The emergence of salsa, at the end of the decade of the 1960s, took the musical scene in Puerto Rico and in New York by storm. It came to be the rhythmic and narrative representation of our modern urban history. Both in its strong, aggressive sound and in its lyrics, it demanded equality and liberty and clamored for a space of its own for pleasure and dancing. This combination produced texts that were of help in understanding the history of the Puerto Rican nation, which is in constant movement across the wide space between Puerto Rico and New York. Beyond the tension and the lack of social polish it brought to the scene in its narrative, salsa dramatized and drew attention to the hardships of poor Puerto Ricans, the people who, from the middle of the last century, made up the flow of migrants toward New York City.
The musical exploits of this new sound, from a sociological perspective, was part of the counterculture that emerged in the United States toward the end of the 1960s and it constituted a new way of viewing history. This new perspective called for breaking away from what is known in US culture as the “American dream.” So what was marketed with the name salsa at the beginning of the 1970s became not only a way of making music but also the mark of a generational break from the traditional norms and a call for greater social recognition and justice.
Salsa, as a musical form, was the result of the evolution and fusion of the Cuban son montuno, rumba,bomba, and plena, as well as some of the harmonics of the American Black tradition, which include jazz, rhythm and blues, funk and soul. The protagonists of this movement were primarily Puerto Rican musicians who knew how to articulate new patterns and progressive rhythmic changes. The result was a fresh sound that defined its people. They made that sound from Puerto Rico and from the poor neighborhoods of New York, with a new song and a new cadence and accent that made it dance music. The basis of its forms and styles was the popular Afro-Caribbean tradition, but with a new swing. That is why it has become one of the forms of musical expression that best define Caribbean identity in the 20th century.
In the marketplace, salsa was presented as one of the most successful hybrids of historiographical narration and popular Caribbean music. As a commercial formula, it brought together all the harmonic and melodic innovations developed at the end of the 1960s. Before it emerged, Caribbean music was known for its variety. The son, mambo, pachanga, cha cha chá, guaguancó, guaracha, guajira, plena and bomba all retained their resonant sound and each had a clear identity in the way they were danced. Similarly, the recording industry respected the distinctions between these rhythms and tried to retain their characteristic flair in their productions without altering the formulas. At that time, it was important to preserve the particular Latin and Caribbean character in the context of the Anglo musical world.
When salsa came on the scene, history changed. This genre, whose first and greatest thrust was from New York City, took its own particular form with the support of the Fania recording company’s aggressive marketing. Run by Jerry Masucci, a Jew, and Johnny Pacheco, a Dominican, the new constellation of musical artists – most of them Puerto Rican and Caribbean people – were successful in making a place for themselves in the music market.
The list of the great figures include these: Ray Barretto, Willie Colón, Bobby Valentín, Héctor Lavoe, Ismael Miranda, Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez, Adalberto Santiago, Eddie Palmieri and Larry Harlow. Richie Ray, Bobby Cruz, Celia Cruz, La Lupe, Cheo Feliciano and Rubén Blades are also among them. Other salsa legends, established in Puerto Rico – people like Rafael Ithier, Tommy Olivencia, Willie Rosario, Raphy Leavitt and Roberto Roena – made some of the most important contributions to the development of the genre.
The history of salsa would not be complete without special mention of the work in Puerto Rico, from the 1950s, of Rafael Cortijo y su Combo, a name which is engraved in the very foundations of this movement. The style of Cortijo y su Combo, with the voice of Ismael Rivera, revolutionized the music of the Caribbean. The new rhythm was based on the evolution of traditional Puerto Rican bomba andplena, with musical arrangements created largely by trumpet player Quito Vélez. Though these were not very elaborate, their resonance returned percussion to its predominant role, which it had lost in the music industry due to the force of the large, stylized musical groups.
In the middle of the last century, without the support of the powerful recording companies, Cortijo y su Combo developed as the most important contribution to Caribbean music. Their formula, which was different from that of the famous big bands of the New York world, had among its principal exponents Tito Puente, Frank “Machito” Grillo and Tito Rodríguez.
To understand the history of salsa, it is essential to remember all of the musicians and singers who were its interpreters. They were all protagonists in a new chapter in the musical narration of the Caribbean and they raised the banner that defined our new musical and social identity.
Author: Hiram Guadalupe Pérez
Published: September 11, 2014.
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