Chapter 39

            Since the middle 1800s, American music has been flavored with Latin spices – particularly from Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico.  What may be the earliest Texan corrido, "The Corrido de Leandro Rivera", dates from 1841, and begins a long line of such "story songs", [ballads] in the Great Southwest (Roberts 1979, 24).  Sheet music of Cuban tunes was available in New York in the 1850s.  The celebrated piano virtuoso, Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) wrote and played dozens of Latin pieces to the delight of his fans.  Various Latin groups toured America in the late 1800s, and soon the intoxicating rhythms found their way into the operettas of Victor Herbert, John Philip Sousa, and Sigmund Romberg.

            Several of the early New Orleans jazzmen casually labeled "Creole" were, in fact, of Mexican ethnic origin – Lorenzo Tio, Sr., his brother Luis Tio, Frank Otera, Alcide "Yellow" Nuñez, Jimmy Palau, and Chink Martin, for example.  Jelly Roll Morton spoke often of the Spanish tinge being a desirable thing in certain pieces of music.

            But the explosion came in 1913, when an Argentine dance called the tango was danced by Vernon Castle and Julia Sanderson in a musical called The Sunshine Girl, by Paul Reuben.  Suddenly all of the America went crazy over the tango.  Restaurants and nightclubs catered to couples who were encouraged to tango between courses of their meals.

            The wealthy Mrs.  Ethel Fitch Conger of New York broke her leg dancing the tango.  A high school student died in a trolley car after dancing the tango for seven hours.  The headlines read "Death Attributed to Tango".  In 1914, Yale made the front pages by banning the tango at its Junior Prom.

            The New York Mail complained that "the tango – which appalls lovers of sound manner and morals – is an immodest and basely suggestive exercise tending to lewdness and immorality," and Bishop Schrembs, of Toledo, Ohio, denounced it as one of the "nauseating revels and dances of the brothel" (Roberts 1979, 46).

            Very much the same thing happened when the several other Latin dances came to America – rumba, samba, bolero, beguine, mambo, merengue, cha cha, bossa nova, and others.  Each time, the delightful rhythm patterns lifted American mainstream pop and jazz to a new level of interest and vitality.  And each time, a number of people were duly offended and insulted by the evil they saw at work in the land.

            The current term favored among the insiders in the Latin music industry for this whole body of musical dance rhythms is salsa.  The term means "sauce", and is often used by dancers to urge the musicians to add more spice to their music.  The older term "Latin music" has not entirely disappeared, but is used more and more to refer to the earlier times and earlier Latin bands – Xavier Cugat, Perez Prado, Tito Puente, Desi Arnaz, and the like.

            But salsa is more precisely the music of a special crowd of people in a special location, after the 1960s.


            Salsa is best distinguished from earlier styles of Latin music by defining it as the New York Sound, developed primarily by Puerto Rican New Yorkers, known as Nuyoricans (or Neoyoricans).

            The genesis of the music reflects several sometimes contradictory attitudes: a desire to forge roots in Cuban music, an interest in adopting the musical lexicons of jazz and rock, and an often politically motivated wish to create an all-inclusive Latin America music (Gerard 1989, 3).


            There are three styles within the broad field of salsa, and all of them come from New York: a traditional style called "tipica", that is, typical of the music of preceding generations; a jazz-flavored style, called salsa jazz; and a rock-flavored style, called salsa rock, or Latin-rock.



            The Fort Apache Band, led by Jerry Gonzalez (b.  1949), who plays trumpet and conga drum with dazzling skill, reaches back to African-Cuban folk music like the rumba, the comparsa (African-Cuban carnival music), and the chants used in the Santería religion.  A large number of the salsa musicians in New York and Miami are practicing Santeros, and they subscribe to the beliefs of the Yorùbá people of West Africa, who talk to the Orishas (who are similar to Roman Catholic saints) with bata drum bands.

            The large Cuban community in the Bronx called their local police station "Fort Apache", hence, the name of Gonzalez' group.  They play music from before the Cuban Revolution (mambo, cha cha, pachanga, etc.), and after the Cuban Revolution (Mozambique and songo).

            When Fidel Castro isolated Cuba from the rest of the Western Hemisphere, New York became the center of Cuban music.  The queen of this tipica salsa was Celia Cruz (1925-2003), contralto, and she recorded with the important Cuban musicians – percussionists Julio Collazo, Carlos "Patato" Valdez, and Orestes Vilato; pianists Javier Vasquez and Lino Frias; and many others.  (She also appeared a few times on the PBS kids program, Sesame Street.)



            Argentine saxophonist Leandro "Gato" Barbieri (b.  1932), Cuban conga player Ray Barretto (1929-2006), and many others have added American jazz into the salsa mix with great success.  John Coltrane (1926-1967) was very fond of Barbieri's explosive improvisation soaring over a battery of ethnic percussion instruments.  Coltrane's album called Chapter One, recorded in Buenos Aires, has become a favoriteBarbieri's The Third World is his most successful album.

