Politics and pop music make stimulating bedfellows.
The most powerful and inspiring artists seem to emerge during times of social change, when music becomes a vehicle to express a new vision or affirm deep convictions. During the '60s and '70s, artists such as Bob Dylan in rock and Ruben Blades in salsa infused their music with values that changed the world--racial equality, social justice and opposition to the war in Vietnam.
In Latin America, young singer-songwriters started the New Song movement, la nueva cancion, making music with a message in native or folkloric styles. In New York and Puerto Rico, salsa artists sang about street life and ethnic pride, with such superstars as pianist Eddie Palmieri playing for the mostly black and Latino prisoners at Sing Sing.
That era, however, became a relic as music of all kinds turned away from social concerns. In the Latin field, salsa became sappy and the New Song faded as performers took on homogenized identities for a global market.
But now, boom!
That's the sound of U.S. Navy bombs exploding on the small island of Vieques off the coast of Puerto Rico. It's also the sound of new protest songs bursting across the island in recent months.
This is not the kind of cause that grips the nation, like civil rights or Vietnam. But the drive to stop the bombing on Vieques shows how at least one corner of pop music can regain its social energy.
For years, activists have been demanding a halt to six decades of American military exercises on the island of 9,400 inhabitants. The movement gained momentum in 1999 after a stray bomb killed a civilian security guard. Earlier this month, President Bush announced a Navy withdrawal within two years, but protesters were not appeased.
Salsa singer Ismael Miranda, of Fania All Stars fame, recently reasserted the call for the Navy to get out now. "Every time I get a chance, on the radio or in a concert, I mention it," the singer said.
The Vieques issue has rallied Puerto Rico's artistic community and sparked a renewal of the old spirit of music with a cause.
* Veteran Puerto Rican vocalist Danny Rivera was recently arrested along with other protesters for trespassing on the Navy's firing range. The singer was sentenced to 30 days for his civil disobedience. He's being held at the federal prison in Guaynabo outside San Juan, a site of continued protests--punctuated by music, of course.
* Salsa star Miranda joined forces with local folk (jibaro) artist Andres Jimenez for a recent CD titled "Son de Vieques," a socially conscious collection that includes an angry indictment of people who plunder the environment for profit. (The CD itself is extremely hard to find on the mainland, but the tune "La Naturaleza" (Nature) is included on a compilation called "Puerto Rico," released on the Putumayo World Music label.)
* Before coming to California for its debut L.A. appearance Friday at the Conga Room, the group Plena Libre rode in Chicago's Puerto Rican parade on a float decorated with protest banners. Along the route, it played songs calling for the Navy to get out of Vieques, to the bouncy native rhythms of the bomba and the plena.
Some observers see a nascent renewal of the New Song movement, which has a rich tradition in Puerto Rico with artists such as El Topo (Antonio Caban Vale), Roy Brown and Haciendo Punto en Otro Son. It would come none too soon for the musical reputation of Puerto Rico, whose artists are blamed for the dreadful salsa romantica of the 1980s, a bland form that featured pretty-boy singers and washed-out rhythms.
In the good old days, Victor M. Rodriguez, associate professor of Chicano and Latino studies at Cal State Long Beach, was listening to politically conscious music at coffeehouses around the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras. He's delighted to see the music of his native island returning to its roots, now through the children of older artists, including the son of Danny Rivera.
"The artists of my generation are reconnecting with the activism which, because of their commercial success, they had left behind," said Rodriguez, who will host a lecture and film about the Vieques disobedience camps on Saturday at the Long Beach campus. (For more information, call  985-8560.)
The new generation of Puerto Rican artists, heard on the soundtrack of the film he plans to screen this weekend, has refreshed the old protest song by using styles more relevant to its generation, including rap and rock. Rodriguez noted that some members of the rock en espanol group Fiel a la Vega, who have also been arrested in the protests, are sons of the leaders of the Puerto Rican independence movement.
"If this was only a nostalgic trip, I don't think it would have the impact it has had," said Rodriguez.
The protest movement has united artists who are worlds apart musically: Balladeer Ednita Nazario, salsa singer Andy Montanez and pop composer Robi Rosa, who wrote Ricky Martin's big hit "Livin' la Vida Loca." Marc Anthony, Jose Feliciano and Martin himself have all gotten into the act.
"This is the only issue which has brought consensus to all sectors in Puerto Rico," said Gilberto Santa Rosa, one of the island's leading salsa singers. "I participated in a very large march [against the bombing] along with what seemed like all of Puerto Rico."
But protests may not necessarily spark record sales. Santa Rosa said he has turned down songs about Vieques because the stylish salsa singer could be perceived as exploiting the cause.
Still, some hope the artistic spirit of the current cause will survive the moment.
As one college student told a mainland American reporter visiting the University of Puerto Rico recently: "This is the Vietnam of my generation."