Published by Manchester Metropolitan University
In the Journal
Knowledge and Cultures crossing boundaries in History
What is Salsa? It is a fusion of different types of dance and music styles, such as the Rumba Yamba (the oldest form of Rumba), Cuban Son, Cha Cha Cha, Mambo,
Danzon (mainly played for the so called “elite” where people of colour were not allowed unless they were a “domestic” or a member of the band), Son Mountuneo and
Bumba (Puerto Rican). The word “Salsa” is the umbrella name used to cover the many different styles of this music that encompass this genre. It was first attributed, in the 1960s, to a Venezuelan DJ who announced the music as salsa. Benny More, a Cuban band leader, would also say “hola salsa” (which translates as hello or hi sauce).
The kitchen references “let’s cook up something” are often used in this music. Modern salsa dancing is essentially a partner dance where the male leads the female in skilful ways with clever moves. The female shows her skill in following the lead with her own improvisation and personal styling. Sometimes the partners will separate and do what are known as shines; ie footwork and styling to the individual’s own taste and then come back together on time to complete the dance.
To understand the development of what we call salsa today, we need to examine its historical and cultural development from the time when en-slaved African people were shipped to the Americas, including the Caribbean. From its African roots, salsa first developed in Cuba. As Thomas Guerrero, the Director of Santo Rico Dance Company has said, the origins of salsa lie in Africa and the Cuba. It became popular throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, and finally made its way to mainland America and even the U.K. It is now truly global.
Salsa music is sometimes described as the African drum and the Spanish guitar which is African in origin. The guitar was brought into Spain by the Moors of North Africa who conquered Spain in AD 711. In 1492 they were overrun by the house of Castile and Oregon and ousted out of Spain. The Catholic Church banned Moorish stringed instruments from being played in the streets. Interestingly enough 1492 also saw the arrival of Christobel Colon in the Americas and the beginning of the removal and destruction of native people and cultures. In the Age of Spanish Colonisation of South and Central America approximately 700,000 Africans were taken to Cuba. Spanish political and ecclesiastical authorities put great pressure upon them to accept Catholicism; but a number of them, who came to reside in the remotest parts of eastern Cuba, enjoyed more freedom to practice their own African traditions and ways of perceiving God (the ALL).
Among the many African traditions the Yoruba Lukumi spiritual belief system from Nigeria, also known as “the way of saints”, had over 200 deities called orishas. The Orishas, variously known as Oggun, Yemeya, Onrula, Obatala, Oshun and Chango, were not gods themselves but represented the powers of God (the ALL). They were also a part of the creation of the creator. This spiritual system is based on nature and works towards a balance here on earth as well as the spiritual realms. Thus Chango, the deity of thunder, brings rain, wets the ground from where life comes and nourishes the trees and plants - a natural process. The veneration of the Orishas came to be fused together with other African traditions including dance and sacred drumming.
Chango is said to own three bata drums (double headed drums which look like egg timers), music, and the art of dance. His symbol was the double axe head that represented swiftness and balance. When the European colonizers made laws criminalising the Lukumi spiritual system, the Africans in Cuba very subtly retained the connections with their ancestral traditions by mixing the Catholic saints with the names of the deities of the Orisha spiritual systems. This mixture came to be known as Santeria.
Although not readily known, this spiritual system and hybrid forms of it can be found in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Panama, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Brazil, Spain and the UK. In a US census, over 22,000 people said they were members of this spiritual system but it is not known how many decided not to disclose their membership. The deity Oshun is represented by Our Lady of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba, and Chango is represented by Santa Barbara, a catholic saint. While they were taught to praise the Catholic saints they were also honouring the Orishas. Another name for this mixture of Catholicism and African spirituality is Bembe. During an interview about her music video, “The Rhythm is Gonna Get You”, Gloria Estefan talks about the use of white handkerchiefs in Bembe, which is the Afro-Cuban religious ceremony of Santaria.
More of this Article to come soon.
With many Cubans coming to Europe, salsa hit the UK in the 1970s when Fania All Stars came to England. Since then the dance has gone from strength to strength, travelling through distant places such as India, China and is now worldwide. People of all creeds are now involved in the dance and respecting each other as dancers. I have put this short piece of work together just scratching the surface of this little known or talked about element of salsa with the intention of dancers and non dancers gaining a better understanding and to pay utmost respect to the African origins of this great music and dance. Let me end with three quotations from the famous and creative practitioners of salsa:
“This is where this music comes from: Africa” (Albert Torres, a major organizer of salsa congresses worldwide, when introducing Africando salsa band from the continent).
"Africans brought to America as slaves weren't allowed to play the drum.The slave owners feared the drum.
From not being allowed to play the drums comes blues and jazz among African Americans. But Africans in the Caribbean,especially Cub,kept the Drum.From the tambor come rhythmical sounds that have been here for years"(Eddie Palmier, winner of nine Grammy awards,creator of a discography of 36 titles, has had a muscial career that has spanned over 50 years as a bandleader of salsa and latin jazz orchestras).
“To go back to the beginning of salsa you have to go back to Mama Africa” from the off Broadway show, Latin Madness.(Producers Nelson Flores and Carl Mendoza). producer of the salsa show, Latin Madness Show).
Franklyn Miller is an international salsa teacher, performer, choreographer Dj and visiting lecturer.
With a background in electronic engineering he has previously owned a business specialising in audio equipment and was also involved in sales and promotion of cultural literature and film. Hence he possesses a longheld interest in all the nuances of salsa.
His particular anthropological passion is to study and lecture in African history and culture from an African-centric standpoint with emphasis on challenging existing thought processes and belief systems held by all generations and nationalities, using pertinent trigger points , thereby encouraging a forum for health debate and promoting an awareness of the achievements of people of African ancestry.
References and interviews
Salsa Rhythm for dancers Seminar, by Mike Bello (2004)
Latin Madness, by Nelson Flores and Carl Mendoza (2001)
Basic Salsa Mambo, by Thomas Gurerrero, Santo Rico Dance Company (2005) Abakua Dance Company, by Frankie Martinez
Tribute to Africando Salsa Band, 6th Annual West Coast Congress, by Albert Torres (2004)
Roots of Rhythm, narrated by Harry Bellafonte (1994)
Roots of Rhythm, interview with Celia Cruz
Roots of Rhythm, interview with Gloria Estefan
Roots of Rhythm, interview with Dizzy Gillespie
Buena Vista Social Club, interview with Ibrahim Ferrer.
StreetDance Australia website. Article by Paul F Clifford
Historical Museum of Florida.website Article The Afro-Cuban Orisha Religion
Salsa & Merengue Society website Article by Loo Yeo
The Moors in Spain seminar, By Booker T Coleman
Clave:The African roots of Salsa Article by Dr Christopher Washburne
The history of the classical guitar. Website Article by Francois Faucher