Salsa Music

Salsa music originated in the Latin American country of Cuba, and after a period of some time when it evolved in Puerto Rico and Columbia, it managed to capture the attention of the New York musicians, promoters, and dancers, who elevated it into a worldwide phenomenon during the 1970s. Based on the music style of Cuban son, and infused with many elements of other music types, the modern Salsa quickly arose as one of the most popular Latin music and dance styles with millions of fans all around the world, professional competitions, and influential regional dance styles.

The music of Salsa is closely connected with the development of Cuban son, which itself were was based on the influences and the fusion of several other music styles, such as Afro-Cuban percussion, Spanish canción, and the North American Jazz. Like the Cuban son, Salsa can quickly morph, adapt itself into the needs and fashion styles of the territory where it is played, adopt traits of other music styles, or be morphed with changes of fashion, social circumstances, or even politics. Modern Salsa also has a history of frequent use of elements of R&B, rock, funk, and several other non-Cuban elements.

In the 1940s, the Mambo craze arrived in New York City, brought there by the numerous Latin American immigrants from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Columbia. With the rising popularity of Latin Mambo sound, musical venues, local or visiting bands, and promotion support, the Salsa arrived at this music scene seemingly at the just just-right time. Salsa started making strong waves on the New York music scene during the 1950s and 1960s, but it was only during the 1970s that the promoters started actively calling this music style "Salsa." ". After it surpassed Mambo in popularity (which managed in part due to the promotional successes of the record label company "Fania"), Salsa quickly managed to spread from New York across the entire United States, and in the following years, made significant strides internationally. Latin music lovers and dancers immediately saw the appeal of Salsa, managing to identify in this single music genre a mix of several Latin styles, including those of The Cha Cha Cha, Bolero, Son, Rumba, Danzon, and several other historical Cuban styles.

Salsa as a musical term

Modern Salsa music is well defined, but the origins of its name are numerous and point to several possible use-cases that eventually morphed into a worldwide accepted term that this music and dance style today has. Here are some of the most notable descriptions of the origins of the musical term Salsa, ranging from its earliest known meanings to the various ways musicians and promoters decided to use it over the decades.

In the Spanish language, the term "salsa" is used to describe spicy and hot foods. The term was commonly used in Latin and Caribbean cuisine before the 20th century. At the turn of the century, the term " Salsa" became connected in both English and Spanish language with Latin music of several types. Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians used the term Salsa to convey vivid associations, describe the current status of the music or dance, and to connotate frenzied or wild musical experiences.

In the early 20th century, Cuban and Puerto Ricans sometimes described all Latin dances under the name Salsa.

One of the earliest known uses of the term Salsa in the name of the Latin music song can be found in the 1930s "Échale salsita" by Cuban musician and composer Ignacio Piñeiro. This Cuban son song protested against tasteless food. During the 1930s and 1940s, Cuban singers or musicians often yelled " Salsa!" to push the band to start playing at a more frenzied pace. In the late 1930s, several Latin music vocalists, including famous Beny Moré, started yelling " Salsa!" during songs not only to increase the song's pace, but to acknowledge or appreciate the moment of heat, to honor Latin heritage, to appreciate particularly flashy performance by both musicians or dancers, and to celebrate spiciness of the Latin American cultures.

In 1955, the first band that incorporated the term Salsa in its name was " Conjunto Los Salseros."

The wide appeal of the term Salsa started gaining traction in the United States during the early 1970s. In 1973, New York City Latin music promoter Izzy Sanabria created a new TV show called "Salsa" that featured all types of Latin music styles. By the mid-1970s, several US newspapers and TV shows started acknowledging the rising popularity of Latin music and dances, noting that one of the hottest new music phenomena was Salsa.

However, even in the mid-to-late 1970s, US musicians who composed new songs did not invest much effort into promoting the term "salsa." To fix this issue, producers in Fania Records managed to re-package New York Salsa style into a polished and commercially-successful product. With their efforts, the term "Salsa" very quickly became a synonym with this particular type of Latin music, enabling this genre of music to quickly become distinct and easily distinguishable from other types of Latin sound.

