Tracing the Origins of Salsa Music
by Luis Alba
The Latin music we
hear today has its origins in Cuba where the blending of African drum
rhythms and Spanish guitar evolved into a variety of Latin American music: Son,
Danzón, the rhythms of Carnival, Cha cha cha, Mambo, Salsa.....even
Tango came out of Cuba.
During the war in
Cuba in 1898 US Soldiers got a taste for Cuban music. Later, during
Prohibition in the USA, Americans went to Cuba where drinking alcohol was
legal and they became infected with the Latin rhythms.
As early as 1909
radio recordings came out of Cuba. In 1932 American Radio came to Cuba to
record Orquesta Anacoana. This amazing all-female orquesta consisted of 10
sisters. They were the first females in Cuba to openly play percussion,
horns and other instruments. Locked in the house for days at a time during
the war, they had nothing to do but practice. This group evolved into one
of Cuba's leading orchestras and one of the first to get top billing in New
York. One sister, Graciela, went on to become the lead singer for Machito's
It wasn't long before
musicians in the USA began incorporating Latin rhythms into their own
music. In 1900, W.C. Handy visited Cuba and began our legacy of Latin jazz
here in the USA. Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Dizzy Gillespie,
Charlie "Bird" Parker, Stan Getz and Cal Tjader have all followed
the tradition by blending and evolving Latin jazz. Gillespie added a Cuban
drummer named Chano Pozo to his band in 1938 and they began to compose
Even the less
esoteric forms of music in the USA have sampled Latin rhythms and
incorporated them with great success. Sam Cooke, The Diamonds, Johnny Otis,
Elvis Presley, Bo Diddley and Nat King Cole all helped popularize Latin
music with hits containing elements from Cuban music. Gloria Estefan is one
of the most well-known contemporary popularizers of Latin music in the USA.
She has very successfully blended English lyrics and and rock and roll
style with her Cuban musical heritage.
To find the roots of
Cuban music we look to West Africa where the slave trade thrived. The
Yoruba, Congo and other West African people created rhythms in ancient
times to call forth various gods. Sadly, these wonderful rhythms were
brought over to the New World under dire circumstances. One drummer named
Ijibwa was taken captive and placed on a slave ship for America. He was
forced to play on deck to keep up the spirits of the prisoners so that the
"merchandise" would arrive alive.
The slaves used the
drum rhythms in Christian worship too. Slaves were forced to adopt
Christianity upon arrival in the new World, but often called their own gods
by Christian names so as to avoid punishment. A similar practice was the
progenitor of the "Yo Mama is so..." jokes in existence today
among African-Americans. "Mama" was actually a code word for
"Master". Hardly anyone telling these jokes today remembers what
"Mama" actually stood for in slave times. In Latin music most of
the listeners are not even aware that the drum rhythms we dance to are actually
religious in meaning, dedicated to various African gods. Cabillolos
(secret societies) still exist in Cuba and keep alive over 200 different
rhythms for different African gods.
Spain brought Flamenco guitar music to Cuba. Out of this came Son. Rural
Cubans brought the folk guitar to Havana after the war in 1898. Isaac
Oviedo was one of the originators of son. He taught himself the guitar by
watching other musicians and started the group Santiga Casana, a
charuquita group; kettle drum (timbál), ceramic jog, accordion and guitar.
In 1926 Oviedo brought the Matanza Sextet to Havana. Later on Emilio Orfe
created the danzón style with violin, cello, flute and African
drums. He started his first orchestra at age eleven!
Oreste Lopez helped
create Mambo by combining danzón with African rhythms from the
street. The dancing itself came out of rehearsals where couples would come
over and improvise. Lope put together Arcanos Orchestra in 1938.
Xavier Cugat was
another important figure in popularizing Mambo. Born in Spain and raised in
Cuba, Cugat was initially trained in classical violin beginning at age 8.
