Salsa Music History

Salsa is a very popular form of music and social dance born in Cuba in the mid-1800s and has since then spread to the rest of the world. It is today one the most popular social dances in the world together with American dances (Swing, Rock, Hustle…), African dances (Kizomba, Semba…) or Brazilian dances (Samba, Zouk, Forro…) !

Brief history of salsa music:

Modern salsa (music and dance) finds its roots in Cuba, where it was born as a mixture of different music genres: Contra-Danzon (later called Danzón), Rumba (Guaguanco, Colombia, Yambú) and Són, (mix of the Spanish and African instruments).

The same phenomenon of music and dance fusion happened in other latin american countries, each time incorporating specificities of each culture : Bomba and Plena in Puerto Rico, Bachata and Merengue in Dominican Republic, Cumbia from Colombia, Peru and Bolivia…

By the 1930’s and 1940’s, the Cuban and Puerto Rican communities started emigrating to the USA (especially New York and Miami and Los Angeles), bringing over their cultural and musical influences. This era marked the birth of Mambo, a mix of Afro-cuban rythms and Jazz improvisations. Big names of this period are Machito (founding father of Latin Jazz) and Benny Moré (the “greatest of Cuba”). While Machito was conquering the USA, Benny Moré popularized Son and other Cuban rhythms (Guaracha, Son Montuno, Bolero, Cuban Mambo…) in Latin America (Puerto Rico, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Brazil…)

In the 1950’s and 60’s, Cuban and Puerto Rican communities started to settle in New York. “El Barrio” (Spanish Harlem) provided an environment where Afro-Latin music could evolve further. Many bands were formed; continuing to make Afro-Caribbean music while adapting their sound to their new environment. The most famous musicians of that era were Tito Puente, called the King of Mambo, and Celia Cruz, known as the Queen of Latin Music. This era also marked the birth and growth of Cha-cha-cha, born in Cuba as a derivation from Danzón-Mambo.

In the 1970’s, Afro-Latin music really became mainstream. It was around this time that the phrase “salsa” was coined, serving as umbrella term for the different styles of Afro-Latin music and band arrangements. The biggest driving force behind this huge success is the Fania Records. Founded in 1964, this label rapidly came to be the most influential record label in Latin music history. Fania’s strength was that it remodeled Cuban music into a sound more adapted to Latin New York. They called this sound the “Fania Sound” or “salsa dura” (hard salsa).

In 1968, Fania Records created Fania All-Stars, an ever revolving line-up of their best artists. They were considered some of the best Latin Music performers in the world at that time. Many artists became very famous with the promotion they received from the record label “La Fania”: Héctor Lavoe, Willie ColonCelia CruzLarry HarlowRay BarrettoBobby ValentínRubén BladesCheo FelicianoIsmael Miranda and many others

If the 1970’s were the glory days of salsa dura, another style of salsa emerged in the mid-1980’s: salsa romantica. This new variation had a softer and more romantic touch. Around this time, Latin musicians began to have an impact on mainstream U.S. music, with the rise of Merengue and Latin Pop. The best known early salsa romantica artists include: Frankie RuizLalo Rodríguez and Luis Enrique. More famous modern artists are Gilberto Santa RosaMarc AnthonyLa IndiaTito Nieves, Victor Manuelle.

The 1980’s also saw afro-latin music greatly expand to the rest of Latin America (Nicaragua, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru…), as well as Europe and Japan. The success of La Fania artists stirred local bands to try and reproduce the “Fania Sound” and also invent their own new original style. In parallel, African countries developed their own brand of salsa as well with super groups such as Africando and diversify into new stylistic interpretations.

Today salsa is still in constant evolution and is remains popular around the world, and to sum it all up, we’ll leave it to Izzy Sanabria, who coined the phrase “salsa”: