Salsa was born out of the encounter of Cuban and Puerto Rican music with big-band jazz in the Latin barrios of New York. Today it is a global music, massively popular across the Caribbean, Latin and the US. Literally the word salsa means ‘sauce’ and in Latin American musical circles it takes its origins from a cry of appreciation for a particularly piquant or flashy solo.
Salsa has been immensely popular in Colombia since the 1970s. As in many other Latin American countries the local bands began by copying what they heard on the radio and records, but very soon started to incorporate elements of local music.
Big names in Colombian salsa include Diego and Jaime Galé and their band Grupo Galé, from Medellin, and the Cuban-born violinist Alfredo de la Fé, who lived in the same town for several years. There are also a clutch of bands based in the old sugar town of Cali, which has an independent recording and club scene.
While bands like La Sonora Dinamita stayed loyal to the compulsive 2/4 beat of the cumbia, another strand developed around the vallenato line. What began as a country folk dance in the towns and villages dotted along the wide river plains of the northeast has become a national passion. Accordionists such as Lizandro Meza and Alfredo Gutierrez are now national heroes, and a new generation – sons of those men – have brought teenaged audiences to vallenato salsa.
In Cuba, the cauldron of salsa, the years after the revolution were spent re-evaluating and rebuilding the music scene.
By the 1990s, Cuban influences had begun to flood into salsa again with increased access via Europe’s music festivals and touring schedules for the bands. Many US and Puerto Rican artists covered the hits of Cuban singers – Willie Chirino in Miami and La Sonora Ponceña and Roberto Roena in Puerto Rico all had hits with tunes written by Los Van Van and Son 14.
The late 1990s have seen an explosion of Cuban groups, heavily influenced by what they see on MT V and on the CD s which arrive via family in the US. With the new accessibility, Cuba’s musical future is more unpredictable than any other part of Latin America.
Miami sits like a lighthouse, just ninety miles from Cuba, radiating and receiving music from the Caribbean and Latin America. Miami’s Cuban 40-somethings who arrived in the city as children, have opted for styles at all positions along the Latin music spectrum.
This Beatles-and-salsa generation created what is known as the Miami Sound, the variable blend of salsa with rock and pop. Chirino favours a vibrant percussion section, a salsa-Caribbean base and rock fantasies, while Emilio and Gloria Estefan – the most successful Latin artists in mainstream American – have trawled through many types of Latin and Spanish music during their successful career.
New York is central to the story of salsa and its developments. High up in Manhattan, Washington Heights is about 80-percent Dominican. The heavy meringue (and ubiquitous meren-house) beat rumbles through clubs where the island’s top bands play alongside New York’s even more frenetic local outfits. Latin-Jazz was a growing feature through the 1990s, running a parallel and overlapping story with salsa. New York has been its capital ever since Mario Bauza and Machito coined the concept of Afro-Cuban Jazz and Tito Puente picked up the baton.
Today’s musicians have mostly trained in classical music and salsa. Mainstream jazz has been transformed by the presence of the new breed of rhythm-based players, particularly the pianists Hilton Ruiz, Michel Camilo, Chucho Valdes, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and the saxophonist David Sanchez, who have transformed the style with their rhythmic often danceable creations. Paquito D’Rivera, formerly of Cuba’s big band Irakere, and now a New Jersey-ite, pops up in many settings around the city. His presence since the early 1980s has invigorated the Latin jazz scene which is centred in the city.
Puerto Ricans were integral to salsa’s development and the island and New York communities have between them produced a roll-call of great salseros. The island’s home-based salsa has a characteristically smooth, sweet sound, with polished arrangements and languorous pace. It is less syncopated and African than the Cuban variety, and danced in a glide rather than in the angular, funky Cuban style. The local scene has been dominated by two great bands for over thirty years: El Gran Combo and La Sonora Ponceña. Their longevity has created an unrivalled cohesion and a repertoire of songs that every islander can recite. Both are driven from the keyboards, El Gran Combo by Rafael Ithier, whose style is florid and bright, and Sonora Ponceña’s four trumpet line-up by the jazz-influenced maestro, Papo Lucca.
For Venezuela, salsa is almost a national music, and in its capital, Caracas, a city in a bowl between mountains, a city where cars never stop, horns puncture the hazy air and salsa explodes from every street corner. Venezuela’s proximity to Brazil has resulted in a strong samba and bossa nova influence, evident in the smooth, sweet, apparently effortless sound of bands like Daiquiri. There are some very long established bands, too, such as Billo y su Caracas Boys and Los Melodicos, both of which seem to get ever better with age, and have proved launching pads for most of the leading singers, like the hugely popular José Luís Rodríguez, aka El Puma.
In global terms, the big name, of course, is Oscar D’Leon, these days to be seen as often in New York or Miami as in his home country. His brand of salsa is in fact rooted in Cuban rather than Venezuelan sounds, and he is heavily influenced by the Cuban swing bands with their horn phrasing and son-rhythm piano solos. His singing, too, which leaps from croon to falsetto, owes much to the Cubans, and, above all, his idol Beny Moré. He maintains a spectacular 19-piece orchestra, a showcase for incredibly tight musicianship, while he dances, sings and duets with his teenage sons, sometimes lugging his trademark white baby-upright bass across stage. This is one of the most exciting shows in salsa today.
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