HARLINGEN – Jazz.
Those two words conjure the primal seductive quality embodied in music which traces its origins back to Africa.
From there it traveled with African slaves to the Caribbean Islands, South America and the United States. Upon its arrival here, it diversified into numerous genres and sub-genres, one of them being salsa.
The very name “salsa” has multiple meanings. Hot salsa can spice up a Latin American meal. Salsa music can intensify an evening of dance with its hot provocative allure.
Raul Liendo, a Laredo native, has brought that music to Harlingen High School South. The HHSS Salsa Band will begin its second year this fall. Last year was a great success.
“The salsa band has developed at a fantastic pace,” Liendo said earlier this year.
“The students have adapted to the new style almost seamlessly,” said Liendo, who has been band director for four years.
He attributed this smooth adaptation to the fact that most of them have also performed in the school’s jazz bands.
“The quality of sound they produce replicates that of the original artists that we paid tribute to with our performances,” he said. “I would say salsa is Latin jazz. The roots are the same.”
However, he first became aware of salsa music while attending the Vidal M. Trevino School of Communication and Fine Arts. While there, he was exposed to the congas and other Latin percussion instruments.
However, he didn’t begin performing the music himself until he attended Texas A&M University – Kingsville. It was there he performed in the University Jazz Bands. From there he studied at Texas State University in San Marcos where he received a master’s degree in Latin music performance.
“In San Marcos, I was the conguero for the Salsa Del Rio, the top Salsa group on campus, under the direction of Mr. John Lopez,” he said. “It was at Texas State that I learned the ‘ins & outs of salsa music and did intense research on the history and influences of this music.”
Salsa music, he said, is the soundtrack to the Latin American culture in the United States.
“What I love about this music is the rich harmonies from the horns and vocals and the driving rhythms from the percussion, bass and piano,” he said. “With the apparent fusions of jazz and Cuban/Puerto Rican music, salsa music symbolizes the cultural ‘melting pot.’”
He showed his love of salsa when he applied for a position as band director at the Harlingen school district. He told the district then he wanted to eventually start a salsa band. This, he believes, helped him get the job. During the next three years he spoke emphatically about his desire to start the band, and last year his dreams came to fruition. More than 40 students expressed an interest and he only had 10 positions.
This year, the journey continues as Liendo leads his students along their musical explorations into the very heartbeat of humanity’s musical life. It’s a heartbeat that began in Africa, took an agonizing voyage across the ocean and landed here.
The slaves in Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean were allowed to keep their names and customs, and they continued their musical traditions. Slaves taken to the United States were stripped of their names, their languages and their customs. Nevertheless, somehow enough of the music by their African forebears survived.
Now it resides in the hearts, minds, and hands of the young musicians at Harlingen High School South, all thanks to the efforts of Liendo.