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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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Revealing Items

A History of Salsa
Part 5: Revolution

Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. A steady deterioration in relations caused the United States to implement a trade embargo on 8th July 1963 under the Trading With the Enemy Act.

This had a profound effect on Latin music, which up until then had looked to Cuba to lead the way in the innovation of rhythms. Although the interchange of people and ideas was stifled, the embargo did not prevent new rhythms from getting out; most notably that of songo and mozambique. It did diminish Cuba's presence on the world stage, blunting our awareness of the most recent developments in Cuban music.

Article 9(c) of Cuba's 1976 constitution (reformed 1992) interestingly guarantees each person access to education, arts and sport. There is national funding for musicians and venues. How this has benefited Cuban music, we can only guess at through the words of Cuban conguero Daniel Ponce (1980):

When the Cubans arrived in New York, they all said 'Yuk! This is old music.' I was expecting to find a stronger Latin scene here; the lyrics, the composition, the feeling are not adventurous.”

Three centres of salsa stepped forward into the light: New York, Miami, and Colombia.

New York
Nuyoricans carried the salsa baton forward through salsa's lean years. On the surface it may have looked as if Puerto Rican folkloric genres like the plena and bomba had been forsaken for Afro-Cuban ones. With the exception of the plena, which saw a brief burst of popularity in the late 1920s to the early 1930s, the dominant perception as promoted by the large U.S. record firms was that the Cuban method of playing was the only way. This led to a situation where Nuyoricans were practising music that was not originally of their cultural context

Nuyoricans are outsiders to Afro-Cuban folklore, particularly to the religious music, and often get their information second-hand from books and recordings”
- Charley Gerard.

They defined the New York sound, then and today: cementing the influence of Jazz and R'n'B. Second generation Puerto Ricans are bilingual, and many songs of the Latin Bugalu craze were in English. The crossover attempt to gain ground on Rock-n-roll was short lived. Unlike with the French accent, English sung with a Spanish one was never considered quaint by the mainstream. The proximity of barrios to black neighbourhoods continues to promote interchange, ensuring Latin music's continued relevance - for now. But as Nuyoricans become increasingly affluent and relocate from their original points of settlement, salsa is losing contact with the very roots, in its expression of social commentary, that made it popular. Their places have been taken up by Dominicans, whose own interactions with African Americans have given rise to Reggaeton.

Cubans exiled through the revolution of '59 fled to Florida, less than 100 miles away. The nature of their departure left a number of them embittered and vociferously anti-Castro. Many settle in Miami, in an area now called “Little Havana”. Walking down its main axis of Eighth Street, more famously recognised by its Spanish name “Calle Ocho”, you can hear strains of Salsa all about you. Every March, this place veritably explodes into a kaleidoscope of music and dance: the internationally reknown Calle Ocho Cuban Carnival.

Salsa in Miami is comparatively politicised. The drive behind the carnival and the raising of Miami's profile on the salsa stage, comes in no small part from right-wing political activism. To such an extent that artists with faint links to Castro's Cuba are not invited to perform at the carnival. Here, salsa is a symbol of desire: of a Cuba without Castro.

The rise to prominence of Colombian salsa is a story of light and shade. The country's size and geography once harboured entire towns of escaped slaves; no doubt helping to create the base of unique music it has today.

What Fania did for New York, Discos Fuentes did for the whole of Colombia. Unlike in the former which was an island in a non-Latin sea, salsa was free to engulf the cities of Cali, Medellin, Cartagena and Barranquilla. The sheer weight of a whole country as a salsa centre can be felt through its more than fair share of talent and rhythmic innovations.

But the success story is darkened by drugs. Cartel figures used patronage (an age-old Spanish tradition) of salsa bands for two purposes: to launder money, and to purchase some semblance of social respectability. The source of the contributions would have made it difficult to refuse: if you're a singer and your no.1 Drug Lord fan buys you a car as a gift, what're you going to do? Give it back?

Nevertheless, the heavy investment for whatever reason was targeted at salsa's grassroots; exactly where it would do the most good. Young bands and venue managers found they had the resources to promote their activities, driving a broader uptake of salsa in Colombia's social scene.


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society