How Salsa Music Took Root in New York City

Decades before the swirling, swaying grooves of salsa music exploded into a worldwide phenomenon, it emerged from the glitzy mambo clubs of New York City in the 1940s and 1950s and made its way to the streets of Spanish Harlem.

New York City in the 1940s and 1950s was the perfect breeding ground. New Cuban music of African origin blended into the city’s vibrant big band jazz scene. And a huge wave of Puerto Ricans settling in New York – nearly 900,000 between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s – over the decades claimed a new identity in their new home, fueling fresh music and hard-hitting. with their own distinctive voice.

“Salsa provided a beat and a music we could live with, breathe and make love to,” Latin music promoter and publisher Izzy Sanabria explained in the documentary TV series “Latin Music USA.” “It was the essence of the Latino soul.”

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In New York, the Mambo merges with the Big Band Jazz

Salsa comes from mambo, which itself finds its origins in son, a rhythmic urban folk music from eastern Cuba that evolved as it made its way to Havana and then to the clubs and streets of New York. Mambo’s most popular early ambassadors in New York were Machito and his Afro-Cubans, a group that hit the city’s music scene in the 1940s and revolutionized mambo.

Mario Bauzá, the founder and musical director of the group of Cuban origin, had been attracted by the freedom and the energy of Harlem. After settling there in the 1930s, he was soon playing trumpet and arranging tunes for big band jazz ensembles led by conductors like Chick Webb and Cab Calloway.

He then recruited his brother-in-law, Francisco Gutiérrez Grillo, to be Machito, the singer and leader of the new group with a unique Latin sound.

This sound, says longtime musician and educator Bobby Sanabria, was the first time a big band had used a trio of drums from Cuba to drive an Afro-Cuban rhythm: the bongos created by the Creoles; timpani derived from timpani (or timpani) in Europe; and congas, a newcomer to popular music with the most direct connection to West African rhythms and culture.

And long before it became culturally popular to embrace African roots, the band’s name purposely scored a point. “I am of African origin. And the rhythms that produce the music we play are African,” Bauzá explained in “Latin Music USA.” “Have you ever heard the expression lemon meringue pie? It is exactly what it is. Jazz upstairs and Afro-Cuban rhythm downstairs.

In 1947, his band headlined the first Latin Night at the Palladium Ballroom in midtown Manhattan, soon hailed as “the home of the mambo.” Police closed the streets around the club to manage hundreds of fans, many dancing in line as they waited to enter.

Transit workers, bank executives, seamstresses and professionals – all dressed to perfection – shattered racial, ethnic and class barriers as they moved their hips to pulsing drums and blaring trumpets. The well-known rivalry between the three big featured bands – led respectively by Machito, the handsome crooner Tito Rodriguez and the timpani virtuoso and showman Tito Puente – has pushed the cultural currency of mambo in the city to new heights.

The Palladium has become a meeting place for the “crowd”. After the curtain calls at Wednesday matinees on Broadway, the celebrities came out to party. Sammy Davis Jr. sat on bongos. Marlon Brando got high marks for his licks on a conga. Jazz trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie, who later fused the African-born sound with some of his own Bebop jazz, performed with vocalist Sarah Vaughn. Dean Martin, Rita Hayworth, Kim Novak were also there, among other stars. According to one of the club’s professional dancers, Pedro “Cuban Pete” Aguilar, Ava Gardner would come and choose men to dance with her. “I had the privilege of dancing a number with Elizabeth Taylor,” he shared in The Palladium: where Mambo was king.

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The Palladium closed in 1966. Other clubs kept the music alive for a time, but the mambo craze faded. Meanwhile, a new generation of Puerto Rican migrants to New York, dubbed Nuyoricans, were awakening to a new sense of pride, asserting their own identity and civil rights during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s.

They did this, in part, through music that would be labeled salsa. Cuban music was central to the salsa style, states ethnomusicologist Peter Manuel, but the music “became a symbol of Newyorican (sic) and, by extension, pan-Latino ethnic identity”.

Trombonist Willie Colón and salsa/jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri brought trombones to the front of their bands for a deeper, harder, more aggressive sound that Palmieri called “the roar of elephants”. That roar was heard all over the streets, brimming with apartments, barbershops and corner bodegas in Spanish Harlem, known as El Barrio, and the Lower East Side neighborhood nicknamed Loisaida.

Some hard tunes longed for nostalgia for their home country of Puerto Rico, where dozens of other bands also brought their music to a growing international salsa scene. On the sidewalks and asphalt streets of the festivals, New York crowds vibrated to the rhythm of car horns and honest lyrics recounting their difficult life among the city’s working class.

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Fania Records: Upstart Label Gives Salsa a Global Reach

Fania All Stars, Live at the Cheetah, vol.2 - vintage vinyl record cover

Fania All Stars Live at the Cheetah Vol.2 – vintage vinyl record cover

Much of these punchy beats were produced by salsa powerhouse Fania Records. Dominican musician and bandleader Johnny Pacheco launched the label in 1964 by selling vinyl records out of the trunk of his Mercedes. His partner, Italian-American lawyer and ex-cop Jerry Masucci, borrowed $2,500 from his mother to start the label that internationalized Latin music from New York.

Fania’s big salsa stars like Ray Barreto, Larry Harlow, Cheo Feliciano, Bobby Valentin, Hector Lavoe and Celia Cruz have produced their own recordings. But Pacheco assembled most of them into a supergroup dubbed the Fania All-Stars for epic gigs that spanned North America and beyond. After packing Manhattan’s Cheetah Club to more than double capacity in August 1971 (and later releasing two live records of the explosive event), the All-Stars caught fire, bringing 40,000 salsa fans to Yankee Stadium. in 1973 and playing to 80,000 at a stadium in Zaire a year later.

Ironically, it was towards the last days of Fania that the label released in 1978 what is considered the best-selling and most influential salsa album in history, Siembra (Planting). Colón and Panamanian salsa singer and songwriter Rubén Blades come together with an unconventional sound to detail the sadness of city life in tunes like “Pedro Navaja” or, as in “Plástico”, to urge people to avoid the false consumerism of the disco days and to awaken to the true truths of their lives and their people.

Salsa has had slower variations infused with pop and ballads over the decades. But for many, it has always been a basic question. For Palmieri, whose hits “Puerto Rico” and “Adoración” are emblematic of the hits now known as salsa vieja (the old salsa) or the hard salsa (hard salsa) what moves fans around the world and what keeps people emotionally and culturally connected over time is beat and rhythm.

When Bauzá introduced the drumming trio into the mix, the innovative Cuban bandleader had the right idea, Palmieri said in The Palladium: When Mambo Was King.

“The drum, which imitates the pulse of life, is the essence of our music,” he said.

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