How Salsa is Made

If you have ever listened to the artist Celia Cruz or to the group called Buena Vista Social Club, you will understand the strength and passion that comes together in a very distinctive type of music known as Salsa. This entire genre has very interesting historical roots involving political upheaval, civil rights movements, and revolutionary acts. Coming into the American mainstream in the barrios of 1960s New York, its rise to notoriety occurred at the same time the civil rights and Black pride movements gained strength. It is not hard to imagine that these events held influence upon the lyrics and outlooks of the artists and the audience who listens.

There is a fair bit of mythology around the beginning of salsa but Johnny Pacheco is commonly known as the founder. He is also credited with naming this blend of different genres as Salsa. Salsa is the Spanish word for sauce which is appropriate as you must bring together many different elements and they must work together to make something wonderful. The majority of the rhythms, styles, and influences originate from Afro-Caribbean popular music. Percussion instruments like the drums, bongos, and claves are carryovers from Salsa’s Afro-Caribbean roots. Elements from other Latin genres such as Son, Rumba, Guaguanco, and Jazz are often found in this lively mix.

Pulling from their roots, Puerto Rican Musicians in the 60s and the 70s would rearrange and combine their classic songs and rhythms into this new mixture that was coming into the limelight. People loved the fast-paced and energetic music style often played by a live band.  Records sold well and the concerts were very popular. At a speed between 150 bpm to 250 bpm, Salsa is complemented by quick turns and the exaggerated yet graceful movements of the dancers.

Man playing the bongo drums
The Music of salsa has been greatly influenced by Afro-Caribbean styles. (Photo cred Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash)

Dancing To The Beat

You came to a dance hall to see the lively musicians playing right there in front of you, all together, performing on stage. Then you start to see the dancers come to the floor to find a partner. You see each couple almost floating across the dance floor to the rhythm of the song. Whipping each other back and forth. In twirls and leaps, you see each dancer sway from one side to the other.

Seeing your average salsa dancer move is exciting but there are some dancers who really stand out among the crowds. One group on the west coast of the United States, this trio of brothers has made a huge impact on the Los Angeles Style of Salsa. Francisco, Luis, and Johnny Vasquez are among the top dancers in this particular style. They started in the 80s, which at that time the main style of dance was Cuban. The same Cuban style remains popular but since then, it has grown and now there are divergent schools of dance, each of whom has many stylistic offshoots. The trio changed up the classical style a bit by incorporating Swing and Mambo steps into their dance routines. The music they dance to is very high tempo and can be more theatrical than other styles. When compared to other types of salsa, LA is also more physical and acrobatic in its movements.

Another dancer that is highly respected and has made his mark on this genre of dance is Leon Rose. Known for being very charismatic, this dancer from the United Kingdom brings his own flair to the floor. He is said to be classy but funky at the same time. Leon’s distinctive style consistently puts you on the edge of your seat. You can also watch Juan Matos who is affectionately known as the Pachanga King. Exciting and graceful, He is a dancer that everyone wants to take lessons from. His performances are spectacular and can be even more exciting as a social dancer.

The dancing duo Ricardo Vega and Karen Forcano are the social dancers to watch when you are interested in seeing partner dances. You can see from a distance that they have such great chemistry. The Chemistry between dancers is only partially responsible for their success. They are also fantastic athletes in their movements and planning.

group of dancers
Social Dancing is a huge part of the Salsa culture. (Photo Cred Frank Romero on Upsplash)

Historical Influencers

Every great dancer learns from the greats of the past and has studied their styles and moves. One of the best and most famous dancers in all of Salsa history is Eddie Torres. Known as the Mambo king, he is among the most notable and recognizable figures in the entire genre. For over 20 years, he has been dancing and teaching others how to dance. You can easily see his connection and passion for dance whenever he speaks about it, not to mention dances. Mambo is another name for the New York Style of dance, of which he has been incredibly influential.

Griselle Ponce is another dancer who has left her mark on Salsa. Among the top dancers on the scene, she is a significant figure in the dance world due to the strength and energy she brings to the dance floor. Whether she is dancing solo or social with a partner, she moves with precision and planning that isn't seen in many other dancers. She has started dedicating time to teaching others how to dance. She can be found at dance studios in New York or you can find videos online of her teaching her style broken down into various steps. She has a full course where she instructs on all aspects of dancing salsa. She is truly one of the best Salsa performers.

cuban street corner
The original style of Salsa was Cuban.  (Photo cred Polina Kuzovkova on Upsplash)

Musical Artists Who Made The Genre

It goes without saying that dancers need music to dance. This music is upbeat and energizing like a strong cup of coffee. It's invigorating in the best way. One of the godfathers who put that "umph" into his music is Tito Puente. This man spent five decades playing various instruments like the piano, saxophone, timbales, and vibraphone for audiences and studio albums. He ever was drafted and served in the Navy during the Second World War. Tito grew up in Spanish Harlem of New York and at the age of 13, caught the music bug. During his career, he became a legend for his jazz and Latin music.

As mentioned earlier, Celia Cruz had a musical career like no other. She was born in Havana, Cuba in 1925 and grew up to be one of the most popular Latin artists of her century. With 23 albums going gold, she had fame and notoriety like no one else. Songs like Guantanamera, Quimbara, and La Negra Tiene Tumbao were huge hits across the world.

The Buena Vista Social Club is a band whose song Chan Chan has become cannon for all Salsa music. Instantly recognizable, It is a song that gets you to your feet moving and moving with the beat. Interestingly, this number 1 hit was from their only studio album. They have been playing for many decades now but their self-named album was awarded a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album and Tropical/Salsa Album of the Year in 1998. Rolling stone has it ranked among the 500 greatest albums of all time. The Buena Vista Social Club is a group of Cuban musicians who started playing together in 1996 as a way of reviving the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba.

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