The Emergence of Dominican Salsa

Salsa music can not be owned or co-opted by any one culture. Today, its rhythms are enjoyed by people of different ethnicities and languages in countries from around the world.  The Dominican Republic has birthed many talented musicians who have influenced this genre with their tropical rhythms and entrancing beats. Today, the country boasts the talents of its Dominican-born salseros such as Johnny Pacheco, Jose “El Canario”Alberto, Raulín Rosendo, Rey Reyes, Santiago Cerón, and Cuco Valoy. However, a new generation of salsa producers, musicians, songwriters, composers, and singers the like of Michel, Juan Valdez, Asdrubar, Sexappeal, Ramon Orlando, Felix Manuell, and Belio Antonio are also revolutionizing this international genre. It is evident, that the deep roots of Salsa in this island have made the Dominican Republic a tropical haven for the sounds of this Afro-Latino music.


The rhythmic flavor of Salsa music has been around for about a century but was first disguised under a different name.  It wasn’t until the 1960s when Johnny Pacheco, Dominican Republic native and founder of Fania Records, coined the term “Salsa” as a marketing tool for an already established musical style developed in Cuba, known as the Cuban Son (Salsa Explosion). 

The Son Clave is an African musical style that made its way to Cuba aboard slave ships.  Around 1917, it quickly integrated itself with Cuban music styles and became known as the Cuban Son.  Rhythm is the most prominent feature of the Son, originally composed of bongos, the marimbula, the quijada, the timbales criollos, the cowbell, the botijuela, and the diente de arado.  But it was the sound of the claves, a pair of wooden sticks, that rose above all the other instruments, keeping the rhythm of the Cuban Son alive (Lamadrid).

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[Salsa Explodes to Other Countries]


Cuba and Puerto Rico were twin colonies of Spain until 1898, and with these ties came Puerto Rico’s shared love of Cuban music (Manuel).  Although Salsa originated in Cuba, the uprising of the 1950s and subsequent U.S. Embargo on the island made it difficult for Cubans to export Salsa across its borders. Therefore, Salsa’s worldwide popularity became greatly attributed to Puerto Ricans. These Caribbean natives immigrated to New York City freely because of the 1917 Jones Act, which made Puerto Ricans citizens of the United States of America. 

Salsa’s roots are in the Afro-Hispanic musical traditions of Cuba, but Salsa’s evolution has been influenced by a number of Hispanic musical styles, including the Rhumba, Guaracha, Mambo, Cha cha cha, Danzon, Guaguanco, Cubop, Guajira, Charanga, Cumbia, Plena, Bomba, Festejo, and Merengue (Jaime Andres Pretell). 

Aside from the USA, Cuba and Puerto Rico, Salsa also spread to the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Colombia (Manuel).  It was Salsa’s success in the USA that really caught the world’s attention.

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[Key Figures & Social Commentary]

Johnny Pacheco’s record company, Fania Records, discovered many talented artists that became key figures for Salsa.  Notably influential were Willie Colon and Ruben Blades for the candid social commentary depicted in their songs.  “Rather than providing escapist sentimental fantasies [Colon and Blades] showed creative Latinos confronting their social situation and literally dancing their way through adversity” (Manuel).  During the 1960s and 70s, this social commentary was a powerful means used by many Latino artists to cope with the oppression they experienced as a struggling minority in the USA.

Similarly, Puerto Ricans immigrating to New York City tried to escape the struggles of the island ghetto through “el periodico cantado” (the sung newspaper) a Puerto Rican musical style known as the “Bomba y Plena” (Clifford).  This form of Salsa dealt with contemporary events and was soon labeled “musica caliente” (Clifford).   

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[The Civil Rights Movement]

The 1960s Salsa movement was also accompanied by the civil rights movement.  During this decade’s spirit of questioning, many minorities, “including New York City’s nearly two million Latinos,” used Salsa music not only as a celebration, but as a symbol “of Latino pride and unity” (Manuel).

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[Class Approval]

By the 1970s, Salsa had established itself, through its candid social commentarial lyrics, as a “lower class rhythm” enjoyed primarily by minorities in the slums of the city (BM).  In fact, “the white bourgeoisie tended to disparage Salsa as “musica de monos”— music for monkeys—just as in Puerto Rico, affluent Yankophilic rock fans deprecated Salsa lovers by the similarly racist term cocolos—coconut-heads” (Manuel).  By the mid-1970s, both the middle and upper class echelons of society began to accept and respect Salsa music as their own (Manuel). 

