What is Salsa?
This page will provide historical facts and information about the
people and events that contributed to the Salsa Explosion of the 1970s.
This was the beginning of a movement that spread world wide and
established New York as the Salsa capital of the world.
by Mr Salsa - Izzy Sanabria,
Publisher of Latin NY Magazine 1973-85
What is Salsa?
Where and How Did it Start?
These are the very same questions journalists from around the world
repeatedly asked me during the 1970s and they are still being asked
today. Other questions also being asked are:
“How did Salsa get its name?
‘What were the events and people that started the Salsa Explosion?
In recent years theres been an abundance of knowledgeable
musicologists, music collectors and even college professors (world-wide)
all "attempting" to answer those very questions. I said "attempting"
because with a few exceptions, most are misinformed! I know I will be
getting a lot of flack for my statements, so I will try to justify and
give reasons for my opinions.
Suddenly everybody is an expert on Salsa, each coming from their own
perspectives and sometimes perhaps even their own agendas. Dont get me
wrong, most of what appears in print or television documentaries, etc.,
seems to be well researched, informative and I suppose accurate.
However, a few things that bother me are the points of view and agendas
I see coming through. But then again, I also have my own agenda which is
to get recognition for the contribution of Latino New Yorkers. I will do
this by providing to those that are unaware that the cradle of Salsa as
we know it today was New York city during the 1970s. The reason most
Hispanic music historians have such little information of the 1970s (and
its movement) is because the Spanish media completely ignored that era.
More on this topic later.
First, Im quite sure I know a great deal less about the histories of
our music (or music in general for that matter) than most of those
writers do. However, if you werent a part of the music and cultural
movement in New York during the 70s, you cannot feel or fully understand
what it was like to paint an accurate picture with the right
information. I lived it, I helped create it and was in the center of it
all seven days a week. So no matter how well they may have researched
this period, it is still second-hand information. There were just too
many details that even those in the music industry werent aware of.
Musicians for example were busy creating the music but played no role in
promoting the name Salsa. In fact, as the term Salsa started to catch
on, most serious musicians resented and resisted having their music
labeled as such.
Before I continue, perhaps I should first define from where or from
whome the different points of view are coming from. For example, there
are the two Cuban perspectives. The first was during the late seventies
and the second is the nineties.
One of the first Cuban reactions to the term Salsa as a name for New
Yorks Latin music came from Machito, "There’s nothing new about Salsa,
it is just the same old music that was played in Cuba for over fifty
years. And they play it badly."
Another coming out of Cuba was that Salsa was a scheme by the record
companies to negate giving credit to Cuban music, in essence, stealing
their music. Though it wasnt like that, I understood them because from
their point of view it certainly looked that way.
With the world now completely accepting the term Salsa (which in essence
is Afro-Cuban music), everywhere you turn, another name pops up that
long ago coined the word Salsa, or was somehow the first to use the
word. Even Cuba is now using the term and in fact I saw one of their TV
shows called Salsa.
Just to set the record straight, I never claimed to have coined the word
Salsa, or used it first (I’m too young). My claim to fame is being first
to see the potential of the word as a marketing tool to promote New
York’s Latin music (and hopefully my magazine "Latin NY" along with it).
I had always felt that “Latin Music” was too broad a term (for the sound
being created by Latino New Yorkers) and that it needed its own name
like Jazz, Rock & Roll, Disco, R&B, Blues, etc., in order to define and
identify it as an entity unto itself. A new name and image was needed
that people could get excited about and be able to relate to. Salsa was
easy enough for anyone to pronounce and, remember. I thought Salsa was
1975: THE SPARK THAT IGNITED THE SALSA EXPLOSION!
Its fire fanned by the Newyorican fervor, the Salsa scene was bursting
at the seams. Like dynamite waiting for a spark to ignite- it, Salsa was
ready to explode. Then in 1973, I hosted the television show "Salsa"
which was the first reference to this particular music as Salsa. That
year I also launched Latin NY Magazine. But the spark igniting the
explosion came in the form of Latin NYs First Salsa Awards in May 1975.
The Latin NY Music Awards received greater (pre and post) mass media
coverage than was ever given to any Latin music event at that time and
thus gave Salsa its biggest push and momentum.
Two factors made the awards (by media standards) a “News Worthy” event
that merited their attention. The first is that we publicized the event
as “Latinos finally honoring their own with the first Salsa Awards
Ceremonies.” The second factor was our intense public criticism of NARAS
for ignoring our repeated requests to give Latin music its own separate
category in the Grammys. .
