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Cuban Music Lesson: Salsa


Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.


Salsa. A lot of people think that this is what all afro-Caribbean music is called. Back in the distant past when there were record stores, you would often see Benny More or Perez Prado filed under salsa, which is just plain wrong. We’d like to say that this is something only our white friends in North America do. Unfortunately, many Latinos of Caribbean extraction think salsa is a catch-all term as well. They should know better. The truth is, salsa is only about 40 years old and was born in New York City. Salsa is as American as apple pie and childhood obesity.

In the late 40’s and 50’s, there was a huge influx of Puerto Ricans to New York City. The immigrant groups that had worked menial jobs in the past like the Italians, Jews, and Irish, were moving up the social latter. This left an employment void that a lot of Puerto Ricans from rural areas moved to NYC to fill. The kids of these immigrants were known as Nuyoricans. When these youngins weren’t fighting delicately choreographed gang fights like in “West Side Story“, they were going to the dance clubs that had been established by Cuban artists in the 40’s. Cubans had been living and playing in New York for decades, and the Nuyoricans felt comfortable with their Caribbean brethren. In 1959, more Cubans started pouring into New York after the whole Castro thing. Artists like Celia Cruz, Mongo Santamaria, and others started playing with both Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians in New York. In addition to traditional Cuban and Puerto Rican music, these artists were influenced by American rock and jazz. One night, Cuban music, jazz, rock, and Puerto Rican music got drunk, had a four way, and created salsa.

Salsa has gone on to become a worldwide phenomenon. Seemingly more accessible than more traditional forms of music, it travels well. Salseros like Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, El Gran Combo, and many others are considered iconic. Some have said that salsa is an inauthentic mash-up of styles. That it is homogeneous. It’s similar to what people say about tex-mex food: that it’s inauthentic. What does authentic mean? That it comes from a certain country? Salsa is authentic to the experience of the Puerto Rican and Cuban musicians living in New York in the 60’s and 70’s. So, know the difference between your salsa and your mambo. Also, just shut up and take your girl out salsa dancing.

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