is this thing called Salsa?
Have you ever wondered what
does the word "Salsa" mean and where did it
come from? Renowned Latin music historian Max Salazar
has written one of the most concise and comprehensive
chronicles about the evolution of the word "Salsa." This
article in its entirety was first published in the November
1991 issue of Latin Beat Magazine.
By Max Salazar
The popular usage of
the word 'salsa' for danceable Latin music began in 1933
when Cuban song composer Ignacio Piñerio wrote the
song Échale Salsita. According to the late
Alfredo Valdés Sr. whom
I interviewed in 1974, he said 'On July 6, 1933, I married
Anita Purmuy, guitarist for the all-female band La Anacaona.
I didn't have a honeymoon because hours later I was
on a boat with Nacional (Septeto) headed toward MiamiÞthen
on to the Chicago World's Fair. On the train
I rehearsed Ignacio's new work Échale
Salsita. He got the idea after tasting food
which lacked the Cuban spices. It was a protest
against tasteless food.
During the late 30's while the Hispanic community was sprouting
in Spanish Harlem, Gabriel Oller, proprietor of Tatay's
Spanish Music Center on the corner of 110th Street
and 5th Avenue remembers shouts of 'échale
menealo que se empelotaÞ' used to describe the
thrilling Afro-Cuban dance rhythms of rumbas and guarachas. Salsa remained
dormant until 1962 when Secco Records released Joe
Cuba's Stepping Out LP. In Jimmy Sabater's
tune Salsa y Bembé,
vocalist Cheo Feliciano wants his main squeeze to add salsa to
the bembé (dance)
when she dances. The lyrics suggest that there is a
request for the dancer to liven up or spice up her
'When I wrote this tune,' said Sabater, 'I was
labeling the music as salsaÞyou know
exciting. When musicians were asked to spice
up the music there were shouts of 'guataca'. When
the band executed the mambo part, I heard shouts
of 'wapachosa'. These were labels which never
caught on. My use of salsa was to
describe the music, not the food.'
A year later Alegre Records released Charlie Palmieri's
charanga LP Salsa Na Ma. In the Henry Alvarez
tune Salsa Na Ma, the chorus of Victor Velasquez
and Willie Torres suggest that when they dance with their
partners it is Salsa na maÞQue cosa rica (a joy).'
However, Al Santiago's liner notes described the music
as salsa when he wrote 'La Duboney (Palmieri's band) is
a musical aggregation that functions as an individual unit
and possesses that all important ´sauce' necessary
for satisfying the most demanding of musical tastes. It
is for this reason that this LP album offering is titled Salsa
On November 20, 1964, the Cal Tjader Quintet plus 5 had
just finished recording a long version of Guachi Guaro,
another version of Tjader's first hit recording in 1954,
Wachi Wara. After hearing it back, Tjader was unsatisfied,
it lacked something, but he did not know what. Creed
Taylor, producer of the album (which had no title at
that moment) suggested a shorter version and a new title
in that Guachi Guaro would be difficult to pronounce
and it meant nothing. Tjader invited Willie Bobo
to dub the jawbone (quijada). While doing so, his
inspirations of Sabor, Sabor, Salsa Ahi Na Ma,not
only satisfied Tjader, but gave Tjader the idea for the
album's name Soul Sauce (Salsa del Alma). Bobo
explained to Tjader that this track and the others: Pantano,
Maramoor, Tanya and Leyte, were fiery, exciting like
a well seasoned sauce. Thus the album Soul Sauce
exhibits a fork on a plate of red beans and chili alongside
an opened bottle of Tabasco sauce with a label on it, Cal
Tjader Soul Sauce. This is the third time music
is described as salsa and the Mexican Tjader fans
of San Francisco began using the word to describe Tjader's
brand of music. It spread to Los Angeles and other
cities and its way east via the Spanish, rhythm and blues
and jazz programs across the United States which helped
Cal Tjader sell 150,000 albums.
Prior to this, Latin music had never been aired over stations
with different music formats.
