Salsa music


Salsa music is a general term referring to what is essentially Cuban popular dance music which was internationalized outside Cuba. The term "Salsa" was initially recorded, promoted and marketed in New York City during the 1970s. The various musical genres comprising salsa include the Cuban son montuno, guaracha, chachachá, mambo, and bolero and, to a lesser degree, non-Cuban genres such as the Puerto Rican bomba and plena, the Dominican merengue, and the Colombian cumbia. Latin jazz, which was also developed in New York City, has had a significant influence on salsa arrangers, piano guajeos, and instrumental soloists. Salsa occasionally incorporates elements from North American rock, R&B, and funk. All of these non-Cuban elements are grafted onto the basic Cuban son montuno template when performed within the context of salsa.

The first salsa bands were predominantly "Nuyorican" (New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent). The music eventually spread throughout the Americas. Ultimately, salsa's popularity spread globally. Some of the founding salsa artists were Johnny Pacheco (the creator of the Fania All-Stars), Ray Barretto, Willie Colón, Larry Harlow, Roberto Roena, Bobby Valentín, Eddie Palmieri, and Hector Lavoe.

Salsa as a musical term

Salsa means 'sauce' in the Spanish language, and carries connotations of the spiciness common in Latin and Caribbean cuisine. In the 20th century, salsa acquired a musical meaning in both English and Spanish. In this sense salsa has been described as a word with "vivid associations". Cuban and Dominican immigrants and Puerto Rican in New York have used the term analogously to swing or soul music. In this usage salsa connotes a frenzied, "hot" and wild musical experience that draws upon or reflects elements of Latin culture, regardless of the style.

Various music writers and historians have traced the use of salsa to different periods of the 20th century. Max Salazar traces the word back to the early 1930s, when Ignacio Piñeiro composed "Échale salsita", a Cuban son protesting tasteless food. While Salazar describes this song as the origin of salsa meaning "danceable Latin music", Ed Morales describes the usage in the same song as a cry from Piñeiro to his band, telling them to increase the tempo to "put the dancers into high gear". Morales claims that later in the 1930s, vocalist Beny Moré would shout salsa during a performance "to acknowledge a musical moment's heat, to express a kind of cultural nationalist sloganeering [and to celebrate the] 'hotness' or 'spiciness' of Latin American cultures". World music author Sue Steward claims salsa was originally used in music as a "cry of appreciation for a particularly piquant or flashy solo". She cites the first use in this manner to a Venezuelan radio DJ named Phidias Danilo Escalona; Arsenio Rodriguez is often recognized to be an important salsa composer; in the 1940s, he wrote songs such as Mami me gusto, Fuego en el 23 (later sung by Sonora Poncena), and El divorcio (later sung by Johnny Pacheco). In 1955 Cheo Marquetti created a new band called Conjunto Los Salseros and recorded some new songs ( Sonero and Que no muera el son ). The contemporary meaning of salsa as a musical genre can be traced back to New York City Latin music promoter Izzy Sanabria:

"In 1973, I hosted the television show Salsa which was the first reference to this particular music as salsa. I was using [the term] salsa, but the music wasn't defined by that. The music was still defined as Latin music. And that was a very, very broad category, because it even includes mariachi music. It includes everything. So salsa defined this particular type of music... It's a name that everyone could pronounce."

Sanabria's Latin New York magazine was an English language publication. Consequently, his promoted events were covered in The New York Times, as well as Time and Newsweek magazines. They reported on this "new" phenomenon taking New York by storm—salsa.

But promotion certainly wasn't the only factor in the music's success, as Sanabria makes clear: "Musicians were busy creating the music but played no role in promoting the name salsa." Johnny Pacheco, the creative director, and producer for Fania Records, molded New York salsa into a tight, polished and commercially successful sound. The unprecedented appeal of New York salsa, particularly the Fania "sound", led to its adoption across Latin America and elsewhere.

Globally, the term salsa has eclipsed the original names of the various Cuban musical genres it encompasses. Ironically, Cuban-based music was promoted more effectively worldwide in the 1970s and 1980s by the salsa industry, than by Cuba. For a brief time in the early 1990s a fair number of Cuban musicians embraced the term, calling their own music salsa Cubana. The practice did not catch on however.