            Latin tinged jazz is not new at all.  Cuban conga player Chano Pozo (1915-1948) worked with Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s.  Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida (1917-1995) recorded with jazz saxophonist Bud Shank (1926-2009) in the 1950s.  Stan Getz (1927-1991) recorded with composer-guitarist Antônio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994), guitarist João Gilberto (b.  1931), and singer Astrud Gilberto (b.  1940) (João's wife) in the 1960s.  Astrud was the singer on the giant hit "Girl from Ipanema" which came out in 1963.

            Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira (b.  1941) and his wife, vocalist Flora Purim (b.  1942), have been on the jazz scene for over forty years now, and they are well known in the industry.  Airto was invited by Joe Zawinul to join Miles Davis for two cuts on Bitches Brew, and they (Airto and Purim) were quite influential in Chick Corea's group called Return to Forever.

            Two Brazilian keyboard players contributed to a mixture of jazz, pop, and salsa in the 1970s.  Eumir Deodato (b.  1943) had a big hit with his modified disco treatment of Richard Strauss' brilliant symphonic poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra – (well-known as the theme for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey).  Sérgio Mendes (b.  1941) recorded with Cannonball Adderly before moving on to a successful career in Latin-jazz with female voices used as instrumental colors, as in "Mas Que Nada", for example.


Salsa Rock

            Among the many salsa influences in the world of rock, the most well-known is the career of guitarist Carlos Santana (b.  1947).  He mixed rock and Brazilian rhythms for strong commercial sales in Amigos (1976) and Festival (1977).  "Carnaval", which opens Festival, is pure Rio carnival music with a Cuban accent.

            Earth, Wind and Fire's "Evil" and "Serpentine Fire" made good use of salsa rhythms, as did the group called War on their "Bailero" from War Live (1974).  On Patty LaBelle's album Tasty (1978), "Teach Me Tonight/Me Gusta Tu Baile" is pure salsa (Roberts 1979, 208-209).



            As often happens, financial matters greatly determine the growth and development of a give component in American pop culture.  Salsa, for example, is almost the single-handed creation of Fania Records, started in the 1960s by Jerry Masucci, business manager, and Johnny Pacheco, music director.

            Fania Records' underground promotion and marketing skills were so effective that salsa bands appeared in nearly every major American city and in many foreign countries, most notably Japan and Denmark.  Fania wanted to control the genre so their product would be considered the real thing.

            Masucci and Pacheco gave the impression that an entirely new music had been created in their studios.  Many Cubans in America and in Cuba were greatly offended.  It was, after all, the music of their people and their composers that had been recorded by Fania Records.

            The Cubans were, and still are, very angry that the names of the Cuban composers were not, and are not, listed on most of the Fania record labels.  Instead, the letters D.R.  appear, meaning "Derechos Reservados", meaning "reserved rights".  This means, of course, that no royalties were being paid to the composers (Gerard 1989, ll).

            For example, on Ray Barretto's Indestructible (1973), half of the eight tunes were listed as "D.R.", even though most Cubans knew quite well that the tunes were written by Ignacio Piñeiro and other Cuban songwriters now living in Cuba.  Masucci and Pacheco were obviously taking advantage of the void between Cuba and the United States which obviates all normal international agreements on royalties, performance rights, and mechanical rights.

            To add insult to injury, Fania Records released a movie on the Fania All-Stars and the salsa movement in America.  It was called Our Latin Thing.  It was the first movie made about Latinos and their music.  There are scenes from a Santería religious ceremony and a brief cockfighting episode.  Diaz Ayala, an authority on Cuban pop music, said that the movie created a completely false impression that salsa came directly from Africa to New York, by-passing Cuba entirely (Gerard 1989, 11).

            Salsa has moved into the big time now.  Gloria Estefan, along with her band, The Miami Sound Machine, had seven Top 10 hits, beginning with the horn-infused Conga in 1985.  In 1989, Estefan went out on her own as a solo singer, and continues to tour and record today.  Actress Jennifer Lopez (b.  1969) also dabbled in the realm of salsa, perhaps most notably when she portrayed slain Tejano singer-songwriter Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in the biopic, Selena (1997).  Puerto Rican born pop star Ricky Martin (b.  1971) began his career with the boy band, Menudo.  His single, "Livin' la Vida Loca", is often credited with starting the Latin music trend that began in the late 1990s and continues today in the music of artists such as Shakira.


            Although salsa and other Latin music may never reach the same widespread popularity as some of the other genres in this book, the fact that people of Hispanic origin are now the largest ethnic and/or racial minority in the United States (as of 2012) will probably make it more mainstream as time goes on.  If America's Hispanic minority increases as projected – the US Census Bureau predicts that Hispanics will account for over 30% of the population of the United States by 2060 –  the influence of salsa in mainstream American pop music may increase greatly.

            What is certain, however, is that Latin spices will continue to flavor American pop music as they have for nearly two hundred years.