the Origins of Salsa Music
by Luis Alba
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.
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.
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 orchestra.
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 together.
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.
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
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.
Troubadours from 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!
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.
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.
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.
Puentes' 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.
continually 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.
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)
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
Your 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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Merengue 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.
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).
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 dances.
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 "fun" dance.
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 romántico)
Marc Anthony (Salsa romántico)
DLG (Salsa romántico with a bit of hip hop influence)