Salsa music is a very broad term that can be used with various meanings depending on the context;
its exact meaning is the subject of many arguments among aficionados.
Celia Cruz, a well-known salsa singer, has said "(s)alsa is Cuban music with another name. It is mambo, chachachá, rumba, son... all the Cuban rhythms under one name".
Author Ed Morales has said the obvious, most common perception of salsa is an "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".
He also defines it as "nothing more than a new spin on the traditional rhythms of Cuban
music" and "at once (both) a modern marketing concept and the cultural voice of a new
generation", representative of a "crystallization of a Latino identity in New York in the early
1960s". In addition, Morales cites singer Rubén Blades as claiming that salsa is merely
"a concept", as opposed to a definite style or rhythm.
Some musicians are doubtful that the term salsa has any useful meaning at all, with the bandleader Machito claiming that salsa was more or less what he had been playing for forty years before the style was invented, while Tito Puente once responded to a question about salsa by saying "I am a musician, not a cook" (referring to salsa's original use to mean sauce).
At its root, however, salsa is a mixture of Spanish and African music, filtered through the music histories of Cuba and Puerto Rico, and adapted by Latin jazz and Latin popular musicians for Latino populations with diverse musical tastes. The basic structure of a salsa song is based on the Cuban son, beginning with a simple melody and followed by a coro section in which the performers improvise. Ed Morales has claimed that the "key staples" of salsa's origins were the use of the trombone as a counterpoint to the vocalist and a more aggressive sound than is typical in Cuban music.
Salsa music always has a 4/4 meter, i.e., 4 beats per bar. The music is phrased in groups of two bars, i.e. 8 beats, for example by recurring rhythmic patterns, and the beginning of phrases in the song text and instruments. Typically, the rhythmic patterns played on the percussion instruments are rather complicated, often with several different patterns played simultaneously. Salsa music often has around 180 beats per minute, although it can be both much slower or much faster.
A pair of claves
A rhythmic element that forms the basics in salsa is the clave rhythm, generally played on claves. The most common clave rhythm in salsa is the so called 2-3 son clave:
The most important instrumentation in salsa is the percussion, which is played by a wide variety of instruments, including claves, cowbells, timbales and conga. Apart from percussion, a variety of melodic instruments are commonly used as accompaniment, such as a guitar, trumpets, trombones, the piano, and many others, all depending on the performing artists.
Sonora Matancera, a historical Salsa band, called by the Guinness Book of World Records, "the
group with the longest duration."
In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Cuban music within Cuba was evolving into new styles derived primarily from son and rumba, while the Cubans in New York, living among many Latinos from Puerto Rico and elsewhere, began playing their own distinctive styles, influenced most importantly by African American music. Their music included son and guarachas, as well as tango, bolero and danza, with prominent influences from jazz. While the New York scene continued evolving, Cuban popular music, especially mambo, became very famous across the United States. This was followed by a series of other genres of Cuban music, which especially effected the Latin scene in New York. The result, by the mid-1970s, was what is now known as salsa music.
Salsa evolved steadily through the later 1970s and into the 80s and 90s. New instruments were adopted and new national styles, like the music of Brazil, were adapted to salsa. New subgenres appeared, such as the sweet love songs called salsa romantica, while salsa became a major part of the music scene in Venezuela, Mexico and as far away as Japan. Diverse influences, including most prominently hip hop music, c ame to shape the evolving genre. By the turn of the century, salsa was one of the major fields of popular music in the world, and salsa stars were international celebrities.
Salsa's roots can be traced back to the African ancestors that were brought to the Caribbean by the
Spanish as slaves. In Africa, it is very common to find people playing music with instruments like the
conga and la pandereta, instruments commonly used in salsa. Salsa's most direct antecedent is Cuban son,
which itself is a combination of African and European influences. Large son bands were very popular in
Cuban, beginning in the 1930s; these were largely septetos and sextetos.
By the end of the 1940s, these bands grew much larger, becoming mambo and charanga orchestras led by bandleaders like Arsenio Rodriguez and Felix Chappotin. In New York City, at the center for mambo in the United States, the Palladium Dancehall, and in Mexico City, where a burgeoning film industry attracted Latin musicians, Cuban-style big bands were formed by Cubans and Puerto Ricans like Machito, Perez Prado, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez.
Mambo was very jazz-influenced, and it was the mambo big bands that kept alive the large jazz band tradition while the mainstream current of jazz was moving on to the smaller bands of the bebop era. Throughout the 1950s, Latin dance music, such as mambo, rumba and chachachá was mainstream popular music in the United States and Europe. The 50s also saw a decline in popular for mambo big bands, followed by the Cuban Revolution of 1959, which greatly inhibited contact between New York and Cuba. The result was a scene more dominated by Puerto Ricans than Cubans.
The New York Latin music of the early 1960s was led by the bands of musicians such as Ray Barretto and Eddie Palmieri, influenced by imported Cuban fads such as pachanga and charanga; after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, however, Cuban-American contact declined even more precipitously. A hybrid Nuyorican identity developed, primarily Puerto Rican but influenced by many Latin cultures as well as the close contact with African Americans.