In 1965 while the west coast Mexican population was
using salsa for uptempo Latin music, the Afro-American
population of New York started another trend. What
was salsa on the west coast was a-zoo-ka in New York City. 'Please,
Eddie (Palmieri), sweeten itÞgive it a little sugar,'
a request to spice up the music with a unique Palmieri
Palmieri composed and recorded the blockbuster Azucar but
the word never caught on outside of New York.
Four years later, Carlos Santana's Oye Como Va attracted
youths of all ethnic backgrounds to his music, and conga
drums were sold like never before across the United States.
On August 26, 1971, the Fania artists congregated at El
Cheetah nightclub in midtown Manhattan for a concert
and dance which resulted in the movie 'Our Latin Thing.'
In the movie, salsa is never mentioned. The movie
premiered July 19, 1972 at the Line 2 theatre at 48th and
7th Avenue, NYC. It received favorable
reviews from the Daily News and the New York Times.
But nowhere in the review was salsa mentioned. In
the 1972 Mexicana LP Rey Roig Aqui Lleg', vocalist
Julian Llano's lyrics were about the sauce for his attractive
female neighbor in the bomba-son Triago Salsa.
In January 1973, Peter Rios gave artist/illustrator Izzy
Sanabria the right to use the Latin New York magazine
title which Rios owned in 1967-68. LNY issue number
four dated April 16, 1973 had an ad for Alegre
LP cover of Roberto Angelero's Guaya Salsa. In issue
number five, May 28, 1973, there are photo ads of the
Mexicana LP's Salsa Hits from Orq Power and Tempo
70, and Louie Colon's United Artists Mas Salsa
que Pescao. In the issue number eight, Sept/Oct
1973, there are photo ads of 'Cheetah, Home of the Salsa'
and Vicentico Valdés new Tico label release Amor
con Salsa. In issue number nine, November
1973, there is a photo ad of vocalist Roberto Torres'
Mexicana LP, El Castigador is the New Salsa Sensation
Roberto Torres. There is also an illustration
of Izzy Sanabria in a cartoon form with an announcement'
a new Salsa music TV show on WXTU channel 41, premiering
Saturday, November 17,1973 at 6:30 pm.' In the
same issue is a photo ad of the DJ Polito Vega which
reads '100% Salsa WBNX Mon-Fri 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.'
In issue number 12, February, 1974, there is a full page
ad of the Latin Music Festival Musical number five, with
the names Celia Cruz, Ray Barretto, Johnny Pacheco, Tipica
73, Machito Orquestra and the Apollo Sound. Not once
was salsa mentioned.
In March, 1974, Mexicana Records released Rey Roig's LP Otra
Vez in which Julian Llano sings Pescao en Salsa. During
the same month, Fania Records released Larry Harlow's Salsa,
recorded November 26 and 27, 1973. This album placed
Harlow among the top five most popular bandleaders and
the LP enjoyed enormous sales.
After this, mostly every recording of Afro-Cuban rhythms
and anything that was exciting in Latin music was labeled
salsa and the anglo market which had abandoned the music
went the cha cha cha followed the mambo popularity in 1956,
came back into the fold. In Billboard's magazine
June 12, 1976 issue dedicated to Latin music, there was
a 24 page supplement magazine called 'Salsa Explosion.'Þ
If what is written
here is accepted as its best evidence, then it appears
that Jimmy Sabater coined the word salsa to mean uptempo
Latin music. Cal Tjader's Soul Sauce and
Santana's Oye Como Va gave the salsa movement
thrust and its beginning was with the Mexicans in San
But it did not become popular usage until after Latin New
York magazine used it over and over in its ads and
stories and the Fania All Stars used it to describe its
music outside New York. After that kid kicked the
can in the opening scene of the movie Our Latin Thing and
the wow wow synthesizer of Luis Cruz Jr. to Ray Barretto's
Cocinando Suave began to sound and raise goose bumps on
flesh, did the Salsa explosion detonate. The mushroom
cloud fallout has been felt around the world.