History of Salsa
The history of the Latin popular music known worldwide as "salsa" began centuries ago in the islands of the Spanish Caribbean, in a context of slavery and colonialism. Yet, it is inextricably tied to twentieth-century New York City and the growth of a thriving Latino community here. Its distinctive polyrhythm and vocal and instrumental call-and-response identify the Afro-Caribbean roots of Latin music -traditional and contemporary, sacred and secular.
The colonial Era
The story of Latin popular music reveals the triumph of the human spirit over the crushing forces of slavery and colonialism. For centuries, men, women, and children from West and Central Africa-the lands of the great nations of the Yoruba, Efik, and Bantu peoples, among others-were brought in chains to Cuba, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti). Thrown into encounters with diverse and heretofore unknown African, European, and indigenous peoples and cultures, they carved out ways to ensure their own survival and that of their cultural expressions. Though plantation life was harsh under Spanish rule, it allowed for the establishment of sacred and secular cultural institutions, such as religious houses and brotherhoods, in which tradition could be maintained and adapted and new traditions created. "Cimarron" (escaped slave) communities also provided a context for the preservation of traditional musical forms.
By the late nineteenth century, slavery had come to an end throughout the Caribbean region. The euphoria of freedom soon gave way to the reality of making a new life in the midst of economic and political upheaval. The Spanish American war of 1898 resulted in the end of Spanish colonial rule and the emergence of the United States as the dominant imperial power in the region. With the transformation of plantation economies into agribusiness, displaced agricultural workers migrated from countryside into town, and from island to island. Blacks, whites, and "criollos" arrived in Havana, bringing the rhythms of "Rumba" and "Changui". To San Juan they brought "Bomba" and "Seis", and to Santo Domingo, "Merengue" and "Carabiné". Transplanted and transformed in the urban settings, these and other sounds and styles were selectively brought to New York City in successive migrations.
New York City beginnings
While Puerto Rican settlement in New York began before 1898, migration increased once the island came under USA control. The first Puerto Rican "colonia" (neighborhood) developed in the area around the Brooklyn Navy Yard. By 1917, when the Jones Act made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens, east Harlem's "El Barrio" had become the "colonia" of choice for new arrivals. An unforeseen result of citizenship was the earliest collaboration between African-American and Puerto Rican musicians and the earliest documented presence of Puerto Rican musicians in New York City, brought about by James Reese Europe (1881-1919), founder of the first booking agency for African-American musicians and director of the first African-American band to play in the Carnegie Hall.
With the outbreak of World War I, Europe enlisted in a black regiment of New York National Guard. When asked to organize "the best damn brass band in the United States Army", Europe traveled to Puerto Rico to audition Island black musicians trained in municipal bands. The eighteenth men recruited included Rafael Hernández (1891-1965), who was to become one of Puerto Rico's most famous and beloved composers. Europe's band (later known as the 369th infantry "Harlem Hellfighters" band) is credited with introducing European audiences to Jazz. Back in New York City, its Puerto Rican members were the first Latinos to record and perform with African-American jazz in the city's clubs and theater orchestras.
Other Island musicians and workers quickly followed, as the interwar decades saw continued economic hardship in the Caribbean and the rise of employment opportunities in New York City. Latino communities in New York supported dozens of Spanish-language theaters, dance, halls, nightclubs, social clubs, and music stores, all which fostered the development of a dynamic New York Latin music scene.
Latin music goes mainstream
From 1900 into the 1950s, popular stage, recording, film and broadcast media as well as Tin Pan Alley -the New York shorthand for publishers of popular sheet music- responded to the vibrant energy of Latin music. The introduction of the tango in stage and silent film production in 1931 gave rise to the popular image of the "Latin Lover". New York publishers issued songs that became standards, such as Ernesto Lecuona's "Siboney" (1929).
Latin music and dance grew steady in popularity during the interwar period. American tourists who flocked to the hotels and casinos of Havana in the 1920's heard a new music called Son. In 1930, Don Azpiazu's Havana casino Orchestra played Son and other Cuban dance music at New York's Palace Theater, and introduced the classic "manicero" (The Peanut Vendor), which became a national hit. Under the gender of rumba, son became a national social dance craze. Spanish-born, Havana raised Xavier Cugat (1900-1990) and his orchestra opened the new Waldorf Astoria and became the hotel's resident group, playing a mix of Latin and other popular tunes there from 1932 to 1947, mellowed for a broader American audience. The stage was set for the transition from son to salsa.
