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Roots and history of Salsa - page 2

Introduction - page 1       musical essence of Salsa - page 3

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.

Introduction - page 1       musical essence of Salsa - page 3

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