Santo Domingo Serenaders circa 1930

“Salsa” is More African Than All Black-American Musical Forms…

Jun 15, 2016 · 20 min read

…Yet Black people in America don’t look at the musicians or the music as Black. Why?

Black Americans are the quintessential Americans.

We identify ourselves by our locale, proclaiming it “best.” By and large, we only speak one language which in turn makes us closed to any non-English expression. And, even the so-called conscious among us give the proverbial “side-eye” to all Diasporic Africans who speak anything other than English.

This ethnocentric thought is a relatively new phenomenon, likely no older than twenty years but it’s that mind that makes what people call “Salsa”a foreign music to us.

Unlike Black American music which has it’s origin in Negro spirituals — “Salsa,” and all the genres that informed it, is an African based music. So why don’t we view the musicians or the music as Black?

We’ll explore that and other questions here and, like all things that involve Black people, briefly touch on the institution of slavery which is the cause of the divide.

“Dia de Reyes,” Federico Mialhe. Havana, Cuba circa 1850

My older brother, Ade, used to do “Hambone.” You familiar with that? He said he learned it watching the other boys on the block like Bruce Cooley and Therone Bell doing it.

Some people know Bobby Day’s 1958 “Rockin’ Robin” or Michael Jackson’s remake but the origin of the song goes back to the days of slavery.

The majority of the Africans that were enslaved and brought to the Americas were of West African descent where the drum was used as a form of communication. In the Americas, enslaved Africans used the drum in the same way — communicating with the enslaved on distant plantations and ultimately planning uprising.

The enslavers caught wind of this and enacted a ban.

That ban went down in 1740 and soon spread throughout Colonial America.

But the beat is in the heart of the African.

We soon found other ways to imitate the sound of the drum; stomping, playing spoons, washboards, or anything other household item. We also “slapped Juba” or played “hambone” where the body became an instrument where the player slaps their thighs and chest for the drum beat. (How did young boys in 1980s Park Hill, Denver know “Hambone?”)

Although we kept the beat, we lost the tradition, a cultural marker snatched away from us.

We often talk about slavery in the past tense because it’s an event that happened in the past but as we pointed out in “What’s Slavery Got to Do With It” the affects are here now, in the present. Most importantly for this writing, the separation of family, breaking the lineage of a people, was one of the worst (among many worsts) of crimes.

Imagine this:

You and a sibling grow up together. Two years apart in age. Very close. You both are kidnapped, stolen — one taken to the colony of South Carolina, the other to a sugar estate outside of Havana. While you are forced to learn English, beaten mercilessly, forbidden to play the drums, your brother is forced to learn Spanish, beaten mercilessly, but allowed to maintain some of his culture.

After a few generations, your offspring — second and third cousins — wouldn’t even know they’re family. Your family line would include the blood of the rapist English enslavers and some Native Americans. His family line would include the blood of the rapist Spanish enslavers and some of the natives of Cuba. But family nonetheless.

Such is the case.

Culturally, however, our people couldn’t be more different.

While the American enslaver worked feverishly to destroy any vestige of African culture, the Spanish enslaver of Cuba felt that it was in his best interest to allow the enslaved African to maintain his culture. In support of that, the Spanish allowed the Africans to organize Cabildos (or social groups) based on their nation of origin. Thus you had the Abakua (or Ekpe) from the nations known as Nigeria and Cameroon, the Madinga (or Malinke) from Sierre Leone, etc.

Our focus is primarily on the Lucumi, the Cabildo founded for the Yoruba of Benin and Nigeria. This lineage would be the cornerstone and origin point for what is now called “Salsa.” And what is this “Salsa?”

Machito & His Afro-Cuban Band

When we spoke of the drum being forbidden among the enslaved Africans in America, we forgot to mention that there was one place that didn’t enact that ban. That place was the port city of New Orleans, Louisiana — some even call New Orleans the Northernmost Caribbean city.

Similar in the way that the Spanish allowed for Cabildos in Cuba, the Louisiana enslavers permitted Sundays off and were okay with the dance and celebration so long as the enslaved African did so outside of the city limits in a place called Place des Negres (eventually known as Congo Square).

