Salsa: Musical Heartbeat of Latin America


Salsa: Musical Heartbeat of Latin America

Sue Steward (1999)

Thames and Hudson

Also sold in the US as ‘Musica!: Salsa, Rumba, Merengue, and More’, this 176 page book considers the development of salsa across the Caribbean and to New York and beyond. Supported by a well laid out index and supplemented by a chapter-linked discography it features around fifty short pen pictures of many of the best known artists. The book contains many accompanying photographs and illustrations.

Why you might buy it:
The presentation and organization of materials is excellent – bright and accessible with plenty of photos/illustrations as well as a good deal of accompanying text. As a primer for reading in this area this has all the makings of a sound purchase, as many copies have been sold you should find a copy quite inexpensively. Consideration is given to a wide range of influences and styles, the book does a good job of attempting to give the reader a general overview, written in a lively manner.

Why you might leave it:
Once you see the errors (and there are many, not simply factual ones either) it starts to detract greatly from overall enjoyment of the book, which is a shame. In an attempt to provide a readable (see “lively” above) rather than strictly accurate account of things there are times when Steward appears to “over-flower” the language, creating some statements that don’t stand up to any real scrutiny. It will soon be a decade since publication and in many respects the featured ‘current scene’ appears, quite reasonably, to be extremely dated.


Foreward by Willie Colón
Introduction: The world of salsa
Salsa: The music, the dance
Making the music: The instruments
The dance
I Roots of Salsa
Chapter 1 – Cuba: The Roots of Salsa
II The Salsa Centres
Chapter 2 – Spanish Harlem: The immigrant’s tale
Chapter 3 – Salsa in the USA
Chapter 4 – Cuba: Salsa in revolution
Chapter 5 – Puerto Rico: Salsa colony
Chapter 6 – Santo Domingo: The merengue capital
Chapter 7 – Miami: 90 miles to Cuba
Chapter 8 – Colombia: Continental connections
Chapter 9 – Salsa to London: From Edmundo Ros to Snowboy
III Crossing Borders
Chapter 10 – Latin Jazz, Afro-Cuban Jazz
Chapter 11 – Africando: Cuban music returns to African soil
Chapter 12 – From Here to Mañana

Selected extracts (from):

Uniting the various styles is an underlying rhythmic framework known as the clave, clapped out by enthusiastically by the audiences in sinuous 1-2-3, 1-2 phrases. Like the Spanish language- the language of salsa – clave means different things in different places. The New York composer/pianist Isidro Infante hears the clave drifting like a ghost through flamencos; Cuban percussionist Daniel Ponce hears it in Jimi Hendrix solos. But everybody hears it in salsa: according to the veteran conga player Joe Cuba, ‘Clave makes the (Latin music) world go round’.

(Chapter 1 – Cuba: The Roots of Salsa):
The older generation of salsa singers still incorporate gestures and dance steps derived from Santeria dancing – a flick of the hand, a swish of a white handkerchief, a shudder of the shoulders, or a thrust of the pelvis. After the revolution, Havana’s tourist oriented cabaret shows presented ‘authentic’ Afro-Cuban vignettes featuring leading singers and percussionists associated with Santeria. In the dollar starved nineties, Santeria was put on official tourist itineraries; for an inflated fee, visitors can be guided through a genuine bembe, though parts of the ceremony remain secret.

(Chapter 2 – Spanish Harlem: The immigrant’s tale):
In the thirties, the community was united through Spanish language radio stations: live broadcasts from local nightclubs were a major source of home entertainment. The American record industry sent talent scouts into the Caribbean in the first decade of the century: both the Victor Talking Machine Company and Columbia Phonograph Company were capitalizing on the new market with recordings of Cuban son and Puerto Rican danzas, plenas and aguinaldos.

(Chapter 3 – Salsa in the USA):
The ‘Fania Sound’ was created by a clique of inventive bandleaders, composers, arrangers and engineers who brought their passion to the studios. Johnny Pacheco and Larry Harlow ere diehard Cuban music aficionados who tweaked and reworked the brassy mambo model; Harlow was also a technology fiend: his 1973 model Electric Harlow introduced electric piano to salsa. Pacheco included a few merengues for the Dominicans. Louie Ramirez, the virtuoso percussionist and prolific producer and Louis ‘Perico’ Ortiz, the Puerto Rican trumpeter, both had strong jazz leanings – Ortiz had performed with Mongo Santamaria’s band before arranging for Fania; jazz influenced prodigy ‘Papo’ Lucca moonlighted from the Puerto Rican band La Sonora Poncena. Each band also depended for its individual sound on the magical configurations and emphases of the different instruments, particularly within the brass and horn sections. Several left-field instruments – baritone saxophone, clarinet, electric guitar, tres guitar – were dropped in to give fresh textures.

