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‘Hola, Salsa’: Disputed origins of Latin music’s most popular genre

Pioneer Dominican musician Johnny Pacheco deserves recognition as cofounder of legendary salsa band Fania All Stars

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Published : 2014-03-12 20:21
Updated : 2014-03-12 20:21

Latin music as we know it comes from a harmonious marriage of African drums and Spanish guitar, and salsa, perhaps the most popular and complex of all Latin musical genres, is no exception. However, the origin of salsa remains a hot topic of debate.

Yet the exotic allure of its exciting sound is immensely popular all over the world, including right here in South Korea.

The sizzling Afro-Cuban rhythms of son montuno, guaguanco, mambo, cha-cha-cha, guaracha and rumba, together with plena and charanga from Puerto Rico, among many others, were reinvented and spiced up with touches of jazz and boogaloo.

Salsa was ready-made to complement a unique recipe of this scrumptious musical blend and, contrary to general belief, salsa’s genesis can be traced back to the barrios of New York, where Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Colombians, Panamanians, Venezuelans and my brothers and sisters from the Dominican Republic actively contributed in the reshaping of New York City’s cultural identity.

Literally, “salsa” means sauce, and there are many theories about how the word came to used to describe the musical genre.

It was first heard in the song “Echale Salsita (Pour Sauce on It)”, performed by the Cuban son group Sexteto Habanero in the 1920s, and later, in the 1940s and 1950s, Cuban radio icon Beny More signed off his show with the catchy phrase “Hola, Salsa.” In the 1960s, Venezuelan DJ Danilo Phidiad Escalona titled his show “La Hora de la Salsa, el Sabor y el Bembe (The Hour of Salsa, Flavor and Celebration).”
Two legends of Latin music, the late Cuban singer-performer Celia Cruz (left) and Johnny Pacheco, co-founder of the Fania All-Stars, pose in this publicity photo in New York City in 1975. (Dominican Embassy)

The methodical use of the term to describe this new and potent musical wave is commonly attributed to Izzy Sanabria, a graphic designer and emcee at Fania Studios in New York, one of the most influential record labels in the 1970s and ’80s, who employed it as a marketing strategy to brand and sell the attractive concept.

By the mid 1970s, Salsa had become synonymous with the Big Apple’s new Latin sound. Accounts say that Sanabria chose the expression “salsa” because, during live performances, audiences shouted it out to incite bands to liven up their act.

The post-World War II generation of Latinos, especially the “Newyoricans” ― Puerto Ricans born in New York ― living in East Harlem, “El Barrio,” grew up immersed in the structured tunes of the Latin big bands of the 1950s that their parents listened to. So, they eagerly sought out a fresh new identity, which they found in the R&B and rock ’n’ roll of the 1960s.

Young musicians in El Barrio experimented by combining Latin rhythms with elements of rock ’n’ roll and R&B. That experimentation resulted in a fresh hybrid called “boogaloo.” This music is as simple in form as it is catchy and exciting.

In those days, the racial and social divide was ever present, not only in the political dialogue but also in the collective imagination of the public. Whites had rock ’n’ roll, blacks had R&B and now Latinos had their “own thing.”

But veteran performers didn’t like this new trend. They considered it unsophisticated. Yet the public couldn’t get enough of boogaloo.

So, the old guard played boogaloo, too, if only to please audiences. Nevertheless, to avoid utterly compromising their musical conscience, they tweaked boogaloo a little. They ended up merging boogaloo’s raw energy with the stylish and refined swing of the old-school Cuban bands.

One of these master pioneers was Dominican musician Johnny Pacheco, co-founder of Fania Records and musical director of one of the greatest salsa bands in history: the Fania All Stars.

Pacheco, a native of Santiago de los Caballeros in the Dominican Republic, inherited a passion for music from his father, Rafael Azarias Pacheco, who in the 1930s was the band leader and clarinetist of Santa Cecilia Orchestra.

In the 1940s, Pacheco’s family moved to New York City, where he continued polishing his musical chops, learning to play accordion, violin, flute, saxophone and clarinet. He even studied percussion at The Juilliard School of Music.

Pacheco described salsa as a fabulous fusion. Salsa can claim roots in a menagerie of Latin American influences, such as mambo, rumba, son, montuno, guaracha, guaguanco, guajira and chachacha, as well as merengue, from my country.

Plena and charanga from Puerto Rico and cumbia from Colombia were spiced up with jazz and rock. So, Pacheco believed salsa was meant to be a dominant style of music, and recognized how jazz notes enhanced salsa chords and phrasing, making it more progressive. He always played in “tipico” style, however, remaining faithful to its Afro-Caribbean soul.

By the mid 1970s, the word “salsa” had become synonymous with the sound of Latin New York, which swept through Latin America and the Caribbean like a rhythmic tsunami, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to the west coast of Africa and eventually spreading to Europe and Asia.

Besides the unquestionable magic of the music itself, one of the main factors in salsa’s vertiginous international expansion is its vivid and sensual dance. In fact, it’s almost impossible to disassociate the one from the other.

Just like the music, salsa dance finds its ancestry in Cuba, and the contra-danze (country dance) of England and France, later called “danzon.” Originally brought by the French fleeing the war-torn Haiti of the early 1800s, salsa dance was mixed with the rumbas of African origin ― yambu, guaguanco and Columbia ― that added the decisive elements of Cuban son and mambo to salsa dance.

Salsa, both the music and the dance, is fundamentally a pop phenomenon. That is why it continues to evolve. There are numerous dance styles, which have adopted the names of their geographical point of origin. Among the most recognized, we have the Cuban casino style (and its modern variation, the Miami-style), New York style (most widely taught in Korea), L.A. style, Dominican style, Venezuelan style and Colombian-Cali style.

Salsa transcends borders and projects a feeling of Latino identity. It appeals to crowds at dance halls from Lima, Peru, to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and from Seoul, South Korea, to Luanda, Angola.

The growing appeal and popularity of Salsa is evident at numerous festivals, and even congresses, held globally year after year, confirming Johnny Pacheco’s theory that “Salsa, from the start, was meant to be one of the world’s dominant music genres.”

By Ernesto Torres Pereyra

(Minister counsellor & DCM at the Dominican Embassy)

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