After the Civil War, Blacks in America were able to get a hold of surplus brass instruments and shortly thereafter began composing music based on the popular music in the Caribbean at the time, the Cuban Habanero. Many say that this is one of the foundations of jazz music itself and the basis of the habanero, the tressilo, can be heard in second lines. Self-proclaimed jazz inventor, Jelly Roll Morton had this to say:

Because of those qualities, a young musical prodigy from Cuba, Mario Bauzá recognized the similarities between jazz and Cuban music straightaway. Bauzá fell in love with jazz having heard it on Cuban radio but it was his trip to Harlem, NYC in 1927 that convinced him that New York was where he wanted to be and jazz was the music that he wanted to play.

Bauzá returned to New York in 1930, immediately found work, eventually landing a gig in the Cab Calloway band. Here he brought on the legend in the making, Dizzy Gillespie, and the two became fast friends. Bauzá attempted to play his “native” music to many in the band but they dismissed it as “country” music. Gillespie, on the other hand, embraced it.

For the next eight years Bauzá played in predominately Black jazz bands having seen discrimination from white Cubans. Yet he longed to start a group that incorporated the music from his home and his second love, jazz. He shot this idea to his childhood friend/brother-in-law and in 1939 at the Park Palace Ballroom the Machito Afro-Cubans would debut.

“I am Black, which means my roots are in Africa. Why should I be ashamed of that?” Bauzá said in reference to the name.

Bauzá replaced the drum kit, which at that time had only been around for 20 years, with the hard to find congas, timbales, and toms. “The timbales play the bell pattern, the congas play the supportive drum part, and the bongos improvise, simulating a lead drum”. In the 40s these drums could only be found at Simon Jou’s bakery, La Moderna, locally known in East Harlem simply as Simon’s.

Next, the Afro-Cubans needed a home and they would find that not in Harlem nor the Bronx, but instead in Midtown Manhattan, a club called the Palladium.

If one had to find the root of so-called “Latin-music” and it’s explosion, they’d need not look any further than Max & Helen Hyman’s club located on 53rd and Broadway.

Legend has it that the club was not packing in the audiences like the Arcadia and the famous Roseland Ballroom and Bauzá had an idea for who could solve that problem.

Enter — Federico Pagani, a famous Puerto Rican freelance promoter. Bauzá and Pagani convinced the Palladium manager to try out an all Latin Night — Sunday. Pagani booked five other bands (in addition to the Afro-Cubans) and named the night the Blen Blen Club. The year was 1947.

Over the next nineteen years, Latin Night expanded beyond the one Sunday night to four nights a week…

…and the Afro-Cubans, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodriguez reigned supreme.

Also, the Palladium broke trends that spread across America beginning with the Mambo. Although the Mambo itself was decades older, the dance-craze began in the 50s when dancers like Cuban Pete and Millie Donay pushed the envelope creating complicated dance patterns and spawning dance competitions. The Mambo gave way to the Cha-Cha-Cha, Cha-Cha-Cha to Pachango which was steamrolled by the Boogaloo (back to Boogaloo in a bit)…and then, just like that…the Palladium was closed.

The club lost it’s liquor license after a police raid in ‘61 and finally closed in 1966 which brought an end to the big-band acts like the Afro-Cubans and Tito Rodiguez’s. The smaller bands, the conjuntos, took over. The conjunto was not new by any stretch, but the instrumentation would change and the hurdle of how long a song could be would be conquered — both by one man and his power band.

Tried as I might, I could not find the link between the big band era of Cuban based music and what we know as “Salsa.” I had to go to my hard drive and listen to all of the “Salsa” that I possess.

That made it more difficult. One can hear the basis of “Salsa” in songs like Tito Puento’s “Preparen Candela” and that’s from the late 40s, early 50s. This, of course, is because the root of “Salsa” is Cuban music. Nonetheless, it just made the search that much more laborious.

The answer was right under my nose. Before I started this writing, I do what I always do — made a playlist. One of the albums that I took several songs from was La Perfecta (1962). To my ear, it all sounded like “Salsa” so I kept looking for earlier albums.

Days and tons of research later, I laughed after I read author after author and musician after musician point to one album as the groundbreaking album that changed everything — La Perfecta.

Eddie Palmieri always looked up to his older brother Charlie. He gave up timbales and took up the same instrument that Charlie played and when Charlie would leave a band, he shoehorned Eddie into the position.