INTERNATIONAL RECOGNITION for LATIN NY MAGAZINE and SALSA
The coverage by mainstream media such as The N.Y. Times, Newsweek and
Time magazines, created an incredible worldwide avalanche of interest in
Salsa. The unprecedented coverage and its impact caught everyone in the
industry completely by surprise and unprepared. It prompted Harvey
Averne from Coco records to comment, “I wish this would go away and
return next year so we can get ready for it.”
Though still largely ignored by local Spanish media, the rest of the
world took notice. From Europe (Holland, Germany, France, Italy,
England, etc.) and as far away as Japan, journalists and TV camera crews
came to New York to comment on and document Salsa; what they perceived
as a new phenomena of high energy rhythmic Latino urban music, its
dancing and its lifestyles.
They started with Latin NY as their central source of information and by
interviewing me, Salsa’s most visible and articulate (self appointed)
spokesman. I must emphasize self appointed because it is an important
fact that punches holes in the “conspiracy to obscure Cuban music”
theory. This world-wide attention established Latin NY as “the bible” of
Salsa (its primary source of information). And as its most visible
spokesman, earned me the title of Mr. Salsa.
SELLING MEDIA the SALSA CONCEPT
IN ORDER TO POPULARIZE the MUSIC
If you have any general understanding of publicity or advertising, you
can appreciate the way I sold Salsa to the media, thus getting millions
of dollars worth of (Free) publicity (you couldn’t buy or pay for). The
concept had to be presented in a way that was interesting, easy to
understand and based on enough truth to give it credibility (see
Promoting Half Truths).
My idea was to sell Salsa as new music (which it was) and as an integral
part of the cultural life-styles of young Latino New Yorkers.
ANSWERING the MEDIAS QUESTIONS: WHAT IS SALSA?
The questions journalists most often asked me were, “What is Salsa?” and
“Where and How did it start?” By then I had developed a concise
simplified definition of Salsa specially prepared for the media.
Directly translated, Salsa is sauce. it is what gives Latino cooking its
flavor. Like in Italian cooking. What’s spaghetti without the sauce?
Traditionally, in American music like Jazz (and Latin), when a band was
really swinging, people would say, ‘They’re cooking’... in
Spanish--‘Cocinando!’ And when all the ingredients were cookin just
right--the music hot and spicy, Latinos would say, ‘It had Salsa y
Sabor’ (sauce and taste). So what it really denotes is music with flavor
WHERE and HOW DID SALSA START?
My prepared stock answer was, “Salsa is Latin Soul. Salsa is Flavor and
Spice. Salsa es Ritmo! Rhythm, the basis of Salsa. African slaves
brought their rhythms to the Caribbean, mixed with the Indian, European
melodies, Spanish lyrics and gave birth to Latin music. The sons and
daughters came here, mixed in the high energy of New York, the influence
of Jazz, added in some brass, and Salsa was born!" (I always added that
Salsa’s rhythmic origins were Cuban, but that it was the young Puerto
Ricans that developed and kept it alive in New York City).
PROMOTING HALF TRUTHS
"Salsa, in reality, was any musical form, cultivated in New York by
Latinos, upon a Cuban base, but inventing and adding something new...”
POPULARIZING the Name SALSA DESPITE STRONG OPPOSITION
As Salsas self appointed spokesman, I devoted all my talents and
energies on a crusade to popularize the music and have it recognized and
respected as an art form. A task made more difficult by the strong
opposition from the very musicians it was meant to benefit. I was
resented and opposed in an environment of inflated egos and misguided
To help you understand what I was up against, I offer the following
After the media interviewed me, took down my definitions, historical
overviews and names of most prominent important musicians, it was only
natural that theyd want to interview them; the real source of the
music. And believe it or not, the following Machito and Puente quotes
are typical of what they and most older musicians told the media again
Tito Puente: A New York born Puerto Rican that modernized Cuban based
music thereby creating what Ive always called the New York Latin Music.
The sound that turned generations of Newyoricans (including me) from
Rock & Roll to Latin music. Yet, despite his achievement, a thirst for
recognition and an ego the size of a house, Puente had a favorite ( and
humble?) witty anti-Salsa comment he consistently gave the media, “I am
not a cook, I am a musician!”
Machito: "Salsa is nothing new, its the same music I have been playing
for over 40 years and these young people don’t even know how to play it."
Now let me ask you, suppose I had said that Salsa was not new, but just
the same old music Cubans had been playing for over 40 years. Do you
honestly believe the media would have bothered to give it any coverage?
I just had to laugh at their naiveté when it came to promotion and
publicity. These were proud musicians that took their music very
seriously with great respect for it, but were so deeply entrenched in
its traditions that they resisted change. Deviations (like the Boogaloo)
were seen as compromising, bastardizing or diluting the music.
