A French political analyst named Daniel Pecaut once said that Colombia’s problem is that it lacks a founding national myth – something to really tie together the fray of Colombia’s history.
In spite of the deep cleavages that ravish Colombia’s past, nowhere is its egalitarianism more alive than when Salsa starts to play. With its origins seeping out of the melting-pot immigrant enclaves of New York in the 1970s and spreading throughout the Caribbean and the world, Salsa touched the Colombian coast during the 80s, where musicians like Cali’s Grupo Niche nourished it into a corner stone of the nation’s health.
Salsa might as well be accessible to anyone with the passion to listen and dare.
Old, formal men in Bogotá nightclubs practice it. Young cosmopolitan, independent women in New York worship it. It is the thing that families do when there is a birthday or a wedding. And best of all it triumphantly disobeys the sad racial walls familiar to American culture, where rap and hip hop is only for when you’re black, and white people don’t know how to dance.
The words sung and the bodies moved might as well be the myth Pecaut is looking for, even if only for its beauty, because almost everyone in Colombia believes that Salsa is beautiful.
Nowhere else is this myth more lucid than the fiesta of a man named Agustín Villamarín – a quirky designer in his late 30s who wears a blue stone-colored jacket, a black scarf, and an Ascot cap that reminds one more of the city’s mayor, Gustavo Petro, than of a designer for one of Colombia’s top clothing brands. However, the man whose day will be celebrated by family, friends, loved-ones, and even a handful of strangers, does not smile. His face wears an eternal frown from a stroke that tortures the happiness in a man who can’t help but exude enough of it.
It is Agustín’s birthday. And he makes himself clearly in charge. But his power is not an authoritative sort. Rather, it is charismatic and charming. One by one his guests enter. As they do, it is Agustín who runs up to them in a brilliant burst of child-like excitement.
“Welcome to the house,” he says, gesturing around himself at a clean, cozy design. “In Colombia, we are all friends,” he says, greeting myself and a young Chinese student at the door.
Friends, he says.
I have always been skeptical of someone who welcomes me into friendship before his palm has barely broke away from mine. Colombia is a friendly place, but trust is delicate here. So I force a smile and carry on.
As I watch, the faces that meet Agustín appear optimistic on the surface, but like most parties, a quiet skepticism channels them into neat, comfortable corridors and circles that kiss cheeks and chatter according to family and age.
But these neat little categories disintegrate at remarkable speeds and fall away like shingles in a storm when the Salsa begins to sing out from a set of speakers.
Agustín lives through the middle of the gale of sound that entrances the house. He is the captain. At one moment he is roped up with a young girl who laughs as he whispers into her ears. Then he is the champion of a small team of young men and women who form a chaotic sort of ring that spins and turns and glides. Then it is his mother. And then his Grandmother. Somehow he maintains an energy that is pure and undiscriminating. In a way Agustín is like a Cesar of this small house. He showers his people with love. And the masses follow. Agustín is a generous Cesar with his sound.
He is a clever fellow. Somehow the masses mix in a way that would startle old Analyst Pecaut. Somewhere in the fray an old woman struts up to me and grabs me. We dance. Then later there is her husband, and a ring of us move, letting the sound soak down our senses.
Suddenly the secret slaps me across the face. Agustín’s myth is the music that makes you forget the things that have succeeded to conquer and splinter Colombia – the age and time a person owns, the money jangling around in our pockets, the color of our skin, the language one speaks, the peculiar formations of nose, eyes, lips and cheek bones that make up the face, a person’s histories and however tragic or beautiful they might be – Agustín and his Salsa make us forget it all and for a moment, live without suffering the pain of divisions.
That, I think, is the most refreshing part of this world of sound and dance. It does not represent the stuffy elite, and it is not a product of impoverished miserables. It doesn’t believe in race and difference. And it would well up in tears if it couldn’t let an old man and his young daughter hold each other and dance on her birthday. Or his.
The next morning I spy Agustín leaning against a wall in an empty room where just hours before the bodies pulsed. It is early. Approximately six o’clock. Agustín appears just as alive as he was last night, teeming with energy. I ask him how he feels.
“I am happy,” he tells me. He says it through his eternal frown. I quickly try to forget his frown and smile back in return. I believe him. But even though I smile I also know that there are certain sadnesses that you just can’t forget, like the sharp, omniscient realities told by the French analyst – a set of observations that might infiltrate, trickle down, and occupy the unguarded conscience of people like Agustín Villamarin when the Salsa stops and the Colombian’s day finally begins again.
No need to fear though. There is always another night. Maybe even Mr. Pecaut will come.