One of the most famous salsa songs of all time is not actually a salsa. It’s a murga, “La Murga de Panamá” to be exact. The song was a huge hit for New York-based Fania Records back in the 1970s, written and performed by salsa gods Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe. Since 2006 the Fania label has been rereleasing much of their classic material. As part of the effort, the label commissioned a new, “modern yet respectful take” on “La Murga”, which the Colombian band Puerto Candelaria unveiled this past April. Like Colón and Lavoe before them, Puerto Candelaria uses the Panamanian rhythm in a new and surprising way, delivering a fun and irresistibly danceable song, which after all is what murga is all about.
The Panamanian trumpeter Manuel Consuegra López invented murga in the 1950s. He began his career playing big-band music, gaining a national reputation and even leading some ensembles of his own. As he tells the story, once the big-band style began to lose popularity, he turned to traditional music. He teamed up with Ramón Fajardo and they became staples in popular celebrations and carnivals. In 1952 they debuted murga at the Carnaval de las Tablas.
Murga, then, is a carnival dance for crowds of people to dance joyfully in the streets. It relies heavily on percussion and has a very fast tempo, a legacy of African drumming traditions, with a sound much closer to samba’s than to salsa’s. It became so popular that, Consuegra boasts, it displaced the tamborito as the most popular carnival music. (This is a little sad, since tamborito is a beautiful musical style even more steeped in African drumming practices, which is on the verge of extinction.)
I wish I could tell you how or when the Puerto Rican/New Yorker Colón and Lavoe decided to use the murga rhythm for a song. What’s certain is that “La Murga de Panamá” became one of the iconic anthems of the golden age of salsa and surely the most beloved of all songs in Panama. Colón and Lavoe famously open their version with a long trombone riff accompanied by staccato piano keys, followed by the accelerated murga tempo on the drums instead of the much slower salsa. Yet, the keys play and the voices sing as if the song is a salsa, combining the sexy vibe of salsa with a slightly hyperkinetic undercurrent. Just listen to it, or better yet dance to it. It’s glorious.
For their new version, Puerto Candelaria slowed things down a bit, added some Colombian rhythms like porró chocano and buyerengue as well as some electronic accompaniments, and replaced the high-pitched male vocals with the assured voice of Maga la Maga, which one journalist has called “the cure against drought”. The new “Murga” is full of humor, both in its choice of instrumentation (and the life-loving music video) and its many allusions to its predecessor. It all but copies the introductory riff, except that it adds some hip-hop-style voices, suggesting a serious or even angry approach, only to unexpectedly burst out into a light-hearted “Murga” that’s much more tropical beach party than urban dance club. In some sense it’s a return to the original Consuegra murga, which would rather you jump up and down than break out some complicated two-person choreography.
Whichever way you prefer it, just remember that “it’s an easy thing/ and so good to dance/ the murga of Panama”.