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[Salsa Romantica]

In the late 1970s, nearly 20 years after Pacheco coined the term Salsa, “a new generation of listeners and artists started to emerge, and Salsa abandoned its portrayals of barrio reality in favor of sentimental love lyrics.” Salsa Caliente transitioned into a style today known as Salsa Romantica (Clifford).   

Many factors contributed to this shift, including pressure from major record labels, untrained bandleaders whose major strength was their sex-appeal, and a new generation’s desire to escape reality.  In terms of major record labels, “rather than promoting what they perceived as an ethnically divisive and socially unsavory Salsa, the major labels pressured radio stations to air common-denominator romantic ballades,” making Salsa “into a more bland, depoliticized pop—ketchup rather than Salsa” (Manuel).  Even though Salsa’s transition to love songs was drastic, major record labels were finally embracing Latin music (Manuel).   Furthermore, with the new style came a loss of depth, “most of today’s bandleaders are not trained musicians and seasoned club performers like Willie Colon… but cuddly, predominantly white singers distinguished by the pretty-boy looks and supposed sex-appeal” (The African Roots of Popular Latino Music).  Finally, a new generation of listeners preferred “fantasy to social realism,” because many desired to go out Salsa dancing to escape the reality of the struggles they faced, not to hear songs that remind them of their plight (Manuel). 

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[Salsa’s Roots in the Dominican Republic]

The Dominican Republic is widely known around the world as the Caribbean island where Merengue and Bachata music takes its current shape. Merengue and Bachata have been fueled by the cultural roots of the Dominican Republic and have in many ways shaped the Dominican economy. However, the Dominican Republic is quickly becoming a prime Salsa-producing Latin American nation. This beautiful Caribbean island has made historic contributions to the development of Salsa as a genre, and it continues to do so today.

The Dominican Republic was at the very origins of Salsa in NYC through Johnny Pacheco. However, numerous Dominican artists have made significant contributions to this international genre. Salsa in the Dominican Republic is a phenomenon that originates on the island and was also imported from the Big Apple. Key Dominican figures who build the foundation for this musical phenomenon in the 60s and 70s are still at it today.

Dominican salsero/sonero Cuco Valoy is known as “El Brujo” (the sorcerer) and as a Latino legend that served as an ambassador for Afro-Latino music. He first gained attention in the 1950s with his brother, Martin, in the music duo Los Ahijados. He studied music theory at el Conservatorio Nacional de Musica de la Republic Dominicana (

Cuco Valoy appeared in the Salsa scene originally as a sonero (one of the Cuban rhythms that later gave birth to Salsa) in the 1970s with his hits “Juliana” (later covered by the group DLG), “El Divorcio,” and “Nació Varón” ( Cuco’s son, Ramon Orlando, one of the pioneers of Merengue classico of the 1980s, continued his career by directing the popular band La Orquesta Internacional with singers Peter Cruz and Henry Garcia. Ramon went on to win a Grammy in 2005 for his merengue album “Generaciones” and today composes Salsa music for contemporary artists such as Sexxappeal (

Henry Garcia remains a great name in Dominican Salsa music. Garcia sang with Cuco Valoy and later with Cuco’s son Ramon Orlando but did not have the same recognition as these artists. Garcia tried his hand at having his own group for a short while but is better known for being one of the most active Salsa vocalists in the Dominican Republic to this day and lending his talents to many CD music side projects like the hit album “Sobran Razones” by the popular group Fernando Echavarría de La Familia André (Nelson, 2004). Garcia’s current focus has been contributing as a backup singer (corista) for various Dominican salsa artists, including Belio Antonio. Garcia is mostly known for his songs “Te Quiero,” “Sisi y Ricardo,” and “Nació Varón” (

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[The Big Apple adds Spice to the movement in the Dominican Republic]

Cuco Valoy and Henry Garcia represent salseros who’s home base was in the Dominican Republic where they produced their music. However, there was also a wave of Dominican salseros in the 60s and 70s who entered the Dominican market from New York City. NYC was a great influence in the development of the Salsa market in the Dominican Republic, and it affected the sound of Salsa in many ways.

Santiago Cerón was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in 1940 and was a singer with the Orquestra of Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez, Tony Pabon y La Protesta and the legendary Orquesta de Arsenio Rodriguez. He went solo around 1970, and his first release was “Tumbando Puertas,” featuring the hit “Lindo Yambu.” Since then Cerón continued to prove himself as a leading sonero and became the Dominican face of Salsa and Son both in NYC and South America (Colombia and Venezuela among others) ( The Dominican market was dominated at the time by El Brujo and the Fania All-Stars—a lineup of Salsa’s best performers, including Dominican born Rey Reyes, and led by the renowned star Johnny Pacheco, the co-owner of powerhouse label Fania Records who founded the label with Italian-American lawyer Jerry Masucci in 1964 (Polin, 2006).