The growth of modern salsa, however, is said to have begun in the streets of New York in the late 1960s. By this time, Latin pop was no longer a major force in American music, having lost ground to doo wop, R&B and rock and roll; there were a few youth fads for Latin dances, such as the soul and mambo fusion boogaloo, but Latin music ceased to be such a major part of American popular music.
The Manhattan based recording company, Fania Records, introduced many of the first-generation salsa singers and musicians to the world. Founded by Dominican flautist and band-leader Johnny Pacheco and impresario Jerry Masucci, Fania's illustrious career began with Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe's El Malo in 1967. This was followed by a series of updated son montuno and plena tunes that evolved into salsa by 1973.
The word salsa
Salsa means sauce in the Spanish language, and has been described as a word with "vivid associations
but no absolute definitions, a tag that encompasses a rainbow assortment of Latin rhythms and styles, taking
on a different hue wherever you stands in the Spanish-speaking world". The term has been used by Cuban
and Puerto Rican immigrants in New York analogously to swing. World music author Sue Steward has claimed
that the word was originally used in music as a "cry of appreciation for a particularly piquant or
flashy solo", coming to describe a specific style of music in the mid-1970s "when a group of New
York-based Latin music began overhauling the classic big-band arrangements popular since the mambo era of
the 1940s and 50s".
She cites the first use in this manner to an unnamed Venezuelan radio DJ; Ed Morales, on the other hand, cites it to a New York-based editor and graphic designer named Izzy Sanabria. Morales also mentions the word's prior use to encourage a band to increase the tempo and "put the dancers in high gear", and to "acknowledge a musical moment and express a kind of cultural nationalist sloganeering, celebrating the 'hotness' or 'spiciness' of Latin American culture"; he also mentions Johny Pacheco, a Dominican performer who released a 1962 album called Salsa Na' Ma, which Morales translates as "it just needs a little salsa, or spice".
Tito Puente, Mambo King
From New York, salsa quickly expanded to Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, and other Latin countries. Musicians and singers such as Tito Puente and Celia Cruz became household names, not only in North American Latino homes but all over the Caribbean. Later, groups like El Gran Combo and The Apollo All Stars with Roberto Roena among others, followed suit.
The 1970s saw a number of musical innovations among salsa musicians. The Puerto Rican cuatro guitar was introduced by Yomo Toro and the electric piano by Larry Harlow, while vocalists like Cheo Feliciano, Soledad Bravo, and Celia Cruz adapted Brazilian songs to the genre. Ray Barretto, Tipica 73, Conjunto Clasico, Rubén Blades and Eddie Palmieri were other important artists of the era, while Peregoyo y su Combo Vacano brought Colombian influences to salsa and brought the music to their homeland. By the 1980s, Fania Records' long-time leadership of salsa was weakened by the arrival of TH-Rodven and RMM.
The 1980s was a time of diversification, as popular salsa evolved into sweet and smooth salsa romantica,
with lyrics dwelling on love and romance, and its more explicit cousin, salsa erotica. José Alberto's
1984 Noches Calientes is considered the beginning of this era, which was soon dominated by Puerto Rican
stars. By the late 1980s, salsa had influenced Latin rap and found artists like Sergio George returning
the music to its mambo roots and adding a prominent trombone section.
Salsa during the 1980s also expanded to Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Europe and Japan, where (Japan) it was popularized by the famous Orquesta Del Sol. Orquesta del Sol, or Orchestra of the Sun, became famous in many Latin American countries, too. Colombia continued its salsa innovations through the 1980s, and artists like Fruko, Los Nemus del Pacifico and Latin Brothers added cumbia influences, while the 1990s saw Carlos Vives mix vallenato into Colombian salsa. Joe Arroyo (formerly of Fruko) and Sonora Carruseles became major attractions in Colombia during the 1990s, and the city of Cali styled itself "salsa capital of the world".
Cuban-born Roberto Torres invented charanga-vallenata in the 80s, making Miami a salsa center. This status helped launch the career of Gloria Estefan, a Cuban who was a mainstream American star, and others who helped invent the Miami Sound, a mixture of rock and pop. Venezuelan salsa has also become popular, especially Oscar D'Leon, while others, like Nelson Pueblo, added native llanera music influences. Cano Estremera became a popular Salsa singer during the late 1980s.
1990s to the present
Evolving out of salsa from Cuba, timba drew on songo rhythms and was invented by bands like Los Van Van
and NG La Banda. By the 1990s, this form of Cuban-born salsa was known as timba and became popular across
the world. Another form of Cuban salsa is songo-salsa, with extremely fast rapping.
Salsa has registered a steady growth and now dominates the airwaves in many countries in Latin America. In addition, several Latino artists, notably Marc Anthony, and most famously, the Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan, have had success as crossovers, penetrating the Anglo-American pop market with Latin-tinged hits, usually sung in English.
The most recent innovations in the genre include hybrids like mereng-house and salsa-merengue, alongside salsa gorda. Since the mid-1990s, African artists have also been very active through the super-group Africando, where African and New York musicians mix with leading African singers such as Bambino Diabate, Ricardo Lemvo, Ismael Lo and Salif Keita. Salsa is only one of many Latin genres to have traveled back and influenced West African music.