Issues of identity and ownership

There is considerable controversy surrounding the term salsa and the idea that it is its own distinct genre. Several New York musicians who had already been performing Cuban dance music for decades when salsa was popularized initially scoffed at the term. For example, Cuban-born Machito declared: "There's nothing new about salsa, it is just the same old music that was played in Cuba for over fifty years." Similarly, New York native Tito Puente stated: "The only salsa I know is sold in a bottle called ketchup. I play Cuban music." Eventually though, both Machito and Puente embraced the term as a financial necessity.

The salsa conflict can be summarized as a disagreement between those who do not recognize salsa as anything other than Cuban music with another name, and those who strongly identify with salsa as a music and culture distinct from its Cuban counterpart.

The concept of salsa music which began as a marketing ploy created by Izzy Sanabria was successfully exploited by Fania Records, then eventually took on a life of its own, organically evolving into an authentic pan-Latin American cultural identity. Music professor and salsa trombonist Christopher Washburne writes:

"This pan-Latino association of salsa stems from what Felix Padilla labels a 'Latinizing' process that occurred in the 1960s and was consciously marketed by Fania Records: 'To Fania, the Latinizing of salsa came to mean homogenizing the product, presenting an all-embracing Pan-American or Latino sound with which the people from all of Latin America and Spanish-speaking communities in the United States could identity and purchase.' Motivated primarily by economic factors, Fania's push for countries throughout Latin America to embrace salsa did result in an expanded market. But in addition, throughout the 1970s, salsa groups from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela, among other Latin American nations, emerged, composing and performing music that related to their own specific cultural experiences and affiliations, which posited salsa as a cultural identity marker for those nations as well."

The Cuban origins of the music do not conveniently fit into the pan-Latino narrative. Many leading salsa artists have described salsa in broad and inclusive, but vague terms, making no mention of the music's Cuban foundation. For example, Johnny Pacheco has consistently articulated a vision of salsa as a broad, multi-ethnic movement: "Salsa was, and still is, a Caribbean musical movement." Similarly, Willie Colón sees the scope of salsa's power to unite in the broadest terms: "Salsa was the force that united diverse Latino and other non-Latino racial and ethnic groups... It is a concept. An open, ever-evolving musical, cultural, socio-political concept." Rubén Blades' definition of salsa is also inclusive: "Salsa music is urban folklore at the international level." In the pivotal documentary movie Salsa: Latin Pop Music in Cities (1979), the history of salsa is explained as a mixing of African, Caribbean, and New York cultures and musics, with no mention of Cuba. In one scene, the Afro-Cuban folkloric genres of batá and rumba are shown being performed in Puerto Rico, implying that they originated there.

In advancing the concept of salsa as a musical "sauce", containing many different ingredients from various cultures mixed together, some point to the occasional use of non-Cuban forms in salsa, such as the Puerto Rican bomba. The percentage of salsa compositions based in non-Cuban genres is low though, and despite an openness to experimentation and a willingness to absorb non-Cuban influences, salsa has remained consistently wedded to its Cuban templates. The pan-Latin Americanism of salsa is found in its cultural milieu, more than its musical structure. Today, competing nationalities claim ownership of the music, as there are musicians in New York City, Puerto Rico, Colombia, and Venezuela, who claim salsa was invented in their country.

The salsa controversy is also closely tied to the decades-long estrangement between the governments of the United States and Cuba, and the United States embargo against Cuba. Radio stations in the United States would get bomb threats (presumably from Cuban exiles) for playing Cuban records over the air. Homegrown salsa on the other hand, was embraced. For a time the Cuban state media officially claimed that the term salsa music was a euphemism for authentic Cuban music stolen by American imperialists, though the media has since abandoned this theory.

Mayra Martinez, a Cuban musicologist, writes: "The term salsa was used to obscure the Cuban base, the music's history or part of its history in Cuba. And salsa was a way to do this so that Jerry Masucci, Fania and other record companies, like CBS, could have a hegemony on the music and keep the Cuban musicians from spreading their music abroad." Izzy Sanabria responds that Martinez was likely giving an accurate Cuban viewpoint, "but salsa was not planned that way".


Salsa lyrics range from simple dance numbers, and sentimental romantic songs, to risque and politically radical subject matter. Music author Isabelle Leymarie notes that salsa performers often incorporate machoistic bravado (guapería) in their lyrics, in a manner reminiscent of calypso and samba, a theme she ascribes to the performers' "humble backgrounds" and subsequent need to compensate for their origins. Leymarie claims that salsa is "essentially virile, an affirmation of the man's pride and identity". As an extension of salsa's macho stance, manly taunts and challenges (desafio) are also a traditional part of salsa.

