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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 4: Cuba

The means of music making in Cuba towards the later half of the 1800s was geographically distinct. Musicians in the East were itinerant, moving from village to village, rarely having a fixed place to perform. These troubadours who led an unsettled and occasionally hazardous lifestyle tended to be male. They functioned as important sources of news and retainers of folklore. Their instruments were uncomplicated and portable: guitar; tres - a Cuban guitar with three pairs of strings; marimbula - African thumb piano; botija - ceramic drum derived from olive oil jars; and bongos. The music they played consisted of a rhythmic progression of simple chords, supporting improvised lyrics sung to a clave.

These features exist in salsa. The montuno section, which occurs in the latter stages of a song, consists of a two to four chord repeated pattern called a vamp over which is laid lyrical improvisations called la inspiracion [the inspiration]. The skill of improvising vocal commentary to music is called soneo. Vocals are still predominantly male, including the high-pitched nasal chorus occasionally sung as a response called “old mother's voice”. Incidentally, the word montuno [mountain] comes from the rhythmic style son-montuno that originated in Sierra Maestra.

Music in the west was much more European, it was more sedate and arrangements more elaborate. Musicians benefited from a regular performing base with consistent patronage and venues. The component instruments were costly and delicate compared those of the east, and still resembled those of the French orchestras. It was the retention of orchestral structure, instruments and specialist musicians that would later ease the entry of Jazz into Cuban music. But before then, there is just this little issue of collision and creolisation between European and African music.

The greatest leap in the evolution of music and dance came about with Cuba became colonially independent in terms of cultural identity and economy. What was originally a geographical distinction between Oriente and Western Cuba became a vertical stratification in the capital: with European music being played for the white upper classes, and music from Oriente played by the lower black classes. Located in between were the mulatas and mulatos: Creoles or people of mixed ancestry. Here is where the real action was.

The study of ethnic music in the Caribbean had an European bias until as recently as the 1970s, suggesting that it was the inclusion of African rhythms and instruments in orchestral groups that brought about creolisation. In all fairness, the crossover process was probably bi-directional but there would be more documentation concerning the former. The reason is simple: early ensembles avant-garde enough to feature a coloured musician might find that person arrested, thus generating paperwork. Such was the unhappy lot of guiro players in Puerto Rico in the 1850s.

What is significant is that the creolisation process did occur and that it was not localised to Cuba. The use of the African-derived cinquillo pattern, indicative of creolisation, was being found throughout the Caribbean basin. What few appreciate is the length and continuity of creolisation. It began with the early interactions between colonists and natives, and it continues now after nearly five centuries.

Cuban music
The Caribbean cinquillo found its way into the danza and the habanera (cubana) via the contradanza criolla in the nineteenth century. The habanera made its way to Argentina to become a precursor to the tango. The danza evolved into the danzon later that same century, becoming one of the two most important music and dance forms to influence Latin music of the twentieth century.

Rebeca Mauleon describes the danzon structure most accurately in “Salsa Guidebook for Piano and Ensemble” (1993), and hints at the future significance of the other form - the son:

The danzon form consists of an introduction called the paseo (A), the principal flute melody (B), a repeat of the introduction (A), the violin trio (C). Innovations by several composers led to the addition of a fourth section (D) called nuevo ritmo, later known as mambo. This section added elements of the Cuban son…”

Dances to these forms ceased being group activities and came to be performed as individual couples. There were two major reasons for this: one was a weakening of Spain's influence over her colonies, brought about by Napoleon's invasion of Spain and the disruption of her shipping routes by competing colonial powers. The other was an increased sense of individual identity through new capitalist thought and success. Economic independence brought a new confidence that reduced the need to demonstrate allegiance to the mother country.

The individualisation of dance paved the way for the introduction of African movement in contredanse derivatives. A creolisation of dance occurred which was accepted more readily in coloured communities than by the conservative ruling elite. Thus creole dances became identified as a phenomenon of the underclasses, throughout Latin America: son in Cuba; merengue and bachata in the Dominican Republic; tango in Argentina, bomba and plena in Puerto Rico.

Fulgencio Batista was the political strongman of Cuba from 1933-1959. It was his close association with two leading Americans that saw unparalleled levels of US interest in the island state. One was Sumner Welles, US ambassador to Cuba and advisor to President (F.D.) Roosevelt. Through him, Cuba became a beneficiary of Roosevelt's “Good Neighbour” policy, opening the door to huge investments from US companies. The other was Meyer Lansky, a key figure of the organised crime syndicates. Through him, the criminal underworld established a large number of hotels and casinos in Havana turning it into the “Latin Las Vegas”.

American influence and the Vegas connection in particular, brought in acts like Ginger Rogers and Frank Sinatra, introducing the next big movement in the formation of salsa… Jazz.

The mambo became a recognised style in its own right, separate from the danzon in the 1940s. An increase in tempo, adoption of Jazz lines, and a shift towards North American brass instrumentation, distinguished the mambo from its predecessor. It soon spread from Havana to Mexico, New York and Los Angeles.

The chachachá was also derived from the nuevo ritmo section of the danzon. Unlike the mambo, it was still interpreted by charanga (flute and violin) bands and remained mid-tempo. The big change was the addition of the conga drum (for more information, see the article Chachachá: Classic Cheek, Classic Chic).

The music of both the chachachá and the mambo carries an accent on the second beat. It is particularly audible in the basic rhythm interpreted by the conga, where a slap stroke producing a sharp “crack” sound is played on beat two. Dances to both rhythms begin on the second beat instead of the first because of this.

Both styles swept rapidly across the world, starting a love affair with Latin American music and dance; upon which the popularity of salsa and merengue rests today.


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society