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Hispanic Heritage

Salsa

Salsa is Spanish for "sauce" — in music it's a term that refers to the hot, spicy Afro-Caribbean rhythms. When people talk about salsa music, however, they are usually referring to a generic term that includes a number of distinct types of Afro-Caribbean music, although one in particular, the son guaguancó, has predominated since the 1960s. As Jorge Duany wrote in Latin American Music Review in 1984, "Salsa is neither a musical style nor a particular rhythm, but rather a hybrid genre." According to Duany, the word "salsa" was first used to refer to this hybrid genre in the 1960s, but it did not gain universal recognition until 1975, when it was used as the title for a popular movie.

In the late 1990s, with an explosion of interest in Latin dance music, the word salsa is used for many types of Latin sound, both dance and music. In an interview with Alan Feuerstein on the Planet Salsa Web site, salsa maestro Tito Puente observed: "People think of it as new music, it's really not! Salsa is a merchandized word, a marketing word.... It doesn't define anything. You can eat salsa, you don't dance to it. See, the dance teachers have to educate the dancing public as to the true nature of the music, not a Salsa, but a Tango, or Cha-Cha, or Merengue."

Cuba, the Cradle of Modern Salsa

Cuba is the indisputable cradle of modern salsa, although in the United States the music is more intimately associated with Puerto Ricans. In Cuba during the time of slavery, Africans established strong enclaves that carried on many of the musical and ritualistic traditions from their homeland. By the twentieth century, most Afro-Cuban music had combined with Western musical forms. In its hybrid form, this music acquired strong stylistic features that came to appeal to millions of people outside the original cultural core.

It should come as no surprise that Cuba is the source of many of the musical genres that precede salsa — genres that in fact make up the tapestry of its sounds. Thus, important salsa antecedents such as the dazón, rumba-guaguancó, charanga, mambo, guaracha, son, bolero, and cha cha cha all originate in Cuba. The mambo and cha cha cha had an enormous impact in and of themselves, of course, but the two genres that most influenced modern salsa directly are the son and the rumba. The rumba is actually a generic term for more specific Afro-Cuban genres — the yambú, cumbia, and guaguancó. Again, of these three, it is the guaguancó that is most closely identified with salsa. All, however, have common African characteristics — complex polyrhythms and alternating sections of solo voice and call-and-response. Originally, the rumba was played with African or Africanized instruments of the drum family — the quinto, segundo, and tumba, reinforced by cáscara (a pair of sticks struck against each other) and claves (a pair of smooth, cylindrical hardwood sticks struck against each other). Today the drum rhythms are executed on conga drums, but the clave effects remain essentially unchanged in modern salsa.

The son, meanwhile, describes more of a feeling than an actual musical form. It is, however, identifiable by the strong rhythmic patterns associated with it. Most notable among these is the anticipated bass, which is unique to Afro-Cuban music generally, and salsa in particular. The son emerged among Africans in the Cuban countryside and spread to the urban areas early in the twentieth century. (Conjunto Céspedes, a modern Cuban American dance band, is a fine example of this tradition.) In Cuba's urban areas the son combined with European instruments to create its modern hybrid form. Earlier Africanized instruments were replaced by such European ones as the contrabass, trumpet,and guitar, although the basic percussion was necessarily retained — the bongos, claves, and the guitar-like tres. One of Cuba's greatest popular musicians, and the "father" of modern salsa, Arsenio Rodríguez, is credited with further upgrading the son ensemble in the 1930s. He did this by adding a second trumpet, conga drums, and, most important, a piano.

Rodríguez also anticipated some of the greatest modern salseros (salsa musicians) by moving away from the romantic themes of earlier sones and incorporating texts that addressed nationalist and social issues. Other important figures from the early period of Afro-Cuban music include Ernesto Lecuona, whose group, the Lecuona Cuban Boys, recorded for Columbia, and Arcano y sus Maravillas (Arcano and His Marvels), a charanga orchestra that was responsible for Africanizing this erstwhile Europeanized ensemble.

Puerto Rico's Bomba and Plena

Modern salsa owes its greatest debt to the musical culture of Cuba, but Puerto Rico and, to a lesser extent, the Dominican Republic are also contributing cultures. Two Puerto Rican musical genres in particular are legitimate antecedents of modern salsa — the bomba and the plena. Both emerged in the coastal towns of Puerto Rico, where communities of black workers in the sugar cane mills congregated. According to ethnomusicologists Roberta Singer and Robert Friedman in Caliente = Hot; Recorded Anthology of American Music, Inc. (1977), the "bomba is an entertainment form ... generally performed at social gatherings. It is a couple dance in which the woman performs relatively fixed dance steps while her partner is free to exhibit his dancing skills.... Bomba texts are usually topical themes relating to everyday life in the community, such as social relationships, work, or historical events.... The musical form of bomba consists of alternation between solo singer and chorus in a call-and-response pattern."

