The early years

The greatest influence on U.S. music is Cuban music. The first of these musical exports to the north was habaneraLa paloma was the first export to the world around 1865. It was followed by the habanera Tú, in 1890. Apparently, both came to the United States through Mexico.

For half a century, beginning in 1897, Latino themes appeared frequently on Broadway. In the early 1920s, when the Victor Talking Machine recorded several Latin melodies for the U.S. public, including Cuban songs Si llego a besarte and Quiéreme mucho, their success meant they had achieved the widest dissemination possible in those times, via the Victrola.

Each large city, beginning with New York, developed its own Latino colony and, in turn, its own music. The most important music, the first and the leading, was that of New York, which began to arise in the 1920s in East Harlem, in what is today known as El Barrio. Several Latino groups emerged: Rafael Hernández, Manuel Jiménez “Canario” and other Puerto Rican music figures began to appear. Another recording house, Columbia Records, hired two Cuban musicians, Nilo Menéndez and Alberto Socarrás, for its Latino music division. Many of these Latino musicians also played in jazz orchestras, thus beginning the relationships between the two forms of music. This was also the era when Catalan musicians emerged and spread Cuban music in the United States, such as Xavier Cugat, who was born in Spain and immigrated to Cuba at five years of age with his parents. Cugat, who was a violinist and caricaturist, became known in Hollywood for his short musicals with his first orchestra, Cugat and his Gigolos. More than an orchestra, it was a musical circus, a mix of marimbas, Latino singers, and U.S. singers trying to dance and sign Latino songs.

By the end of the 1920s, the Don Aspiazu orchestra was one of the main attractions for U.S. tourists visiting the National Casino in Havana. When he was able to travel to the United States with his orchestra, they made their debut in April 1930, at the Palace Theater in New York, performing for a U.S. audience. The greatest sensation of the night was when Machín sang El Manisero. In 1931, The Peanut Vendor was a national hit.

Any time a musical genre spreads and gains popularity, there is a price to be paid: adulteration and simplification. Much of the success came from translating the lyrics into English. The Latino wave continued. By 1932, the catalog of musical publicist E.B. Marks, one of the best, had 600 Latino songs, mostly Cuban. This was due to the surge in Cuban songs played and arranged by U.S. musicians, except for the Latino orchestras of Cugat, Madriguera and Aspiazu.

The music also showed up in the cinema. Aspiazu made a short musical that included Siboney and El Manisero. Cugat came to Hollywood in those years for the opening of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and became a permanent attraction at the hotel. Although his orchestra was a musical mishmash, as with any other mishmash, there were good things in it. Singers included the Puerto Ricans Pedro Berríos, Miguelito Valdés and Alfredito Valdés, and among the musicians were Nico López and Nilo Meléndez.

Meanwhile, the purest music was still made in El Barrio. There were Latino radio hours, Latino theaters and orchestras and musicians, mainly Puerto Rican — for immigration reasons — such as Davilita, Augusto Coén, Noro Morales, etc. The Caney quartet, the Rafael Hernández’s Victoria group and Machín’s quartet formed. The division between the downtown musicians, such as Cugat’s and Madriguera’s bands, and the uptown musicians, from El Barrio, was flexible. Musicians moved back and forth, especially for recording sessions, and there were also exchanges with U.S. musicians, both black and white.

The 1940s and 1950s

The story of Cuban musicians in New York in the 1940s cannot be written without mentioning the Puerto Ricans, and vice versa. In 1940, El cumbanchero by Rafael Hernández became a national hit. Other songs that caught on in the United States in those years were Dame tus rosas by Lecuona, and the Mexican songs Amor by Gabriel Ruiz, Bésame mucho by Consuelo Velázquez, Solamente una vez by Agustín Lara, and others. There were other influences that added to the surge in Latino music in the United States. In 1941, ASCAP (American Society of Composers and Performers) refused to grant licenses to use its material to new radio stations. The stations had to turn to the BMI, which had to expand, because it was not as large as its rival, which was largely Latino music. The jukebox also became popular during this era. El Barrio came alive, musically speaking. In 1946, the former Alma Dance Studios on 53rd Street and Broadway became a dance hall and thus was born the Palladium, one of the musical institutions that was most representative of Latinos in the United States in that era.

