Studio 360 With Kurt Andersen

New York Icons: Siembra

How a salsa album that many thought was doomed became a hit.

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About the Show

Studio 360 is a smart and surprising guide to what’s happening in pop culture and the arts. Each week, Kurt introduces the people who are creating and shaping our culture. Life is busy—so let Studio 360 steer you to the must-see movie this weekend, the next book for your nightstand, or the song that will change your life. Produced in association with Slate.

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Episode Notes

Studio 360’s American Icon series has explored dozens of influential works of art and entertainment that have shaped who we are as Americans. Now we turn to our hometown of New York for a new batch of Icons stories about works of art that were born in the city and had an impact on the lives of people everywhere.

This time: the album Siembra, which many salsa fanatics thought was doomed when it came out on Fania Records in 1978. The record’s songs were thought to be too long, bashed American consumerism, and called for Latinos to push for social change—all unconventional choices for a salsa album.

Rubén Blades, a singer-songwriter from Panama who composed the lyrics and music for all but one song on Siembra, remembers being called to the office of Jerry Masucci, president of Fania Records, with the album’s producer Willie Colón. Colón was a big salsa star at the time with more than a dozen records.

Blades says they played the still-unreleased album in front of three top New York salsa DJs. “The three of them said that this record should not be put out, because it would be the commercial death of Willie Colón,” says Blades.

But Siembra became the first salsa record to sell more than 1 million copies. It took a rhythm that was born in New York Hispanic neighborhoods of the Bronx and East Harlem to the world stage.

Siembra was so different that, to test the waters, Fania Records started promoting it abroad first, in places like Venezuela, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. Latin America was going through political turmoil, and many countries were under military dictatorships. The political songs of Siembra spoke to residents of those countries, and they liked the fact that Blades was talking to the whole region. “Nobody talked about Latin America. Things were about el barrio, the neighborhood, maybe Puerto Rico, but you weren’t addressing Latin America as a whole,” says Blades.

Siembra included songs like “Pedro Navaja,” which was inspired by a British opera from the 18th century about a beggar, and also by street gangs. It’s still one of the most famous salsa songs ever recorded. Cultural critic Carolina Gonzalez says the philosophical ideas behind that song and the album in general served as a blueprint that inspired generations of musicians. “Anybody like Café Tacuba, Calle 13, Julieta Venegas, they’re all following this playbook,” she says.

You can listen to the album here:

And if you are curious about “Pedro Navaja,” you can find the translation here.

New York Icons is made possible by funding from the Booth Ferris Foundation.

This podcast was produced by Gisele Regatao with the help of Studio 360’s Sandra Lopez-Monsalve.