Popular Instruments in Salsa Music

Since its origin in Cuba, the Salsa music performance was centered on one of the two traditional Cuban arrangements, - string-based charanga or horn-based son conjunto. The most popular Cuban Salsa ensembles were of the Son Conjunto type, and other bands either tried to honor these traditional arrangements or to try to give Salsa a new sound by switching some of these core instruments, enlarging certain sections of the band, or incorporation new types of instruments. In the modern decades, the rising popularity of the New York style of Salsa placed higher importance on the percussions. In the 21st century, Salsa bands, musicians, and composers have even incorporated electronic instruments and effects that have enabled this Latin song to remain relevant and popular.

Son Conjunto

The most popular Cuban Salsa ensemble can be of varying sizes, from small to very large. Son Conjunto band type was in part present earlier, but it was finally solidified into its modern form during the 1940s by the famous Cuban tres player Arsenio Rodríguez who expanded the traditional "son cubano ensemble" with additional instruments. Crucial for the early development of Salsa, Son Conjunto band ensemble consisted of congas, bongos, bass, piano, tres (not used regularly, but favored by Arsenio Rodríguez), a horn section consisting of the trombones or trumpets, and the wide variety of the handheld percussion instruments such as maracas, guiro or claves.

String charanga

In addition to Son Conjunto, the other popular Cuban Salsa ensemble type is string charanga. This band type evolved from the traditional Charanga band type, by changing its brass and woodwinds from flutes and strings.

String charanga band is focused on the instruments such as congas, timbales, bass, piano, and flute. To finish up the band, it also must have a string section (such a cello, viola, or violins), and singers also participate in music by playing with hand-held percussion instruments claves, or guiro. One notable percussion instrument that storing charanga bands never use are bongos.


Salsa in New York received a big boost of popularity when immigrant Afro-Cubans started focusing their bands on three instruments – congas, bongo, and timbales. Timbales were responsible for the main bell patterns, congas were supported, and bongos were used as an improvisational instrument. Many other instruments were also needed to make the band whole, but these three provided the foundation for all other sounds.

These three drum-based bands became the basis of the Salsa in the New York scene, and after the popularization of the genre in the 1970s, this percussion-based style was also embraced worldwide.

Music structure

The music structure of Salsa is built upon the foundation of calve, a concept and pattern of five strokes that are present in many Afro-Cuban rhythms.

  • Calve – The calve pattern of the Salsa music is syncopated rhythm across 2 bars in European 4/4 notation. It consists form of the "strong measure" that contains three notes (also known as "tresillo") and a "weak measure" with two notes. Patterns of the Salsa can begin with either measure, often called "three-two" or "two-three." Other Calve patterns used in regional Salsa styles are called son calve, rumba calve, and 6/8 calve.
  • Percussion – Since the foundational calve beat can start with either strong or weak measure, the percussion instruments (such as bongo or timbale) need to adapt to the rhythm of each song.
  • Guajeo – Guajeo is a traditional Cuban ostinato melody, formed as a blend of European harmonics, African rhythmic structures, and North American Jazz influences. Salsa guajeo melodies are usually played during verses and montuno sections of the song. Guajeo melodies are often regarded as the most recognizable element of Salsa music. If in some Salsa styles the core composition is not following the basic Clave rhythm, the melody of Guajeo is the one that is essential for tying the composition with the Salsa format.
  • Bass tumbao – Bass section of the salsa band is closely tied on the tressilo pattern, where the last note of the measure is held over the downbeat of the next measure. Tumbaos can be calve-neutral or have specific alignment.
  • Moñas – Similar to guajeo but performed solo or in duos/trios with horns. The major difference is that Moñas can be improvised. Songs with strong Moñas sections are also described to have "típico style" of soloing on trombone or trumpet.

The rhythm of Salsa music usually lands between 150 and 250 beats per minute, but most of the dancing is done between 160 and 220 bpm.

Phases of the Salsa song:

  • Introduction – An Opening opening part of the song, usually with 8 measures and sometimes performed with percussion only.
  • Body – Coming up with the band's instruments.
  • Bridge
  • Conga Break
  • Montuno Section
  • Coro/Pregon – "Call and answer" part of the song, performed with a vocal tune between the singer and the chorus.
  • Solos – Instrumental-only section.
  • The mambo section/monas – Usually instrumental-only section.
  • Second Montuno Section/ Changes in clave direction
  • Ending The ending – Similar in form to the Introduction section, done in 8 measures.

