Salsa/Illustration by Jose Ramos
- Salsa - The Island breathes music
- By: Erik Steinberg
From the colorful food kiosks in front of Luquillo Beach to the picturesque wooden shacks nestled high up in the mountain towns that sell fritters and icy cold beer, the Island breathes music. You name it, we have it. The lively music circuit ranges from the classy yearly Casals Festival to the internationally acclaimed Puerto Rico Heineken JazzFest to the Island’s very own salsa, “bomba” and “plena” music fetes.
While styles such as “bomba” and “plena” have at least 100 years of history, Latin music on the Island today is most widely represented by the more modern salsa rhythm. The spicy beat is a blend of Afro-Caribbean sounds (especially son montuno, mambo, cha cha cha and rumba) and Latin jazz. Salsa’s instrumentation is primarily based on a battery of percussion instruments such as bongos, conga drums and timbales, as well as “guiro,” maracas and bells. But an authentic salsa sound cannot be achieved without horns, which add their unique touch to the winning music formula. San Juan is regarded the reigning capital of salsa.
In the 70s, salsa’s infectious and danceable sounds were created by a generation of artists and salsa ensembles including El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, La Sonora Poncena, Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon and the whole Fania All-Star clan (Bobby Valentin, Larry Harlow, Ismael Miranda, Cheo Feliciano, Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco). Today, 70s salsa is known as “salsa gorda,”(fat salsa) while 80s salsa is referred as “salsa romantica,”(romantic salsa) as a result of its major exponents (Eddie Santiago and Frankie Ruiz) softening the genre’s beats and making it smooth and romantic.
In the past decade, some purists have argued that the salsa music produced after the 70s was oriented to a commercial audience. Yet today most islanders and recording industry insiders agree that salsa is very much as alive as it was 35 years ago. For musicologist and Afro-Cuban music expert Cristobal Diaz Ayala, salsa is eternal. “Take opera, for instance. How many years have passed since the creation of a really good operatic piece such as Puccini’s La Boheme or Bizet’s Carmen which truly had an impact on the scene? But people still go and see them. The same happens with salsa. ... the classics don’t go out of style. Old-school salseros are still playing everywhere today, and when they are gone a new generation of salsa musicians will come and take it to a whole new dimension.”
For his part, pianist, composer and arranger Rafael Ithier, the legendary figure behind El Gran Combo’s 40-year success story, believes salsa is still a living organism. “I think salsa evolved because singers such as Eddie Santiago, Frankie Ruiz and Luis Enrique reached a market it had never even come close to touch – females hungry for love songs. And today nobody could deny that people from different cultures, colors, religions, race, males and females have embraced salsa and many have even adapted its sound to their native musical tradition.”
Giovanni Hidalgo, arguably the world’s leading Latin jazz-salsa percussionist, is also a firm believer that salsa has not only evolved but also that it is here to stay. “I think that as long as the masters who remain alive and their protege continue promoting salsa throughout the globe, the genre will never die. To the contrary, it 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.”