The plena is more heavily influenced by European musical culture than the bomba. According to Singer and Friedman, "Plena began as a street music, but as it moved into the bars and nightclubs it came to be associated with night life and the underworld.... Plena texts are on contemporary or historic events."

Both the plena and the bomba were once integral elements in the life of Puerto Rican blacks. They are still performed on the island, though with decreasing frequency. In the United States, however, plena and bomba have undergone some transformation. Adopted (and adapted) by small salsa conjunto (such as Julito Collazo and his Afro-Cuban Group), bomba and plena are reaching larger audiences, even as some of their elements are absorbed by salsa itself.

Orquesta charanga

The orquesta charanga is an interesting phenomenon in Afro-Cuban music history. Until the 1930s, this type of orquesta espoused a genteel, Europeanized sound that appealed to middle-class whites. Its instrumentation consisted of lead flute and violins. In the 1930s Arcano y sus Maravillas began conforming more to an African style by adding percussion such as the bongo and conga drums. In doing so, the group may have led the way to the popular cha cha cha. The king of that genre was La Orquesta Aragón (The Aragón Orchestra), a group popular from the 1940s through the 1960s, whose incomparable style of cha cha cha endeared the music to millions of Latinos across Latin America and the United States.

Meanwhile, several individuals who later went on to make their mark on modern salsa music actually played with charanga groups in the 1940s and 1950s. These included such well-known figures as Charlie Palmieri, Johnny Pacheco, and Ray Barreto. Along with a host of other salseros, these individuals brought a vitally evolving musical tradition to the United States, where both African- and European-oriented groups experienced a strong cross-fertilization with jazz — a fertilization that resulted in the final emergence of salsa.

Thus, by the late 1950s key performers, such as Tito Rodríguez, Tito Puente, and Machito had laid the stylistic framework for the modern sound. In fact, when we listen to Tito Rodríguez's recordings from the late 1950s, we cannot but be impressed with how similar his rumbas and guaguancós are to latter-day salsa, even though the music was not recognized as such until the 1970s. Meanwhile, the style and instrumentation were further strengthened in the 1960s and 1970s by a host of great performers, which included such memorable names as Willie Colón, Eddie Palmieri, El Gran Combo (The Great Combo), as well as vocalists like Héctor Lavoe, Celia Cruz and Rubén Blades.

Salsa after the 1960s

By the mid-1960s, the modern salsa sound had pretty much crystallized. And, its most basic genre remained the son/rumba/guaguancó complex, as it had been synthesized by Tito Rodríguez and others in the 1950s. Since the 1960s, this amalgamation of genres, which goes by the label "salsa" has served as the core for numerous explorations that have expanded the parameters of the music.

In the early 1990s Puerto Rico continued to emerge as the dominant market of salsa music in the New York-Miami-Puerto Rico triangle. The island, smaller in size than Connecticut with a population of 3.5 million, has 117 radio stations, most of which play salsa and merengue but with a top-40 format. Most of the top salsa artists such as Gilberto Santa Rosa, Luis Enrique, Juan Luis Guerra, Tito Rojas and others,regularly sell more than 100,000 units on the island.

In the United States, salsa had taken a back seat to other genres of Latin and other music during the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s it came back into vogue with some new sounds. The recent forms that go under the name of salsa have a slightly harsher sound, bringing together some of the sounds of hip-hop, reggae, and dance-hall, with the rhythms of Colombia and Brazil and the traditional Cuban basis. It is, as it was in the past, dance music, and its market is young people, as the tremendous success of Marc Anthony and merengue master Elvis Crespo demonstrates. Many new twists on the Afro-Caribbean traditions are coming from Cuba in recent times as well, including the songo of Los Van Van. The future of salsa in the United States may prove interesting. In Cuba, according to Tito Puente, "they're playing new music there now, but it's very jazzed up.... Now, if there is a big influx from Cuba to the U.S., you're really going to hear some music."

Source: Hispanic American Almanac, Gale, 1997; DISCovering Multicultural America, Gale, 1999.

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