Salsa Music History, Part 7: Salsa Today

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With all things working against it, Salsa music in general, and Salsa Dura in particular, still had a healthy heartbeat.

Salsa artists, and particularly the old-school ones, were acclaimed in mayor U.S. cities where competition wasn’t as tough. Spain, France, and Germany still welcomed Salseros with open arms. And Central and South America cities like Panamá, Caracas, Lima, and Cali, became a safe havens for Salseros.

These sites validated to Salsa artists that Salsa was not dead! Not even close. These countries did embrace the Salsa Romántica kings, princes, and queens. However, they also adored the old-school Salsa idols. They knew their history and repertoire as well as fans in San Juan, Miami, or New York.

With this spark, the move to a return to Salsa Dura surged. Salseros started asking for heavier, more beefy Salsa. Fans got tired of the “Salsa Monga” (soft Salsa), as they scornfully called “Salsa Romántica”. Therefore, in the new millennium, the old became new again.

Classic Salsa Veterans Reunite

Promoters started reuniting the old orchestra-singer duo’s. Barretto was doing gig’s with Tito Allen and Adalberto Santiago. Similarly, Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz made such a huge comeback. They recorded one of their Live performances into a CD. Oscar D’León came out with a CD called “Formula Original” (original formula). For this recording, he retook his old “Salsa Mayor” band type of arrangements to infuse his dormant CD sales with new life.

Ismael Miranda and Larry Harlow in Salsa reunion concert poster
Salsa artist from the golden age of Salsa began reuniting due to the high demand to see them perform old classics.

Ismael Quintana was just fine in retirement, so Eddie Palmieri used his steady singer, Herman Olivera to record “La Perfecta II” and “El Rumbero del Piano” recreating some old classics. In the same way, Manny Oquendo came back with his Conjunto Libre before passing away this year.

Raphy Leavitt increased his activity and recorded an excellent Live CD with La Selecta . Also, El Gran Como said “no mas” to the “ensaladita light” (light salad), because “arroz con habichuelas es lo que hay” (rice and bean is what we’ve got), from the title song of their last CD.

Events like “La Feria” in Cali, Colombia, and “El Dia Nacional de la Zalsa” in San Juan Puerto Rico continue to gain in popularity. They served as the main stages for old Salsa bands and the above mentioned reunions.

Here’s a video of a reunion of Luis “Perico” Ortiz and Rafael de Jesus in “El Dia Nacional de la Zalsa” in Puerto Rico.

The New “Salsa Dura”

The resurgence of Salsa Dura wasn’t all about old Salsa groups coming back together.

New Salsa groups that served Salsa dura began to come out. One of the first notable ones was the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. Oscar Hernandez, the veteran pianist who had been musical director of Ruben Blades’ Seis del Solar, was commissioned a recording project at the start of the new millennium. Oscar used it as the launching pad for a permanent Salsa band that would bring back the swing of what Salsa used to be.

After serving as Andy Montanez musical director for many years, percussionist Don Perignon started his own orchestra. His band became synonymous of good Salsa Dura in Puerto Rico.

In Europe, a group of Latin musicians led by Venezuelan percussionist Juaquin Arteaga, started Tromboranga in Barcelona, Spain. With a good formula based on Salsa Dura, Tromboranga began conquering the local Barcelona scene. Then they rapidly expanded to Europe, and inevitably to the Americas.

The Cuban Influence

Perhaps the return of the old Salseros started with the Cuban movement known as the Buena Vista Social Club. The 1990’s album and movie of the same name reunited old Cuban music legends back into the studio and a concert at Carnegie Hall.

Juan de Marcos playing guitar and Salsa.
Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez reunited old and mostly forgotten Cuban music legends to provide a big push to the Salsa renaissance movement.

Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, a veteran Cuban musician, was the mastermind of the concept. He developed it into two similar streams; the Buena Vista Social Club and the Afro-Cuban All Stars. It can be argued that both of these projects by Juan de Marcos were partly influential on the renaissance of Salsa Dura.

