Elder Sanchez

History of Salsa...

by Elder Sanchez
To speak of the musical genre known as 'Salsa' is to refer to what is possibly one of the most misrepresented and undervalued of all rhythms. This is due to many factors, including the often inappropriate use of the word 'Salsa', and the large scale exploitation of this term by commercial interests. Looking back at the recent history of these rhythms in New York, we can see that its creation is like a jigsaw puzzle of many pieces, where each piece has played an important role.

Cuban Band The 1950's was the decade when the fusion of Jazz and Caribbean music was at its greatest. One of the best known and successful bands of the era was 'Machito y sus Afro Cubans', founded by Mario Bauza, a Cuban musician who had arrived in New York in the 1930's. Around 1947 this band effectively saved the Palladium, which although was one of the longest standing dance halls in New York, it was at that time experiencing a period of decline. When 'Machito y sus Afro Cubans' began playing there on Sundays, at dances organized for the Latin American community, the dance floor with a capacity of 2000 people was once again filled. The success of Afro Cuban music was huge and within a year nothing else was heard. Other equally successful groups were those of Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez.

Congas In the 1950's different Latin rhythms such as Latin Jazz, Enrique Jorrin's Cha cha cha and the new style of Bolero, 'teeling' converged, and this was of great importance to a lot of the Latin musicians. Now they began to overcome prevailing racist and class conscious attitudes, taking the leading positions on stage that they deserved.

The most important of all rhythms at this time was the 'Son', which had emerged in the 1920's and influenced almost all Latin rhythms from that point on. The musical influence of Cuba in the 1950's was unparalleled.

Although there were other important and high quality musical developments in the Caribbean, they remained isolated in comparison to music of Cuba. No other country possessed the unique conditions present, which made it the principle hothouse for the musical productions of the era. However, the Cuban rhythms, and in particular the 'Son', were quickly absorbed by other Caribbean countries which shared a similar cultural heritage and social circumstances.

Cuban Band Due to the Latin Jazz bands, there was a change in the instrumentation of Latin music. The brass section (trombones, trumpets, and saxophones), and rhythm section (piano and double bass), were preserved, but there was a radical change in the use of percussion. The drum being replaced by the bongo, tumba and timbal. The original "Son" septets which had always used the bongo and the tumba, introduced to them by Amrsenio Rodriguez in the 1930's. The timbal, which up to that point had only been used in the Cuban 'danzon' would not be used in Salsa until the boom of the 1970's. It first became important when Tito Puente formed his own band and used the instrument to link the tumba and bongo to the rest of the percussion.

At this time, this Cuban style instrument was also used in the more traditional Charanga groups. While around the same time, the timbal, which had already given a particular sound to Cuban music, acquired a specific role in Jazz. But it is in New York where the use of this instrument is significantly modified. The Charangas became popular after 1958, due mainly to 'Jose Fajardo y sus estrellas'. This genre would become very important in the influencing of Pachanga throughout the next decade.

Clavés On the 1st January the Batista regime in Cuba was overthrown by Fidel Castro, who introduced communism one year later. The U.S. imposed a blockade on the island which meant its total isolation. This triggered the mass emigration of musicians from Cuba to the U.S. music scene. The latest rhythms brought by these Cuban musicians, mixed with the existing music of other Latin immigrants from Puerto Rico, Dominica and Venezuela, and interpreted by the era's Jazz bands, such as Eduardo Davidson's Pachanga, enjoyed three short years of glory.

By 1964, the future for both Jazz bands and Pachanga seemed bleak. This was due to another crisis at the Palladium, New York's principal Latin music venue, whose liquor license had been suspended. Bands were now having to reduce their numbers, because of a lack of a large venue to perform in, in order to play smaller clubs and venues. This created new musical tendencies which in turn contributed toward the Salsa idea of the next decade.

Brass Instruments In the first half of the 1960's, Latin music suffered further severe blows and went into decline as a result of international pressures, both social and political. Amongst those pressures was the assassination of President Kennedy, the North American invasion of Santo Domingo, and the emergence of the black civil rights movement in the southern states of America. During this uncertain era, in the music world, the Beatles' presence in New York influenced popular tastes enormously. While English pop music overshadowed everything at this time, problems were increased for Latin music. Cuba itself was no longer the playground of middle class America with all that that implied, it had instead become the communist enemy to be denounced and enshrouded in negative imagery, while any desire to invest in its future was severely discouraged.

Eddie Palmieri Around the same time a medium sized Latin record company, 'La Alegre' released an album containing a new and unique sound called 'la perfecta'. The pianist, Eddie Palmieri who arranged and composed many of the tracks, was a musician raised in the Bronx, who had been strongly influenced by Jazz. The group recording the album was made up of two trombones, piano, double bass, tumba, bongo, with its distinctive characteristic being the use of the trombones in complete isolation to other parts of the ensemble. As a result, Eddie Palmieri commanded an enormous influence on all modern Latin music which came after him. The element which would characterize Salsa was now present. The trombones in the music of Eddie's created a harsh, raw, course sound full of deep explosive notes, to reflect life in those times. The neighborhoods and barrios in which the Latin communities of North America lived, cherished this music its inhabitants identifying with the music that spoke of their world, the Latin immigrant population had at last found a voice with which to express the harsh reality of all their daily lives.

The Latin community of New York was mainly Puerto Rican, although it also included Panamanians, Columbians, Dominicans and the Cubans who had arrived in the 60's. With all of these Caribbean countries sharing certain cultural traits linking their people, the Latin music being produced in New York at the time was Latin-Caribbean and the influence of Latin music was always centred on 'Son' which since the beginning of the century had represented the region as a whole.

However, while Salsa was enjoying surprising levels of popularity, the musician who had tasted success in the 1950's completely denied that Salsa existed, as a form of music. It must also be mentioned that many Cuban musicians indignantly stated that Salsa was not more that old Cuban music played with new arrangements, while there were also those who argued that Salsa was simply a marketing ploy.

Salsa Sheet Music In the 1970's and in spite of all their problems, the popular urban feeling the music engendered immediately linked the Latin's of New York, later spreading throughout the whole of the Caribbean, even though they had never experienced the ostentation of Havana or the North America of the 1950's. Music at this time was reflecting the more leisurely refined aspects of life in both places. While I may accept that in the world of today, Salsa could be a commercially coined term, This cannot detract from the authenticity of the musical phenomenon which it represents.

In 1975 the commercial Salsa boom took place, with ensuing positive and negative results. On one hand Salsa became known world wide, while on the other, what this term represented became distorted, although the word 'Salsa itself was established. It is useful here to clarify that what characterizes Salsa cannot be specifically pinpointed or defined. The main musical block on which it is built is the 'Son'. This is however only one of its many components. Salsa today is a musical form which has assimilated and unified the wealth of rhythms converging in and representing the Latin communities of a specific era and is, as already mentioned, a puzzle made up of a variety of musical tendencies.

Thank you to Elder Sanchez for sharing your extensive knowledge of Salsa with us.