“SALSA IN SPANISH LITERALLY MEANS SAUCE. SALSA IS ALSO A GENERIC WORD THAT SERVES TO DESCRIBE ANY TYPE OF MUSIC FROM LATIN AMERICA WHOSE ROOTS ARE STEEPED IN AFRO CUBA RHYTHMS.”
Because of its size and ideal geographic location, Cuba quickly established itself as Spain’s most valuable colony in the Caribbean and a significant hub during the slave trade. The rich cultural diversity inherited as a consequence of this enabled the island to become the musical standard bearer in Latin America. The fusion that occurred between the raw rhythms and beats brought in by the African slaves; with the more sophisticated and classical sounds imported by the European settlers formed the bedrock upon which popular Cuban music evolved.
The 1930s and 1940s saw Cuba’s entertainment industry boom thanks largely to the steady influx of American tourists. Havana’s vibrant nightlife had helped it become a safe haven for prohibition-era gangsters and wealthy entertainers from Hollywood. It was only a matter of time before the Cuban sound began being exported to a newly appreciative American audience. Seeing the opportunity for more lucrative careers, many Cuban performers migrated to the US (New York being the destination of choice). The Big Apple was at the time already home to many Hispanic immigrants; mostly from Puerto Rico which had been declared a US colony in 1917. The advent of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 however resulted not only in Cuba being cut off from the rest of the musical world, but also in a shift in the ‘balance of power’. Puerto Rico, through its fast increasing community in New York, soon took over as the focal point of Latin American music and later pioneered its commercial development.
While drawing influence from Son that originated from the Eastern Cuban region of Oriente, Salsa also absorbed elements of Jazz and R’n’B, Merengue from the Dominican Republic and more crucially, Plena and Bomba from Puerto Rico; sounds that were very much in evidence within New York’s many multiracial neighbourhoods.
It was not until the 1970s however that the use of the word Salsa was made fashionable. Although this issue still causes lively debate, Izzy Sanabria who was one of the creative minds behind the legendary New York-based Fania label is often credited with the popularization of the term. Fania proved very successful in assembling some of the best musical talent within the Big Apple’s Spanish-speaking communities. At the height of its fame, the label held a near monopoly on the industry. In order to capitalize on the growing global interest in Latin American music, Fania‘s management soon recognised the need to use a concept-word to fully exploit its market potential. While there had previously been numerous references to the term Salsa, it wasn’t until the Fania era that it became universally accepted as a genre in its own right. More significantly, the Salsa phenomenon also enabled many young Americans of Latino descent to embrace their cultural heritage, and provided them with an added sense of identity.
Given the fact that food plays such an important role in Latin American society, one can begin to understand how a culinary term came to define a musical form. Very much like a tasty sauce can add a bit of flavour to an otherwise bland dish, Salsa can be perceived as a way to add a bit of spice to one’s life!
Goobi (Mr Boogie a.k.a The Vinyl Junkie)