Hi all. Here’s a personal story for #hispanicheritagemonth. It’s titled “NYC Salsa – born of many cultures but nurtured by immigrant communities in the ultimate ‘melting pot’.
I think I must have been 12 years old when a salsa song really caught my attention; before then it was just ‘my father’s music’. Something about the rhythm spoke to me, something about the variety of instruments (piano, guitar, trumpet, trombone, congas and many more), the lyrics (which always delivered a message), and the ‘sazon’ (aka indescribable ‘sauce’ or ‘spice’ the music has).
At the age of 16 I attended a live concert with my father at Madison Square Garden to see the world famous Fania All Stars, a collection of the greatest salsa artists of all time. I remember the incredible amount of energy that night. The Garden was completely sold out, flags from almost every Latin American country were being waved by fans, and people were singing and dancing all over the place; even the security guards seemed to be dancing. I then realized the power this music had beyond just being a pleasant sound; it was a cultural movement that connected the Hispanic and Latin American community across the world.
After that my interest in salsa grew, and I began to learn more about the roots of the music. To my amazement the music that I had begun to love had not been created in Latin America and the Caribbean as I originally thought. It certainly had been strongly influenced by various cultures and genres including African, Spanish, Indigenous and Cuban roots and styles like mambo, but it had been nurtured and evolved in NYC! Various Hispanic immigrants and communities had come together and, using Cuban mambo, Afro-Caribbean and Spanish styles, had added an NYC ‘twist’. When I listen to this type of salsa it really speaks to me personally as a Hispanic who has heritage from all these cultures and grew up in NYC.
As early as the 1940s, Cuban music was already thriving in NYC, thanks to the mambo era. In the 1950s immigration to NYC from Puerto Rico, Cuba and other Latin and Central American countries surged, and the environment was conducive for Latin dance music. Artist such as Tito Puente (aka The King) had begun to mix mambo with other musical influences such as jazz. In the 60s artists such as Celia Cruz (aka the Queen of Salsa) and Larry Harlow (the Marvelous Jew) helped build on Tito’s success and started a movement. By the early 70s salsa music had become a huge hit in NYC and across the US. Record label Fania Records began signing more and more hit artists (e.g. Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Ismael Miranda). New artists incorporated further flavors of jazz and funk, and salsa even entered the opera scene with Hommy and La Raza Latina shows in NYC. Salsa music started to expand from New York to other Latin American countries like Colombia, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. The Fania All Stars were selling out stadiums and concerts halls all over the world; from Africa to Asia with concerts ‘Live in Africa’ and ‘Live in Japan’. By the late 70s the whole world had caught ‘salsa fever’.
To this day salsa continues to exist and evolve, but the salsa that thrived in NYC in the 70s has a special place in many salsa fans’ hearts; the best similarity I can find is what 80s rock, developed in the US and UK, means to rock lovers. Now, 50 years later the music has passed the test of time and continues to be played at discos and birthday parties all over the world.