top of page

Who Owns Salsa?

Who owns Salsa, nationality, ethnicity and clave.-by Norman Urquía 1999

One of the most hotly debated issues around Salsa is where its from and who owns it; in a recently reissued song, Pio Leyva sings, "if they talk to you about Salsa, lies, it’s called Son" (si te hablan de la salsa, mentira, se llama son). I can now reveal the answer is to this is … IT DEPENDS. It really depends on how you are looking at it. Are you tracing history of the rhythms back to their roots (how far back do you go, it could go on forever) or you could look for the people who developed it, or the people who consume it and keep the demand going. You could argue that Salsa is Caribbean because that’s where the rhythms came from, or maybe from New York because they jazzed up the Son and called it Salsa. Or you could argue that it belongs to all the people who dance and listen to Salsa from Japan, LA, London, San Juan to "el quinto pino", or the ends of the earth.

But often when people ask, "where does salsa comes from" they want an answer based on nationality, geography and ethnicity. What I’ve done here is to go through some literature on Salsa, which sheds some light on the question. The ideas fall under three main headings:

• Musical roots.

• Transplanted music.

• Trans-national music.

Musical roots.

Salsa draws on several Afro-Latin genres, among the most important influences is Cuban Son Montuno, from which salsa gets its rhythms (e.g. clave, and matriz "taka taka taka gun") and song structure (canto - montuno) which Son derived from Rumba. Salsa also drew indirectly on another Cuban musical family Danzon / Mambo. So Cuban music and musicians have been especially important to "Salsa". But there is furious debate around this, which I will look at by describing the contribution of the Cuban sources from which Salsa was created.

Son is an Afro Cuban music, which originated a century ago in Oriente, eastern Cuba, (Santiago is often quoted). Son drew on African and European musics but was predominantly played by and for Afro-Cubans and was considered vulgar by the elite. Son arrived in Havana (which was reputedly less racist) around 1909 and despite its association with the poor it began to attract following of white upper classes. This coincided with an increased interest and respect for Afro-Cubanismo inspired by authors like Fernando Ortiz. This respect was seen later with the "re-Africanisation" of Son by people like Arsenio Rodriguez in using the conga drum which had formerly been a rejected symbol of lower class black culture.

Son's two-part structure features verses, which set out a theme, followed by a call and response section of lyrical and musical improvisations on the theme. This structure allowed son to incorporate other genres, e.g. guajira-son, bolero-son etc and this gave Son a wide appeal in Cuba, which was also helped by it’s celebration of the everyday life of Cuba’s poor. Son became popular throughout Cuba around 1920 when Miguel Matamoros copyrighted the first Son, "Mama Son de la loma". International popularity followed in the 1930s when Don Azpiazu's orchestra performed Moises Simons’ Son "El Manisero" at the Chicago world fare. This gave rise to the US "rhumba craze" of the 1930s. So in 30 years Son went from being an obscure regional performance mainly produced by poor black musicians, to a national symbol of Cuba and "international pop phenomenon".


Rumba was Havana’s parallel to Oriente's Son. Traditional Rumba is an Afro Cuban genre, which emerged in the 1890s it featured percussion and voices and the best known variety (guaguanco) represents a sexual conquest. It was also associated with poor Afro Cubans and like other aspects of Afro Cuban culture was often suppressed. Afro Cubans faced prosecution for street performances of box drums and ñañigo Rumbas.

However the restriction of Afro Cuban and traditional forms didn’t extend to cabaret music, and the cabaret Rumba flourished during the US prohibition era when Cuba attracted US tourists. This was a greatly changed Rumba of lewd "sainetes" (short plays) which portrayed racial stereotypes to a racially segregated male audience. The music was not always Rumba but featured caricatured rumberas. Moore suggest that this parody especially belittled Afro Cuban music. References to black culture were in the lyrics not the music, through singing about poor areas in a mock black dialect.

During this period Rumba was suppressed while Son gradually became seen as the essence of Cuba, "Cubanisimo". So Moore sees the history of Rumba and Son as the struggle of Cubans to come to term with their cultural diversity and to create a national unity. The acceptance of Afro-Cuban performers as Soneros but not as Rumberos led to an increasing disguising of Rumba within Son as musicians adapted to middle class Cuban and international tastes.

The mixing of two genres can be seen in song lyrics, through the 1930s and 1950s, references to Guaguanco increased, Sones with little Afro Cuban percussion, referred to Rumba in lyrics. In the mid 1940s traditional Rumba was re-appropriated by black artists and came to be celebrated as a self-confident expression of black culture and Rumba rhythms began to appear within Son and Mambo; the Guaguanco in particular became seen as a source of authenticity.

Danzon & Mambo

Danzon emerged as a stylised derivative of the genteel contradanza (habanera) which was derived from the charanga or tumba francesa. This came to Cuba with refugees from the Haitian revolution. By 1920 the genre had become Danzon and featured flute, violins, piano, string bass, timbales and güiro. Danzon used a habanera bassline, a violin "guajeo" (the repeated phrase which is usually played on piano) and despite its more European sound Danzon was a Creole genre and often played for the white urban elite by black musicians.

In 1938 Orestes Lopez (Cachao’s brother) from Arcaño's band composed a danzon called "Mambo" which had a fast improvised section at the end. Arcaño added a conga to the ensemble, replaced the habanera bass with a Son bass and the played the timbales pattern on the cencerro (cow bell), so the new music now had feel of Son but was in three parts. Soon charanga ensembles adopted Danzon-Mambo, and when separate Mambos were recorded without the preceding Danzon section, a new genre was formed which was eventually to rival the international popularity of Son.

Transplanted music.

