Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Spanish for 'sauce', used by Cuban musicians in the sense of 'spice', used in the early '70s to describe NYC's hot and up-tempo Latin music. A classic Cuban son of the late '20s by Ignacio Piñeiro was called 'Echale Salsita' ('Swing It!'); the term was used in song and album titles, i.e. 'Salsa y Bembé' (from Joe Cuba Sextet's LP Steppin' Out '62), Pupi Legarreta's '62 debut LP Salsa Nova ('New Spice'), Charlie Palmieri's LP Salsa Na' Ma', Vol. 3 '63 both made in NYC. Max Salazar maintained that the extensive use of the word stemmed from the popularity of Cal Tjader's Grammy-nominated LP Soul Sauce '64; a '66 album by Venezuelan band Federico y su Combo Latino was called Llegó La Salsa ('Salsa Has Arrived'). Izzy Sanabria, MC, designer, editor/publisher of the now defunct Latin NY magazin and host of a Salsa TV show '73, is also identified with its origin; by '75 the term was firmly established as the title of the Fania film Salsa, the same year a Grammy category for Best Latin Recording and Latin NY music awards were introduced.

Salsa is mainly derived from Cuban music, which contributed traditional Latin percussion (i.e. timbales, conga, bongo), types of ensemble (conjuntos of trumpets and percussion, charangas with flute and violins, brass- and sax-led big bands), clave (the basic rhythmic pattern) and numerous dance forms: son, son montuno, rumba, guaguancó, mambo, cha cha chá, bolero, guajira, guaracha. Salsa also embraces an international range of musics incl. Puerto Rican bomba and plena, etc; also fusion experiments with rock, jazz, soul, etc. Salsa used to include Dominican merengue, but this became a major force of its own in the '80s, and Colombian cumbia also spun out of salsa's orbit, both linked with mass immigration and assertion of national cultural identities. Arrangers are important; among the most successful were Louie Ramírez and Luis 'Perico' Ortiz. At the time the word was adopted, the music had returned to its roots, the típico (typical) Cuban conjunto sound, after the Latin/R&B fusion called boogaloo late '60s; the music had always lacked a suitable tag and 'salsa' assisted marketing. Central to NYC salsa was the Fania label, formed '64 by Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci, the roster including Pacheco, Larry Harlow, Bobby Valentín, Ray Barretto, Willie Colón (and his lead vocalist Héctor Lavoe), Roberto Roena and the house band, Fania All Stars. Fania also had stablemate labels Vaya (founded '71) and Inca (taken over late '60s), absorbed most rival NYC labels (including Cotique, and the older Tico and Alegre labels), creating a virtual monopoly; one of the few outside the empire was Salsoul (subsidiary of Mericana formed '75), which recorded the jazzy Libre and Grupo Folklorico (see Libre), and the descargas (Latin jam sessions) of Israel 'Cachao' López, through to the progressive típico of Saoco (see Henry Fiol) and the Cuban purism of Roberto Torres. Another independent and avant-garde force was Angel Canales, with his own Selanac label founded '79. These and others created a salsa boom which peaked in the mid-'70s, just as it was being discovered by non-Latin fans who thought it was something new. (Mario Bauzá, quoted by John Storm Roberts in The Latin Tinge, said about Latino kids: 'When Cuban music was really in demand the kids didn't go for it. Now they call it salsa and they think it belongs to them.')