Jerry Masucci, Johnny Pacheco, Celia
Cruz, & Pete ‘El Conde’ Rodriguez
(Photo from Mondomix)

Johnny Pacheco is known as the Dominican founding father of salsa music and is a producer, musician, bandleader, and arguably one of most influential voices in Salsa. Born March 25, 1935 in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic,  Pacheco helped start Fania Records, turned out more than 60 albums during his career, and has earned himself nine Grammy nominations, ten Gold records and many other awards throughout his career that pay tribute to his talent (Bailyn, 2006). Pacheco’s passion for good music is what led him to start Fania Records with Masucci, and Fania got its name from an old Cuban song by Reinaldo Bolaño called Cañonazo. Thanks to word of mouth and the success of Fania’s first recording, New York City’s music lovers became aware of the new style of Latin music and Fania was propelled forward, expanding its talent roster. Masucci took over as executive negotiator as Pacheco continued as music director, and Fania became the label of young and innovative new artists throughout New York City. Larry Harlow, Ray Barretto and Bobby Valentín all contributed to the fresh new sound that was full of passionate grooves and exotic twists ( As one of the key individuals responsible for the Salsa explosion of the 1970s in New York City, Pacheco also started a dance craze called "Pachanga" and went on to work as music director for many films as well. Today he remains deeply committed to the improvement of the Latin community and is still greatly involved in the recording industry, performing and recording some of the best tropical music with his group (Pacheco, 2000).  
A notable Salsa performer of the Dominican Republic is José Alberto who was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in 1958 and later became known as “El Canario” in his career due to his widely adored voice. At age seven, José Alberto relocated to Puerto Rico with his family and later to New York in the early 1970s where he sang with several orchestras. He received international attention as the bandleader of “Typical '73” in October 1977 (Alberto, 2005). In 1983, Alberto hired a group of well-known musicians to lend their talents and form Jose Alberto “El Canario” y Su Orquesta, a group known for their spectacular performances that always led to dancing. In 1991, José Alberto released his first album, “Dance With Me,” and saw success from the albums romantic lyrics combined with energetic Salsa arrangements. His success continued with songs like “Mis Amores,” “Sueno Contigo,” “Llego la Hora,” and “A La Hora Que Me Llamen Voy,” some on the CBS label and others on the Sony label. In 1997, Alberto signed with RMM Records and moved toward Mambo music, completing a tribute to legendary music master Machito and other compilation albums (Bailyn, 2006). Known for his music of the tropical rhythm genre, his career boasts countless Gold and Platinum records and international recognition (Alberto, 2005).


Raulin Rosendo's hit album
:El Sonero Que
El Pueblo Prefiere!

Another bright star from the Dominican Republic, is Raul Martinez, or Raulin Rosendo as he is better known. At age 12 Rosendo was already performing with the legendary merengue group, “El Chivo y su Banda.” From ages 13 to 19 Rosendo’s career moved quickly, starting with his participation in a prestigious show televised by Rahintel which led to a contract with the musical group of the maestro Cuco Valoy. He also learned beside Fernandito Villalona and became the co-leader of the well-known “Los Hijos del Rey.” These opportunities to interpret Salsa and Merengue led to many large venues in New York City and abroad, and Rosendo eventually recorded two productions of his own, while he surrounded himself with talented individuals and soon became an exclusive recording artist for Kubaney. Rosendo’s time with Kubaney proved very successful as he recorded five productions and became known as one of the best Salsa singers of all time. In 1981, Rosendo formed his own orchestra and for the first time produced as a soloist for his project, “El que te Guia.” Different projects kept Rosendo resurging with success, but in 1995 his record “Uno Se Cura” became the most sold album of the year, and he was nominated for a Cassandra Award and an A.C.E. Award in New York (Rosendo, 2009). Rosendo is known as “El sonero enfadado” (The Angry Sonero), but obviously not because of a failure to succeed. He had more hit songs in 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999, putting him among the greatest Salsa musicians of his time (Sarno, 2008).

