Tracing the Origins of Salsa Music
by Luis Alba
The 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.
During 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.
As 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.
It 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.
Even 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.
To 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 alive.
The 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!
Oreste 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.
Xavier 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.
Don 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.
Tito 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.
People 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.
“The Roots of Rhythm,” narrated by Harry Belafonte, was the main source of information for this article.