Salsa Origins

The word “salsa” is a perfect metaphor for a genre of music that emerged as a result of mixture: Cuban-based rhythms played (mainly) by Puerto Ricans in New York City! What salsa is—a sauce—helped to describe the cultural and musical make-up of New York City during the 1960s and 1970s; what it is not is a rhythm.  

Before they called it salsa, many musicians in New York had already explored the possibilities of blending Cuban rhythms with jazz, such as legendary Cuban brothers-in-law Machito and Mario Bauzá. Back in the 1940s, it was perfectly normal to refer to this blend as “Afro-Cuban jazz,” although the music was absolutely for dancing. Into the ’50s, the Latin big-band era in New York City found favor with dancers and listeners alike, and the bands of Puerto Rican (or “Nuyorican”) bandleaders such as Tito Rodríguez and Tito Puente were fervently committed to playing Cuban music—from the son to the mambo, the cha-cha-chá and beyond. Meanwhile, on the island of Puerto Rico, most popular groups also concentrated on the Cuban rhythms until groups such as the conjunto of Rafael Cortijo (along with singer Ismael Rivera) got the island’s dancers moving to their own genres such as the bomba and the plena.

Back in New York, the ’50s-era Latin big bands soon fell out of favor, and smaller groups emerged, including Cuban style charanga orchestras, trombone-heavy conjuntos and everything in between. In the mid-1960s, Dominican flutist, composer and producer Johnny Pacheco founded the Fania label (bank-rolled by Italian-American lawyer/producer Jerry Massucci), which was exclusively dedicated to recording “tropical Latin” music. With Cuba now being cut off from the United States politically as well as culturally, it was no longer possible to use the term “Afro-Cuban” or anything else related to Cuba, for that matter. It soon came to pass that the word “salsa” emerged as a clever marketing tool, not only for the music, but for the entire atmosphere—music, dance and events. Among the first artists to record on Pacheco’s Fania label were Nuyorican trombonist/composer Willie Colón and Panamanian-born singer/composer Rubén Blades, both who carved an important place in salsa music history for their socially conscious and topical lyrics.  

By the 1970s, numerous artists joined the Fania roster, including Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe and many others. Salsa was hot, not only on the U.S. East Coast, but also in South America as well as Central America; even European, Japanese and African audiences were treated to this new sound. Venezuelan and Colombian artists also joined the Salsa family, producing important artists such as Oscar D’León (from Venezuela), Joe Arroyo and Grupo Niche (Colombia) and others. In fact, Venezuela became one of the largest consumers of salsa music per capita during the ’70s. Also, Puerto Rico became a central figure in the salsa phenomenon, continuing to produce some of the genre’s most important artists and groups, among them El Gran Combo and La Sonora Ponceña.

What distinguishes salsa from its Cuban predecessors? While the roots of salsa are firmly imbedded in the Cuban son and its descendents (such as the mambo, cha-cha-chá and guaracha), there are four main factors in how it became its own genre: an increased use of trombones; the important role of the Cuban timbales in the ensemble; the modern harmony associated with jazz music; and the incorporation of Puerto Rican rhythms, instruments and stylistic elements.

While Cuban clave remained as the heartbeat of the music, salsa bands began to record bomba and plena rhythms along with Cuban guarachas, and many of the lyrics reflected a Puerto Rican identity and cultural pride. Boricuas (Puerto Ricans) became one of the largest sectors of New York City’s Latino population, and salsa music became the ideal platform for their voice to rise above the discriminatory circumstances in which they found themselves. In the ’70s, salsa was an “urban folklore of the city,” as Rubén Blades once said, and it would remain as one of the world’s most influential music and dance genres in the decades to come.

As salsa evolved in the 1980s, it experienced a more bland version of itself in the so-called salsa romántica genre as Dominican merengue served up some worthy competition, but has rebounded since the ’90s. Salsa has spread throughout the globe, and lives on the in new generations of players and dancers alike.

Source: Rebeca Mauleon