Salsa lyrics often quote from traditional Cuban sones and rumbas. Sometimes there are references to Afro-Cuban religions, such as Santeria, even by artists who are not themselves practitioners of the faith. Salsa lyrics also exhibit Puerto Rican influences. Hector LaVoe, who sang with Willie Colón for nearly a decade used typical Puerto Rican phrasing in his singing. It's not uncommon now to hear the Puerto Rican declamatory exclamation "le-lo-lai" in salsa. Politically and socially activist composers have long been an important part of salsa, and some of their works, like Eddie Palmieri's "La libertad - lógico", became Latin, and especially Purto Rican anthems. The Panamanian-born singer Ruben Blades in particular is well known for his socially-conscious and incisive salsa lyrics about everything from imperialism to disarmament and environmentalism, which have resonated with audiences throughout Latin America. Many salsa songs contain a nationalist theme, centered around a sense of pride in black Latino identity, and may be in Spanish, English or a mixture of the two called Spanglish.


Son conjunto

Salsa ensembles are typically based on one of two different Cuban instrument formats, either the horn-based son conjunto or the string-based charanga. Some bands are expanded to the size of a mambo big band, but they can be thought of as an enlarged conjunto. The traditional conjunto format consists of congas, bongos, bass, piano, tres, a horn section, and the smaller hand-held percussion instruments: claves, guíro, or maracas, played by the singers. The Cuban horn section traditionally consists of trumpets, but trombones are frequently used in salsa. The section can also use a combination of different horns. Most salsa bands are based on the conjunto model, but the tres is almost never used.

String charanga

The traditional charanga format consists of congas, timbales, bass, piano, flute, and a string section of violins, viola, and cello. The claves and guíro are played by the singers. Bongos are not typically used in charanga bands. Tipica 73 and Orquesta Broadway were two popular New York salsa bands in the charanga format.


New York based Machito's Afro-Cubans was the first band to make the triumverate of congas, bongo, and timbales the standard battery of percussion in Cuban-based dance music. The three drums are used together in most salsa bands and function in ways similar to a traditional folkloric drum ensemble. The timbales play the bell pattern, the congas play the supportive drum part, and the bongos improvise, simulating a lead drum. The improvised variations of the bongos are executed within the context of a repetitive marcha, known as the martillo ('hammer'), and do not constitute a solo. The bongos play primarily during the verses and the piano solos. When the song transitions into the montuno section, the bongo player picks up a large hand held cowbell called the bongo bell. Often the bongocero plays the bell more during a piece, than the actual bongos. The interlocking counterpoint of the timbale bell and bongo bell provides a propelling force during the montuno. The maracas and guíro sound a steady flow of regular pulses (subdivisions) and are ordinarily clave-neutral.


Pre-salsa: Cuban dance music in New York City 1940s-1970s

Salsa emerged from New York City in the mid-1970s, then spread throughout Latin America and the Western Hemisphere. However, the music had already been going strong in the city for several decades prior to the use of the label salsa. New York had been a center of Cuban-style dance music since the 1940s, when landmark innovations by Machito's Afro-Cubans helped usher in the mambo era. Tito Puente worked for a time in the Afro-Cubans before starting up his own successful band. By the early 1950s, there were three very popular mambo big bands in New York: Machito and his Afro-Cubans, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodríguez. There were many other working bands as well. The Palladium Ballroom was the epicenter of mambo in New York. At the height of its popularity, the Palladium attracted Hollywood and Broadway stars, especially on Wednesday nights, when a free dance lesson was offered. The mambo and its "temple", the Palladium, were racially and ethnically integrated phenomena.

The next Cuban "dance craze" to hit the United States was the chachachá. The chachachá originated in the Cuban charanga bands, but was adopted by the horn-based groups in New York. By the early 1960s, there were several charanga bands in New York, led by future salsa icons Johnny Pacheco, Charlie Palmeiri, and Ray Barretto. Mongo Santamaría also had a charanga during this period. The pachanga was popularized by Orquesta Sublime and other Cuban charangas. The pachanga was the last Cuban popular dance to take ahold in New York's Latin community. The U.S. embargo against Cuba (1962) halted the two-way flow of music and musicians between Cuba and the United States.

