Too Hot! by Jose Ramos
Salsa > Restaurants/Clubs > Puerto Rico
Salsa is a sauce, seasoning, a spicy rush of the senses. In music, salsa is a highly seasoned sound that has gathered its influences from Spain, Africa and the Caribbean, fusing them with a touch of American jazz in the vibrant New York Latin music scene of the 1970s and eventually delivering them back to the Caribbean, Africa and beyond as one of the world’s most popular dance sounds.
What is salsa? To some it is a catchword for any number of Latin, particularly Cuban, styles of dance music, from chachachá to mambo to merenque. To others, it is a very specific music developed by Puerto Rican and Cuban
immigrants in New York City during the mid-1970s. If the music respects the clave (a pair of flat wood sticklike instruments that marks the beat), most experts agree, it is salsa. In addition to claves, any salsa band worth its spice has bongos, conga drums, timbales, güiros, maracas and cowbells. Others believe an authentic salsa sound cannot be achieved without horns to add their brash touch to the driving rhythms. Author Ed Morales sums it up as follows: the most common perception of salsa is “extravagant, clave-driven, Afro-Cuban-derived songs anchored by piano, horns and rhythm section and sung by a velvety voiced crooner in a sharkskin suit.”
One aspect of salsa is indisputable – it is music made to be danced. From the first loud and lively notes, couples are on the floor, moving as a unit from side to side and occasionally slipping in a turn. The music energizes the dancers, and great dancing in turn inspires the musicians to grander heights.
The term “salsa” became popular in the early 1970s, when Latin magazines in New York City coined the word. But the music itself originated far away, in the Afro-Caribbean rhythms of the Spanish islands. Puerto Rico has a complex musical tradition that goes back centuries. The European music of the Spaniards evolved into the waltzlike danza, popular in dance salons of the 1800s. Africans arriving as slaves established the most powerful musical legacy. Among African-inspired folkloric music are the bomba, a highly rhythmic “contest” of dancers, drummers and chanters, and the plena, a sung story set to rhythm. The melodies of the danzas and the percussion of the bomba and plena came together to produce the origins of salsa music.
A similar fusion occurred in Cuba. In the 1930s, Cuban bands successfully took the mambo and other musical styles to Mexico and the U.S. In the 1940s, big bands made up of Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians played at the Palladium and other venues in New York. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the New York music scene came to be dominated more by Puerto Ricans than Cubans. Some of the biggest names in the early age of salsa include Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, El Gran Combo and the Fania All-Stars with Héctor Lavoe. Lavoe’s story has been filmed locally for a movie starring Marc Anthony and Jennifer López.
Over the decades, salsa has evolved, showing a more romantic side and incorporating Latin jazz and other sounds. Salsa congresses and workshops are held as far away as Israel and Japan. San Juan has been dubbed the reigning capital of salsa, and most major hotels host regular salsa evenings.
And the future? According to Giovanni Hidalgo, arguably the world’s leading Latin jazz-salsa percussionist, “I think salsa will continue to evolve with new musical trends, and generations of music fans will continue to enjoy salsa’s infectious rhythms for decades to come.”