Most people call everything “Salsa” because that is the only word that they know to describe all Latin music! “Salsa” is actually a concept often used to describe a family of different rhythms. “Salsa” (‘sauce’) was first coined in the 1937 Ignacio Pineiro song ‘Échale Salsita’ where a guy goes out intending to have a good time, and discovers a man selling hotdogs, whom he requests to ‘put a little sauce on it’. “Salsa” music developed in New York during the 1960s. Historical events such as the Cuban revolution and the Puerto Rican famine resulted in the mass migrations of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and other Latin American (Romance language‑speaking) peoples to Miami and New York. Here, these dispersed minorities reconnected through cultural solidarity. Their music was an amalgamation of rhythms uprooted and reformed in North America. Simultaneously, these musicians started playing with the North American musicians resulting in a hybridisation of jazz instruments and harmonies with Latin American rhythms. So the term “Salsa” is actually describing a mixture of musical styles and the movements that they represent. Generally, it is a hot and spicy musical experience that draws upon or reflects elements of African and Latin American (predominantly Spanish-speaking) culture – regardless of rhythm or style.
Cuban ‘son’ and ‘rumba’, considered to be the roots of “Salsa”, were the secular and sacred dances performed by the African slaves, renewed through members of the Buena Vista Social Club, among others. ‘Son’ is traditionally played on the ‘tres’ (strummed lute/guitar) underpinned by the ‘marímbula’ (bass) and percussion instruments such as claves and maracas. ‘Rumba’, on the other hand, is more percussion oriented, played on cargo boxes, barrel‑shaped drums (conga and bongó) and single‑headed cowbells, originating from Santería, a hybrid religion where African gods and goddesses are worshipped under the guise of Catholic saints. During colonialism, the Spanish authorities would not permit the African slaves to practise their own religion; however, they permitted them to ‘beat the drum’ at certain times. The ‘bembe’ drumming rituals combined African batá drumming (hourglass‑shaped drum), liturgical song, costume and dance into a multidisciplinary conglomeration of music and religion, which beats at the heart of “Salsa”. Hence, music was a communal activity whereby dispersed individuals could not only participate in their own religious practices, but also reconnect with each other. In this way, the music is inseparable from its cultural or religious context, operating either on a recreational level (‘son’) or on a spiritual level (‘rumba’). Thus, while ‘son’ and ‘rumba’ refer more to African rhythms (much like the ‘bomba’ and ‘plena’ in Puerto Rico and the ‘merengue’ and ‘bachata’ in the Dominican Republic), “Salsa” embodies a wider meaning and can be used to describe contemporary bands that play these styles but also more modern offshoots of “Salsa”, such as ‘timba’ and ‘reggaeton’.
Cuban ‘mambo’ and ‘cha‑cha-chá’ developed from the more European styles such as the ‘danzón’ and ‘habañera’ brought to Cuba through the Haitian revolution, which, in turn, originated from the salon music popular in France and Western Europe, bringing instruments such as the piano, piccolo, violin and ‘timbales’ (metal drums). Israel “Cachao” Lopez created the ‘danzón‑habañera’, which later became the ‘mambo’ under Tito Puente, which, in turn, became the ‘cha‑cha‑chá‘ under violinist Enrique Jorrín. These, together with the Cuban ‘son’ and ‘rumba’ and the styles originating from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and other Latin American (predominantly Spanish‑speaking) countries form a family of styles grouped under the umbrella term “Salsa”, which not only denotes the music, but is also synonymous with enjoyment, flavour or ecstasy. Not all exponents of “Salsa” agreed with its attribution to ‘sauce’: Tito Puente was once noted for saying “The only form of salsa I know comes in a bottle… I play Latin music!” However, “Salsa” has come to adopt a wider meaning, but it can also be used to describe the musical style and ethos of a band, and indicate which rhythms they are likely to play.
Musically, a “Salsa” band has a slightly different meaning from a “Latin” band. While a “Salsa” band specialises in the rhythms and dance forms originating in Hispanic communities, developing through the 1960s and 1970s in New York – particularly through Fania Records – and subsequently becoming a global, commercial phenomenon throughout Latin America; a “Latin” band will play “Salsa” but also other styles that might be considered to fall outside of the “Salsa” bracket – such as “Samba”, “Bossa Nova”, “Bolero” and “Tango”.
“Salsa” and “Samba” are often confused, when they are actually two completely different animals! This is perhaps due to the fact that both African‑Spanish and African‑Portuguese musical traditions came through colonialism and the Slave Trade, developed in relatively parallel ways and enjoy equal deployment through jazz icons such as Dizzy Gillespie and Paquito D’Rivera. However, “Samba” comes from a different place altogether. Originating from the ‘choro’ (‘chorinho’ or ‘sobbing’) – African rhythms combined with the classical harmonic structures from Portugal and Western Europe, a kind of instrumental ‘jazz’ music with roots in Salvador, Bahia and Rio De Janeiro, – samba evolved into the vast, organised percussion ‘batucada’ ensembles that play a big part in the traditional carnival processions, anchored in the universal concept of ‘saudade’ – a kind of nostalgia, longing or sorrow – which has a specific meaning to Lusophone (Portuguese‑speaking) peoples. “Samba” is traditionally played on the ‘cavaquinho’ (strummed lute/guitar) accompanied by various voices and percussion instruments such as the ‘tamborim’, ‘surdo’ and ‘agogo’ (double‑headed cowbell). Candomblé – a hybrid, Afro‑Brazilian religion – involves traditional drumming ceremonies where different sizes of ‘atabaque’ (African tuned drums) are played, in a parallel vein to the conga and bongó in Afro‑Cuban religion Santería. Hence, there are several parallels between Cuban and Brazilian styles of music – both in their formative development and their integration within popular music and jazz, – which has often resulted in stereotype and confusion.
