Salsa is a popular Latin social dance that is taught and performed across the world. Consisting of eight beats, rests are on beats four and eight with the rest being danced on. Historically, it is a relatively modern genre of music and dance which has undergone considerable development from its early roots, incorporating and celebrating a plethora of cultural and musical influences.
Salsa’s foundation is drawn from lumba rhythms, a combination of African, Caribbean and South American rhythms created in Cuba. This allowed people brought to the island during the slave trade a way of maintaining a connection to their homelands. From this, the dance and music style known as Cuban Son emerged. Cuban Son uses traditional African drumming beats in combination with the ring of a clave (often considered the key element of Afro-Caribbean music – including modern salsa).
A big turning point towards the formation of salsa music occurred in 1922 when radio broadcasting came to Cuba. Not only did this allow people living in Cuba to exchange musical influences with surrounding countries, but it also coincided with an influx of alcohol-drinking Americans seeking to escape Prohibition laws. As a result, Afro-Caribbean music began appearing in mainstream American culture from the 1930s under the name of ‘rumba’ though was still very much Cuba Son.
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1. Mambo – Orestrez Lopez
In 1943, Cuban composer Orestrez Lopez wrote a piece called Mambo, meaning ‘conversation with the Gods’. At a similar time, Perez Prado, whose music was even more upbeat and incorporated additional drum rhythms, began calling his music Mambo too.
What Lopez also did was to create a dance to go with his Mambo music which he introduced at La Tropicana Night Club in Havana. After his US tour in 1951, it was regularly played in New York’s Plaza Ballroom. The craze was further escalated when Frederico Pagani persuaded the owner of the Palladium in Manhattan, a club previously exclusively for white people, to play Latin music. The Palladium became a rare oasis where people across different races could come together in peace and harmony to enjoy the music and dance together.
Three main composers contributed a huge influence on mambo music in the US at this time, namely Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente and Machito. The former two incorporated a strong Puerto Rican influence with an infusion of Jazz. As the craze grew and grew with more music being composed and more people dancing to it, some basic elements of contemporary salsa such as spins and cross-body leads began to emerge.
2. La Vida Es Un Carnival – Celia Cruz
A trailblazing group of the time called the ‘Fania Allstars’ included Celia Cruz (known as the Queen of Salsa), Willie Collon and Hector Lavoe. They played a huge role in progressing from these mambo beats towards the iconic salsa rhythms we know today.
3. Periódico De Ayer – Héctor Lavoe
By the 1970s, the term ‘salsa’ began to be applied. This was taken to mean the sauce relating to the tomato-based Mexican condiment connoting heat and spice. This made the music and dance very distinctive from the European Ballroom dances and accompanying compositions which were enjoyed in more formal settings and had a far less sensual aesthetic. This choice of name was met with some opposition as some musicians felt it was just a rebranding of Cuban music. However, it had undergone a huge amount of evolution from the early Cuban Soul rhythms and the Mambo, resulting in a dance and music style which was unique in its own rights.
4. Vivir Mi Vida – Marc Anthony
One of the most iconic contemporary artists is Marc Anthony who, after a 3-year break, swept the Latin Billboard Awards in 2014 with his song, Vivir mi Vida. He described this song as “so positive and such a homage to life.” It has since been watched over 1 billion times on YouTube.
5. Abre que voy – Miguel Enriquez
Salsa has and still continues to evolve, with strong influences from music genres such as R&B, hip-hop and pop in the West as well as many cultural variations of the dance such as Cuban Salsa, Rueda de Casino and Colombian Salsa to name but a few, all adding to the flavour of what is a beautiful style of dance and music which is truly a celebration of people.
Illustration: Nicole Wu