A Puerto Rican flag hanging in an East Harlem apartment window (Flickr/Richard Alexander Caraballo)
A Puerto Rican flag hanging in an East Harlem apartment window (Flickr/Richard Alexander Caraballo)

Salsa music simmered to life in New York City’s Puerto Rican neighborhoods in the 1960s and 70s: a blend of Cuban son, mambo, cha-cha-chá, and guaracha; a dash of Puerto Rican rhythms; and swirls of other musical ingredients.

New York’s early salsa era was one part popular craze, and one part urban cultural movement. Today, Beijing boasts salsa-themed nightclubs, Scotland hosts an annual salsa congress, and salsa music spills out of car windows on hot summer nights in California.

In short, salsa is now a global phenomenon.

A San Francisco Bay Area reader recently sent Apsara a list of his all-time favorite salsa ensembles and solo artists. His lifelong passion for salsa began several years ago in Bogotá, with Fania All Stars (a showcase ensemble of Fania Records artists) topping the list.

Our Latin Thing

The film Our Latin Thing recounts a famous 1971 Fania All-Stars concert held in New York’s now-defunct Cheetah disco, and features footage of East Harlem. Fania recently released a re-mastered 40th-anniversary edition of this musical time capsule.

Fania All-Stars launched the solo careers of many salsa legends, including the “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz. Originally from Cuba, Cruz’s impressive recording career spanned 50 years and lasted until close to her death in 2003.

Celia Cruz: “Guantanamera”

Other favorite solo artists from our reader’s list include:

Willie Colón (trombonist and singer): “Idilio,” “El Gran Varon,” “Gitana,” “Celos,” “Murga de Panama,” and “Calle Luna Calle Sol” from the album Greatest Hits

Henry Fiol (composer and singer): “Oriente,” “Ahora Me da Pena,” and “La Juma de Ayer” from Fe, Esperanza y Caridad

Larry Harlow (pianist): “El Paso de Encarnacion,” “La Cartera,” and “Abran Paso”

Pupi Legarreta (flutist and violinist): “Sabroso Como el Guarapo” and “El Niche” from Pa’ Bailar

Ismael Miranda (composer and singer): “Asi Se Compone Un Son” and “Maria Luisa”

Eddie Palmieri
(pianist): “Azucar,” “Vamonos Pal Monte,” “Puerto Rico,” and “Muñeca” from A Man and His Music

Thank you for sharing this wealth of salsa music with us! We’ll be posting the rest of the list on Facebook and Twitter this week.


The winter solstice creeps nearer each day.

An autumn sunset (Flickr/Josh Libatique)

Winter has not yet descended upon Northern California, but the wind bit at my cheeks as I walked along the ocean yesterday. I’m starting to dress in double layers and crave comfort foods like vegetable stew and fruit sauces flavored with allspice.

Acoustic string music kindles my late fall and wintertime memories of listening to folk music records, and watching the sun set through the bare branches of trees in the backyard.

“Up High in the Clouds,” a song from harpist Diana Rowan’s album the Bright Knowledge has always sounded both watery and wintery to me. On her website, Diana explains that this Romanian tune does have winter roots:

“[The song contains] variations on a holiday folk melody I found in the UC Berkeley music library, hidden away in a dusty book that hadn’t been opened in years. I was drawn to the melody’s combination of sweetness, strength and offbeat phrase lengths, much as I’m drawn to people.”

“Up High in the Clouds,” Diana Rowan


To anyone living on the West Coast, taiko is a familiar fixture at folk festivals and at college events. But what about its history, especially in North America? In this Apsara guest post, Seattle composer and musician Byron Au Yong introduces the history of North American taiko and uses it as a lens for exploring the question: How can music be brought into a larger social, political, and spiritual sphere?

PJ Hirabayashi, Co-founder of San Jose Taiko (Mel Higashi Design)

How can music be brought into a larger social, political, and spiritual sphere? By coining the word “TaikoPeace,” PJ Hirabayashi (artistic director emeritus of San Jose Taiko) attempts to reconnect with the core of playing music. Along with her husband Roy, Hirabayashi received the 2011 NEA National Heritage Fellowship. As co-founders of San Jose Taiko, they have contributed to the development of taiko music in the Bay Area and beyond.

For new audiences, a group taiko (or kumi-daiko) show may seem to be music passed down through many generations. In actuality, modern ensemble taiko performances started in the late 20th century. Tokyo-based jazz drummer Daihachi Oguchi founded Osuwa Daiko in 1951. While Japanese religious, theatrical, or village taiko may influence kumi-daiko performances, most taiko in North America is a form of new music or neo-folk performance generated by a vibrant, soul-searching community of amateur and professional musicians.

