This is Part Two of a series of articles, where Jeff will try to explain what salsa is, its origins, its ambassadors around the world, and how its culture has influenced dancing worldwide. Check out Part One.
Salsa music, through its ability to adapt to different cultures and styles, comes in many different varieties and flavors. There are many ways to categorize salsa music; however, the most accepted method to do so is by the time periods when the music is produced. Similar to how classical music is split into four eras (baroque, classical, romantic, contemporary), salsa music can be separated into four distinct styles – salsa clasica, salsa romantica, salsa dura, and modern salsa.
Salsa clasica – the early years
In the late 1960s, salsa had just started establishing itself in the United States. At this time, Jerry Mascucci, an Italian-American in love with Latin music, and Johnny Pacheco, a well-known Latin musician, founded the Fania Records label. This record label eventually became a household name for salsa music and musicians of this era, as Fania became the sole producer of salsa music in the United States. Some of the big Fania artists include: Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Ruben Blades, and Cheo Feliciano. Fania’s biggest accomplishment was the creation of the “Fania All-Stars”, a musical ensemble for the best of the best at the time, making numerous record successes in music history.
Salsa clasica is considered the “original style” of salsa music, and is used as the measuring stick for all the different styles of salsa music that came afterwards. Salsa clasica is characterized by its big-band feel: brass-heavy melodies, powerful vocals, and the omnipresent percussion. Due to its jazz influences, there is often a period of improvisation in each song.
Salsa clasica lyrics were often about politics and religion, revolutions and sacrifices, Latin ethnic identity and nationalism. (Though there are often exceptions to the rule, like many things in life.)
Fania all-stars – Me Gusta el Son
A great example of salsa clasica; driving percussion, jazz piano, and passionate sounds!
Willie Colón Y Rubén Blades – Plastico
From an 1978 album, with two of the biggest Fania stars.
Salsa romantica – the pop-ularization of salsa
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the classic style of salsa music was waning in popularity. This was partially attributed to the resurgence of merengue and the rise of Latin pop. In response, salsa music in Puerto Rico and New York changed to adapt to the taste of the era – a softer, gentler ballad-filled music called salsa romantica.
Gone is the big-band feel, replaced by softer piano instrumentals. There is a notable absence of strong clave beat, as well as any attempts of improvisation. Lyrics that are heavily political are taken over by romantic love songs, similar to what you would likely hear in today’s pop music.
Notable musicians of this style of salsa music include Luis Enrique, Marc Anthony, Tito Nieves, Frankie Ruiz, La India, and Eddie Santiago.
Due to the strong deviation from the original salsa clasica, early salsa romantica music was met with strong resistance and distaste. Devotees of the original salsa music criticized salsa romantica as being a commercial, watered-down form of Latin pop. The marketing strategy of salsa romantica singers also focused on youthful sex appeal, rather than how good the music is, which doesn’t help its image.
As a side note, there was a short period in the 1980s that temporarily gave rise to a subgenre called salsa erotica, featuring songs such as “Ven, Devórame Otra Vez” (Come, devour me one more time)… I’ll just leave the interpretation to you guys. Just feel free to giggle whenever the song comes on during socials.
Marc Anthony – Valio La Pena
Notice that the melody has more flow to it, and there is mostly one singer, with very little backup chorus.
Luis Enrique – Yo No Se Mañana
One of the currently popular salsa songs (played very often at salsa events). (One of Jeff’s favorite songs!)(Ed: They ARE ALL Jeff’s favorite songs!)
Salsa dura – the return of the Jed-, I mean classic salsa music
While the softer salsa romantica became popular in Puerto Rico, the musicians of Colombia remained true to the original salsa style, creating a new generation of salsa clasica music, now renamed salsa dura, or “hard salsa”. This style of music is a reflection of the salsa of old – hard-driven beats with a socially-conscious message. This is what is considered to be today’s mainstream salsa music, and what you’d most likely hear in salsa clubs and congresses.
Some of the big names in salsa dura include: Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Wayne Gobea, Grupo Niche, Sonora Carruseles, Fruko y sus Tesos, El Gran Combo, and Joe Arroyo.
La Excelencia – Salsa Dura
Appropriately titled, showcasing a return to the classical salsa melodies.
Fruko y sus Tesos – El Preso
Can you hear the similarity to salsa clasica?
Modern salsa – everything under the sun
While this is not an “official” category of salsa music, this is an interesting point to consider – after salsa went international, how do you differentiate styles developed outside of Latin America and the US? How do you account for bands such as Salsa Celtica, which creates salsa music using bagpipes and fiddles? How about Fatal Mambo, a band from the south of France with its own style distinctively titled “salsaïoli”? (a word combining “salsa”, and the French Provençal sauce “aioli”) How about the latest fusion between salsa with the recently popular Reggaeton, forming what is known as “salsaton”?
Furthermore, a lot of today’s salsa musicians have started to blur the lines between salsa romantica and salsa dura; you can find soft romantic music lined with strong percussion and clave, at the same time, you can listen to big band salsa that croons about lost love. As time goes by, these distinctions are becoming less important, compared to the feelings they convey, and the joy they bring to their listeners.
Salsa music as we know it is undergoing a metamorphosis; it is being defined by this generation’s musicians, one song at a time. That is what makes salsa a truly exciting dance and music style: it will never go stale, because it is alive! It will adapt and change as culture of demands it, and it will go places where we will never expect to hear it, year after year.
El Rubio Loco – Salsaton
Going places where no salsa has gone before.
So, what does this all mean for us salsa dancers?
With so many styles of salsa, you now have the option to pick and choose what you’d like to hear. More importantly, you get to choose what you’d like to dance to!
Personally, I find myself drawn to the salsa romantica genre; I like its lyricism, and with its more predictable structure, I find myself having an easier time predicting when to dip, when to shine, and when to get into more complicated moves without worrying that the song will suddenly end on me without warning.
This does NOT mean that I don’t like any salsa dura music, far from it, but because I am able to identify the music that I like to dance to on the fly, I now have more control (as a lead) on how I dance, how I style, and how I lead. I find great enjoyment in that!
The message I will leave you with is this: the selection of salsa music is VAST, so dive in! Indulge in what generations of artists have to offer, and relish in their genius and creativity. After all, if you don’t listen to the music, what are you dancing to?