The first post-Revolution Cuban dance music genre was the short-lived, but highly influential mozambique (1963). Neither the dance, nor the music caught on outside of Cuba. In spite of this, members of Eddie Palmieri's Conjunto la Perfecta did hear this new music over shortwave radio, inspiring them to create a similar rhythm which they also called mozambique. Although the two rhythms share no parts in common, the band received death threats because some right wing Cuban exiles thought Palmieri's band was playing contemporary Cuban music.

There was one final distinct Latin music era in New York before salsa emerged, and it was an original, home-grown hybrid: the Latin boogaloo (or boogalú). By the mid-1960s, a hybrid Nuyorican cultural identity emerged, primarily Puerto Rican but influenced by many Latin cultures as well as the close contact with African Americans. The boogaloo was a true Nuyorican music, a bi-lingual mix of R&B and Cuban rhythms. Like many popular music genres of the 1960s, it arose organically from young people. Credit should also be given to two Top 20 hits in 1963: Mongo Santamaría's performance of the Herbie Hancock piece "Watermelon Man" and Ray Barretto's "El Watusi", which in a sense, established the basic boogaloo formula. The term boogaloo was probably coined in about 1966 by Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz. The biggest boogaloo hit of the 60s was "Bang Bang" by the Joe Cuba Sextet, which achieved unprecedented success for Latin music in the United States in 1966 when it sold over one million copies. "El Pito" was another hit by this popular combo. Hits by other groups included Johnny Colón's "Boogaloo Blues", Pete Rodríguez's "I Like It like That", and Hector Rivera's "At the Party". Joe Bataan and the Lebron Brothers are two other important boogaloo bands.

In 1966, the same year as Joe Cuba's pop success, the Palladium closed because it lost its liquor license. The mambo passed away, and a new generation came into their own with the boogaloo, the jala-jala and the shing-a-ling. Some of the older, established band leaders took a stab at recording boogaloos—Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, and even Machito and Arsenio Rodríguez. But the establishment didn't have their hearts in it. As Puente later recounted: "It stunk . . . I recorded it to keep up with the times. The young boogaloo upstarts were outselling their older counterparts. Johnny Colón claims that "Boogaloo Blues" sold over four million copies domestically. By the end of the 1960s though, the Latin music establishment shut down boogaloo airplay and the movement fizzled out. Some of the young boogaloo artists like Willie Colón, were able to transition into the next phase—salsa.

The late 1960s also saw white youth joining a counterculture heavily associated with political activism, while black youth formed radical organizations like the Black Panthers. Inspired by these movements, Latinos in New York formed the Young Lords, rejected assimilation and "made the barrio a cauldron of militant assertiveness and artistic creativity". The musical aspect of this social change was based on the Cuban son, which had long been the favored musical form for urbanites in both Puerto Rico and New York. The Manhattan-based recording company, Fania Records, introduced many of the first-generation salsa singers and musicians to the world. Founded by Dominican flautist and band-leader Johnny Pacheco and impresario Jerry Masucci, Fania was launched with Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe's El Malo in 1967. This was followed by a series of updated son montuno and plena tunes that evolved into modern salsa by 1973. Pacheco put together a team that included percussionist Louie Ramirez, bassist Bobby Valentín and arranger Larry Harlow. The Fania team released a string of successful singles, mostly son and plena, performing live after forming the Fania All-Stars.


In 1971 the Fania All Stars sold out Yankee Stadium. By the early 1970s, the music's center moved to Manhattan and the Cheetah, where promoter Ralph Mercado introduced many future salsa stars to an ever-growing and diverse crowd of Latino audiences. In 1975 New York, DJ and conga drummer, Roger Dawson created the "Sunday Salsa Show" over WRVR FM which became one of the highest rated radio shows in the New York market with a reported audience of over a quarter of a million listeners every Sunday (per Arbitron Radio Ratings). Ironically, although New York's Hispanic population at that time was over two million, there had been no commercial Hispanic FM. Given his jazz and salsa conga playing experience and knowledge (working as a sideman with such bands as salsa's Frankie Dante's Orquesta Flamboyan and jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp), Dawson also created the long running "Salsa Meets Jazz" weekly concert series at the Village Gate jazz club where jazz musicians would sit in with an established salsa band, for example Dexter Gordon jamming with the Machito band. Dawson helped to broaden New York's salsa audience and introduced new artists such as the bi-lingual Angel Canales who were not given play on the Hispanic AM stations of that time. His show won several awards from the readers of Latin New York magazine, Izzy Sanabria's Salsa Magazine at that time and ran until late 1980 when Viacom changed the format of WRVR to country music.

