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The History of Salsa
by Chris Hamm, former owner of Salsa de Cuba (now Salsa de Olympia)
Salsa is an exciting partner dance rooted in Spain, France and Africa, blended in the Caribbean and born in the United States. The music is a fusion of Afro-Cuban and Jazz roots, beginning in New York in the 1940/50's with the Mambo craze. Both the dance and music continue to be developed in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Miami, New York and Los Angeles. The Salsa sensation has spread, apparent with the success of the Albert Torres' Salsa Congresses (4 days of Salsa workshops, performances, competitions, live concerts and dancing to 4am) held monthly world-wide. Salsa can be danced simply, or in a complex fashion, and has benefits for people of all ages.
CASINO de RUEDA was born in Cuba during the 1950's. It is a fun wild dance, with rapid switching of partners, shouts and laughter. Salsa couples move into a circle and follow the calls of the main lead, a dancer in the circle. The first call is usually "suena", meaning "to dream". When called, everyone stomps their foot, and shouts "Hey!", getting all the dancers on the same beat. The exchange the partners is called with "dame", meaning "give me". The fun really begins when "dame" is called several times in a row, or moves are called inside of other moves, or, when another dancers wants to start leading the group, they'll shout "O YE!" and they are now the leader. Fun, really fun! Here is a sample of dancing with two couples (usually it is three or more, and the limit? who knows, but I've danced it with 16 couples in Cuba!)
History of Salsa I have found, when sharing my excitement of Salsa, many people are surprised to discover that this music and dance is of European and African roots, blended in the Caribbean and developed primarily in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the United States.
Though there is a passionate, ongoing debate about the exact emergence of Salsa dance, it is generally agreed upon that the root of the music is in Cuba, with the Son rhythm.
As quoted by G. Romero, "The existence of Cuban Son comes from its unique blending of different musical sources over a period of almost two hundred years, yet the quality that unifies the different variants of son is separate from its original sources. That quality is Afro-Cuban fusion, a completely new musical tradition made up of amalgamated complex African rhythms, intricate European melodies and harmonies, and spicy Spanish lyrics."
Through many years of studying Latin Jazz and Salsa, I have found a variety of opinions regarding the history of Salsa. The following summary rings true with many of the stories I have heard regarding the emergence of Salsa, the music and the dance.
This writing is copied from the magazine, "Pure Salsa," in the article, "Ask the Coach" by Sarah Riddle, Manager/Instructor - Viscount Dance Studios in Portland, Oregon.
"If we are to look at Salsa ... evolution ... then let's look at Mambo as its mother. Many think of Mambo as a type of Salsa that is a bit older, and that emphasizes the up-beat (for Mambo dancers break on '2', unlike Salsa dancers, who break on '1'). Mambo, ... a Congolese word meaning 'conversation with [ a ] God' (which in traditional African culture was done though drumming, singing and dancing), was a dance type that was first seen in Cuba in the mid 1940s. By the time it reached New York City, Mambo had turned into a... dance craze that lasted well into the mid 1950s.
The infamous Palladium in NYC became know as the 'Home of Mambo' for it was there that large orchestra bands, led by the likes of Tito Puente and Dizzy Gillespie, took a very celebratory, post-war America by the hand and led her into some of the greatest Latin and Swing dance events that ever existed in the States. This NY manifestation of Mambo was product of Bebop Jazz, which was the newest 'it' sound at the time, and the Afro-Caribbean rhythms that had so recently immigrated there in the 1930s and 40s.
When I use the term 'Afro-Caribbean', I am referring to virtually hundreds of rhythms that come from a collection of all the Caribbean islands: including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Afro-Caribbean rhythms are comprised of African and native Caribbean rhythms, both developed for ritual purposes - as a form of interacting with the spirit world. This is still a major function of most Afro-Cuban music, and is commonly the subject matter in much contemporary Cuban and NuYorican (NY Puerto Rican) music (...'Salsa'!). Son, a Cuban music and dance type, is probably the relative of Salsa that it most resembles - Salsa's father, as it were.
Cuban culture was, before the once golden political ties between the US and Cuba crumbled in the late 1950s, America's infatuation. It is no wonder then, that with the decline of Big Band orchestras and Mambo (20 piece bands and palatial ballrooms are very expensive to sustain), and the loss of so much Cuban musical influence, that small ensemble groups that fit in smaller clubs became the preference, thus making 1960s the Latin Jazz era.
Latin Jazz is a blurry term that loosely describes some of the finest music I've ever encountered. Jazz is a very flexible medium for music through which specific rhythm patterns and ensemble types (Bossa Nova, Mambo, Charanga) are allowed to change their identities, without compromising their integrity, character or root. Non-traditional instruments would usurp the rhythms of another, changing not only the sound of the Latin band, but the look as well. It is for this reason that Latin Jazz became the 'place' where musicians could experiment, while under a mask of newness, revisit traditional rhythms.
Enter the 1970s. It is at this time that what we now call Salsa begins to take form. The exiled rhythms of Cuba's Santeria were reemerging in the small ensemble set, and it seemed that the world had been distracted by Rock, Motown, and Disco. Conga was making a comeback in the Jazz circuit, and musicians like Ray Barretto (who got his start playing for Tito Puente in the 1940s) were playing a new Latin sound. It wasn't Son. It wasn't Jazz. It wasn't Mambo. It was everything all at once, and it was being called Salsa. That is not to say that Son had expired. No. It, and all of its Afro-Caribbean cousins, was returning from its expulsion, only to find this new addition to the family.
The ancestors of Salsa (those of which many of us mistake for Salsa) are vast and many, so to say that Salsa has just two parents is a fallacy. Like most genres of any art form, it is not just a transcription of its immediate predecessors, but rather, a culmination of a multitude of influences - musical, cultural, and political. The word 'Salsa' is Spanish for 'sauce', but was initially applied to a broad spectrum of music types as an expletive - like 'flavorful!' or 'spicy!' Over the last three decades (since the 1970s when the term 'Salsa' began to stick), popular Latin music has become a global phenomena - running through the ears, mouths, feet and hands of musicians and dancers from every walk of life. It is shaped by all that join it, and likewise, contribute to it.
And, that last line is a beautiful contribution to everyone who keeps the flame of Salsa burning in our communities. I am reminded of travels to Cuba, where I observed an amazing ability to survive with little means, of taking what they have and creating something new, of being proud of their roots (generally speaking, French and Spanish landowners and imported African slaves), yet continuing the forward movement with a healthy respect of those who have traveled before and blending it with new creativity. To all of you, the wonderful dancers, instructors, musicians, DJs, promoters, visionaries, magazine editors, to everyone who has ever gotten up and tried, at least once, to dance the salsa step, thank you!