“Pedro Navaja” is the greatest salsa song ever written. This might seem like a rash pronouncement, but it’s not really that controversial. Sure, salsa is all about pulling bodies to the dance floor, and there are plenty of songs that outdo “Pedro Navaja” when it comes to getting hips shaking. “Brujerías” by El Gran Combo, “Vámonos Pa’l Monte” by Eddie Palmieri, and my favorite, “Llorarás” by Oscar D’León, indelible hits all, get dancing couples frisky and sweaty with simple, straightforward lyrics about love, dancing, or sex (or all three). Some salsas, it’s true, delve into serious territory, like Joe Arroyo’s raw rejoinder on slavery, “No le Pegue a la Negra”, but their lyrics still have to conform to the dictates of the form, with its traditional four-four rhythm and endless refrain repetitions. “Pedro Navaja” is a different beast altogether. It’s a short story put to music, a complex narrative full of observant detail, of drama and humor, of life and death. Musically it’s just as intricate. It’ll get you dancing all right, but it’ll take its time, building up to sweatiness/friskiness with patience and nuance that are more reminiscent of tango than salsa.
Written by the Panamanian superstar Rubén Blades, and released in 1978 in Siembra, his collaboration with New York salsa icon Willie Colón, “Pedro Navaja” was immediately recognized as something unique, unlike anything in the salsa universe. Blades is well known for his political, often provocative, lyrics, but this song is no protest anthem or mocking satire. It’s a clear-eyed, nonjudgmental piece of observational anthropology, capped by a tongue-in-cheek rebuke to popular ‘wisdom’. It means to show how things are, not how they should be.
Its plot involves three people, whose destinies momentarily converge on a dark city street: the small-time thug Pedro Navaja, a young prostitute down on her luck, and a lumbering drunkard who literally bumps into them both. Crime, alcoholism, prostitution don’t seem like the best ingredients for a party song. Telling a depressing story is all fine and dandy, but who’s going to want to boogie to that? Blades brilliantly deals with this problem by keeping the story suspenseful – dispensing information in piecemeal bits, ramping up the tension at a steady pace, with the musical accompaniment following suit – and by shifting from seriousness to humor in the last section. While dancing to “Pedro Navaja” we start stepping quietly, gingerly, listening to the vivid descriptions, attuned to the heightening tension of the story, but we end flushed, spinning to the quickened rhythm, laughing along with the irresistible closing refrain.
“By the corner in the old neighborhood I saw him”, opens the narrator, his voice escorted by a solitary pair of bongos. Pedro Navaja steps out of the shadows. He wears a wide-brimmed hat, trench coat, and sneakers, so he can flee “in case there’s trouble”. There’s a knife in his hand. He cuts an alluring figure, walking with a confident bounce and flashing a gold tooth out at the world. Claves join in, aping the bongos’ rhythm. Then maracas. Who is this man?, we ask ourselves. Is he a hero or a villain? Latin American stories abound with noble rogues, rebellious spirits with hearts of gold. Surely Pedro is one of them.
Three blocks away, as the piano keys burst into life, a woman walks alone. She’s a prostitute looking for work, not finding any. She’s hungry, surely also scared. As the horns join in, an unmarked police car glides along the street. Both Pedro and “that woman” slink into the shadows. He goes to her. The music is in full swing now. He catches up as, by pure chance, she pulls a gun from her pocket. She means to place it in her purse to put away for the night. She still doesn’t know Pedro is stalking her. What does he want? What will he do?
The song is almost over before we find out. He means to kill her. As the horns and the drums urge us to dance, to step in rhythm with our partner, to twist and turn and pull back into each other, Pedro pulls the woman to him, laughing, and knifes her in the gut. Pedro Navaja is not a charming rogue after all, but a heartless villain. But, remember?, the woman is holding a gun in her hand. “I thought this wasn’t my day”, she says with her last breaths. “But, Pedro Navaja, you got it worse”. She shoots.
The narration is delivered matter-of-factly, free of moral judgment. We aren’t invited to cry for either Pedro or the woman. We aren’t meant to look down on their lives on the margins of the law. We’re witnesses, nothing more. And yet, we are invited to dance through the terrible event, to enjoy ourselves as it unfolds. Is there something wrong, something a little twisted about this? Is “Pedro Navaja” an exercise in moral nihilism, in the belief that nothing means anything so why give a damn? Perhaps, and in a very conservative music genre this makes it interesting.
It’s not characteristic of Blades, who has always been politically aware and involved, to go this route. And yet, what else are we to make of that ending? A drunkard, ambling down the lonely street bumps into the two corpses. He steals the weapons and whatever cash he can find, and then walks away “singing tunelessly the message of this song”: life is surprising, he sings, unexpected, inexplicable. Sometimes we get handed a bad surprise, like Pedro, sometimes a good one, like the drunk. There’s no sense to any of it, no justice to be found.
As it closes, then, the song gets somewhat philosophical. The refrain is repeated over and over – “life gives you surprises, surprises gives you life” – as the singer throws out some popular refrains for the listener to consider: if you live in violence your death will be violent, don’t judge a book (or a prostitute) by its cover, don’t try to avoid your destiny. But how to take these pronouncements seriously, when we’ve just been presented with such a senseless scene of death? You never know, right? Life is full or surprises. You never know. So why not dance, when faced with the absurdities and the ironies of life? Why not just dance?