San Jose Taiko formed as part of the Asian American identity movement in 1973. As the third kumi-daiko group created outside of Japan, San Jose Taiko currently performs for over 100,000 people a year. In 1968, Seiichi Tanaka started San Francisco Taiko Dojo, which was the first kumi-daiko group in North America. The second group, Kinnara Taiko, started at  Senshin Buddhist Temple in South Central Los Angeles as a musical club that transitioned from a chant and gagaku (court music) group to a taiko group in 1969.

In less than 50 years, over 150 taiko groups outside of Japan have formed. Many follow the model of a community music-making group such as San Jose Taiko, a school such as Taiko Dojo, or a Buddhist temple activity such as Kinnara. Additionally, there are taiko professionals influenced by jazz pickup groups such as Russell Baba and Jeanne Mercer of Shasta Taiko, Kenny Endo Contemporary Ensemble in Hawai’i, and rock bands such as LOUD from Vancouver and On Ensemble from Los Angeles.

On Ensemble: Taiko & Turntable

Kumi-daiko groups have varying aesthetics, philosophies, and skill levels. Most taiko players are hobbyists. “TaikoPeace” provides a framework for personally engaging with music.

At the closing session of the 2011 North American Taiko Conference in August, Stephen Sano, professor and chair of the Department of Music at Stanford University, admonished the audience of nearly 800 taiko players and enthusiasts to consider “work” as a verb as well as a noun. Thinking only about the performance or the recording can dampen the spirit of working. His reminder to treat “work” as a verb allows taiko players to be process rather than goal oriented by focusing on the resonances and repercussions of making music.

During the discussion session “Taiko and Social Change,” curated by Alan Okada of New York City-based Soh Daiko, Hirabayashi referenced Karen Armstrong’s “Charter for Compassion.” Kenny Endo commented afterwards that taiko was an instrument historically used for war and that he supported Hirabayashi’s idea to use taiko for peace. With TaikoPeace, Hirabayashi continues her work delving into what it means to play taiko.

Taiko, the drum, has no inherent power. Rather, taiko musicians create meaning through their actions—whether it is rehearsing and performing within community groups or competing in Australia’s Got Talent 2011. Endo cautions that any taiko performance may be the first and last time to make an impression on an audience. Taiko can continue to be thought of as an instrument of war, rather than peace.

Australia’s Got Talent 2011

Misrepresentations of taiko continue to exist. Often presenters and even taiko players remark that this 50-year-old art form is thousands of years old. Perhaps a way to interpret TaikoPeace is as a continual reinvestigation of motives. TaikoPeace has the potential to become a space of compassion that supports multiple individual stories informed by a search for integrity within this art form.

Considering TaikoPeace, Hirabayashi wrote to me in a recent email: “TaikoPeace invites one to reflect on our own taiko journeys where we can see the impact of our thoughts, words, and actions. TaikoPeace is an initiative to become heart-centered. TaikoPeace is not playing to impress. TaikoPeace is playing to inspire.”

Hirabayashi continues to inspire with her recent transition from artistic director of San Jose Taiko to independent taiko artist. TaikoPeace strengthens the core of playing music to balance oneself as well as connect with the social, political and spiritual reasons that make taiko potent.

KTEH TV Profile of PJ and Roy Hirabayashi


In a world wide web full of streaming music services, exists Bandcampa site that I discovered earlier this year and that has quickly turned into one of my favorite go-to sources for new music.

A 78 RPM Decca vinyl recording (Flickr/Mike Bitzenhofer)

I like Bandcamp—A LOT.

Apsara features tons of artists from this music distribution site, especially in our daily Twitter and Facebook recommendations .

So what’s so great about it?

From a basic listener’s perspective:

  • It offers an attractive landing page with a musician’s complete discography and links to their website, Twitter, and Facebook pages.
  • There are no commercials. You can only listen to one album at a time, but you can enjoy it in peace.
  • After previewing a full-length album, it’s easy to pay for and download it in a variety of digital formats, including MP3 320, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, and several others I’ve never even heard of before. Using Paypal, I’ve downloaded albums in five minutes flat—which means a lot when I just have to have an album for my train ride home but am running late. (And if time is not a constraint and you prefer your music in CD format, many musicians offer this option too.)