However, their pure and noble beliefs prevented them from realizing they
were undermining publicity that could greatly benefit them by exposing
them to new markets, new fans and, Financial Gains. Benefits reaped from
a new interest in old Cuban music with a new name....Salsa!
Years later, Puente told me, “Izzy you remember how much I hated and
resisted the term Salsa? Well I’ve had to accept it because wherever I
travel, I find my records under the category of Salsa.”
So despite all the opposition, the name Salsa caught on. Today, Salsa is
known world-wide as New Yorks Latino music. Ironically, as Salsa became
a household word, I looked around one day and suddenly realized that
everybody around me had made a fortune from Salsa except for me. To add
insult to injury, theres only one musician I know of that has publicly
given me any kind of credit in print, and that was Willie Colon.
So why should you accept what I written so far as being true and
accurate? Well for one thing, aside from having lived the Salsa
experience, I have it all documented with American and international
print media, Latin NY magazine and television coverage on video (dating
back as far as 1971).
A Final Note on Who is Really Responsible for Salsas Explosion
When evaluating or analyzing the 70s explosion and the people most
responsible for it, there are some important factors to be considered
(especially if looking for unbiased viewpoints to arrive at historical
accuracy). The reality or truth is that a great number of people made
viable contributions to Salsa, its popularity and recognition. The
musicians who developed Salsa, as well as the people behind the scenes
such as journalists, radio jocks, the record companies, the promoters
and most important of all, the fans. In other words, nothing can be
attributed to just one person.
In the long run, it doesn’t matter who said or who did what first, but
rather who or what developed it. In fact, if we were to honor the person
most responsible for spreading Salsa world-wide during the 1980s and
1990s, that distinction would belong to Salsa’s greatest promoter and
certainly the most prominent non-musician and central figure in Salsa
today, Ralph Mercado....... But that’s another story.
The Most Important Dates, Events & Occurrences that
Contributed to the Salsa Explosion during the 1970s
Salsa, like every major social or cultural movement starts with people.
Starting in the late 60s and into the 70s, Latino music, fashions and
lifestyles had a major cultural impact on New York City. The new Latino
lifestyle started emerging in the 1960s with Latin Soul music (The
Boogaloo) in places like the St George Hotel in Brooklyn. In the 1970s,
the world famous Cheetah Discotheque became the showplace of these
Then, following the massive gatherings in Central Park of the Flower
Children, during the 60s and early 70s, the new generation of New York
Puerto Rican baby boomers took over and gathered by the tens of
thousands every Sunday in the park. Their immense presence literally
Latinized Central Park as well as New York City itself with a new look
and a new sound.
The Fania All Stars are filmed at the Cheetah (August)
FREE CENTRAL PK CONCERT (drew 50,000+) PROLAM
(Puerto Rican Organization for Latin American Music), started by 17 year
old Nancy Rodriguez who came to Izzy Sanabria for help in promoting her
idea to get Latin music recognized and played on the radio. This was to
influence Latin NY magazines continuous crusade.
PREMIER of the movie: OUR LATIN THING (July)
Years later, it would have a greater impact than when originally
LATIN NY MAGAZINE is launched from The Cheetah (January)
FANIA ALL STARS Sell-Out Yankee Stadium & it is Filmed (August)
Later Released in 1976 as the film "Salsa"
SALSA TV SHOW hosted by Izzy Sanabria is taped at The Cheetah (November)
First radio or TV show to start calling the music Salsa, thus helping to
establish Salsa as the name of New Yorks Latin Music.
LATIN NY MUSIC AWARDS - 1st SALSA AWARDS CEREMONY (May)*
The event that catapulted Salsa to international status.Being a First,
the Awards received the widest mass media coverage ever given to any
Latino event. This in turn attracted international media coverage, that
established Salsa and Latin NY magazine.*
The 2nd LATIN NY MUSIC AWARDS TV SPECIAL (May)
PREMIER of the movie: SALSA (March)
* Once the curiosity in Salsa was aroused, the films "Our Latin Thing"
and later "Salsa" which were Pre-Music Videos, provided the world with
authentic visual images of New Yorks Salsa Scene--the musicians, their
music and the people. This established The Fania All-Stars as the
worlds ultimate Salsa group. The Fania All-Stars world-wide concert
tours organized by Fania President, Jerry Masucci and promoter Ralph
Mercado, followed-up the interest generated by the films.
RMMs Annual New York Salsa Festivals reinforced New York as the Salsa
capital of the world, and continues attracting world-wide media