Before there was salsa:

Ignacio Piñeiro | Beny Moré


Machito and His Afro-Cubans


Eddie Palmieri | Palmieri and Ismael Quintana

Latin Boogaloo

Joe Cuba

Early Salsa:

Johnny Pacheo | The Fania All-Stars

Salsa comes into its own:

Willie Colón and Hector Lavoe | Celia Cruz and Tito Puente | Manny Oquendo y Conjunto Libre | Willie Colón and Ruben Blades

Salsa keeps evolving:

Jo Arroyo (salsa Colombiana) | José Alberto (salsa romantica) | Calle 13 and Ruben Blades (salsa hip-hop)

In class we’re going to say “hello” in “Nuyorican” slang:

¡Hola, mami! ¡Hola, papi!

and “goodbye” as you might in Puerto Rico:

Hasta la vista.



“Salsa” is the Spanish word for “sauce”–any kind of sauce–though in American English it often refers to a sauce with a spicy kick. Using the term “salsa” in reference to music invokes a sense of a sound that is “spicy”–hot and wild, and at the same time thoroughly Latin.

There is disagreement among music historians regarding the actual first use of the term “salsa” in a musical context. Did it first appear in the 1930s when IGNACIO PIÑEIRO shouted “salsa!” to inspire his band to increase the tempo of the music to get people dancing? [Watch Piñeiro and his band perform live in 1978.] Did BENY MORÉ yell “salsa” when the dance music became hot?” [Watch Moré perform, “Ya Son Las Doce.”] Did Venezuelan radio host Phidias Danilo Escalona use it as a yelp of appreciation for a great solo?

Whatever the term’s origins, all agree that “salsa” first appeared as a distinct musical genre in the late 1960s and ’70s when New York City-based FANIA RECORDS, a record company specializing in Latin music, promoted its artists throughout Latin America as the bearers of a border-busting, pan-Latin, multi-ethnic “salsa” sound. At first many of the top Latin artists scoffed at the term–Tito Puente, who we’ll meet below, famously said, “The only salsa I know is sold in a bottle called ketchup. I play Cuban music”–but over time this
marketing term morphed into an expansive yet actual cultural/musical movement. Did Fania take music that originated in many countries around the Spanish-speaking world, jumble it into a unified “Latin” musical form and try to market it internationally? All sign points to Yes. In doing so, did it ultimately manufacture a genre about which musicians such as trumpeter Willie Colón–more about him below too–could make statements like, “Salsa was the force that united diverse Latino and other non-Latino racial and ethnic groups,” and be generally telling the truth? Fania did that too.

Some Cuban musicians, or other Latino musicians, like Puente, specialized in performing Cuban music, were uncomfortable about the creation of salsa as a pan-Latin form, rightly noting the disproportionate contribution of Cuban music to the genre. Fania’s marketers and musicians rarely, if ever, referred to the Cuban origins of salsa; the 1979 documentary Salsa: Latin Pop Music in Cities even explained salsa as being a mix of sounds from Africa, New York City and “the Caribbean,” without specific reference to Cuba. (The film is still a must-see for its tremendous salsa performances.) Did Fania’s marketing department wash Cuba out of the history of salsa on purpose so it could sell the music to as broad of a Latin population? Did Latin radio stations, record companies and music fans in the U.S. at the time want to separate themselves from a Cuban artform so they would not carry with them the taint of supporting Cuba during this particularly hot decade of the Cold War? Two strong maybes on this one.

We’ll explore salsa’s musical pedigree; you be the judge.

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