From New York, salsa quickly expanded to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, and other Latin American countries. The number of salsa bands, both in New York and elsewhere, increased dramatically, as did salsa-oriented radio stations and record labels.

The 1970s saw a number of musical innovations among salsa musicians. Willie Colón introduced the cuatro, a rural Puerto Rican plucked string instrument, as well as some songs with jazz, rock, and Panamanian and Brazilian music influences.

Celia Cruz, who had a successful career in Cuba, was able to transition well to salsa in the United States. She became known as the Queen of Salsa. Larry Harlow, a band leader and arranger for Fania Records, modernized salsa by adding an electric piano. Harlow also stretched out from the typical salsa formula with his ambitious opera Hommy (1973), inspired by the Who's Tommy, and integral to Celia Cruz's comeback from an early retirement. In 1979 Harlow released his critically acclaimed La raza latina, a Salsa Suite.

The slick, highly produced Fania sound was too predictably formulaic for some tastes. There was a niche for more adventurous bands, such as Eddie Palmieri, and Manny Oquendo's Libre. The two bands were the main proponents of NY-style mozambique, drew inspiration from the classic Cuban composers, and Afro-Cuban folkloric rhythms, while pushing the limits of salsa, and incorporating jazz elements. They also featured some of the best trombone soloists in the business, several of whom were "Anglo" jazz musicians who had mastered the típico style. Most famous of these was Barry Rogers. The Gonzalez brothers, Jerry and Andy, played congas and bass respectively, in Libre. Prior to the founding of Libre, they had played in one of Palmieri's most experimental salsa bands. Andy Gonzalez recounts: "We were into improvising. . . doing that thing Miles Davis was doing—playing themes and just improvising on the themes of songs, and we never stopped playing through the whole set." While in Palmieri's band (1974-1976), the Gonzalez brothers started showing up in the Down Beat Reader's Poll. Palmieri and Libre caught the attention of jazz critics and reached listening audiences who were not necessarily a part of the salsa culture.

By the end of the decade, Fania Records' longtime leadership of salsa was weakened by the arrival of the labels TH-Rodven and RMM.

Divergence of salsa and Cuban popular music

Ironically, Cuban popular music during the 1970s incorporated North American jazz, rock, and funk in much more significant ways, than did salsa. Whereas salsa occasionally superimposes elements of another genre, or incorporates a non-salsa style in the bridge of a song, Cuban popular music since the 1970s has fully integrated North American jazz and funk to the point of true hybrid. It began with Juan Formell, the former director for Orquesta Revé (1968), and the founder and current director of Los Van Van. Formell fused American pop with clave-based Cuban elements. Moore states: "The harmonies, never before heard in Cuban music, were clearly borrowed from North American pop [and] shattered the formulaic limitations on harmony to which Cuban popular music had faithfully adhered for so long." The Cuban super group Irakere fused bebop and funk with batá drums and other Afro-Cuban folkloric elements. The 1970s was the songo era in Cuba, with groups like Los Van Van and Orquesta Ritmo Oriental playing a highly syncopated, rumba-influenced form of charanga.

For the most part, salsa music was not influenced by developments in Cuban popular music during the 1970s. One notable exception was Sonny Bravo of Típica '73, who arranged songs by contemporary Cuban charangas. In 1979 Típica '73 travelled to Havana to record Típica '73 en Cuba, a collaboration between the band and Cuban musicians.


In 1980 the Mariel boatlift brought thousands of Cuban refugees to the United States. Many of these refugees were musicians, who were astonished to hear what sounded to them like Cuban music from the 1950s. It was as if the 60s never happened. Cuban conguero Daniel Ponce summarized this sentiment: "When the Cubans arrived in New York, they all said 'Yuk! This is old music.' The music and the feelings and arrangements haven't changed." In fundamental ways, salsa is the preservation of the late 1950s Cuban sound.

The influx of Cuban musicians had more of an impact on jazz than salsa. After the boatlift though, there was obviously more awareness of the modern Cuban styles. Tito Puente recorded the Irakere composition "Bacalao con pan" (1980), and Rubén Blades covered Los Van Van's "Muevete" (1985). The bands Batacumbele and Zaperoko of Puerto Rico fully embraced songo. Led by Angel "Cachete" Maldonado and featuring a young Giovanni Hidalgo, Batacumbele interpreted songo in a horn-based format, with a strong jazz influence.