By the mid-1930's American nightclubs were featuring the conga, a Cuban carnival tradition, and many Broadway musicals included Latin numbers. In 1939, two key Latino entertainers appeared on the New York stage, Brazilian singer-dancer Carmen Miranda (1909-1955) singing "South-American Way" in the Abbott and Costello revue On the streets of Paris, and Cuban-born Desi Arnaz (1917-1986) as a conga playing football player in the Rodgers and Hart musical Too many girls.
Cugat, Miranda, and Arnaz were among the many Latinos entertainers featured in Hollywood musicals with "south of the border" themes during the 1940's. Teamed with Lucille Ball, Arnaz created the long running television comedy I Love Lucy. Featuring Arnaz's character, New York based Latin band leader Ricky Ricardo, the show brought Latino music into homes nationwide beginning in 1951 and helped make mambo and cha-cha-cha the dance crazes of the 1950's.
Latin + Jazz = the New York Sound
As El Rey Tito Puente (1923-2000) said, Latin Jazz is a marriage between Latin rhythms and Jazz harmonies. The connection that began with African-American and Puerto Rican members of James Reese Europe's military band went on to forge a true New York sound. Seminal figures included Afro-Cuban Alberto Socarras, one of the first Cubans to play in a jazz band, and Mario Bauza, who played with both Latin and jazz groups. Bauza's friendship with jazz great Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993), which began when both played trumpet in Cab Calloway's band, profoundly influenced both jazz and Latin music. In 1940, Bauza and his brother-in-law Frank Grillo, "Machito" (1909-1984) formed Machito and his Afro-Cubans, the first group to incorporate African-American jazz musicians, harmonies, and concepts into Latin music. In 1947-1948, Gillespie collaborated with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo (1915-1948), marking the first genuine synthesis of Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz.
By 1952, New York's Palledium Ballroom at Broadway and 53rd Street has become the American center of the mambo dance craze, followed in 1954 by the cha-cha-cha. Created as an instrumental form in Cuba by Orestes and Israel "Cachao" López and Arsenio Rodríguez, mambo was popularized in the United States by Pérez Prado. Cha-cha-cha was the invention of Enrique Jorrín as a form of both dance and music. These dance forms brought "The Big Three" - Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez (1923-1973) - International renown.
And then they called "Salsa"
The musical excitement of the 1950's flowed into the 1960's. Alegre, the first Latino owned record label to record the "new" New York sound, rose to prominence. Charanga dance ensembles, with their distinctive string and flute sound, challenged the popularity of the mambo bands. Spearheaded by Dominican-born flutist Johnny Pacheco (b.1935), pachanga became a hot dance fad. Eddie Palmieri (b.1936) with Barry Rogers (1935-1991), Ray Barreto (b.1929), and Larry Harlow, developed innovative ensemble formats. Younger barrio musicians such as Joe Cuba, Johnny Colon, and Pete "Conde" Rodriguez created Latin bugalú, the first combination of rhythm and blues and Latin music. The Lebrón Brothers, Willie Colon (b.1950), and Héctor Lavoe (1946-1993) followed suit and moved into a hard-edged, urban sound.
Following the Cuban revolution, the United States ended diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961. This action cut off the flow of music and musicians that had inspired the New York scene for decades. Four years later, immigration policy changes opened the door to migrations from previously excluded countries. Along with other demographic shifts, these two events altered the course of Latin music in ways that defined it even more sharply as a New York phenomenon. By the late 1960's, the Dominican community had burgeoned, and rhythms such as the Dominican merengue, Colombia cumbia, and Puerto Rican plena and jibaro styles had become part of the New York music scene.
By the early 1970's music once identified by specific forms and styles was clustered together under the salsa rubric. The tag gained commercial currency after "Fania" Records- the most influential record label in the field- adopted it to describe the New York music label produced. The name may have been new, but the sound of salsa is rooted in the rich mix of cultures, races and rhythms that is New York Latin music.
For: "Raices" Latin Music Museum.
Luis Bauzó, Curator.
For further reading:
Flores, Juan. From Bomba to Hip-hop: Puerto Rican culture and Latino identity. New York.
Glasser, Ruth. My music is my flag: Puerto Rican musicians and their New York communities.
Manuel, Peter, with Kenneth Bilby and Michael Largey. Caribbean currents: Caribbean music from Rumba to Reggae.
Roberts, John Storm. The Latin Tinge: The impact of Latin American music on the United States.