His music was a unique blend of Afro-Cuban and Flamenco influences. Cugat
spent time in New York and Berlin before giving up music to become a cartoonist
for the LA Times (!), but in the 1940's Charlie Chaplin dragged him out of
his musical retirement to compose a score for the Chaplin film City
Lights. Cugat formed a group, "Cugat and the Gigolos" and
found that he could make a living in Hollywood doing tropical music for
films. He created a smooth Latin blend of music that was very popular with
Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire.
Don Aspiazu started
the Rumba craze in 1930 with his Rumba dance team and full
orchestra. Anglo-Americans were in a frenzy over the "fiery tempo and
barbaric melody" and thought of Latin music as daring and fascinating.
The film industry continued to popularize Latin music with Desi Arnaz and
his orchestra singing such songs as "Babalu" and "Cumbanchero".
In 1940 he popularized the conga line dance.
contribution to Mambo is well-known, as are the contributions of Willy
Colon and Celia Cruz. Cruz was recorded on Cuban radio at age 7 and made
her first record in 1951. One lesser-known figure is Arsenio Rodriguez, one
of the true fathers of Salsa. A blind drummer in Cuba, he began to evolve
the Salsa sound from Mambo in the early 1960's.
argue about the difference between Mambo and Salsa. Some say
they are the same thing. Some say Salsa is something you eat! Some
think Salsa is a generic label for all different types of Latin
music. But if you listen to the early Mambo of Tito Puente, Machito,
Beny More, Tito Rodriguez and the many greats who started playing before
1960, and then listen to some of the newer folks on the block, you'll find
a distinction there easily enough. As to whether to move the body or feet
on the first or second beat, that is a whole subject all on its own.
For more information
on Latin music, Descarga has an extensive line of recordings, videos and
written works on the subject. "The Roots of Rhythm, narrated by Harry
Belafonte, was the main source of information for this article. To order it
from Descarga, call toll-free 1-800-377-2647.
(from an article in Hoofers Anonymous)
During the late
1950's in Cuba, there was a popular dance -- some might call it a
"dance craze!" -- that was done in the streets and in the clubs,
and in people's homes. It was called Casino Rueda, or Rueda de
Casino, or simply Rueda. Rueda means "wheel". Casino
refers to the kinds of turns and breaks you might normally see in ordinary
partner Salsa dancing.
Partner Round and Round..." If the first few words of this notorious
dance command ring a bell, then open your ears, as you may start to hear
phrases like "dame una" (give me one), "dame dos
con vuelta" (give me two with a turn), and "exhíbela"
(show her off)... the list is endless. Rueda de Casino is Country
and Western square dancing SALSA STYLE! If you like dancing Salsa,
then imagine the sensation of doing so not with one person but with an
entire group. Picture this... you step out to your favorite Latin
nightclub. Later in the evening, the floor opens as couples gather in a
circle. You know the moves, the names, the signals. You grab a partner and
you're about to enter into the most incredible Salsa experience. Rueda
de Casino was originally danced in the 1950's to the Cha cha
beat in members-only clubs in Cuba known as casinos deportivos.
These casinos sponsored dances with live orchestras where dancers would get
together and create new styles. It was in these casinos that "la
rueda" was born. Unfortunately, the Castro regime stifled a lot of
popular cultural activities, forcing them underground. Rueda de Casino
eventually resurfaced in people's living rooms, on the street, at clubs and
parties. It was first introduced to Miami in the early 90's and is rapidly
making its way across the United States.