By the middle of the 1940s, the large U.S. orchestras were declining in popularity and soloists and small groups were gaining ground. Frank Sinatra and groups such as the King Cole Trio were at their peak. In response to the decline in jazz, musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, among others, began to experiment with a more sophisticated and stylized form of jazz called Bebop. Things got interesting with recordings such as MantecaCubana Be and Cubana Bop. But unfortunately, Cu-Bop followed the decline of Bebop, a few years later.

At the end of the decade, other Latino songs caught on, such as Quizás, quizás, quizás, sung by Bing Crosby, composed by Lecuona. A Latino musical scene was forming in New York that was centered at the Palladium, just as swing did at Roseland. When the large swing bands died, the great Latino bands of New York were born: José Curbelo, Machito and his Afro Cubans, Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez.

Meanwhile, in 1949, a Cuban pianist arrived in Mexico with some unusual arrangements that nobody in Cuba wanted to record. He began to record in Mexico. Thus was born the mambo. In 1950, Pérez Prado had an immense impact, not only in the United States but also in the Latino world. Everyone played the mambo and everyone tried to dance it. But just as in Cuba, the mambo declined in popularity as quickly as it had emerged. In Cuba it was followed by the cha cha chá, but in the United States, especially in New York, it was succeeded by the pachanga more than the cha cha chá.

Added to the 1950 melting pot of Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians were Dominican musicians and, oddly, Jewish musicians such as Alfredo Levy. But from a musical point of view, more important than the invasion of the mambo or the pachanga was the introduction of Latino elements into jazz, which had begun the decade before. With the arrival of the cha cha chá, and especially the pachanga, there was a movement from brass bands to flutes and violins. This had a financial advantage, as up to ten horns could be replaced by a flute and three violins.

The great Cuban composer Gilberto Valdés already had a band in the early 1950s in New York, where he lived. Fajardo and his orchestra, the All Stars, played the Palladium and at the Waldorf in 1959. Charlie Palmieri incorporated Johnny Pacheco, and the flute, in creating the band Duboney in 1959.

The 1960s to the present

The early years of the 1960s saw a surge in the charanga bands in New York. The Cuban Revolution forced several first-class flutists, a basic part of the charanga band, to go to the United States.

One of the longest-lasting of these groups was the Broadway Orchestra. Many of these groups disappeared after the pachanga declined in popularity from 1965 on, but others persisted, such as the Broadway, the Novel, etc. During the decade, Mongo Santamaría developed interesting work with various groups that included jazz musicians. Recognized orchestras such as those of Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez, both from Puerto Rico, maintained their prestige.

Another interesting factor on the Latino musical horizon of the 1960s was the Latino music jam session. Charlie or Eddie Palmieri gathered groups, consisting of a mix of Cuban, New York Puerto Rican and American musicians with whom they made half a dozen records. But it was not until the middle of the 1960s that the first genuine musical style produced in New York emerged: boogaloo. It was a mix of Cuban montuno music, rock ‘n’ roll and other influences. No one could deny that it was something different. The lyrics were often in English and the hits started coming, such as I Like it Like That by Peter Rodríguez, a Puerto Rican, Boogaloo Blues by Johnny Colón, another Puerto Rican, and Bang Bang by Joe Cuba, all in 1966. But even as boogaloo became more famous, it declined in popularity. By 1969, Cuban music was reborn with more modern instrumentation, such as that of the Willie Colón and Larry Harlow orchestras.

Cuba’s musical domination throughout the Caribbean and in the cities with large Latino colonies in the United States, especially in New York, continued into the early 1970s, thanks to the pachanga and to the impetus of records created by Cuban recording labels and artists in exile. But it began disappearing gradually as a natural result of the lack of communication with Cuba. Gradually, New York reclaimed the Cuban base. The boogaloo that was born there was still a mix of Latino and American, but little by little, by the end of the 1970s, a musical movement began forming into what would come to be known as “salsa.” Young musicians from the Puerto Rican neighborhoods began to produce music with jazz innovations with a mixture of instruments used in a new way, all on a base of classic Cuban rhythms, especially the son. The early examples were Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, Willie Colón, Ray Barreto, Ricardo Ray and Bobby Valentín, all New York Puerto Ricans who formed the nucleus of the movement, and were joined later by other Puerto Ricans such as Mon Rivera, Roberto Rohena, Cheo Feliciano, Héctor Lavoe, etc.

