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Salsa - a (very) short history

Salsa, what is it, and what's its story?

Well the heart and soul of Salsa lies with its rhythm and percussion.

If we want to trace the history of complex percussive rhythms to the present day, then we start in Africa...


West African peoples such as the Yoruba and Congo employed complex rhythms as part of religious practices. Each deity was appealed to via a different rhythm.


It is no surprise that in these efforts to construct ever more complex, yet distinctive rhythms, the antecedents to the Bongo and Conga drums were created.

Now whilst without these African peoples and their musicians, we would not have Salsa, Cuba is without doubt the birthplace of Salsa!



Tragically it would take the evil slave trade to bring the talents and music of West African nations to Cuba.

Spain annexed Cuba in 1539, and slave labour was required to work crops and mines. The requisite slaves were harvested from West Africa primarily.

Now before addressing the interaction with native Cuban culture, European influence, primarily via the Spanish, cannot be ignored.

First the english Contredanse, a salon dance of European social circles would make its way to the region, becoming widly popular with the 'lower classes' who adopted it, manipulated it, and created the Contradanza Criolla.

Whilst the guitar music of the Flamenco would give rise to the three stringed Cuban tres, at least as importantly, the Contradanza supplied the basic footwork that would be familiar to any modern dancer.


In fact the contradanza would eventually give rise to the Danzon in the 1880s, which remains the Cuban National Dance.

The final spanish influence would be through indentured servants interactions with African slaves.

Specifically what happened when the two combined the tejoletas (rhythm sticks) of the Spanish, with the comparable sticks of the africans. Thus would be born the Clave.

The Clave stands as a truly Cuban contribution to world music, and its associated rhythms (which underpins ALL Salsa music to this day) would eventually underpin the vast majority of popular music produced in the 20th century.

The pieces all in place, it was a matter of time before Salsa' direct antecedent 'Son' emerged at the end of the 19th century.



Arguably Cuba's greatest composer/musician, Arsenio Rodriguez would come to the fore in the 1930's.

Adding trumpets, piano and the conga to Son, Rodriguez expanded the traditional 7 man 'septetos' to the larger 'Conjunto.' He encouraged greater complexity of the polyrhythms in his music.

Announcing a particularly loud, complex and driving section of his music, Rodriguez would shout 'Diablo!' This would quickly be replaced by 'Mambo' on the advice of local clergy!

Then in 1943 Perez Prado released a fully matured, jazz influenced 'Mambo' music on the world. It was a smash hit.