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[Contemporary Dominican Salseros]

A new era of Dominican salseros is emerging with talents that work to combine the tropical sound of Quisqueya with new vocals that continue to usher in fans from the old school fans and the next generation of listeners. Felix Manuell is one such performer. This Dominican born singer started his career at age 12 performing in his church choir and at school festivals. In 1990, Manuell sang for the Sinsontes of the Hotel Luperon Beach Resort and in ’93 he immigrated to Europe and sang for Héctor Café in the group Indetenibles de la Salsa. His success quickly spread to Latin America and continues today (2008).

Dominican Merengue and Bachata have continued through the music of Juan Miguel Batista, or Michel, also known as "el Buenón," one of the most active salseros in the Dominican Republic today. Starting to sing at age 6 and to develop musical ambitions at age 17, Michel is very open about the fact that his career took 35 years of hard work and perseverance to get to the position of success it is in now. Today, Michel is one of the best known salseros in the Dominican Republic, with great success in and outside of his country. His start came after singing in a festival in Barahona and winning first place, which led him to consider music as a career and led him to move to the capital of Santo Domingo to study singing and refine his tone.

Michel went on to join several Merengue groups like Gladisquero, the diplomats of Haiti, Tabú Combo and Johnny Ventura’s Show Combo. In 1995, Michel recorded for the first time, and though his dream was to sing ballads, he had found the most recognition in Salsa music while recording in New York and Europe. Michel’s 2004 recording led to three Cassandra awards nominations in 2008, showing how his hard work of tireless singing in piano bars, clubs, and restaurants had paid off. He now has a full schedule of events and has become a familiar face in the world of Salsa. Michel plans for 2009 to be full of many collaborative projects, and hopefully continued success amounting from his willingness to adapt and persevere despite a changing business with threats of piracy (Brito, 2008).

Asdrubar has emerged as another modern day salsero, drawing in much success in the Caribbean and becoming known for popular songs like “Suelta mi mano” that have received play on national radio stations and in NYC (Nova, 2008).

Sexappeal is another example of young talent that has quickly gained recognition, including nominations for a Cassandra award and for the Lo Nuestro award for “Revelation of the Year.”
"Right now the local Salsa is well positioned, and thanks to God, what we are doing is reaching foreign beaches and achieving major awards," said Sexappeal, who made his debut as a salsero in 2000 with the support of Ramón Orlando (Nova, 2008).

Another Dominican salsero quickly making his name known is Belio Antonio. This University of Florida professor is by no means your typical Salsero. Shortly after his birth in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, Belio Antonio’s parents moved to New York City where this curious boy was raised around the burgeoning Salsa movement in this city. His native parents moved him to the Dominican Republic in the early 1980’s where the culture overcame him and only heightened his attraction toward the flavorful sounds of the Salsa genre. His passion for Salsa, dancing, singing, and songwriting are all evident in his music, where natural rhythms meet lyrical depths that echo his eclectic background. His diverse experiences as a Dominican, Puerto Rican and New Yorker all contribute to his music, which leaves listeners light on their feet and deep in thought (

Belio Antonio started singing at a very young age after being inspired by life-long role model. He tells of how he used his first savings to buy his first Elvis record at the age of 7. By the time he was 9, Belio Antonio was playing the guitar and singing Spanish bolero in the Dominican Republic. With time he transitioned to Jazz and Salsa as he performed vocals for Jazz groups John Hilton Quartet and Caribbean Breeze in New York and Salsa group Orquesta Revelación in Florida. Today Belio Antonio has gathered a team of some of Salsa’s most talented contributors to produce his first full production to be released later in 2009 – Belio Antonio: Autentico. His music has appealed to salseros in Europe, Latin America, the U.S. and Asia.

Belio Antonio is best known for his songs, “Ella fue” and “Tortura de Amor.” He is about to release his third single “No se Compra” – a song inspired by a “platanero” – a plantain vendor – on the streets of Santo Domingo. This song, Belio Antonio says, “perfectly captures the human character that will elevate us from the current financial and social crisis.”

Last highlighted is Mickey Taveras, the Dominican salsero and songwriter who got seriously involved in music while composing for stars like Wilfrido Vargas and orchestra. After Sergio Vargas Garibaldo helped make Taveras’ song “La Ventanita” an international success, Taveras went on to a solo career with his first album “Lucharé,” which went triple platinum in Colombia and Central America and had great success in Venezuela and Mexico in 1996. In 2000, Mickey Taveras self-produced a Latin pop/ballad album called Más Romantico that won success through the song “Historia Entre Tus Dedos” – History between your fingers. (Bonacich,2006).

Taveras is currently working on launching his own record label called MT Productions Corp. and a new compilation of Salsa, Bachata and Merengue entitled “I’ll wait.” Taveras will also serve as an executive for the music production and will work with the ASCAP company in New York and Santo Domingo to publish the record (Taveras, 2008).