Rueda de Casino, in its truest form, is an
art of communication that requires dancers be alert and quick. A leader
calls out or signals the dancers to a short combination of intricate steps
followed by commands such as "adios", "enchufa",
or "dame..." which are patterns that lead dancers to a
change of partners. There are reportedly more than 150 moves, each with a
name that often has a double entendre or some cross-cultural humor buried
in it. Each pattern also comes with a hand signal or gesture which are well
needed in large circles and/or loud night clubs. It's incredible to watch
but certainly much more so to participate. Everyone in the wheel, including
followers, keep their eyes peeled to the caller. When the dancers are on in
"la rueda" it is intoxicating and addictive
The form of the Rueda
-- passing partners in a wheel -- hints at its early, colonial origins,
which were probably a "mezcla", a blend of French Court
Dances (brought to Cuba by Haitians) and the indigenous Afro-Cuban dance
movements. With Cuban emigration to the US -- with an especially large
influx into Miami -- the Cuban culture, music and dance blossomed here,
and, along with Mambo, Cha cha, and Salsa, Rueda
has reemerged. Recently, Rueda has sprung up in Los Angeles and here
in San Francisco (a dance group from L.A., led by Tomas Montero, performed
Rueda at last year's SF Carnival Parade!)
Cha cha is the newcomer of the Latin
American Dances. This dance was first seen in the dance-halls of America,
in the early fifties, following closely Mambo, from which it was developed.
The music is slower than Mambo.
Chonque was the
grandfather of Rumba and Cha cha with African rhythms and
Spanish guitar, but Enrique Joren came up with the first full-fledged Cha
cha in 1951. He wanted it to be a medium rhythm, very recognizable and
not too frenetic. His creation came from the idea that there should be a
music created specifically for dance and participation, not only for
listening, or for a select elite.
The name Cha cha
is an imitation of the "rhythm" from dancing Cuban side steps.
From the less inhibited night clubs and dance halls the Mambo
underwent subtle changes. It was triple Mambo, and then peculiar
scraping and shuffling sounds during the "tripling" produced the
imitative sound of Cha cha. This then became a dance in itself. Mambo
or triple Mambo or cha cha as it is now called, is but an
advanced stage in interpretive social dancing born of the fusion of
progressive American and Latin music.
After the World War
II the Mambo was pushed aside by the Cha cha which became
popular around 1956. According to its roots the Cha cha should be
played passionately without any seriousness and with staccato allowing the
dancers to project an atmosphere of 'naughtiness" to the audience.
is the national dance of the Dominican Republic, and also to some extent,
of Haiti, the neighbor sharing the island. There are two popular versions
of the of the origin of the Merengue.
One story alleges the
dance originated with slaves who were chained together and, of necessity,
were forced to drag one leg as they cut sugar to the beat of drums. The
second story alleges that a great hero was wounded in the leg during one of
the many revolutions in the Dominican Republic. A party of villagers welcomed
him home with a victory celebration and, out of sympathy, everyone dancing
felt obliged to limp and drag one foot. Merengue has existed since
the early years of the Dominican Republic (in Haiti, a similar dance is
called the Meringue).
It is possible the
dance took its name from the confection made of sugar and egg whites
because of the light and frothy character of the dance or because of its
short, precise rhythms. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Merengue
was very popular in the Dominican Republic. Not only is it used on every
dancing occasion in the Republic, but it is very popular throughout the
Caribbean and South American, and is one of the standard Latin-American
There is a lot of
variety in Merengue music. Tempos vary a great deal and the
Dominicans enjoy a sharp quickening in pace towards the latter part of the
dance. The most favored routine at the clubs and restaurants that run a
dance floor is a slow Bolero, breaking into a Merengue, which
becomes akin to a bright, fast Jive in its closing stages. Ballroom Merengue
is slower and has a modified hip action. Merengue was introduced in
the United States in the New York area. However, it did not become well
known until several years later. Ideally suited to small, crowded dance
floors, it is a dance that is easy to learn and essentially a
Afro Cuban All-Stars
Buena Vista Social Club
Introducing...Ruben Gonzalez (RG contributed to many Arsenio Rodriguez recordings)
Llego con Damas
The Rough Guide to Salsa
The Best of Mambo
Mango Santa Maria
Oscar de Leon
Orquesta Avance (local
SF Bay Area group)
Orquesta Gitano (local
SF Bay Area group)
Luis Enrique (Salsa
Marc Anthony (Salsa
romántico with a bit of hip hop influence)