(Chapter 4 – Cuba: Salsa in revolution):
Through the sixties and seventies, Cuban musicians composed, recorded and played all over the island, unhampered by conventional European and American pressures of touring schedules and quick album deadlines. Isolated from the mainstream of Latin music, they began in the eighties to re-engage with the non-communist through Europe and particularly the UK. By the late nineties Cuban music was back on the Latin music map and in demand everywhere – even in the U.S. By the New York’s Latin musicians had transformed the fifties Cuban model and their ‘salsa’ was influencing bands worldwide. But salsa was anathema to Cuban musicians, who dismissed it as ‘an imperialist theft of Cuban music’, ignoring the fact that many musicians playing salsa in New York and particularly Miami were also Cuban.

(Chapter 5 – Puerto Rico: Salsa colony):
In 1951 a band emerged which represented a milestone in Cuban music. Rafael Ithier switched from playing piano in a tuxedo with Orquesta Panamericana to jamming with a small group led by black conga player Rafael Cortijo and a husky crooner called Ismael Rivera at a dockside brothel known as La Riviera. La Riviera’s dancers were hooked on mambo and rock n roll which came in through the port from Cuba and New York. Cortijo’s combo used the energy and tension of rock but stayed close to the roots music of bombas and plenas. He transposed the bubbling rhythms of bomba for saxophone, trumpet and piano-led unit. Their 1954 release El Bombon de Elena (Elena’s Candy) was a compelling debut which launched a string of hits.

(Chapter 6 – Santo Domingo: The merengue capital):
‘When I started playing music in 1956’, Ventura says, ‘the musicians played sitting down and the people danced as if they were sleeping. We woke them up! The first singer to dance on stage was Joseo Mateo, the “King of the Merengue”, but he danced alone in front of a full seated orchestra. With my band, all the musicians stood up, and all the singers danced. It was a revolution’. Ventura rewrote the rules of merengue.

(Chapter 7 – Miami: 90 miles to Cuba):
The perfect introduction to Miami’s rich Latin music scene is the world famous Calle Ocho Cuban Carnival. This major event in the calendar was founded in 1978 when a group of Cubans calling themselves the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana (named after a tribe of Cuban Indians) held a street party on 8th street. Twenty years later it is a 23 block extravaganza stretching from sleepy suburbia at one end of the street , to urban chaos below the interstate I-95 at the other.

(Chapter 8 – Colombia: Continental connections):
In the mid-seventies, Fruko devoted his attention to his mould-breaking group Los Tesos (The Treasures), whose songs reveal both his deep understanding of hit making and his wild sense of adventure. At the same time, the Fuentes hit factory also included the straight-ahead salsa of The Latin Brothers, which crystallized the careers of both Joe Arroyo and co-singers the late Piper Pimiento and Wilson Saoco. Arroyo developed a distinctive vocal style which included high pitched whinnies and screeches in imitation of Beny More.

(Chapter 9 – Salsa to London: From Edmundo Ros to Snowboy):
The origins of today’s fanatical interest in salsa music and dancing in the UK lie in the 1930’s, when a band called the Lecuona Cuban Boys introduced their strange ethnic instruments, ruffle-sleeved rhumba shirts and irresistibly catchy rhythms to London. ‘The Rum Rhythms of the Real Rumba’ was how the Melody Maker summed up the first concert in 1934, describing them not only as a ‘slap-up authentic Cuban band’ but also as a ‘queer outfit who introduced the new dance, the conga’. Infatuated local danceband musicians learned to play the music by studying these exotic visitors and their records, and tried to get ‘that Cuban look’ by slipping on lurid rhumba shirts, slicking back their hair and adding an –ez or an –o to their surnames. Today salsa is a respected part of Britian’s uniquely eclectic musical scene; clubs span the UK and homegrown bands race up and down the motorways to join the local DJs and dance teachers.

(Chapter 10 – Latin Jazz, Afro-Cuban Jazz):
Mario Bauza was a tiny, mischievous man with a huge infectious grin. He was the first musical director to successfully merge Cuba’s dance rhythms with American jazz horns to create a third entity – Afro-Cuban jazz. The identity was established with the Afro-Cubans band, a tight, brilliant family affair run by his brother-in-law Machito and his sister, the big voiced, warm-hearted, scat singing Graciela.

