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Revealing Items

Part One:
One Man's Word
Part Two:
Turning Westward
Part Three:
An African Movement
Part Four:
Part Five:
Part Six:
Puerto Rico
Part Seven:
Borinquen NYC
Part Eight:
Who Owns Salsa?
Part Nine:
Salsa in the UK

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A History of Salsa
Part 1: One Man's Word

Latin music was suffering its first major depression in the 1960s. Displaced by Beatlemania, the Twist, and the Rock 'n' Roll craze, it looked like it was never going to recover. Then, as one of those great surprises that only life can spring, a single man's inspiration would change all of that.

Izzy Sanábria worked as a graphic designer at Fania Records, which was then regarded as the Latin Motown. He also MC'd for the Fania All Stars Band and produced the influential Latin NY magazine.

The worldwide sensations of Mambo and Chachachá had prompted a flood of Cuban-derived rhythms fused with Jazz. But the differences between these rhythms were too subtle, indistinguishable to untrained ears. They generated a lot of confusion and only served to fracture the market. A case of jumping on the bandwagon and the wheels falling off.

It was against this backdrop that Izzy realised that all the rhythms needed to be gathered together under one roof, to eliminate the confusion and make the concept easier to sell. He decided to use a term to describe them all and needed one that would capture the imagination and make the marketing simpler. He chose “Salsa”.

His unique access to the spoken and written word proved pivotal in driving the public acceptance of salsa. Izzy used salsa as an interjection while he MC'd, and as a description of the genre in Latin NY magazine. His choice of word was not unreasoned, though salsa does lose a bit in its translation. “Sauce” or “saucy” doesn't quite cut the mustard; our closest equivalent could be to “kick it” or “punch it”. In music, that's what we might say to encourage a band to pump up the energy of a performance.

Izzy didn't coin the word: there has been earlier documented use of the word “salsa” including Beny More's parting phrase “Hola, Salsa”, and the song “Échale Salsita” by Ignacio Piñeiro. Many musicologists refer to the existence of these prior uses, but fail to tackle why he chose it and to what purpose.

Jazz, a major component of salsa, reveals its roots from the American Deep South with kitchen-derived words and phrases like “smokin'”, “jammin'”, and “now we're cookin'”; exclaimed by band members when they felt a real groove going. “Salsa” might be no different. However I subscribe to the view that exclamations in (the genre that became known as) salsa were used in a more structured manner. The music has some general properties: an introduction, a melodic phase, a more rhythmic / percussive phase called a montuno, a reprise of the melodic phase, and an ending. Exclamations were used to cue changes in phase especially into the montuno, which is the section highest in rhythmic energy. The common cues include “candela” [fire], “salsa” [sauce], “sabroso” [tasty], and “azucar” [sugar]; the latter most famously used by Celia Cruz.

So when Izzy Sanabria chose the word “salsa” as a hold-all for rhythms and (by implication) their associated dances, it already existed as a music metaphor. Salsa was and remains an expression of greater energy and excitement.

But salsa's definition continues to change, a dynamic that students of the field fail to address. It has expanded to include non-Cuban music and dances like Cumbia and Merengue. It has become a symbol of nationhood, political belief, and cultural identity. But what is more fascinating is the rate at which the definition is changing.

The corners of the world are drawing closer. More people from more different countries and cultures are accepting salsa and adopting it for their own, redefining it to suit their needs in the process. It is a phenomenon called transnationalisation. New definitions emerge all the time, join with others, and are reabsorbed in a continuous process. In essence salsa is now a self-redefining term. This has a special impact on the concept of ownership (which I'll talk about later). Evidence from Izzy's own webpages indicates that Izzy didn't intend for it to turn out that way.

Needless to say the idea worked, and through his efforts Latin music experienced a revival. That is until the Fania All Stars performed at the Cheetah Club in Manhattan, which was filmed as “Nuestra Cosa Latina - Our Latin Thing”. The revival became a boom, culminating in the now famous concert at Yankee Stadium to 20,000 people in 1973.

History has not been kind to Izzy Sanabria. The spotlight of our interest seems to have passed him by in favour of others more powerful or glamorous. Perhaps you might think that I overstate my case. I call it a response to others who haven't stated his case enough.

Remember… just one word.


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society