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[The Men behind the Music]

Ramón Orlando Valoy has already been mentioned as a director of music for la Orquesta Internacional, but this Dominican born performer also studied music and served as a pianist, arranger, singer and composer during his career. In 1992, Orlando was awarded 7 Cassandra awards, including el Soberano, the top award of the ceremony. In Santo Domingo, Orlando received a parchment which declared him a Prominent Inhabitant for his musical success and achievements that contributed to Merengue music as a whole. Also known as “El Maestro,” Orlando will remain known as an influential contributor to Latin music for his work behind the music, as well as for his performances in front of a crowd (Orlando, 2009).


Juan Valdez arranging music
together with Belio Antonio

Juan Valdez has emerged as the most influential salsa music composer and director in the Dominican Republic today. “Maestro” Valdez has composed music for Asdrubar and is credited in some circles with having jumpstarted Michel’s career in salsa with this adaptation to salsa of Marco Antonio Solís’ “Mi Primavera” to salsa. Juan Valdez has also arranged for Felix Manuell & Belio Antonio.  Additionally, Valdez teamed up with Belio Antonio to create a new tropical salsa sound that is creating a buzz in the music industry. A native of San Juan de la Maguana, Dominican Republic, Juan Valdez was born in 1962. In his early years he played with Merengue bands such as Los Rosarios, Sergio Vargas, Aramis Camillo and Juan Luis Guerra. Today he teaches popular piano and popular music orchestration at the Conservatorio Nacional de Música de la República Dominicana. In addition to writing music for this new generation of salsa artists, he is also training tomorrow’s pianists and musicians.

In 2006, Valdez joined the elites of Latin music with his Cassandra award nomination for Best Orchestration and Musical Arranger beside Rando Camasta, Manuel Tejada, Freddy Macumba, and long-time friend Ramón Orlando (2006). Juan Valdez has been nominated for this prestigious Dominican award 13 times, most recently in 2009. Valdez further established his name after working with Felix Manuell and various other performers. His ear for music has contributed to their sound, adding a unique and creative style through varying roles as a pianist, arranger, and producer.
Bienvenido Rodríguez is a Salsa producer who began his career working with Bachata music. Before becoming a renowned producer, Rodríguez started as a traveling salesman of Bachatas and Merengue típicos until the time when he could acquire his own record store. When that time finally came, he opened a store on Avenida Duarte in order to finance the production of Bachata and Merengue típico records. In 1967, Rodríguez bought a small label called Montilla, which he renamed Karen after his daughter and started to focus on Merengue and musicians with mainstream appeal. By the early 1970s, he was so successful in his endeavors that he was able to obtain the lucrative distributorship for the New York-based Fania Records, a key producer of Salsa at the time. By the 1980s, Karen had become the Dominican Republic’s largest and most successful record label, producing many of the nation’s top musicians and proving himself to be an influential producer and businessman (Hernandez, 1995).

A more modern production genius is found in Ricky Gonzalez. This keyboardist/producer/arranger has spent the past two decades working with some of the biggest names in Latin American music. Born in the Dominican Republic, like many talented performers before him, Gonzalez was born a musician—playing drums by age 3 and piano by age 14. By age 17 Gonzalez joined Ray Barretto’s band and continued playing the piano while studying composition at the Julliard School and the City College of New York. Gonzalez studied under jazz great Ron Carter and with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Del Tredici, contributions that shaped his style as performer and producer (Gonzalez, 2004).

Gonzalez’s most recent project is his debut CD, “Oasis” that features an array of talented vocalists and musicians as well as an eclectic mix of Salsa, Hip-hop and world rhythms.  Recently he produced Tito Nieves’ hit “I Like It Like That” and was picked up by major mainstream corporations like Burger King and the American Broadcasting company.  Gonzalez is now receiving even more attention for his stylish beats and catchy lyrics. Though Gonzalez has worked with many well-known performers and stars, he can currently be found touring with Latin superstar Marc Anthony, contributing on the keyboard and with vocal duties (Gonzalez, 2004).

By highlighting key Dominican contributors to Salsa’s sound and styles, a better and more complete understanding of Salsa’s evolution has emerged.  From Salsa’s beginnings as a social commentary to the more recent romantic ballads, regardless the style, Salsa was built on the shoulders of many talented Dominican artists. Today, Salsa’s rhythms are enjoyed by people of different ethnicities and languages in countries from around the world. 


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