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Salsa

Introduction
The most widely heard and influential form of music from Puerto Rico today is called salsa. The term translates to English as "sauce" to denote music that spices and enlivens things. But not just any music. It is a complex musical genre that evolved from many roots into a uniquely Puerto Rican product.


Photo with permission of StreetDance Australia
It could be said that "salsa" is primarily a commercial tag for contemporary Latin pop music that connotes a feeling that sums up the variety of redefined and reinterpreted styles at its roots. It encompasses a broad range of musical genres, instrumental combinations and cultural influences, ranging from Cuban son montuno, Puerto Rican bomba and plena, Dominican merengue, Cuban Yoruba ritual music and Afro-American jazz and rhythm and blues.

At some time during the end of the 60's, Afro-Caribbean music had developed into was being called salsa. Many practitioners were not in agreement with the use of that term, believing that it was a commercial name used only to promote what had been simply Afro-Caribbean dance music, or Latin music. This music had always been called by the names of the various genres, for example: cha-cha-cha, mambo, guaguancó, son montuno, etc. In any case, they finally had to accept that the label greatly helped the commercial development of this music form.

Neither has there been agreement precisely on how the term was invented, or by who. The term salsa has often been attributed to a Venezuelan radio host by the name of Fidias Danilo. It is said that he presented music acts with the preamble: "A continueción escucharemos la salsa de... ("now we will listen to the salsa of..."), then adding the name of the next act. While this is the best known explanation, few have tried to research the issue or even found out why he might have used the term salsa in that way.

The term "salsa" began to circulate in the late 1960's to describe this unique genre, born of these many distinct musical influences from many parts of the world but with its locus in New York City. Highly danceable, salsa's rhythms are hot, urbane, rhythmically sophisticated, and compelling. Today, the center of salsa has shifted from New York to Puerto Rico.

Roots and History of salsa
By the 30's, the popularity of son and mambo had spread to Puerto Rico where musicians incorporated the style with their own. As Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians emigrated to the US, especially New York, they took that style with them, forming Cuban/Puerto Rican son conjuntos.

In the late 30's, Arsenio Rodríguez (one of Cuba's greatest musician and composer) began reconnecting son with its African roots. Through his many innovations in style and instrumentation, Rodríguez expanded the son sound to emphasize or reincorporate many of the African elements which many of the earlier son conjuntos had either omitted or simplified.

He synthesized and maintained the integrity of African and Spanish elements. Some of his innovations were:
  • adapting the guaguancó to the son style;
  • adding a cowbell and conga to the rhythm section;
  • expanding the role of the tres as a solo instrument;
  • introducing a montuno section for melodic solos.
His style became known as "son montuno" and formed the basis of the mambo craze in the 40's, influencing Latin popular music in New York for years to follow.

Most music critics claim that despite these musical roots, what we know recognize as salsa today, originated in New York City nightclubs in the years following World War II, an evolution of the era's big band tradition. The first great salsa musician was Tito Puente, who, after a stint with the U.S. Navy, studied percussion at New York's Juilliard School of Music. He went on to organize his own band, Puente's Latin Jazz Ensemble, which has been heard by audiences around the world. One critic said that the music is what results when the sounds of big band jazz meet African-Caribbean rhythms. Others critics say that salsa is a combination of fast Latin music that embraces the rumba, mambo, cha-cha-cha, and merengue.

However, salsa is not just evolved from traditional Puerto Rican or Cuban music. Many jazz artists began interacting with Cuban music as far back as the early 1900's. Some of those interactions resulted in Juan Tizol's composition "Caravan" for Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia". These mixed Afro-Cuban elements with Middle Eastern titles. Other interactions reflect the inclusion of Afro-Cuban percussion instruments into bebop jazz. This kind of interaction also includes those of Jerry Gonzalez' Fort Apache Band, where Bud Powell's compositions, such as "Parisian Thoroughfare", mixed with a strong rumba-based rhythm section.

Another important antecedent of salsa is the mambo. The structure of mambo, which is a fusion of big band jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythmic organization, has become the basic format for many New York salsa bands. An opening melody is followed by a "coro" backing improvisations sung by the "sonero" (soloist), followed by a mambo section, which features the trumpet and reed sections calling and responding to each other.

By including bongos and congas from the conjuntos and timbales from charanga orchestras which played danzon, salsa shows the evolution of the Afro-Cuban rhythm section. Charangas also became part of the New York sound, incorporating trumpets from conjuntos and violins from charangas.

While salsa has many roots and its primary exponents are Puerto Rican, the Cuban son is clearly the primary foundation of salsa. Certain Cuban conjuntos, such as Arsenio Rodriguez and Chapottin, provided much of the inspiration for the sound of some the New York bands in the mid-60's, including Orchesta Harlow and Johnny Pachecho.

The jazz and rhythm and blues genres contributed the trap drum, featured in the mid-1960's bugalu style. Some songs show a direct connection to son montuno. Pete Rodriquez' mid-60s release of "Micaela" is a re-work of the song "Micaela me boto" recorded by Cuba's Chapottin and Miguel Cuni. By the late 1960s, bugalu evolved into more of a Latin-soul sound. Thus, the interaction between Latin music and R&B went both ways, with Latin percussion being assimilated into R&B while R&B assisted the evolution of Latin music.

Another major component of salsa is the ritual music associated with the practice of santeria, including their use of "bata" drums. These are heard in Orquesta Harlow's "Silencio", on their "Salsa" album. Yoruba drums, melodies, and rhythms were also included into salsa, as in the music of Irakere and Los Papines.

