of ongoing debate, but there is consensus that Cuban music, particularly but not exclusively son, is a major contributor. To the Beat of their Own Drum traces the Cuban genealogy of Salsa “matrilinealy”; that is, it focuses exclusively on the contributions of female Cuban and Cuban-American performers.

Scholarship on Salsa has grown in the past fifteen years, yet the role that female performers have played, and continue to play, in the development of the genre has been largely ignored. The lack of representation of female performers in the scholarship is no doubt rooted in the overall underrepresentation of women in the Salsa recording industry. This study approaches the question of women’s marginalization within Salsa indirectly by analyzing the careers, performance styles, musical selections and off-stage personas of women who managed, to varying degrees, to have a presence. Using a cultural studies approach, the book applies a methodology based on literary textual analysis to perform close readings of lyrics as well as methodology from Performance Theory to “read” women’s embodied staging of race, gender and nation. The singers’ performances and careers are recognized as embedded in historical forces and contexts, particularly as these are affected by migration and cultural contact. The brunt of the analysis is focused on the ways they simultaneously play into established constructs as well as contest and revise these.

To the Beat of their Own Drum first establishes what is meant by “Salsa” and provides its history as an expression of Latinidad. The focus on Cuban music as one of the primary roots of Salsa is explained with an emphasis on Cuba’s own history of cultural contact, including its relationship to US hegemony. The book then moves to an analysis of Rita Montaner and Celeste Mendoza as precursors to Salsa, looking primarily at how these performers adapted traditional forms such as Rumba for different audiences as well as how they performed their own racial and gender identities. Taking Montaner and Mendoza as early models, the book goes on to analyze the careers of Celia Cruz, La Lupe, Gloria Estefan and Albita Rodríguez as extensions of these precursors as well as focusing on how each of them taps into and revises gender and racial codes. Moreover, because Salsa is, at its root, both a US phenomenon as well as a transnational one, the chapters also engage with the ways these performers problematize the idea of the nation and facilitate their musical performances’ movement across multiple borders.

This book is an important and timely intervention in the field given that no other study of Salsa focuses on gender. Seeking to answer how female singers negotiate issues of race, gender and nation through their performances, it begins to fill the gaps in the history of Salsa as well as looking at the genre from a different perspective.

2. Chapter-by-chapter synopsis


Chapter  1- To the Beat of Their Own Drum
The chapter provides a broad background of Salsa music and its history as well as providing a rationale for focusing on its roots in Cuban music. While providing a historical context for the development of Salsa, the chapter also highlights issues of migration and cultural contact as keys to the evolution of the genre. Salsa’s efficacy as an expression of Latinidad is also discussed as well as its limitations given the context of Salsa as a marketing term and the genre’s parameters in terms of its commercialization.

Chapter 2-  From the Streets to the Nightclub: Rumberas as Salsa Precursors
The chapter contrasts the careers of Rita Montaner and Celeste Mendoza. While Montaner reached international fame reinterpreting Cuban music for cosmopolitan European and U.S. audiences in the 1920s to 1940s, Mendoza received limited recognition in Cuba in the 1950s and 60s..The chapter argues that their differing racial positionings coupled with their level of incorporation of traditional Rumba music and dance directly affects their performance of femininity thereby accounting for the differences in their receptions. The adaptation and incorporation of Rumba, with its strong racial and class identifications, in stylized nightclub performances intended for a cosmopolitan, international audience is highlighted in the analysis of Montaner and Mendoza’s performance styles and careers.
A draft of this chapter is available for review.

Chapter 3- Celia Cruz: From La guarachera de Cuba to the Queen of Salsa
The chapter traces the singer’s career, highlighting her evolving performance of gender, race and nation as she, and her music, migrate from traditional Cuban roots to Salsa. Her stage persona simultaneously evoked and refuted gender and racial stereotypes, while her musical selections similarly stayed true to her roots in Cuban music while incorporating and transforming other influences.  Analysis focuses on Cruz’s musical selection and arrangements as well as her stage persona.