However, the music continued to evolve in Cuba. Cuban groups with their Songo or Timba-heavy rhythms began to appeal to Salsa classic fans. Los Van Van, and Son 14 alumni Adalberto Alvarez began taking the Salsa scene by storm.

More recently, Alexander Abreu and Havana D’Primera are one of the most popular Timba-based bands making a dent among Salseros.

I once asked Juan de Marcos about the future of Salsa. He believed that the Timba rhythm would dominate the future of Latin music. Years after that forecast, it seems that the influence of Urban in Latin music had an upper hand over Timba and everything else.

In the video below, two of the most popular contemporary artists, Alexander Abreu and Pirulo, Cuban Alexander Abreu and Puerto Rican Pirulo join forces on a new rendition of an old Salsa classic.

Urban Salsa

Some younger Salsa artists have taken to collaborate with their Reggaeton peers. One of the first and most popular was the Salsa band N’klave with Reggaeton star Julio “Voltio”. As Reggaeton has increasingly tended towards the Latin pop side, collaborations with some Pop Salsa artists have been also on the rise.

Marc Anthony has collaborated with Cuban urban group Gente de Zona. The Cuban group had previously collaborated with Latin pop start Enrique Iglesias. Salsa legend Ruben Blades collaborated with Calle 13.

Victor Manuelle, who has collaborated with various artists outside of Salsa, recently worked with such Urban stars as Bad Bunny and Farruko in his 2018 album “25/7”.

We also need to consider artists that fusion Salsa with other urban influences, like the case of Pirulo y su Tribu. Pirulo has enjoyed tremendous success with this Urban Salsa fission formula.

These collaborations will probably continue as they provide fans of both Latin music genres the opportunity to experience the mixture of these rhythms. It exposes Salsa to a new set of fans that might take to like the older genre.

Salsa Today: Conclusions

If you’ve followed this Salsa History blog series since the beginning, I believe that you’ll agree with me in that Salsa music is alive and well.

Salseros all over the world are enjoying the better things of Salsa Romántica or Pop Salsa. This form is now evolving into a more dynamic music style. At the same time, Salsa fans are embracing the old-idols of the Salsa Dura days. Older Salsa legends are finding plenty of work in Salsa Festivals, Salsa venues, and tours around the world.

Gilberto Santa Rosa singing with Salsa legend Willie Rosario
Gilberto Santa Rosa, here with the Willie Rosario orchestra, is one of the few old school singers who continues to adapt his music to today’s fan taste for Salsa music.

Salsa dancing is taking off to new heights. Salsa Congresses are more prolific now than ever before. They now have these events in many parts of the world where Salseros showcase their dancing abilities. As a result, Salsa dancing classes have become very popular for the casual dancer.

I couldn’t be happier to see these different styles of Salsa co-exist because I think it is good for the genre in general. Also, it’s important that Salsa maintains its vitality by staying close to its roots. The Salsa Dura movement vibrating across the globe is important to keep the roots of Salsa alive.

Gilberto Santa Rosa is a great example of an artist that continually grows by experimenting. Gilberto grew and worked with the best in the classic Salsa Dura. He worked with the likes of Mario Ortiz, Tommy Olivencia, and Willie Rosario.

Subsequently, Santa Rosa launched his solo career, and did the cross over to Salsa Romantica. As a soloist, he continued to experiment and evolve to make his Salsa both romantic and with a flair for the classic sound. His recordings always bring some new musical element, that keeps him up-to-date and experimenting.

Salsa Today: Epilogue

On the other hand, there will always be space for variants and experimentation. Artist that don’t do their own thing, that don’t experiment with variants, that always stick to a successful commercial formula, will become unexciting and irrelevant.

Salsa needs both, the classic and the new to continue to strive. And we continue to see younger artists that understand the concept of Salsa Dura, while bringing their own version of the music. These artists are testament that Salsa is alive and well, even beyond the current generation of Salsa artists.

I hope this “Salsa History” blog series was informative to you!

Final Note: You can find Part 1 of this 7-part “Salsa Music History” blog series HERE.

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