From the beginning, salsa took two main forms. In the first branch, based on the Cuban son, the songs reflected the joys and sorrows of urban life in the Latino colonies of the U.S. cities, which were not that different from those of the poor classes in the cities of the Caribbean basin. The other branch merely took old Cuban songs and dressed them with new instrumentation. Both forms coexisted, sometimes by the same singers, and both innovated variations on the orthodox Cuban instrumentation, beginning with the musical form of the Cuban band but reinforcing the classic percussion of bongo and conga with the kettledrum. What was done sometimes in the Puerto Rican orchestras was not done in the Cuban orchestras. Or maybe there was a drum or a bongo but not both. A percussion trio became a constant in the salsa movement.

The bass was generally electric but the biggest change was the horns. The two or three trumpets of the classic group changed to two trombones and a trumpet. This became a constant among the salsero bands as it created a stronger, rougher sound than that of the old Cuban group. Thanks to the legacy of Arsenio, the three horns became very important in salsa. Later, there were salsa groups that were equally known for not following the classical Cuban instrumental groupings. There were salsa groups with trumpets and orchestras with flutes. The same “promiscuity” was applied to the rhythms: son, montuno, guaracha, guaguancó, Cuban cha cha chá, Puerto Rican bomba y plena, Dominican merengue, etc.

In reality, salsa was any kind of musical form cultivated by Latinos in New York, on a Cuban base, but “invented” and adding something new. What gave cohesion and a name to the musical movement was its commercialization by New York recording labels such as Allegro, Tico and, above all, Fania, which was created by Johnny Pacheco, a Dominican, and Jerry Masucci, of the United States, who exploited salsa’s possibilities just like the large record labels in the United States did. This was the final ingredient that made salsa a success: an intense campaign by disc jockeys, concerts, films made from the concerts, etc.

By 1975, Latino music had a new capital, New York, and a new world of music, salsa. Fania had a near monopoly and controlled most of the salsa artists.

The Caribbean basin, especially Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Santo Domingo, accepted salsa. Puerto Rico, especially, played a big role in co-authoring this musical phenomenon as many Puerto Rican musicians were part of the movement, such as Papo Lucca, Luis Perico Ortiz, Ismael Miranda, Cheo Feliciano, composer Tite Curet Alonso, etc.

Venezuela also had its own salsa movement with outstanding figures such as Oscar D’ León and his Orchestra. Despite the dominance of the movement, Cubans both in Cuba and off the island were against salsa, arguing that it adulterated and commercially exploited the old son and therefore there was no new rhythm called salsa.

But the truth was out. Nobody denied the Cuban foundation of salsa, or that one of its branches was merely an updating, instrumentally speaking, of the old Cuban music. But the other branch, on the same Cuban base, did things differently, especially the so-called “socially aware salsa,” whose greatest proponent and composer is Rubén Blades.

Salsa also opened the way for a new appreciation of Cuban musicians in the United States who were directly involved in salsa or in the musical issues reborn within it. Heard once again were names such as those of bass player Israel López (Cachao), son musicians such as Miguel Quintana, Justo Betancourt and Felo Barrios, la Lupe and, above all, the marvelous comeback by Celia Cruz to become the pillar of the Fania label.

Another positive aspect of salsa is that it brought together the various Latino immigrant colonies in the United States and also united them with large parts of Latin American countries, especially in the Caribbean basin, such as Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and the Dominican Republic. This Caribbean basin unity had existed in the colonial era when the way of life and, therefore, music was not that different between the various port cities in the Spanish colonies. And although it was less pronounced, the same continued to be true in their years as republics, as first radio, and later artists and recordings, penetrated the entire Caribbean.


Author: Cristobal Diaz Ayala
Published: January 09, 2012.

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