Chapter 4-  La Lupe: The Excessive Performance of Race and Gender
The chapter follows the singer’s explosive career, analyzing her over the top, emotional and raw performance style in relation to gender and racial constructs. Her performance is read as a staging and revision of the figure of “la mulata,” as well as her referencing of Santerí a “ethics and aesthetics.” The chapter also contrasts La Lupe’s stage persona and staging of sexuality to that of her contemporary, Celia Cruz.

Chapter 5-  Crossing Over: Gloria Stefan’s Performance of the/ on the Hyphen
Unlike the other performers discussed in the book, Stefan has recorded entire LPs in English as well as Spanish. In light of this, the chapter analyzes Gloria Stefan’s career trajectory in terms of her back and forth movement from Spanish to English as well as the projection of her image in relation to gender, race and nation constructs in a U.S. context.  Emphasis is placed on her use of “tradition and translation” in her performance style as well as the development of her off stage persona.

Chapter 6-  No se parece a nada/ Not Like Anything Else: Albita Rodríguez Bends the Rules
The chapter looks at the ways this performer is both working closely with traditional forms as well as breaking from them in terms of her reinterpretation of “tradition.” Emphasis is places on her reworking of constructs of femininity from a queer perspective as well as her challenging definitions of Salsa. Her choice to remain primarily a nightclub performer alongside her recording career is also analyzed as a return to and revision of earlier female performers and precursors to Salsa music, focusing on the performers discussed in earlier chapters.

The conclusion highlights the influence these performers have had on Salsa as a whole as well as how their legacy is evident in performers as diverse as La India (Puerto Rico), the female vocalist of Orquesta de la Luz (Japan), and the rise of all female Salsa bands in Colombia. Their influence and legacy is also discussed in terms of the future of Latin music more generally including forms such as Reggeatón and Latin Pop.

Bibliography and Discography

3. Market and Competition

Primary Market
The book is directed to specialists in the field but should also appeal to a general academic audience, particularly those with an interest in Caribbean and U.S. Latino/a Cultural Studies. Scholars and graduate students interested in performance of race and gender are also a target audience as well as scholars interested in broader themes and topics such as Migration and Diasporic communities.

Competing Titles
Competing books include titles focusing on Salsa and music of the Hispanic Caribbean such as the collection Situating Salsa: Global Markets and Local Meaning in Latin Popular Music, Routledge (2002), From Afro-Cuban Rhythms to Latin Jazz, Raúl Fernández, University of California Press(2006), The Book of Salsa: A Chronicle of Urban Music from the Caribbean to New York City, César Miguel Rondón,(translation) University of North Carolina Press (2008) and Music in the Hispanic Caribbean: Experiencing Music, Experiencing Culture, Robin Moore, Oxford University Press (2010). To the Beat of Their Own Drum adds to the field by focusing on gender and highlighting female performers. It also differs from existing work in the field by centering its analysis on the voicing and staging of race and gender evident in their respective performances.

4. Additional Information

Expected length
Total word count excluding Index- approximately 67,000 to 68,000 words.

8 half page photograph reproductions, black and white.


  1. I really like this proposal. I can see this being useful in a few classes: Intro to Latino & Latin American Studies, our Latin American culture & civ class in Spanish, and our Cuba study abroad program.

    One thing I would like to see included, that I’m not seeing in the proposal is the economic side of the topic. That is, what kind of record sales, concert income, collaborations, etc. do these women have, especially in comparison to the males? Music is as much a business as it is an art and I’m interested in being able to present to students those numbers too.

  2. Sounds fascinating. Fills an important gap; I agree that not enough has been published on women’s role in salsa. Prefer the title “Cuban Women and Salsa,” as it’s clearer and more specific than “To the Beat of their Own Drum.” Or, perhaps reversing the original title could work, as in: “Cuban Women and Salsa: to the Beat of their Own Drum.” Chapters discussing Celia Cruz, La Lupe, and Gloria Estefan (“Estefan” not “Stefan,”no?) will work particularly well for North American readers who may be more familiar with these international stars than dancers based primarily in Havana, although I hope to see in-depth discussion of performers living outside the U.S. as well. ¡Suerte con el proyecto!

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