By the early 1980s a generation of New York City musicians had come of age playing both salsa dance music and jazz. The time had come for a new level of integration of jazz and Cuban rhythms. This era of creativity and vitality is best represented by the Gonzalez brothers of Conjunto Libre (as the band was originally called). Jerry Gonzalez founded the jazz group the Fort Apache Band, which included his brother Andy and established a new standard for Latin jazz. During this same period, Tito Puente changed to performing and recording primarily Latin jazz for the remainder of his career. By 1989 Eddie Palmieri had also switched to playing mostly Latin jazz.

The 1980s saw salsa expand to Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Europe and Japan, and diversify into new stylistic interpretations. Oscar D'León from Venezuela is a huge salsa star. In Colombia, a new generation of musicians began to combine salsa with elements of cumbia and vallenato; this fusion tradition can be traced back to the 1960s work of Peregoyo y su Combo Vacana. However, it was Joe Arroyo and La Verdad, his band, that popularized Colombian salsa beginning in the 1980s. The Colombian singer Joe Arroyo first rose to fame in the 1970s, but became a renowned exponent of Colombian salsa in the 1980s. Arroyo worked for many years with the Colombian arranger Fruko y sus Tesos (Fruko and his band Los Tesos). Grupo Niche is based in Cali, Colombia, and enjoys great popularity throughout Latin America. One of their biggest hits, "Cali Pachanguero" (1989), was seemingly arranged oblivious to clave. As salsa grew and flourished in other countries, removed by both time and space from the New York epicenter, it adopted local sensibilities and drifted away from its Afro-Cuban moorings.

The 1980s was a time of diversification, as popular salsa evolved into sweet and smooth salsa romantica, with lyrics dwelling on love and romance, and its more explicit cousin, salsa erotica. Salsa romantica can be traced back to Noches Calientes, a 1984 album by singer José Alberto with producer Louie Ramirez. A wave of romantica singers, found wide audiences with a new style characterized by romantic lyrics, an emphasis on the melody over rhythm, and use of percussion breaks and chord changes. Some viewed salsa romantica as a rhythmically watered-down version of the genre. Critics of salsa romántica, especially in the late 80s and early 90s, called it a commercialized, diluted form of Latin pop, in which formulaic, sentimental love ballads were simply put to Afro-Cuban rhythms—leaving no room for classic salsa's brilliant musical improvisation, or for classic salsa lyrics that tell stories of daily life or provide social and political commentary. The marketing of salsa romántica singers has often been based more on their youthful sex appeal than on the quality of their music. For these reasons, the form sometimes has been derided as salsa monga (limp or flaccid salsa), as opposed to salsa gorda or salsa dura (fat or 'hard salsa'). Salsa lost popularity among many Latino youth, who were drawn to American rock in large numbers, while the popularization of Dominican merengue further sapped the audience among Latinos in both New York and Puerto Rico.

Along with the salsa-pop fusion of salsa romántica, the 1980s saw the combining elements of salsa with soul, R&B, and hip hop music. The dilution of Afro-Cuban rhythmic principles created problems for some. Washburne recounts: "As arrangers struggled to 'fit' these music styles into a salsa format, a variety of 'clave discrepancies,' or clashes, like in 'Cali Pachanguero,' often resulted. As the salsa style became more culturally diverse, Nuyorican and Puerto Rican traditionalists often reacted by emphatically positing clave as a representative of, or essential to, Puerto Rican cultural identity."

"Salsa cubana" and the birth of timba

In the mid-1980s salsa finally caught on in Cuba. However, the development of Salsa Cubana is drastically different. Moore:

"Venezuelan salsa star Oscar D’León’s 1983 tour of Cuba is mentioned prominently by every Cuban I’ve ever interviewed on the subject. Rubén Blades’ album Siembra was heard everywhere on the island throughout the mid-80s and has been quoted extensively in the guías and coros of everyone from Van Van’s Mayito Rivera (who quotes [Blades'] 'Plástico' in his guías on the 1997 classic Llévala a tu vacilón), to El Médico de la Salsa (quoting another major hook from 'Plástico'—'se ven en la cara, se ven en la cara, nunca en el corazón'—in his final masterpiece before leaving Cuba, Diós sabe)."

