This distinct genre of music is a mixed bag of sounds, traditions and people. Each one has its own individual background which carries with it a history of all that came before it. One must think of Salsa in the many levels that come together to encompass the culture and the feel that is so appropriately named. Most superficially, Salsa is a type of Latin American Music and Dance done solo or with a partner. As you will come to see, there is a profound history and culture associated with Salsa and its following.

When one thinks of Salsa, there is a dancing duo on stage, moving at breakneck speeds to an uproar of fast-paced drums and horns. Salsa's tempo and pace are a rapid 150-250 beats per minute. The Salsa step uses three of those beats and the fourth beat as a negative. This syncopation is distinctive to all styles of Salsa. In fact, the negative or absence is used to enhance and emphasize parts of the dance and music.

From here you will start to form an understanding of the mindset behind the music. Afinque is a conceptual term used to describe the connection between the various rhythmic layers, melodies, and harmonies. This unity becomes something greater than itself with the dancers’ movements and their relation to the music that is playing. Altogether, this makes up Salsa. Each aspect can be livened up with flair whether it be bright colored clothes and loud movements, or the vigorous syncopated beats. Machismo is a big component of this dance. The confidence is shown in the movements one chooses and the clothes one wears. You can see this in any of the competitions or events.

The unifying event is the Salsa Congress. All over the world, dancers and musicians will join for this multiple-day event to practice, dance, compete and share their knowledge through lessons and workshops. More often than not, you will see professional dancers teaching classes to beginner and intermediate dancers because of their true love of Salsa. By listening to how they talk about the culture, you can hear the vibrancy and passion in their voices. You would regret it if you didn’t join in the fun.

dancers pose for a photo in salsa
Afinque is a conceptual term used to describe the connection between the various rhythmic layers, melodies, and harmonies. (Photo Cred Isaiah McClean on Upspalsh)
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Salsa’s Social Movements Throughout its History

Due to Salsa worldly origins, the lyrics of this powerful genre often tell stories about the challenges of day to day life and the struggles of poverty. In the 1970s, people all over Latin America embraced Salsa Music. Its rise in popularity was partially due to many Latin countries gaining their independence or experiencing civil rights movements around the same time. These social changes flow into the music people hear and Salsa being a truly Latin genre, it was considered the people’s music rather than the mainstream music of western culture.

Artists like Pedro Aguilar, affectionately known as ‘Cuban Pete’ became a star in the Latin dance world at the beginning of the Mambo craze. He also made history as being the first man of color to dance with a white woman on stage. At the famous New York Palladium Ballroom in 1951, he danced with Millie Donay in front of a live audience. His career would lead him to dance in movies, television, and on stage.

partenr latin dance together in pose
Instruments like the bongos, timbales, and claves as well as many of the distinctive rhythms used in salsa came from the Afro-Caribbean. (Photo cred Preillumination SeTh on Upsplash)

Salsa’s Dark and Humble Origins

Starting back in the early 18th Century, Salsa was traditionally a Cuban style of Music and Dance. After the Cuban War and the Spanish-American War, many United States soldiers returned home with a newfound appreciation for this boisterous Latin music. Its sexual moves and invigorating music garnered appreciation but did not gain mainstream popularity in the United States until the 1960s. Johnny Pacheco is credited for naming this spicy dance and music genre Salsa for the blend of different influences, rhythms, and styles. Salsa is the Spanish word for sauce and its influences from Latin music such as guaguanco, son, and Jazz created interest and curiosity.

The roots of this genre go back even further as African slaves were trafficked and worked in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Many of their traditional instruments were brought by the slaves to the new lands and were incorporated into Salsa music. Instruments like the bongos, timbales, and claves as well as many of the distinctive rhythms used in salsa came from the Afro-Caribbean.

In the United States, two Puerto Rican musicians are remembered for being the guiding lights on the way to inclusiveness in Latin music.

Ismael Rivera would sing and Rafael Cortijo would play the timbales, as a team, they united traditional African and Puerto Rican sounds like Plena and Bomba. These familiar rhythms and beats combined into new but recognizable music that fostered both nostalgia and excitement. Rivera and Cortijo helped to reawaken an appreciation for this powerful genre in a new generation.

Historically, Salsa has lived concurrently with social movements, revolutions and the gaining of independence from previously controlling powers. The lyrics in Salsa music have always been a great method of telling a story which helps to pass along the histories of the people and culture. Bands like the Buena Vista Social Club released hit songs which brought Latin music to an entirely new audience. The song Chan Chan from their 1996 self-named album brought fame to this band that originally starting playing together because they wanted to bring back pre-revolutionary Cuban music. This same album has been recognized by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time. This was a defining moment as their album was one of only two that were non-English speaking.

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The Los Angeles Style of Salsa brings together steps from Swing and Mambo as well as speeding up the tempo of the music. (Photo cred Alexander Schimmeck on Upsplash)

The Best Salsa Artists of our Generation and Before

The great musicians of Salsa have inspired countless artists with their passion for making music. Artists like Tito Puente who could be said to be the face of Salsa music grew up in New York’s Spanish Harlem and started playing musical instruments at the age of 13. He played in the historic Machito Orchestra and after serving multiple years in the Navy during World War 2, he went back to play in Latin music and jazz circles. In his five-decade career, he created 100 albums and more than 200 compositions.

Other prolific Salsa artists like Celia Cruz would have seen dramatic cultural and social changes in her lifetime. Born in Havana, Cuba in 1925, she stated her career as a traditional Guaracha singer in dance halls and Cuban theaters. She earned the nickname ‘La Guarachera de Cuba’ because of her powerful voice and skillful storytelling. During her long career, she produced 23 gold albums and sang with big Latin music stars like Marc Anthony, Willie Colón, and Tito Puente. Her songs Guantanamera, Quimbara, and La Negra Tiene Tumbao were huge hits across the continent of America.

Some of the amazing artists that have yet to be mentioned are the dancers who have innovated and influenced the traditional Cuban style into the great many schools of dance we have today. Eddie Torres will probably be the first dancer that comes to mind when thinking of Salsa. His prolific career has made him one of the most recognizable icons in the entire community. Torres says he caught the dancing bug in his youth when a girl he had a crush on asked him to dance out of spite for her ex-boyfriend. He vowed he would never let it happen again but he does give her credit for getting him interested in dancing. He says he loves how it causes people to flow and form connections. Over his years of professional dancing, he has earned the name Mambo King from his dedication and brilliant performances. Occasionally you can see him headlining workshops at various Salsa Congresses around the country.

Johnny Vazquez is another celebrity in the Salsa world for pioneering the Los Angeles style of Salsa. He and his two brothers Francisco and Luis formed a dancing trio that helped to innovate the dance from the traditional Cuban style. By bringing together steps from Swing and Mambo into their dance routines as well as speeding up the tempo of the music,  they managed to gain significant recognition as a team in their community. The Vazquez brothers' distinct style of dance has gained quite a following and a friendly rivalry against the more classic New York Mambo style.

Griselle Ponce has become a Salsa star as a result of the strength and finesse she brings to the stage. She can be found dancing solo or with a partner but either way, she moves with precision and planning. Ponce also spends her time at her dance studio in New York where she teaches and offers online classes for learning New York style salsa and others.

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