In the second half of the '70s there was a charanga explosion within salsa as an alternative to the brass-led sounds; veterans re-emerged (Legarreta, José Fajardo; see also Charanga); new bands emerged; NYC salsa bands did well in the Latin Caribbean (except Cuba) and the Caribbean coasts of South America, as did local salsa bands and leaders such as PR-based Willie Rosario and Tommy Olivencia, others; at the end of the '70s salsa was tending towards overproduction, as in the successful (but heavily produced) Colón LP Solo '79 on Fania. In the early '80s it swung back to its roots again, the típico revival led by Torres and his SAR label. From the beginning of the '80s Fania and NYC salsa declined in popularity; various reasons have been cited including artist/ management strife within the company; socio-economic and demographic changes of the USA's Latino community, i.e. second/third generations were being increasingly assimilated into mainstream Anglo-American rock/pop-dominated culture; Latino purchasing power sharply hit by Reaganomics; domestically manufactured albums undercut by cheap parallel imports from Latin countries with weak currencies (particularly Venezuela). Merengue enjoyed its massive boom '82-6, stealing the limelight from salsa. By the mid-'80s Puerto Rico and Colombia had become major centres of salsa; what Billboard calls the tropical/ salsa market was represented by Puerto Rico's El Gran Combo, its former vocalist Andy Montañez, vocalist Frankie Ruiz (ex-Olivencia) and Rosario, Colombia's Grupo Niche and Joe Arroyo and Venezuela's Oscar D'León (working intensively on the international scene while salsa in his native country was in the doldrums). Meanwhile Louie Ramírez had unwittingly planted the seed of salsa's late-'80s resurgence with his production Noche Caliente '82, giving romantic ballads an up-tempo salsa make-over and generating the smash hit 'Estar Enamorado'. Using a similar approach, PR band Conjunto Chaney had a moderate hit with their eponymous album '84 on PDC; TH (Top Hits, which became TH-Rodven '87, dropped TH '93, taken over by Polygram '95) signed Chaney's co-lead singer Eddie Santiago to a solo deal; his debut LP Atrevido y Diferente '86 (produced by Julio César Delgado) further built on Ramírez's idea to unleash an unstoppable trend (variously dubbed salsa romántica, salsa sensual, salsa erótica and sexy salsa) that abated merengue fever. 'This Puerto Rican song-and-dance craze mixes the Spanish lyrics of romantic ballads -- borrowed shamelessly from pop records even before they have exhausted their life span -- with the traditional salsa beat,' wrote Carlos Agudelo in Village Voice '88. 'It's performed by a mostly new generation of soneros (salsa singers), all of them remarkably similar in the pitch of their voices, the moods and cadences of their sensually, or shall we say sexually, tinged tunes.' Salsa romántica's downside soon emerged: the stampede to replicate its commercially successful soft, saccharine sweet sound (called 'salsa monga' by Rosario, meaning flaccid or limp salsa) by new and established artists (survival instinct in the latter case, as well as often suppressing their distinctive sounds) deluged the salsa markets of PR, US and Colombia, ousting the recording of robust, progressive and swinging salsa (aka 'salsa gordo': fat salsa), long the stock-in-trade of Rosario, Montañez, Valentín, Olivencia, Sonora Ponceña, Mulenze, D'Léon, Libre, Canales, etc (the latter two didn't record for long periods). Spotting profits to be made, mega-corporations like Sony and EMI muscled in, consolidating the imposition of multinational Anglo-American rock/pop music industry marketing values in the international salsa market, i.e. promotion of image, youth, 'good looks', etc. (One repercussion of these market changes has been that some musicians have deserted or been forced out of salsa dance music for Latin jazz [which acquired its own Grammy category '95], examples including Barretto and Eddie Palmieri, or have gone into semi or total retirement such as Palmieri's former vocalist Ismael Quintana, who worked in a supermarket.) Two major new salsa recording dynasties were founded during the salsa romántica boom: ex-TH executive producer Tony Moreno's PR-based Musical Productions (MP; formed '87, distributed by Sonotone until '89) and NYC-based RMM formed by promoter/manager/agent Ralph Mercado '88 (distributed by Sony '91-5).

Salsa romántica's all-pervasive stranglehold began to wane by the early '90s, the fatter sound started to return in discernible quantity and roots began to be discovered again (the difference this time being that European, Japanese and Anglo US labels and audiences were significantly involved in the rediscovery process): albums featuring a mixture of romántica and other styles supplanted 100 percent romántica releases, the likes of Bauzá, Cachao, Libre, Chico O'Farrill and Bebo Valdés secured new recording deals and massive reissuing programmes on CD of long-deleted classic recordings were launched. Notable names that became stars during the height of the salsa romántica craze and emerged on the other side included Tito Nieves, José Alberto, Tito Rojas, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Tony Vega (latter two both ex-Rosario); major new salsa hit-makers arose during the '90s such as Marc Anthony, La India, Miles Peña, Victor Manuelle; important late '80s/early-'90s producer/arrangers included Sergio George and Humberto Ramírez (another ex-Rosario man). World-wide, many non-Latino countries now sport their own salsa scenes and local bands include the UK (see Roberto Pla); some Latin musicians such as Panamanian Azuquita, Cuban Alfredo Rodríguez and NYC-born trombonist Joe de Jesús relocated to Europe to participate in these new markets. In the mid-'80s NY Latin club disc jockeys started dropping Latin hip-hop and house tracks among their salsa selections; producers took this a stage further mid-'90s by fusing salsa with hip-hop and other styles, such as George's slick and swinging synthesis DLG (Dark Latin Groove) '96, which appealed to both 'old school' salsa and young hip-hop/house audiences. So successful was this hybrid that clones were expected.