Salsa Music History

Latin music has a long and rich history, but Salsa, one of its most popular genres, has only fairly recently managed to find worldwide popularity. Additionally, even though Salsa is today such a distinct genre, in the past it was regarded not as a standalone type but as one of the variations of the other Latin music styles (most notably its direct predecessor, the Cuban son). Only after this music style arrived in the United States, did Salsa managed to become a distinct Latin style in the views of the worldwide audience. Promoted by the western record labels, radio stations, and promoters, the term "salsa" became better known across the world than in its historic homeland of Cuba.

Today, Salsa remains to be one of the most popular Latin dances, and Cuban Casino style, Columbian Cali style, New York York-style, and Los Angeles style some of its most popular types.

Issues of identity and ownership – Is Salsa Music just Cuban Music?

Many music historians have adopted the opinion that the development, promotion, and adoption of Salsa music were organized more outside of Cuba, the historical origin of this music genre. After Salsa reached the United States, it managed to get a new life that eclipsed the original development and popularization of this dance in Cuba. The Cuban musicians and composers regarded Salsa as one of their numerous genres, and they never managed to successfully promote it outside of their borders. During the 1970s and 1980s, to the outside world, Salsa was promoted more like the hot Latin dance that was more developed in the dancing halls of New York, Los Angeles, and to some extent, Columbia. When the Cuban musicians noticed this trend, they tried to rally up and promote Salsa under their own name, "salsa Cubana." However, their efforts had little effect, and the term fell in disuse.

More controversy was also placed on the idea of whether or not Salsa is its own distinct genre. The conflict arrived from the belief of numerous Cuban musicians who believed that Salsa is a part of the general Latin heritage and not a distinct genre. Popular Salsa musicians, band leaders, or composers who arrived in The United States in the early years of Salsa's rise to fame, actively promoted that Salsa is not a newly developed genre and that it was practiced on Cuba or Puerto Rico for decades as one of the versions of the Cuban son, Mambo, Cha Cha Cha and others. The Latin music authors even had an issue with the term "salsa," preferring to promote their music as "Cuban music." However, financial realities and promotion difficulties eventually pushed even the harshest critics to adopt the term Salsa and assign their music creations under the Salsa genre.

For a long time, Cuban musicians looked at international Salsa expansion as the twisting of their cultural heritage.

One of the reasons why Cuban musicians and musicians of Latin heritage living in the United States were against using the fixed term for Salsa is because they were determined to enable this music style to remain fluid, broad, inclusive, and vague because those were the core ingredients that enabled Salsa to become created in the first place. The mix of European and African influences, a mix of various music genres, and the constant innovation and evolution enabled Cuban musicians to start composing Salsa during the early 20th century. Salsa musician and social activist Willie Colón described Salsa as "the force that united diverse Latino and other non-Latino racial and ethnic groups... It is a concept. An open, ever-evolving musical, cultural, socio-political concept." However, some descriptions of Salsa made during the late 1970s, and early 1980s even managed to ignore the Cuban origins, preferring to describe it as the mix of African, Caribbean, and New York culture and music, or in some cases, even that it originated in Puerto Rico. The circumstances that provided such differing opinions on the origin of the genre were in some part there because, over the years, international Salsa lost some of the Cuban influences. However, even in the most extreme experiments, some of the Cuban heritage always remained, and numerous artists even went to resurrect pre-Salsa Cuban music (primarily Cuban son) into their repertoire.

Another important factor in the "marginalization" of the Cuban heritage in the origins of Salsa was the hot political climate between the United States and Cuba. The decades-long estrangement between these two governments, active embargos, and in some cases, open hostility over the public broadcasting of the Cuban-based Latin songs on the television and radio pushed the US public to more easily embrace homegrown Latin music that was composed in New York or Los Angeles.