(Chapter 11 – Africando: Cuban music returns to African soil):
The genetic connections between salsa and African music are revealed in markets all over West Africa, where cassettes of Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barretto, Roberto Torres and the charanga orchestras Broadway and Aragon sell alongside the local superstars Youssou N’Dour, Salif Keita and Baaba Maal. Cuban music and salsa have had an enduring impact in the region – spread from Cameroun to Congo by local radio stations, in particular the uniquely powerful Radio Brazzaville, founded in the Congo in 1949. The music’s greatest effect was felt in French speaking countries such as Congo, Senegambia and Mali, which had surrendered so many of their people to Cuba through the slave trade. The music was returning to it’s roots, still recognizable in the rhythms.

[end of extracts]

Other reviews: by Bruce Polin (2001)
This is one of the clearest, most concise celebrations and explanations of Afro-Latin tropical musical forms. If you are looking for a good starting point to make sense of the infectious rhythms of the Caribbean, look no further. Ms. Steward, one of the UK’s most knowledgeable salsiologists, guides us on a colorful tour that outlines the history and lineage of salsa, in both time and geography, in a manner that is fun to read and informative. Perfect for your reference library. Makes a wonderful gift as well. Highly recommended.
***Note: The book contains some factual errors that we had hoped would be corrected in a revised edition. This edition is still the original. Therefore we will attempt to create a corrections page to be included in future sales of this book. by Kim Burton (extract)
… Sue Steward has sensibly chosen to regard salsa as a term that covers not only the core music, the brash and glossy commercial music that grew from Cuban son and developed in the barrios of New York and Puerto Rico, but also a host of other tropical dance musics

One of the hardest things for anyone attempting to deal with the history of Latin music is disentangling the complicated trails that various musicians and personalities left behind them as they moved from band to band and even country to country, and in the ensuing chapters Sue Steward does this in an admirably clear way. She traces the manner in which patterns of emigration from Cuba to the United States laid the foundations of Latin music in that country, and gives full credit to the way in which Puerto Rican musicians, both on their own island and in New York, transformed the still rather provincial sound of Cuba into a pre-eminently big-city music, with complicated arrangements, a driving percussion section and the disciplined yet unpredictable way in which the sonero (the lead singer), bounced his, less frequently her, semi-improvised phrases off the unchanging coro of the backing singers in a call and response pattern that remains one of the strongest African elements in the music
Along the way there are mini-biographies of most of the major figures in the music – not just the household names, such as Celia Cruz, Willie Colón or the musicians clustered around the Buena Vista Social Club project, but also a host of lesser-known singers and musicians, famous within the Latin community but less familiar to outsiders. This is one of the most valuable features of the book, and is a tremendous resource for anyone who wants to advance their acquaintance with the music but until now has had nowhere to turn. Although the chapter on salsa in Britain is a useful contribution to a field that is still woefully under-explored, the emphasis on certain musicians at the expense of others did make me raise my eyebrows. Although the Colombian timbalero Roberto Plá is correctly given his due as one of the most influential figures, the names of other equally important musicians are missing entirely, while the attention given to some minor figures is surprising. Simply being present doesn’t necessarily mean that they made any valuable contribution, musically or historically. There is generally a certain reluctance to make aesthetic judgements as opposed to historical ones: it is surprising to find Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval lauded for his energy and technical skill without at least a mention of the woeful emotional aridity of his playing
It is possible to take issue (and musicians probably will) with some of the more technical descriptions of rhythmic and formal structure – the clave, described as a ‘rhythm’ in itself rather than a central convention which defines the points of coincidence of the polyrhythmic patterns shared out among the musicians, is one matter which I think is less than happily treated here – but this is a notoriously difficult problem. Nonetheless, this must the best and fullest available book on the subject in English, and will provide beginner and expert alike with a lot of information, a lot of food for thought, and a guide to what trails remain for them to follow in this wide and luxuriant musical landscape. by A reader (1999)
There is only one word to describe this book and that is BRILLIANT!
This book represents a true labour of love by the author Sue Steward (co-founder of the Mambo Inn in London). It is an entertaining read which succinctly conveys everything about this genre of music from its African and Latin-Caribbean roots right bang up to date with a perspective on the London Latin scene and towards the possible future directions of Salsa.

This book is beautifully illustrated with photos of all the major Salsa Legends from the past and present. It certainly helped me put faces to names of artists I’ve heard of and to learn something about who their lives. Even just by flicking through the pages this book you can feel the infectious and spiritually uplifting tropical Latin rhythms tingling your fingers and moving your feet!


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