by Eileen Torres
Salsa is a tropical music whose roots are in Africa. The enslaved people from Africa brought their drumming traditions to their new locations. That particular tradition was prohibited, in the United States. We were afraid the drums would communicate plans to revolt, escape. Cuba however did not impose those restrictions. The African rhythms seeped into Cuban music and produced a variety of rhythms.
In the early 1930s Mario Bauzá (Machito’s brother-in-law) traveled to New York City from Cuba with Don Azpiazú’s band. Mario returned at a later date and settled in Harlem. His musical excellence led to him playing with the most popular orchestras of the time. He played with the Cab Calloway band and Chick Webb among others.
Later Machito, Chano Pozo and other Cubans joined him in New York and began playing with the great American jazzmen. Bebop was a very popular style being played by many of the big bands at the time. The influence of Cuban musicians, particularly the percussionists, and the intricate clave rhythm gave rise to a hybrid style called Cubop. The late 1930s and 40s saw an influx of Cuban musicians to the New York music scene.
Interestingly in Mexico, Perez Prado became a sensation in the 1940s. Other Cuban musicians like Beny Moré, Humberto Cané and many others were gathering there because of the tremendous artistic opportunities provided by Mexico’s film industry. Mario Bauzá in New York and Perez Prado in Mexico City are credited with popularizing Mambo.
In the 1950s, the rhythms of Mambo, Chachachá and Rumba were the rage. Latin dance bands were very popular. The Latin style of music was showing up everywhere including Hollywood films and American television. Dance studios were teaching their students how to move to the sultry Latin rhythms.
Due in part to the tremendous influence of the British Invasion of the 1960s, (Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc.), the popularity of Latin music experienced a serious decline. A new style called Boogaloo emerged. It was made popular by Pete Rodriguez, Joe Cuba, Joe Bataan, Johnny Colon and others.* An example of Boogaloo is the Pete Rodriguez song,“I Like it Like That” remade by Tito Nieves and brought to national attention through the Burger King commercial.
The 70s saw a resurgence in Latin music’s popularity. The Fania record label and its executives (Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci) played a large role developing and marketing tremendous music in both New York and Puerto Rico. New York and Puerto Rican orchestras developed a hard driving, heavy hitting style of music that salsa purists consider some of the best music ever recorded.
The 80s gave way to the birth of Salsa Romántica. This style was characterized by a more moderate tempo and by lyrics that were love and sex oriented. This style remained popular especially among females who many times purchase more music than their male counterparts.
We also saw at this time the emergence of the “pretty boy” lead singer. The handsome faces were a great marketing tool. At times the quality of the music suffered in order to accommodate greater sales. The singers were now given top billing-not the band leaders.
The 90s were a time when salsa enjoyed an increasing popularity on a global basis. In the later part of the decade the first World Salsa Congress was held in Puerto Rico. Soon Congresses were being held all over the world. Salsa was no longer a purely Latino domain. It was embraced by many peoples and cultures around the world.
Musically speaking, in many ways the 90s began a time in which song structure became predictable. It became increasing difficult to distinguish one group’s style from the next. Much of the music sounded the same. In fact, at times the same group of musicians was used in the recording sessions of various singers. Many agree the music had become diluted. However, toward the end of the decade a trend seemed to develop leading back toward the more authentic classic style.
Cubans gave birth to the origins of what today is referred to as salsa. However the Cuban embargo severely limited the interchange of musical ideas and collaborations. The Puerto Ricans picked up the ball and ran with it. They embraced and advanced this musical style. The Colombians remain true to the musical tradition while other more recent artists continue to experiment with and modify the style.
Salsa continues to evolve, develop and garner large numbers of fans. Salsa is not a fad or a passing phase. It has been embraced and accepted by non-Latinos around the world.
Other Latin dance music styles continue to swoop in and out. Their popularity is usually based on being easy to dance to.
Salsa is a very sophisticated form with changes in energy, crescendos, and spiraling riffs that propel the aficionado into orbit. Salsa will never be replaced. Salsa is here to stay!
*A new documentary released August 5, 2015 called “We Like It Like That” chronicles the impact of the Boogaloo era.”
Eileen Torres is a Salsa historian, events producer, dance instructor and club promoter. She has delivered the multimedia presentation “The Origins and Development of Salsa” over 300 times for colleges and universities, government agencies, and at Salsa Congresses and festivals. She is the Executive Producer for the independent movie, SHINE a feature film whose backdrop is salsa music and dance. SHINE will be released in the summer of 2016.
Image by: Sean McClean