Some Cuban musicians and historians (and even the Cuban government for a brief period), such as Mayra Martínez, believed that Salsa is a term "was used to obscure the Cuban base, the music's history or part of its history in Cuba. And salsa was a way to do this so that Jerry Masucci, Fania, and other record companies, like CBS, could have hegemony on the music and keep the Cuban musicians from spreading their music abroad." Izzy Sanabria, one of the promoters who were influential in solidifying the term Salsa in the US public, said that Martínez was "likely accurate" in his view, but that nobody planned for it to be that way.

Pre-Salsa History – Cuban dance music History in New York City 1940s-1970s

New York city is the origin of the modern wave of Salsa, but the conditions of the emergence of this genre were paved with the arrival of earlier Latin dances.

Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants who arrived in New York found this area to be very welcoming of Latin culture and heritage. Together with the appearance of several popular venues for playing and dancing Latin music (most notably the famous Palladio Ballroom ), New York became a melting pot of Latin culture. During the 1940s, Mambo was the first Latin music style that captivated the attention of the American public. With the regular infusions of the local music sounds (like those from Jazz, Rock, and later R&B and funk), Latin dances went through the transformation that made them distinct and unique. By the 1950s, Palladium Ballroom started welcoming Hollywood and Broadway stars, who promoted Mambo to the entire United States.

History of American Salsa would be much different without the presence of the influential Palladium Ballroom dancing venue.

After Mambo, the American public became spellbound by the next Latin sensation – Cha Cha Cha. By the early 1960s, charanga bands in New York managed to receive notable popularity. Before the establishment of the U.S. embargo against Cuba in 1962, Pachanga managed to become the last Cuban dance that took hold in the NY dance community. By the mid-1960s, Latin musicians in New York created their own and unique dance style derived from R&B and Cuban music – the famous Latin boogaloo (or boogalú). One of the greatest Latin music hits of the 1960s was the boogaloo song "Bang Bang" by the Joe Cuba Sextet.

By the late 1960s, political activism, youth counterculture, and the establishment of radical organizations (both by young African-American and Latinos) brought the adoption of new music tastes. Most notably, the New York Latin scene started popularizing the genre of Cuban son. The evolution of Cuban son into modern Salsa happened gradually, and the term Salsa started taking hold only after company Fania Records started promoting several first-generation Salsa musicians who evolved son and Son Montuno into modern Salsa. According to many historians, modern New York-based Salsa started being played in venues and on radio and television in 1973.

The 1970s was the most influential year in the history of Salsa music. Fania records managed to gather many great Salsa performers and popularize this genre not only via the airways but also with live venue performances, of which the most popular ones were "Fania All All-Stars" concerts. Thanks to the incredible popularity of Salsa in New York, this style of Latin music quickly found its way back into the Latin countries, including Puerto Rico, Columbia, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and others.

The divergence of Salsa Music and Cuban Music

As the 1970s decade came to a close, Salsa was truly a popular genre in the US and several Latin countries. However, even though the New York Salsa incorporated many new aspects of popular local and Latin music genres, Cuban music development was ignored. In Cuba, American genres such as Jazz, Rock, and Funk started more and more to impact local Latin music. Cuban music was so affected by these foreign genres, that the local musicians managed to create a new hybrid of styles that was popularized by the composer Juan Formell who successfully mixed American pop with clave-based Cuban elements. In addition to the new hybrid styles (like the mixing of bebop, funk, batá drums, and several other distinct Afro-Cuban folkloric elements), Cuban musicians found great success in the 1970s with the rumba-influenced form of charanga.

Since so many Cuban musicians were focused on other genres, Salsa there remained fused with other traditional Cuban styles, not managing to find success as a standalone genre.

Salsa Music History in the 1980s

The new waves of immigration from Cuba to the United States in the early 1980s brought a new change in the development of the New York style of Salsa. At first, newly arrived musicians from Cuba did not want to interact much with American Salsa styles because it reminded them too much of the 1950s Cuban music. Since they flocked more toward Jazz, during the 1980s, those Cuban musicians slowly started incorporating more Jazz elements into Salsa, changing its rhythm and sounds into something new.

At the same time, Salsa was still expanding outside of the United States and finding a new home in Europe, Japan, Argentina, Nicaragua, and other countries. In Columbia, Salsa went through a new way of evolution, forming new Columbian genres of vellanato vallenato and cumbia. New bands and artists managed to popularize Salsa in Columbia in such a way that this music genre remained popular to this day.

