History of Salsa

The History of Salsa Music and Dance
Dedicated to Yemayá, the Orisha of the Sea

by Heather Wong-Xoquic

The Traditional Music and Religion Survives

The majority of Africans brought to Cuba by the Spanish as slaves, during the 1500s, were Yoruba of Nigeria and Bantu of Congo and Angola. In the beginning, the Africans were divided into mixed tribal groups to prevent communication and plotting. This created such depression among the Africans and loss of labor for the Spanish, that the system was rearranged along ethnic lines. The Spanish in counsel with the Catholic Church set up 'Cabildos' (tribal community centers).

The allowance of African tribal unity by the Spanish was a key point in Cuba's musical and spiritual history.The survival of traditional African music, dance and religion inevitably mixed with that of Europe. The wealth of that legacy is what we claim as our own today.

Lucumí, honoring the Orisha

The Yoruba Afro-Cuban religion became known as 'Lucumí' or 'Santería' (the latter named for what the Spanish saw as an excessive attention to the Catholic saints). The Yoruba pantheon of deities, called 'Orisha', lived on behind a façade of Catholicism that was used as a camouflage for the continuation of their religious practices. Each saint was twinned with an Orisha of likeness. Lucumí ceremonies use drums to invoke the Orishas (each Orisha has a complex set of rhythms). The dancers embody the spirit of each Orisha, honoring the Gods and Goddesses by presenting the appropriate dances. The most important type of drum, the batá, which sings the songs of the African slaves, until recently was only played by the 'Balabao' (priest). Some batá drums are hundreds of years old, still protected as holy relics in temples in Cuba. The gorgeous rhythms of Modern Salsa music come (in part) from these sacred Lucumí drums.

In the late 1700s, French planters fleeing Haiti during a slave revolt sought refuge on the eastern end of Cuba. They brought their couples dance 'Contredanse' which had been spiced up with 'Cinquillo' by the Afro-Haitians. During this century, some Africans were gaining their freedom; they created dance halls and places of worship. By the middle 1800s, the now 'Contradanza' evolved into 'Danza' or 'Habanera', a freer, more spontaneous form (still danced by couples). It was after Cuba's triumph in its war of independence with Spain (1868) that many new musical styles were being born. As the music and dance moved westward (1870s) it became 'Danzón'. Until the 1920s, the Danzón was limited to the upper class, another world from the black street music of the 'Son Conjuntos' (ensemble, precursor to Salsa).

The style of 'Son' played today was born in the province, Oriente, also on the eastern end of Cuba. This mix of Spanish based folk guitar and Afro-Cuban percussion (including the roots from Changui and Yoruba of Africa and Decima and Guajira of Spain) began near the end of the 1800s. As Son moved westward, to Havana, it gained popularity with the working class, its music and dance styles grew and evolved. It is this music, more than any other, which expresses and identifies the culture of the Cuban people at all levels. Once in Havana, influences such as American Pop music and Jazz from the radio were adopted. Son grew to a more sophisticated audience. The trios of the past gave way to the standard septets: guitar, tres, marímbulas or double bass, bongos, claves and maracas played by the singers, and ultimately trumpet (introduced by 1926). The lead singer needed a poweful tenors voice and skill at improvising fast rapped verses about local goings on, political and love sagas. The clave kept on course with the 1-2-3, 1-2 beat.

Some typical conjuntos at that time were: Sexteto Habanero and Septeto Naciónal. They found they needed to "whiten up" the Son for the growing tourist population in the Havana nightclubs (post WWII) who didn't understand the complex African rhythms. It was one of Cuba's greatest composer's, Arsenio Rodriguez, who brought son back to its African roots in the late 1930s by 1) adapting the Guaguanco to Son, 2) adding a cowbell and conga to the rhythm section, 3) expanding the role of the tres as a solo instrument, and 4) introducing a montuno (or mambo section) for melodic solos. His style became know as Son-Montuno.

Other derivatives of Son were: Sucu Sucu, Guajira-Son, Pregon-Son, Son-Rumba, Afro-Son, and Guaracha.

From here there seem to be two schools of thought:

  1. Arsenio Rodriguez created the basis of Mambo with his Son-Montuno using a Montuno or 'Mambo' section towards the end of a piece. Big band leaders like Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez of Puerto Rico and Machito of Cuba expanded the Montuno or Mambo section creating the Mambo. When the bands immigrated to the United States, especially New York, they brought the first major Afro-Caribbean sounds.
  2. In 1938, Israel 'Cachao' Lopez, cellist for Antonio Arcano's Charanga (orchestra) composed a new rhythm Danzón called Mambo.

Mambo, Conga and Bongo were originally Bantu names for musical instruments used in rituals. Mambo means: conversation with the Gods.

Going Public

Until the early part of the 1900s, Lucumí was still a closed secret in the African Cuban community. Gradually, the great percussionists, singers, and dancers emerged. Even the most sacred instruments eventually found their way into the dancehalls.

  • Salsa music is littered with hints of its spiritual roots.

(This history was written with great respect to the Orishas. Although we are not practitioners of Lucumí, we humbly use the name of the Great Mother, Yemayá for our dance company.)