Prior to D'León's performance, Cuban musicians had for the most part, rejected salsa, considering it bad imitation Cuban music. Something changed after d'León's performance. By that time, Cuban popular music had moved way beyond the old Cuban templates used in salsa. Cuba's momentary "salsa craze" brought back some of those older templates. For example Orquesta Ritmo Oriental started using the most common salsa timbale bell and bongo bell combination. That bell arrangement became the standard for timba, which emerged at the end of the 1980s.

The release of En la calle (1989) by NG La Banda, marked the beginning of the post-songo era. This new music shared more with salsa than the Cuban music of the previous decade. Departing from the rumba-inspired percussion parts of the previous songo era, "La expresiva" uses typical salsa bell patterns creatively incorporated into a Cuban-style timbales/drum kit hybrid. The tumbadora ('conga') plays elaborate variations on the son montuno-based tumbao, rather than in the songo style. In contrast to salsa though, NG's bass tumbaos are busier, and rhythmically and harmonically more complex than typically heard in salsa. The breakdown sections in En la calle have more in common with both the folkloric guaguancó of that time, and hip-hop, than with salsa.

Some Cuban musicians referred to this late-80s sound as salsa cubana, a term which for the first time, included Cuban music as a part of salsa. In the mid-1990s California-based Bembe Records released CDs by several Cuban bands, as part of their salsa cubana series. Those bands included Manolito y su Trabuco, Orquesta Sublime, and Irakere which was nominated for a Grammy. Other North American labels such as Qbadic and Xenophile also released CDs by contemporary Cuban bands. It would seem at last that Cuban popular music could be marketed as salsa. In 1997 The film and CD Buena Vista Social Club, produced by Ry Cooder was a big hit in the United States. America "discovered" Cuban music once again. However, for the most part, the music of the BVSC and its spin-offs was from the pre-mambo era. They do not play salsa. One exception was the BVSC spin-off, the Afro-Cuban All Stars. When touring the United States the All Stars performed arrangements that began very much like salsa tunes, but they would also employ breakdowns about half way through the pieces. The Buena Vista Social Club and its spin-off groups did not exist in Cuba as working bands. They were put together for touring outside of Cuba. The bands that were playing in Havana had meanwhile, been steadily evolving into something quite distinctly Cuban, and less like salsa. The Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba developed a technique of pattern and harmonic displacement in the 1980s, which was adopted into timba guajeos in the 1990s. The guajeo (shown above) for Issac Delgado's "La temática" (1997) demonstrates some of the innovations of timba piano. A series of repeated octaves invoke a characteristic metric ambiguity. Techniques like guajeo pattern displacement often make the music difficult for non-Cuban to dance to.

The term salsa cubana which had barely taken hold, eventually fell out of favor, and was replaced with timba. Some of the other important timba bands include Azúcar Negra, Bamboleo, Charanga Habanera, Havana d'Primera, Klimax, Paulito FG, Pupy y Los Que Son, Salsa Mayor, and Tiempo Libre. Cuban timba musicians and New York salsa musicians have had positive and creative exchanges over the years, but the two genres remain somewhat separated, appealing to different audiences. Nevertheless, some people today include Cuban groups in the salsa category.

African salsa

Cuban music has been popular in sub-Saharan Africa since the mid twentieth century. To the Africans, clave-based Cuban popular music sounded both familiar and exotic. The Encyclopedia of Africa v. 1. states:

"Beginning in the 1940s, Afro-Cubban [son] groups such as Septeto Habanero and Trio Matamoros gained widespread popularity in the Congo region as a result of airplay over Radio Congo Belge, a powerful radio station based in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa DRC). A proliferation of music clubs, recording studios, and concert appearances of Cuban bands in Léopoldville spurred on the Cuban music trend during the late 1940s and 1950s."

Congolese bands started doing Cuban covers and singing the lyrics phonetically. Soon, they were creating their own original Cuban-like compositions, with lyrics sung in French or Lingala, a lingua franca of the western Congo region. The Congolese called this new music rumba, although it was really based on the son. The Africans adapted guajeos to electric guitars, and gave them their own regional flavor. The guitar-based music gradually spread out from the Congo, increasingly taking on local sensibilities. This process eventually resulted in the establishment of several different distinct regional genres, such as soukous.

Cuban popular music played a major role in the development of many contemporary genres of African popular music. John Storm Roberts states: "It was the Cuban connection, but increasingly also New York salsa, that provided the major and enduring influences—the ones that went deeper than earlier imitation or passing fashion. The Cuban connection began very early and was to last at least twenty years, being gradually absorbed and re-Africanized." The re-working of Afro-Cuban rhythmic patterns by Africans brings the rhythms full circle.

