Salsa dancing in the square

Salsa dancing in the square

Salsa was born in the northernmost Caribbean city: New York. Various traditional Afro-Caribbean styles converged in this new musical genre or form built on the foundation of Cuban son music. Thus arose the old argument by Cuban musicians that salsa was a new way of playing Cuban music. However, as César Miguel Rondón explains in his book Libro de la salsa: Crónica de la música del Caribe urbano:

Salsa, well, it’s something more than old Cuban music, it’s more than a label and a style that isn’t essential for writing music. Salsa was born in the Latino barrios of New York. There, youths who lived the back and forth of international popular culture, listening to rock music, soaking in all of the values spread by U.S. advertising, moving in desperation between authenticity and rootlessness, began to use salsa as the only form capable of capturing their daily lives.

Salsa was situated among the conglomeration of Caribbean musical forms that have been instruments of social, ethnical and cultural representation. The roughness that characterizes it evolved from the tumultuous era of its birth and development in the 1960s and 1970s in New York City. Salsa reflected the difficult experiences and daily life of the Spanish Caribbean migration. Its harsh tone, infused with the free combination of tones and harmonies, reflected the constant regeneration of collective transnational identities, especially for the Puerto Ricans in the New York urban area. From there, it went on to become the banner for a simultaneously recalcitrant and innovative Puerto Rican identity.

Brought together in this “way of making music,” as Angel Quintero Rivera comments, are various genres and styles whose central characteristics are “the free combination of diverse Caribbean rhythms and genres” in a constant evolution and false sense of being settled. Salsa evades easy definition because of its heterogeneous composition. Its rhythmic structure, however, is based on the tumbao and the beat of the Cuban son. The percussion section included tumbadoras (which Arsenio Rodríguez had included in his group), bongos, timpani, bass and piano. Trumpets, which were already part of the son septets, are sometimes accompanied by the trombone. In diachronic time, salsa migrates through the various musical genres of the Spanish Caribbean. There are musical pieces that begin with the tasty rhythms of a Puerto Rican bomba, only to conclude in the style of the traditional son.

In his work on the topic, Quintero Rivera notes that salsa, like the son and the Puerto Rican plena, is a resounding affront to the aesthetic canons of modernity. Its diachronic structure, the free combination of forms, tones and musical colors, the improvisation and primacy of percussive elements all make these mixed forms of music examples that stray from a modernization process centered on Spanish Caribbean national identities.

The social setting, the rhythmic structures, the instrumental formats and the lyrical content of salsa point to a confluence and synthesis of black and white elements in Caribbean music. Ethic and racial confirmation take on importance in Afro-Caribbean music because they are a cultural form born within the confines of an oppressive social system.

Author: Hugo R. Viera Vargas, Ph.D.
Published: June 13, 2012.

Related Entries

This post is also available in: Español


The Puerto Rico Endowment for the Humanities welcomes the constructive comments that the readers of the Encyclopedia of Puerto Rico want to make us. Of course, these comments are entirely the responsibility of their respective authors.