So it was at Charlie’s urging that Eddie decided to start up his own band. First he rounded up his rhythm section with players that he worked with in Vicentico Valdes’ band: Manny Oquendo, Tomey Lopez, and Mikey Collazo. But it’s when he saw the trombonist Barry Rogers performing with Johnny Pacheco that he had an epiphany — his band would feature two trombones.

The band’s first recording, La Perfecta, blew everyone away — literally. Gone were the trumpets. Gone were the violins. Aside from the two trombones there was the flute playing of George Castro. Part of the reason for not having the trumpets was economics — trumpet players, being part of the draw of Pachanga, drew top dollars…dollars that Eddie Palmieri did not have.

Things would change over the next three years after La Perfecta. Eddie Palmieri and his then unnamed band became in demand. The youth who had grown tired of the big-band sound found a hard, aggressive music they could relate too. And Eddie went from playing small clubs in the Bronx like the Treton to playing in the premier club at the time, the Palladium.

When Azucar Pa Ti was released in 1965, it was an immediate hit. Mostly because of one song. “Azucar” broke the prototypical two to three minute song format and, stretched out like a live perfomance to almost ten minutes, brought the party to the record. Much to radio DJs surprise, people requested “Azucar” and it’s appeal was universal; English speaking Black Americans and Spanish speaking Black Americans united in their celebration of Palmieri’s experiment.

Between Eddie Palmieri’s paired down sound with the trombones in the forefront and the smash hit of “Azucar,” the blueprint for what would become “Salsa” was drawn out. But before “Salsa” would dominate early to mid-70 New York and conquer all of Latin America, another New York created sound would flourish…that sound was Boogaloo.

Joe Bataan (center) & his young lions in 1965.

As long as I’ve known what Boogaloo was, only one person personified that sound and attitude to me, the Filipino/Black American Joe Bataan. Former gang member turned band leader, Baatan had been inspired by the rejection from a group of old friends who had started a little band, and the desire to make something of his life.

Unlike Pete Rodriguez or Joe Cuba, Bataan was not an accomplished musician. “I knew nothing about Latin music and couldn’t even dance the mambo. We didn’t have a piano. My mother washed laundry for a neighbor, Mrs. Katz.” Joe Bataan told a New York Times reporter.

According to Pete Rodriguez the music was born out of the Palm Garden Sunday ‘Black’ Dances. The Palm Garden was a massive two story club located close to the Paladium and is considered the center of the Boogaloo craze.

English-speaking Black Americans always requested that the band put some “soul” into the music. Aiming to please the dancers, soul is what they added. Jimmy Sabater, timbale player for Joe Cuba, has a similar memory where Black Americans weren’t dancing to the mambos or cha-cha-chas. So the band improvised a song which would become “Bang, Bang.”

Between the years of 66 and 69 Boogaloo became the sound of young Blacks in New York. The thirty years of Cuban music and Black American music had finally merged and took on a life of its own.

Many songs were sang in English or were covers of popular songs and had incredible crossover appeal. The genre that some call Latin Soul was a great unifier of the Black people who had Spanish forced upon them and their northern cousins who were whipped into speaking English, the Diaspora united. A true American invention.

But it was not a sound that was universally loved.

Despite, Mr. Pacheco’s hate, he signed Joe Bataan to his three-year old record label, Fania.

1966 was a breakout year for the genre that yielded the Joe Cuba hit, “Bang Bang” which sold upwards of a million copies. Hector Rivera’s “At The Party” came out at the end of that year and Pete Rodriguez’s “I Like it Like That,” which is arguably one of the most popular Boogaloo songs, was released in 67 along with Johnny Colon’s “Boogaloo Blues.” Boogaloo was a thing. Signing Joe Bataan to Fania had nothing to do with taste — it was good business.

When I listen to Boogaloo I think of Ska & Rock Steady, the Jamaican creations that were also inspired by the Soul of Black America and seasoned with local sounds. Left alone to develop, the natural progression of those genres became what the world knows as Reggae. Boogaloo didn’t have such luck.

Izzy Sanabria, Fania’s multi-talented in-house designer and the man responsible for the look that would become the record label’s trademark, says he plans to talk more about what happend to the genre having already said Boogaloo “was murdered: pushed aside by promoters, radio stations, and yes, Fania.”