The re-working of the harmonic patterns reveals a striking difference in perception. The I IV V IV harmonic progression, so common in Cuban music, is heard in pop music all across the African continent, thanks to the influence of Cuban music. Those chords move in accordance with the basic tenets of Western music theory. However, as Gerhard Kubik points out, performers of African popular music do not necessarily perceive these progressions in the same way: "The harmonic cycle of C-F-G-F [I-IV-V-IV] prominent in Congo/Zaire popular music simply cannot be defined as a progression from tonic to subdominant to dominant and back to subdominant (on which it ends) because in the performer’s appreciation they are of equal status, and not in any hierarchical order as in Western music."

The largest wave of Cuban-based music to hit Africa was in the form of salsa. In 1974 the Fania All Stars performed in Zaire (known today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Africa, at the 80,000-seat Stadu du Hai in Kinshasa. This was captured on film and released as Live In Africa (Salsa Madness in the UK). The Zairean appearance occurred at a music festival held in conjunction with the Muhammed Ali/George Foreman heavyweight title fight. Local genres were already well established by this time. Even so, salsa caught on in many African countries, especially in the Senegambia and Mali. Cuban music had been the favorite of Senegal's nightspot in the 1950s to 1960s. The Senegalese band Orchestra Baobab plays in a basic salsa style with congas and timbales, but with the addition of Wolof and Mandinka instruments and lyrics.

According to Lise Waxer: "African salsa points not so much to a return of salsa to African soil (Steward 1999: 157) but to a complex process of cultural appropriation between two regions of the so-called Third World." Since the mid-1990s African artists have also been very active through the super-group Africando, where African and New York musicians mix with leading African singers such as Bambino Diabate, Ricardo Lemvo, Ismael Lo and Salif Keita. It is still common today for an African artist to record a salsa tune, and add their own particular regional touch to it.

1990s to the present

Producer and pianist Sergio George helped to revive salsa's commercial success in the 1990s by mixing salsa with contemporary pop styles with artists like Tito Nieves, La India, and Marc Anthony. George also produced the Japanese salsa band Orquesta de la Luz. Brenda K. Starr, Son By Four, Víctor Manuelle, and the Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan enjoyed crossover success within the Anglo-American pop market with their Latin-influenced hits, usually sung in English. More often than not, clave was not a major consideration in the composing or arranging of these hits. Sergio George is up front and unapologetic about his attitude towards clave: "Though clave is considered, it is not always the most important thing in my music. The foremost issue in my mind is marketability. If the song hits, that's what matters. When I stopped trying to impress musicians and started getting in touch with what the people on the street were listening to, I started writing hits. Some songs, especially English ones originating in the United States, are at times impossible to place in clave." As Washburne points out however, a lack of clave awareness does not always get a pass:

"Marc Anthony is a product of George's innovationist approach. As a novice to Latin music, he was propelled into band leader position with little knowledge of how the music was structured. One revealing moment came during a performance in 1994, just after he had launched his salsa career. During a piano solo he approached the timbales, picked up a stick, and attempted to play clave on the clave block along with the band. It became apparent that he had no idea where to place the rhythm. Shortly thereafter during a radio interview in San Juan Puerto Rico, he exclaimed that his commercial success proved that you did not need to know about clave to make it in Latin music. This comment caused an uproar both in Puerto Rico and New York. After receiving the bad press, Anthony refrained from discussing the subject in public, and he did not attempt to play clave on stage until he had received some private lessons."

Salsa remained a major part of Colombian music through the 1990s, producing popular bands like Sonora Carruseles, while the singer Carlos Vives created his own style that blends salsa with vallenato and rock. Vives' popularization of vallenato-salsa led to the accordion-led vallenato style being used by mainstream pop stars such as Gloria Estefan. The city of Cali, is known as Colombia's "capital of salsa", having produced such groups as Orquesta Guayacan, Grupo Niche, songwriter Kike Santander, and Julian Collazos, the producer of the Marco Barrientos Band. Cabijazz from Venezuela plays a unique blend of timba-like salsa with a strong jazz influence.

The most recent innovations in salsa genre include hybrids like Latin house, salsa-merengue and salsaton, alongside salsa gorda.


1979 - Salsa: Latin Music in the Cities. Directed by Jeremy Marre.

(from the article Salsa music of Wikipedia)

Selected examples

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Video B


Video C


Video D


List of salsa musicians

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