Finally, many stylistic features came from the Puerto Rican bomba and plena music genres. Cesar Concepcion orchestrated plena songs for many big bands in the 1940s, while Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera reintroduced and popularized bomba and plenas in the 1950's. Recent albums also show the use of the plena rhythm, such as those of Willie Colon. Rafael Cortijo's "Maquina de Tiempo" contains musical styles from plenas, bomba, Puerto Rican aquinaldos and jazz.

Thus, new styles keep evolving from a constant process of fusion with cycles of revival and incorporation of folk traditions into the mainstream of popular Latin dance music.

Apart from the discussion of its roots, an important element in the initial excitement and subsequent spread of salsa must be the role of the Fania record company, and the huge success of the salsa band it formed and sponsored, the Fania All Stars. The All Stars included many of the founding figures of salsa: Larry Harlow, Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barretto, Roberto Roena, Willie Colón, Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez, Ismael Miranda and Héctor LaVoe. It can be said that the All Stars was a veritable foundry of salsa pioneers with a disproportionate influence over the salsa music that the public heard, and its spread world-wide.

The musical essence of Salsa
One of the similarities between the son and salsa is its composition. But they are also quite distinct in that the son is a very expressive song, while salsa is a montuno or estribillo with a faster rhythm. Salsa is comprised of two sections. The first of these salsa sections is called the body of the song while the second section is called the montuno, as it is in the son. During the montuno section the solo vocalist and chorus alternate phrases.

Percussion plays an extremely important role in a salsa composition. In the 'body' section the pace is usually slower to allow the vocalist freedom of expression as needed. In the montuno section the rhythm is somewhat more aggresive. A lot depends on the preference of the orchestra director.

The basic rhythm of the salsa is the clave. The clave is the basis of all salsa music. In its African roots, it is fundementally different to the square rhythms dominating much European [son clave] music.
Just as folk/rock musicians tap their feet on the 1st and 3rd of a 4 beat bar, jazz musicians on the 2nd and 4th, salsa musicians tap the clave, which is a syncopated rhythm across 2 bars in European 4/4 notation.

The clave consists of a "strong" measure containing three notes, also called the tresillo, and a "weak" measure containing two notes, resulting in patterns beginning with either measure, referrred to as "three-two" or two-three." There are two types of clave patterns associated with popular (secular) music: son clave and rumba clave. Another type of clave - 6/8 clave - originated in several styles of West African sacred music

Listen for this rhythm when you dance, and try and feel the distinctive second beat, called the bomba. Whether you mark this second beat or the third, depends on the regional style.

The rest of the music is built round the clave, adding complex rhythms on the congas, timbales, bass, güiro, bells, bongos, etc.

Salsa today
Salsa today is really a broad term that refers to a vibrant and dynamic Puerto Rican dance music that blends African, Spanish, Cuban and Puerto Rican sounds of antecedent musical genres, sometimes with jazzy arrangements. The music can be played fast or slow and mellow. The bands or orchestras combine tight ensemble [salsa dancers] work with inspiring solos. Song styles include the son montuno, danzon," and guaguanco, but the main engine is the son. The salsa repertoire is varied and includes the Puerto Rican plena, the Dominican merengue, jazz fom USA, the Colombian cumbia, and especially the Cuban son.

Some interesting, and perhaps disquieting developments have recently emerged among salsa percussionists around the world. They have been mixing rhythms and experimenting with instruments not tradionally associated with, salsa music. Also, the latest Cuban influences have emerged as they have reentered the mainstream of music. They are contributing a new style of playing salsa that is different from the traditional Puerto Rican interpretation, which has been well defined and conserved for many years.

This new movement is very healthy for salsa percussionists since it forces the musician to stay on top of his form, both technically and from the creative point of view, particularly in the art of improvisation, which is so central to the salsa form. It has also given the freedom to a number of great percussionists to develop their own creativity and personal style with new ideas, rhythms and refreshing concepts. Among these are talents such as Anthony Carrillo, Charlie Sierra, Willito López, Tito de Gracia, Georgie Padilla, Edwin Clemente and especially Giovanni Hidalgo, who has been a source of great inspiration to others.

It is important to understand that to create a new rhythm or style, one must be well grounded and intimately familiar with the fundamentals of the art and with traditional rhythms of salsa. You must know the styles of the pioneers and study them in order to have credibility and faithfulness to the music form. Of course it also gives the musician confidence to be able to play with any group in any style, at any time.

Some ask "who is the best?" today. No one quite agrees about who is the king of salsa at the moment, but Willie Colón, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, and Hector Lavoe are on everyone's list as the dominant names in salsa. Many others would argue that the best are from the latest generation; artists such as Gilberto Santa Rosa or Marc Anthony. Perhaps, or better said, probably, the question is irrelevant to the enjoyment of the music, especially in view of so many talented practitioners. Hundreds of young salseros are waiting to take their throne as the popularity of the emerging salsa stars continues to climb.

The spread of Salsa
Salsa has definitely made Puerto Rico famous in the world of international music. Salsa bands require access to a huge array of percussion instruments, including the güiro, maracas, bongos, timbales, conga drums, and clave. To add the jibaro touch, a clanging cow bell is also needed. Of course, it also takes a bass, a horn section, a chorus and, a lead vocalist to give salsa the right sound.

But there can be no doubt that salsa music has made fans from all corners of the world. Salsa dance clubs have sprung up in cities as diverse and far from San Juan and New York, as Stockholm, Tokyo, Sydney, and Berlin. Salsa has become so widespread and popular around the world that salsa bands comprised entirely of talented musicians and vocalists that are not Puerto Rican or even Latin, have emerged everywhere.

Moreover, many women have emerged as talented contributors to the development of salsa. La India and Trina Medina are excellent examples.

The Son Reinas is an excellent example of both these trends in the spread of salsa. A Tokyo based group of talented Japanese salseras!