I think you’ll find it interesting to retrace Salsa music’s steps starting some 50 years ago. In this blog series I’ll cover the evolution and different challenges Salsa has faced, and how I believe it survived them.
I’ll be retracing those steps back from the 50’ and 60’s until today. This will be a 7-part series of Salsa music blogs, starting with this introductory one. I originally published these blogs in 2009, when I was starting Latino Music Café. I’m now editing and re-publishing them. I hope you find them entertaining and informative.
Salsa Music: Definition
The term Salsa may mean different things to different people. Therefore, let’s define the term for the purposes of this Latin music blog series:
Salsa = term used to described the rythms mostly from Cuba and Puerto Rico, mixed with the enhanced brass (wind instruments) elements of jazz. It referes mostly to the rythms of guaguanco, son, son montuno, guaracha, rumba, bomba and plena. I’ll exclude “merengue” and keep this rhythm as its own musical genre.
My attempt here is not to correctly define the term ‘Salsa“, but to use it in its most popular way. The great Venezuelan Latino music writer Cesar Miguel Rondón, in his book “El Libro de la Salsa” traces the origin of the popularity of the term to the mid 1970’s.
I beg to differ from Rondón and many others that agree with him. But I found that by that time the term had been well coined for a while. As an example, when Willie Colón recorded the album “Asalto Navideño” in 1971, he had a song titled “Traigo la Salsa”. This shows that the terms was mainstream by the early 70’s.
Rolling the clock back to the mid 60’s, In Venezuela Federico y su Combo came out with their debut album “Llego la Salsa” (1966).
Continuing further back in time, in New York Charlie Palmieri released an album titled “Salsa Na’ Ma'” in 1963. Charlie classified the title song as a Son Montuno. Palmieri followed that album with another titled “Salsa y Charanga”.
Further back in the 1930’s, the Wikipedia says that the great Cuban musician Igancio Piñeiro composed the song “Echale Salsita”. The term referred to putting some spice to tasteless food, but also implying to his band to spice up the music to “put the dancers in high gear”.
It also cites that in the 1930’s, vocalist Benny Moré would shout “salsa” during a performance “to acknowledge a musical moment’s heat. It expressed a kind of cultural nationalist sloganeering [and to celebrate the] ‘hotness’ or ‘spiciness’ of Latin American cultures.”
Here’s an 8-minute video that covers the origins of Salsa. This blog series will take it from there.
Salsa; the Controversial Term
The term has been controversial ever since it came to use. According to the Salsa music Wikipedia, Rubén Blades once claimed that Salsa is merely “a concept”, as opposed to a definite style or rhythm. Meanwhile, Celia Cruz is quoted as saying that “salsa is Cuban music with another name. It’s mambo, cha cha chá, rumba, son … all the Cuban rhythms under one name”. However, Salsa goes beyond this, as it includes the addition of the rhythms from Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries, as I indicated above.
I can relate to Rubén Blades’ idea. Look, most experts and fans agree that Salsa is a combination of different rhythms. Therefore, Salsa cannot be a genre itself as rhythms can be combined in various ways. Before Salsa, albums used to indicate the type of genre of each song. Because you can have several of these within a particular Salsa song, that practice was discontinued.
Famous Puerto Rican disc-jockey and radio/TV personality Mariano Artau called Salsa a “way to make music” [..from the book “Salsa, Sabor y Control”, pg 87 by Angel Quintero Rivera; reference provided by Hector “Atabal” Rodriguez]. Artau’s description is closer to Blades’ “concept”.
Another characteristic of Salsa is that this “way of making music” includes three types of improvisations. One is the free mix of rhythms, which could be played simultaneously (poli-rhythmically) or sequentially within a song. The second, is the improvisation by an instrumentalist, like one of the drums, horns or piano. In some cases, even the bass. And third, the improvisation can come from the singer, who improvises within the sing and response (chorus) part of the songs.
For the purposes of this blog-series, we’ll be closer to Celia Cruz’s description. To Celia’s point, it is true that many Salsa songs are mere remakes of old Cuban songs and rhythms. Cesar Miguel Rondon would call those closer to the “typical” side of the Salsa spectrum. But then, there are those closer to the opposite side of the spectrum, the “orchestral” side. According to Rondon, bands like Eddie Palmieri’s “La Perfecta” fall into this category.
The Challenges and Evolution of Salsa Music
Afro-Cuban music had its climax during the 50’s and 60’s with the Big 3 of Machito, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodriguez in New York. The same occurred in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and other countries. Rafael Cortijo y su Combo and El Gran Combo carried Salsa music in Puerto Rico around the same time.
However, since then, Salsa music has had several key challenges to survive. In this blog series, I’ll cover the ups adn downs in the following blogs:
1. Salsa Music History, Part 2: Origins and Boom
2. Salsa Music History, Part 3: Fania All Stars
3. Salsa Music History, Part 4: Rock & Disco Threat
4. Salsa Music History, Part 5: Salsa Romantica
5. Salsa Music History, Part 6: Surviving Merengue
6. Salsa Music History, Part 7: Salsa Today
Part 2: Origins and Boom
The origins of the word Salsa began as early as the 1930’s. However, it was during the early 60’s that the “genre” began to take off as Latinos wanted something more contemporary to the old Cuban songs. By the late 60’s Salsa, as a new style of music, was firmly established.
In “Part 2, Origins and Boom” we’ll cover the development and boom of Salsa. I’ll cover how it developed in New York as well as in Puerto Rico. It then all merged with the Fania All Stars.
You can find a link to Part 2, HERE.