Salsa Origins


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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