Joe Bataan eludes to the situation in his well-known fight with Fania and recording artist Johnny Colon had no problem laying things out in what he calls “the plot to assassinate the boogaloo.”

If everyone could go on record, what some consider a conspiracy theory would be known as fact. Colon’s account though, is quite compelling. According to Johnny Colon (Fernando ‘King Nando’ Rivera tells a similar story), the so-called Boogaloo bands, the young upstarts, brought back the Latin youth who were turning to R&B and Rock and Roll. Boogaloo was good for these young groups, sold well, brought audiences, but did not earn the respect of the older guard.

Because of that, no matter how large of a hit Colon or Nando or Bataan had, they would never receive top-billing. Further, all of the so-called Boogaloo bands were then forced to perform on the same bill, cutting their profits. Quickly, even that faded.

Of course, finding confirmation of that meeting would be like finding confirmation that proved that the illuminati are a band of evil business men plotting to take over the world. The closest we’ll get to that is Jose Curbelo’s half-admission of some wrong-doing.

Boogaloo died indeed. Died so that “Salsa” could live. Joe Bataan often speaks about how he went from being the darling of Fania execs to being totally discarded once “Salsa” picked up steam. And what, we ask again, is this “Salsa?”

I didn’t know what I was looking for. I didn’t come from a family that listened to or collected “Salsa.” But anyone who has ever been to New York …not Disney New York or Hipster New York but the New York that proceeded it…knows that being there one was bombarded with a cacophony of smells and sounds. “Salsa” was something that I heard when visiting my Ocean Hill family in Brooklyn. “Salsa” was what I heard as we traversed up Pitkin Avenue (again, these were different times). But I didn’t know what it was.

(I’m sure everyone remembers hearing Ruben Blades “Tu Carino” once in Beat Street, when they saw the movie in the theaters, before that scene joined the rest of the non-b-boying and rap scene fast forward massive)

I spent my college years furthering my academic knowledge and also my musical knowledge. WCLK helped me with my knowledge of Jazz and they played the occasional Boogaloo song (I definitely know I recorded Willie Rosario’s “Watusi Boogaloo” at least three times) —but for the most part, they didn’t play “Salsa.”

So the winter of 94 I asked Isma’il Latif to help me out. We were still in the days of the cassette and he and our brother, Raphael Rodriguez, both made a cassette for me accompanied with a track-list. (If you’re from that era, you know how generous a track-list was). Raphael gave me a cassette full of Bomba and Son, most of which were songs for Obatala (more on that in a bit), songs that had very little Spanish. Neither a brass nor a string instrument were to be found (maybe a bass here and there).

Isma’il caught wind of that and was perplexed. His cassette was full of “Salsa” beginning with Raulin Rosenda’s “Santo Domingo” and ending with Eddie Palmieri’s “Justicia.” Why did Raphael make a cassette with absolutely no “Salsa?”

I had a job at a bookstore called Soul Source which was across the street from the shared AUC library, Woodruff, and when I would play either cassette, my fellow students stopped instantly to ask what it was (with Raphael’s mix) or broke into dance (with Isma’il’s mix). Which is why I was shocked after I graduated, moved to New York, and Black folk immediately displayed and announced their disgust with even a mention of “Salsa.” What happened?

We were still a year or two out from commercial internet but the names and titles were enough to help me find the sound that I was looking for. I did research and found the label Fania was behind most of the songs that I liked. Once in New York, I spent paydays in J&R Music, racking up on every Fania cd I could get my hands on. Chances are, what most people know of “Salsa” involves the label Fania as well.

And that’s not by accident.

When Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci put their heads together, raised some money, and began selling records out of Pacheco’s trunk in 1964, the term “Salsa,” although it had been used once or twice, was more known as a sauce and not as a genre of music. As we just mentioned, Fania rode the wave of Boogaloo into the 70s.

Come 1970 though, the record label had hit it’s stride. The combination of Willie Colon, the Nuyorican trombero & Hector Lavoe, the new Puerto Rican implant sonero became Fania’s (as well as “Salsa’s”) first big stars. A large part of that was marketing and defining what the music was.

Izzy Sanabria’s imaging helped and the icing on the cake took place at the club formerly known as Palm Garden — now known as the Cheetah.

