Combining a “do-it-yourself” ethos with a desire to revitalize a traditional genre beloved by Puerto Ricans, Orquesta el Macabeo is updating the music in the spirit of the classic sounds created by salsa pioneers. As record label Peace & Rhythm declared when reissuing Macabeo’s debut album this spring: “with every passing year their audience and reputation grows, mainly because they have managed to hit a nerve, connect to salseros craving that old-school sound and message, but also something that speaks to their own contemporary experiences in an unadulterated and honest manner.”
Today salsa is enjoyed and performed worldwide, but its roots are in New York’s Spanish-speaking barrios. It is here that salsa emerged in the early 1970s from a blend of Afro-Cuban song traditions, Puerto Rican rhythms, and big band jazz. Along with social movements of the day, the music helped to define an emerging Latino community identity, and for this reason became extremely popular back on the island of Puerto Rico as well. The parents of most of Orquesta el Macabeo’s members were fans of this first wave of Puerto Rican salsa, which devotees called salsa gorda, or “fat salsa,” for its heavy sound. Commercially popular artists gradually moved towards smoother salsa romantica sounds, but Orquesta el Macabeo is among a new generation reconnecting to salsa’s grittier, more socially conscious origins.
When the members of Orquesta el Macabeo sat down informally in 2008 to play salsa together, it was a bit of a lark. The young friends, who knew each other from Puerto Rico’s underground punk, ska, and reggae scenes, just wanted to entertain themselves. True to their DIY aesthetic, they focused on composing original work, but in the vein of the music they had grown up loving. The result was so personally satisfying that they formed an ensemble and began to record and perform. They named their group after a favorite food from their hometown of Trujillo Alto: macabeo, a ground beef-stuffed, fried green banana. A diverse audience from all walks of Puerto Rican life responded enthusiastically.
Now touring in celebration of a decade together, the 11-member ensemble has a remarkably stable line-up: 10 young rockeros anchored by one old-school salsero. Richly danceable percussion and exuberant brass flourishes propel lyrics that unapologetically tackle the serious challenges facing Puerto Ricans, both historically and in the present moment. The group’s dedication to collaborative music-making heightens the cohesiveness of both their sound and their message. Orquesta el Macabeo truly cooks up a salsa gorda. One reviewer described their latest release, La Maldición del Timbal (The Curse of the Timbale), and in particular its final track, which combines Spanish, English, and the indigenous Taíno language, as “not only the sound of resilience, [but] also an attempt at redemption.”