From a blogger’s perspective:

  • Bandcamp’s nifty streaming player embeds easily into Apsara‘s WordPress page, allowing us to share full audio samples of the music we’re excited about.
  • There’s a bewildering array of musical selections—ranging from high school student home basement recording projects to Grammy-winning albums.
  • Labels like Cumbancha and its partner label Putomayo are cropping up more and more on Bandcamp, proving that they recognize that there’s more to digital music than iTunes.

The one double-edged feature to Bandcamp is its tagging structure. Musicians can set their own tags, which leads to a completely different set of results when searching for “folk pop” as opposed to “folkpop.”

On the other hand, it’s also possible to narrow results with an über-specific tag like “indie folk pop rock alt-country.” If you have the time, it’s fun to search for music by genre variation, as well as by country and even city.

Bandcamp is my online equivalent of the Exclusive Company of Madison, WI, the favored record store of my high school and college days.  Digging through the crazy tag structure reminds me of rummaging through bins of world, jazz, and classical music CDs in the Exclusive Company’s basement—never quite sure what I was going to find.

Unlike the Exclusive Company though, there’s no resident classical music buff hanging out in the basement who’s happy to chat and offer recommendations.

I’ll wager that music stores will be around for a long while yet, but we’ll see next week what you have to say on the subject as we delve into the results of our “Digital Divide” survey.


In keeping with our theme of “looking back, looking ahead,” an Apsara reader from Saint Louis shared REM’S Automatic for the People as a favorite album from a pivotal era of his life.

“This album was practically the theme for my freshman year in college, and I played it constantly. I think it was also a good album for that time in my life, when I was transitioning from one stage to another.”

Interestingly, this was an important album for me around this same time too.

It was sort of permanently on loan from my friend across the hallway, and I played “Man on the Moon” and the “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” endlessly—until I finally had to give it back.

“Man on the Moon”

Good memories–thanks for sharing!


Mondays often require an extra dose of good cheer.

With this in mind, I went in search for videos of the “sitar-guitar” (also just called a “sitar”) that I’d heard referenced in a conference presentation a few years ago.

I was intrigued, but time went by and I never followed up to find out what it actually sounded like. Little did I imagine what other instruments my search for the sitar-guitar would turn up today!

To launch the week, here’s an array of guitars and guitar-hybrids from around the world. And here’s to the creative musical minds that keep this instrument evolving!

Sitar guitar, Rob Mastrianni

Harp guitar, Tony Seeger

Harpolyre, John Doan

Omstrument, Jack Hass


Looking out a rain-spotted window at Seattle’s Capitol Hill. (Flickr/sea turtle)

We just celebrated Diwali (the Hindu new year) in our household, kicking off a season of new beginnings while winding down the current year. My birthday is also around the corner, so lately I’ve found myself thinking not only about the current year but also about years past.

Like many people, music strongly calls to mind for me a specific time and place in my memories—all of which connect to where I’m at, the music I listen to, and the person who I am now.  From now until the end of December, Apsara will feature a number of artists and albums who represent important influences on the road leading up to its creation in April 2011.

And along the way, we’ll also showcase some of your picks for the music that comprises the soundtrack to your life. We welcome you to e-mail us at apsaramusicblog [at] with the name of an artist and album that reminds you of a significant moment or era in your life, with a few sentences about the place that it takes you back to.

I’ll go first, with an artist and album that I only “discovered” just this weekend, but whose music reminds me both of my years in Seattle and of my life in California now.

Robert Deeble is not exactly a household name, but this understated indie folk artist has been garnering critical praise with his albums and performances since the late 1990s. He only releases recordings every few years. The gap between his last album and his forthcoming November release spans six years, for example.

There’s a languid pace to his music that reminds me of life on the California coast, so I was not surprised to discover that Deeble hails from Long Beach. But he’s also spent several years in Seattle, and to my ears that sound comes through in the mellow guitar chords and quiet lyrics. Listening to “Blue,” I’m at once standing on the cliff overlooking Steamer Lane and sitting in the bus to Capitol Hill watching raindrops roll down the window.

you make me smile
when your mood
lies down
here for awhile
could you afford a major chord
to make us all smile?

shine down
let your blue light hue
touch the ground
do you mind keeping time
here with my sound? 

Now that I live in California, I feel that I’m “home.” But I’m also a little wistful for the rainy days of dreaming in coffee shops, and I’m grateful for the many friends and amazing musical experiences that I had in Seattle that continue to influence and make my life fulfilling today.