"Shines" are is solo breaks during the performance that look as if the male dancer is shining his shoes on his trousers.

After more than a decade of the hot and fast tempo, Salsa, even the New York music scene, started switching to the new style of Salsa. Puerto Rican smooth, slower and sensual "salsa romantica" begun to gain traction, enabling the rise of its close (and more explicit in lyrics) cousin "salsa erotica." This new way of composers and singers popularized Salsa to new audiences.

By the end of the decade, United States Salsa again began morphing, this time incorporating the elements of R&B, soul, and hip-hop music genres.

Salsa Cubana and Timba

After Salsa has managed to conquer the world, in the mid-1980s, this music style finally managed to reach popularity in Cuba as a standalone genre.

Initially viewed as the international "bad imitation" of their traditional Cuban son and other traditional music genres, the Salsa finally managed to catch on after the influential Cuban tour of the Venezuelan salsa star Oscar D'León's in 1983. Not being able to ignore the popularity of the international Salsa, local Cuban musicians and composers named this genre "Salsa Cubana."

By 1989 and the release of the album "En la calle" by NG La Banda, Cuban Salsa finally started to incorporate modern Salsa influences that were popularized beyond its borders. Because of the use of salsa timbale bell and bongo bell combination, after the term "Salsa Cubana" fell out of favor in the 1990s, this Cuban music genre became known simply as "timba." Even after all the attempts to gain hold in Cuban culture, modern Salsa remains viewed there as a separate international genre, not to be confused with the local timba.

African Salsa

It is not strange that exotic Latin sounds managed to find not only famous in the Americas and Europe but also in Africa. Since African influences have played the role in the creation of the many Latin dances, the music of Central and South America managed to easily find popularity in many African countries easily. Additionally, music historians also pointed out that Salsa was one of the cultural items that were shared between poorer countries of the world as part of the so-called " Third World" cultural appropriation or cultural exchange program.

The original Cuban Salsa was influenced by the wonderful rhythms and melodies coming out of West Africa.

Starting with the 1940s, band and musicians who specialized in Afro-Cuban son genres managed to find fame in Congo thanks to that region's strong radio promotion, music clubs, recording studios, and frequent visitations of the popular Cuban bands to the country's capital of Léopoldville (today is known as Kinshasa). After the adoption of the Latin sounds (especially Cuban traditional Cuban genres and New York's Samba) and a strong infusion of the electric guitar sounds, Congolese started developing their own new songs under the genre name of Rumba.

Salsa also directly captured the attention of Africa with the extensive tours of the Fania All-Stars bands across the continent, including selling out the 80 thousand seat stadium in 1974 Congo, right around the time when the African continent was in the spotlight of the worldwide attention due to the heavyweight title fight of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Since the 1970s, Salsa remained ever-present in many African countries, with often reappearance by modern composers and musicians who manage to regularly tweak its sound with many regional influences regularly.

From Senegal to the Congo, Ivory Coast to Benin, Afro-Cuban salsa rhythms remain popular in Africa.

Modern Salsa Music History

With the arrival of the 1990s, Salsa entered a period that could be easily described as the "commercialization of Salsa." During a short period of time, producer and pianist Sergio George managed to commercialize Latin sound and Salsa genre with the music hits of several Puerto Rican artists such as Marc Antony, Tito Nieves, La India, and Japanese salsa band Orquesta de la Luz. Other popular Salsa artists of that decade were Son By Four, Víctor Manuelle, and Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan. While the producer Sergio George was praised for popularizing Latin sound across the entire world, he was also criticized for ignoring the basic rhythm rule of calve (which he defended by claiming he prioritized marketability and making hits over the rules of the Salsa style).

Columbian city of Cali is known for being "capitol of Salsa."

In Columbia, Salsa managed to remain very popular during the 1990s. In the city of Cali, many singers, producers, and musicians managed to elevate their careers by frequently incorporating Salsa sounds into their creations. To this day, Salsa remains a very popular dancing genre in Columbia, and it is actively danced in various venues by both young and old.

After the start of the new millennium, Salsa continued to evolve with the addition of new styles, such as salsa-merengue, Salsa Gorda, Salsaton, and Latin house.