“Bossa Nova” (‘New Wave’ or ‘Brazilian Jazz’) is a musical genre originating from Rio de Janeiro during the 1960s. At face value, it is a distillation of Afro‑Brazilian samba rhythms with Euro‑American jazz harmonies, combining softly‑spoken vocals, gentle guitar‑strumming and poetic lyrics, evoking idle sunny afternoons and young love on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro – associated with artists such as Tom Jobim, Vinícius De Moraes and João and Astrud Gilberto. Tunes such as ‘Girl From Ipanema’ attained universal popularity not only through their complex, sophisticated ‘jazzy’ harmonies, their subtle, relaxed ‘balança’ (‘side-to-side’) swing and their endless interpretations by North American jazz artists such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Much of the “Bossa Nova” sound has also carried forward into electronic, house and club music, bringing its sensitive, introspective vibes to international audiences.
Musical languages such as “Salsa”, “Samba” and “Tango” (another family of styles originating specifically from southern South America) are interchangeable throughout jazz and popular music, which is why they are often confused. The meanings of these terms vary hugely both historically and culturally; for example, “Salsa” can refer specifically to the music originating from the Fania Records era in New York or it can refer to the concept at large. Furthermore, different words can be used to emphasise contrasting functions of a music that is substantially similar. To an outsider, “Latin Jazz” and “Salsa” might sound indistinguishable, but, in terms of their functions, “Latin Jazz” pertains solely to the music whereas “Salsa” pertains to the music and its wider social contexts (e.g., dance). However, these distinctions are purely subjective and defined by their use.
Nevertheless, when choosing your band, it is important to be aware of these labels and distinctions. Generally, “Salsa” bands can be seen to embrace a more specific movement or adopt a more ‘rooted’ sound, whereas “Latin” bands are more generalised – they might play “Salsa” alongside other styles as described above. Then there are bands with more specific tags. Brazilian bands might play “Samba”, and closely follow the music originating in Salvador, Bahia or Rio de Janeiro. Likewise, merengue bands will closely follow the music originating in the Dominican Republic, which became a global phenomenon throughout Latin America during the 1980s.
“Latin Pop” – in the same way as “Latin Jazz” – describes an essence rather than a style; essentially, popular music or jazz with a Latin flavour. These are looser terms, with wider time spans, and can encompass anything from the traditional to the contemporary. “Latin Pop” will feature either music made famous through Hollywood film soundtracks such as ‘Copacabana’, ‘Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights’, ‘Miami Vice’, ‘Saludos Amigos’ and ‘Shall We Dance?’ as well as club anthems and records by ‘mainstream’ commercial recording artists, or generally popular music originating from ‘Latino’ (Romance language) artists in the Americas and Western Europe.
The best advice to anyone booking a band in the Latin/Salsa category is to decide a) what function the music should have, and b) which artists have inspired you to decide on a band within the Latin/Salsa category. Some bands have a more ‘rooted’, traditional sound, their repertoire focused around certain schools/nucleuses of styles, whereas others like to fuse and experiment a bit more. ‘Latin fusions’ can occur either inside or outside the song, and incorporate everything from standard jazz or popular tunes played in a Latin American style (in terms of their rhythmic or structural interpretation), to bands who play a diverse cross‑section of repertoire – everything from “Salsa”, “Samba” and “Tango”.
If you are looking to please a salsa-dancing crowd, obviously, opting for a band that describes itself as “Salsa” is your best bet. Carnivals happen all over Latin America – not just in Brazil – so if you are looking for a festive, ‘carnival’ atmosphere then it is worth bearing in mind that a ‘carnival’ band might cross over genres, especially if you are hosting a Rio-themed party! Icons such as Carmen Miranda (who appeared in pretty much every Latin American city) arguably accelerated these cultural stereotypes and misrepresentations. On the other hand, some events require background music without dancing, in which case, having a small “Bossa Nova” or “Latin Jazz” outfit to serenade your guests will add the magic ingredient to any event – whether Latin American-themed or not.
The breadth and depth of these terms falls well outside the scope of this guide, in which I have attempted to briefly outline some of them – and I would not be surprised if the reader were overwhelmed with all of these new words! With this in mind, I have grouped some of these words to better convey their meaning. These groupings should not be interpreted literally or used as hard‑and‑fast rules. Instead, they are examples of categorisations that you can take or leave, or at least be a starting point for you to develop your own.
Finally, it is also important to realise that many bands offer variations to their standard instrumental combinations and repertoires, and often take requests. So, if you are drawn towards a certain band, but wish to maximise on a certain aspect of what they offer, then it is always worth checking. If in doubt, just ask!