Since the 1930s Son had become popular throughout the Hispanic Caribbean, through live performances, radio, recordings and film. This popularity emerged from common cultural disposition created by similar histories of colonisation: slavery, sugar and tobacco economies and the influence of African and Iberian cultural forms.

So Son went from being a very local Cuban style to one which transcended cultural and geographical boundaries. A particularly important tie has been between Puerto Rican and Cuban genres. An often-quoted poem has the line: "Cuba and Puerto Rico are the two wings of the same bird" and throughout their history the two countries have had close links and similar histories. But because of Puerto Rico's geography, size and position it had a different experience of colonial rule, e.g. the ethnic mix was different because Cuba's indigenous population were wiped out, also Puerto Rico had proportionately fewer Africans and hence Cuba had a more robust and visible Afro-Latin culture. But both countries felt a need to distance themselves from the colonial influence of Spain and the emerging influence of the US. In Cuba black musical expression especially Son served this purpose, and Cuban genres also helped in Puerto Rico. They had been accepted there since early days e.g. contradanza, bolero and guaracha were adopted and became symbols of Puerto Rican nationalism.

Bomba and Plena

Puerto Rican national identity is especially important because many Puerto Ricans feel they have not had independence since the 1490s and they have often seen themselves in contrast with their colonisers. Music has been symbolically important in this, so Son and later Salsa were embraced as local genres, which confidently contrasted with Spanish and US music. Local Puerto Rican music like Bomba and Plena are important in Puerto Rico as folk genres and as influences in Salsa, but didn’t get the same mass popularity as Salsa perhaps because they were not established national musics. Mon Rivera, Rafael Cortijo, his wonderful singer Ismael Rivera, were the most recent popular champions of Bomba and Plena. But their music was really Cubanised, it used the conjunto ensemble, instrumentation and often featured a Son clave, Son bass and guajeo over local rhythms. Also the repertoire of the bands which emerged from the break up Cortijos combo, e.g. Cortijo's "Bonche", "El Gran Combo", and Ismael Rivera's "Cachimbos" all produced far more Salsa than Bomba or Plena. So basically the contribution of Puerto Rican people to salsa has been much greater than the influence of Puerto Rican music to Salsa. (Having said that where would Salsa be without Ismael Rivera, El Gran Combo, Cortijo, Mon Rivera, La Sonora Ponceña, Libre, Willie Colon, Willie Rosario, Gilberto Santa Rosa to name a few).

There is a counter argument that challenges the exclusive Cuban roots of Salsa. This suggests that Salsa is pan Latin and diverse incorporating many styles of which Son is only one. Some people suggest that Plena was as influential to Salsa as Son and that Salsa is very different from Afro Cuban music, in its instrumentation, tempo, arrangements and subject matter. It is hard to resolve these arguments, certainly Puerto Ricanisms in Salsa are more subtle than the Cubanisms but they are there. Sometimes a bomba pattern is played on a cencerro, or a song has a "lelolai" introduction or they are singing about rural jibaros, or Christmas aguinaldos. But before we even consider settling the Cuban - Puerto Rican debate there’s another argument which presents "Salsa" as neither Cuban nor Puerto Rican but North American; a product of New York where the Son became Salsa and gained a new significance.

Trans-national music

The USA has been important to the development of Salsa for several reasons. Firstly, along with Spain, the USA provided a symbol of colonialism to be reacted against, in the cultural world this lead to a greater acceptance of Afro-Latin musics, which might otherwise have remained marginal.

The US has been a major consumer of Latin music not only through tourism as was seen in cabaret Rumba, but also in the "rhumba craze" of the thirties (see above) followed by the popularity of the Mambo and Chachachá, which the USA helped to distribute. We often think of Latin music being exported to the USA, but Waxer argues that this was a two way process. The US influence in Cuban music is seen in the use of trumpets in Son and the Jazz influenced big band styles of Benny More among others. New Orleans was also closely linked culturally to the Caribbean in its past and in particular to Havana.

Perhaps the most important US influence on salsa has been as home to many Latin musicians, which led to new music, combining the New York experience with the original Caribbean sources. The Puerto Rican population of New York was particularly important to Salsa. In his obituary to Jerry Masucci, founder of Fania, Larry Harlow described Salsa's growth in NYC as a response to the reduced availability of Cuban music after the Cuban revolution, which led New York Latins to reproduce Cuban music for the new local setting. Waxer suggests that the transnational development of Son, Danzon, Mambo and Chachachá set the stage for the creation of a pan-Latin American cultural identity, and that this musical appropriation is linked into the development of a new social identity. Furthermore Manuel adds that in this process of creative appropriation and reformation that the original roots and ethnic associations can actually become irrelevant to the new identity being formed.


There is no conclusion to this ongoing debate, Salsa is a trans-national genre, which draws on many other genres. What’s more interesting to me is not deciding who is right or wrong (which is impossible) but being aware of and respecting the many different contributions to the argument, and enjoying the many wonderful contributions to the music. I’ve touched on some of the issues. But I haven’t even had time to mention the relationship between Salsa and Calypso, Mento and Merengue or the contributions of Miami, mainland Latin America, e.g. Venezuela and Colombia or even African, European and Asian contributions which have all played a role in the creation of Salsa.

So a simple question like "where’s salsa from" leads us to questions like "what is nationality", "what is ethnicity" and "what is identity" and the idea of a music moving around the world and forming a joint pop culture. Its not a simple subject, you could do a PhD on it (as I am) and still not find a definitive answer. So now, when people ask me "where’s salsa from", I say "If you’ve got a couple of weeks, I can start to explain, but wouldn’t you rather dance instead?"

43 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page