Salsa Music History, Part1: Introduction


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 music history is explained in "El Libro de la Salsa"
“El Libro de la Salsa” by Venezuelan Cesar Miguel Rondón

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).

Salsa music icon Charlie Palmieri in "Salsa Na' Ma'" album cover
Charlie Palmieri and others in New York were using the term “Salsa” by the early 60’s.

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.

Charlie Palmieri's "Salsa Na Ma" backcover
Although Charlie Palmieri’s album “Salsa Na Ma” uses the name, it still outlines the individual genre of each song.

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.

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  1. Canuco says

    Throughout the years the music has gone thru countless changes. If you take a beginning point anywhere in the 20th century, let’s say Danzon or Trio music for example, you’ll find that there is as strong fiber the connects it to the music as we know today. If one were to lay out a musical tree with Afro-Cuban percussive figures and European orchestrations as it’s base, one can actually make direct connections to the musical landscape today. The commercial aspect of the business has propelled musicians to become creative in ways that have left many of us latinos wondering, “what the heck is that?”. On the other hand, this same commercial animal has produced some of the best compositions as well. In the past there have been some trends, (Boogaloo, Merencumbe, Pachanga,) that have made an attempt to cash in on the music and then there is that sector, (Rumba, Seis Chorreao, Yambu, Cumbia, Joropo, etc), that have stayed true to it’s roots despite the money. Salsa music will never be limited to any single source, it is an art form unto itself, not unlike painting or sculpture. Salsa a true mixture of ideas and experiences that reflect our multi-ethnic melding of cultures. Salsa……what a concept!

  2. Name says

    Canuco; you are correct! There are music blends that were created for monetizing on a new trend. Those include the trends you identified in the 1st group (Boogaloo, Pachanga). The genres on the 2nd list are true folk music, and therefore driven by culture not by money. Like anywhere else, there is a little of everything. I believe Salsa was an accidental creation, kind of like penicilin or nylon. At the time, there was a need for taking the traditional latin rythms and giving them a Barrio sound and flavor. Rageatton was born very similarly. Lukcy for us, Salsa continued to evolve to improve its sound and maintain all its flavor.

  3. Lati says

    Hi Hector, I liked the blog…. Was wondering if you ever watched the Palladium, where a few salsero Musician and Salsa Historians talk about how the word salsa came about..
    I do agree that is was to commercialise it more monetary reasons in the States…
    Salsaludos from downunder

  4. Hector Aviles says

    Hi Lati,
    No, I never went to the Palladium. It was a bit ahead of my time, and I lived in Puerto Rico, not New York.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the blog.

    How is the Salsa scene in the land downunder?



  5. Lati says

    i didn’t say go,, i meant have you seen the palladium, (the video) about salsa, its dancing and musics of that time..
    es un video donde habla tito puente y eddie palmieri y muchos historians y nacho sanabria tambien

  6. Hector Aviles says

    Ohhh, no I haven’t seen it. 🙂 I’ll do a search for it. I’ve seen footage of the Palladium, but not a video named that way. The PBS Special “Latino Music USA” I believe had some footage of it.

    Wow, El Sabor de Nacho – hace tiempo no me acordaba de esa banda.

    Thanks for the tip!

  7. Lati says

    I got it if you want the video. 🙂

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