Leon Gast, a good friend of Fania bandleader, Larry Harlow, was a photographer and aspiring filmmaker. Gast had shot a couple of covers for the label, most notably, the iconic Joe Bataan Riot cover and he and Harlow had an idea to document the Fania All-Star’s performance at the Cheetah Club. Masucci agreed and on Thursday, August 26th, 1971, Gast set up five or six cameras and a truck with a 16 track recording board. The end result would be the film, “Our Latin Thing (Nuestra Cosa),” and that film would spread the gospel of “Salsa” throughout Latin America.

At the beginning of the 70s there were several small “Salsa” record labels such as Tico/Cotique, West End, Salsa, Futura etc. It was still Fania that defined the sound and eventually it was Fania that would gobble up most of the smaller labels.

Fania has often been compared with Motown due to it’s ability to have a controlled image and a steady stream of hits. Gone were the party like songs of Boogaloo and English-sung lyrics, Fania tapped into the rising pride of Latin America with lyrics drenched in politics and identity. As a result, “Salsa” groups became popular from Colombia to Peru and was a great unifier.

This era is what some call Salsa Clasica — the original style — and is often used as the measuring stick for what “Salsa” should sound like. And, although I don’t speak a lick of Spanish, I prefer this era over the party-friendly Boogaloo era, the music is harder. But like anything, that era couldn’t last forever. The rise of Disco and then in the 80s a focus on a more commercial sound spelled the end of Fania but their legacy remains.

Orchestre Poly-Disco Rythmo De Cotonou

In countries like Senegal, which began an exchange between Senegalese Singers and New York Salsa players known as Africando and boasts it’s own “Salsa” artist like Mar Seck, to Benin where “Salsa” is the most popular music with “Salsa” bars located throughout the country and Orchestre Poly-Disco Rythmo De Cotonou provides their fans with “Salsa” sounds, West Africans recognize the connection between their Diasporic cousin and their traditional music.

No such recognition exists with most Black Americans. Slavery couldn’t produce that disconnect. Neither could Segregation. Segregation fueled Pan-Africanism. Instead, it was so-called integration and what many of us consider freedom that’s done more to separate us as a people than 500 plus years of oppression.

The enslavers’ divide and conquer technique has become engraved in the minds of the victims of slavery. A people can be phenotypically similar, look like relatives, but if they speak a different language, the Black man and woman in America no longer sees them as family.

Black American spiritual music and all that derive from it are based on a religion that was forced upon us, a religion that we adopted and in some cases transformed into a religion of liberation. But at it’s core, it is still an American creation.

Whereas “Salsa” and it’s Cuban and Puerto Rican origins maintain the rhythms and characteristics of the music of our ancestors prior to our enslavement. It’s nothing to hear “Salsa” songs invoke Yoruban Orishas — songs dedicated to Obatala, Shango, Yemaya, etc.

The Black Americans inability to even recognize or feel sounds that resembles their native music is a direct result of the slave codes and the modern post-racial attitude.

The term “Salsa” and it’s marketing may have something to do with it. Unlike Boogaloo which sought to be inclusive of Soul and R&B, “Salsa” focused more on the native sounds of Puerto Rico and Cuba and was more Nationalistic in scope.

Tito Puente often said, “I play Cuban music, not salsa” or “We play Cuban music, not sauce.” And other musicians who preceded and influenced the artists that produced the “Salsa” boom, never accepted the term either.

It’s impossible to determine if Black Americans would accept “Salsa” had it not been branded. It seems that the only way we accept the music is when it’s delivered to us the way Sean C served it up: sampling Lalo Schifrin’s “Anita,” interpolating Willie Colon’s “El Dia De Suerte,” smacking a Hip-Hop beat on it, and having a cool flow provided by Big Pun for his posthumous release “100% featuring Tony Sunshine.”

So maybe there’s hope with Hip-Hop…or should I say there WAS hope…but that’s another topic for another article.

The Brothers

The Brothers will discuss any and everything, whether it’s…

The Brothers

The Brothers will discuss any and everything, whether it’s comics, movies, or even one’s favorite falafel spot. We will show you what you already know — Black men have perspective; greater still, a VOICE.


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b-boy, Hip-Hop Investigating, music lovin’ Muslim

The Brothers

The Brothers will discuss any and everything, whether it’s comics, movies, or even one’s favorite falafel spot. We will show you what you already know — Black men have perspective; greater still, a VOICE.