Article Laméca

"Salsa music as expressive liberation, at the cultural crossroads of the 1970s"

Marisol Berríos-Miranda (2003)
University of California, Berkeley

Caribbean ethnomusicology séminar (july 2003 - Sainte-Anne, Guadeloupe)
Laméca / Festival de Gwoka de Ste Anne / DAC Guadeloupe



“Our Latin Thing”

August 21 1971.
“Hello, hello, okay: everybody happy? YEAH! Everybody hot? YEAH! (play the clave three times)
pa pa pa -- pa pá
pa pa pa -- pa pá
pa pa pa -- pa pá

Marisol Berríos-Miranda, Caribbean ethnomusicology séminar (july 2003 - Sainte-Anne, Guadeloupe).
© Médiathèque Caraïbe

Can you hear the clave, whats going on? Cheo Feliciano gives the signal and Ricardo (Rey) sets his ten magic fingers twinkling on the keys, letting loose those volleys of sound that strike into the deepest part of our beings. Our hair stands on end, hot and cold shivers run up and down our spines. The entire orchestra strikes up. The trumpets pierce our ears with indescribable pleasure, we want to embrace the whole world. We jump for joy, whistle, dance. Why are you crying? I’ve no idea., and couldn’t care less.” (NARRATOR’S VOICE from the film ‘Our Latin Thing” 1971).

The film “Our Latin Thing” Nuestra Cosa Latina,(1971) filmed at the Cheetah club near the Bronx in New York for the first time showed Latin Americans outside the United States the realities of life in New York, the Big Apple. ‘Our Latin Thing’ was the first documentary on salsa as an expression of Latin American urban social identity. There was the famous Barrio and its ancient, filthy tenements, with human flesh crammed onto every inch of the buildings, their patched clothing hanging out to dry in the windows. It showed us all the wretchedness and isolation people had refused to believe could exist in the ‘capital of the world’(Calvo Ospina 1995:79). The film also documented the emergence of something that Puerto Ricans had been searching for throughout the 1960s: a new sound, similar to the harmonic and rhythmic patterns of the Cuban son, but which the beginning of a new style.

In the span of a single decade, the 1970s, people in urban centers all over Latin America came to embrace salsa music as their preferred musical style and expression. Salsa’s unprecedented international popularity resulted from the confluence of several distinct social conditions and historical events: the Puerto Rican dilemma of colonial status, the civil rights and black pride movements in the U.S., the Cuban revolution with its tremendous impact and aftershocks, urban migration, and the need for a Latino alternative to the hegemony of Anglo rock. For Puerto Ricans in particular, but also Latinos generally, salsa represented a kind of liberation from the cultural and political dilemmas of this time, a liberation that was experienced on several distinct levels:

1) First, Like other genres of music salsa represented a refuge for latinos after work and on weekends, at home and in dance halls, it offered liberation of the body and mind through the experience of music and dance,

2) Second, Salsa challenged the oppressive hierarchies of cultural and musical values, it was music from the people to the people, and

3) Third, Salsa offered new conditions of possibilities to Puerto Ricans to free themselves from their dependence on, and identification with the United States, a cultural freedom that also resonated with musicians and audiences in cities all over Latin America.

My analysis of salsa as liberation is informed by Jamaican-British cultural theorist Stuart Hall who looks at how popular culture responds to problems of power relations. He writes:
“The role of the ‘popular’ in popular culture is to fix the authenticity of popular forms, rooting them in the experiences of popular communities from which they draw their strength, allowing us to see them as expressive of a particular subordinate social life that resists its being constantly made over as low and outside” (Hall 1996:469).

Because salsa springs from a brutally marginalized sector of society and because it gained immense popularity and acceptance in several sectors of society, not only the lower classes, I contend that it is a great example of the “resistance to constantly being made over as low and outside.” Salsa questioned this concept of low and outside by being embraced almost in every household in urban Latin America.

Stuart Hall expresses his interest as well in “… Cultural strategies that can make a difference… and shift the dispositions of power.” (Hall 1996:468). Similarly I am interested in showing how salsa made such a difference.

But, what is salsa? Salsa is dancing music that borrows its forms, both musical and lyrical, from the extensive Afro-Caribbean popular music vernacular, more specifically from the Cuban son, rumba, and guaracha. It grew in the Barrios of New York during the late 1960’s and the 1970s from Puerto Rican musicians who rearranged and recombined Cuban and Puerto Rican musical genres. It became a movement for social change and national recognition. Its lyrics sang about the struggles of the poor and the stuff of life itself. For example the lirics of Anacaona, by Cheo Feliciano are about the Taína princess who according to fable, resisted and fought enslavement by the Spaniards.


Salsa as liberation

1) Liberation of the body and mind through dance.

What was videotaped at the Cheetah, and subsequently distributed internationally, was one of the most cherished activities for Latinos generally and Puerto Ricans especially -- dancing. In this case dancing to the hippest music in town, played and produced by their Puerto Rican/Latinos compatriots. The liberating act of dancing is beautifully expressed in a popular Venezuelan saying, “Y quién me quita lo bailao” (and who can take away what I have danced). For groups of people under the bondage of colonialism this feeling of freedom is particularly intense, and often becomes a matter of survival.

>And dancing salsa is not easy (as I am always reminded when I teach it!). Its thrill comes from its challenge, from the mastery of sophisticated relationships between sound, time and body. Salsa is a couple’s dance, and it is most energizing and enjoyable when the couple is in complete coordination with the rhythms of the music. The bond that unites dancers and listeners at a salsa performance is expressed in the concept of afinque [1], the tight locking of the various rhythmic layers, melodies, and harmonies in a salsa ensemble and the close relationship between dancer and musician. It is the most important quality in a band because it moves the audience to dance and listen enthusiastically. A salsa ensemble endeavors to play in this interlocking manner and to feel the pleasure this musical communication provides, an important value of the community where salsa developed. When a salsa band plays afincao [2], it gains power over the ears of its listeners and the bodies of its dancers creating a magical communion between audience, dancers and musicians.

In addition to afinque, the new style called salsa was defined by new sonorities—aggressive instruments, and an impetuous sound that was harsh, like daily life itself in the Barrios of New York and other big cities. Venezuelan salsa scholar César Miguel Rondón, identifies Puerto Rican pianist Eddie Palmieri as one of the pivotal figures in the change from the old Latin sound [3] to what would become salsa: Rondon describes the way Palmieri arranged the trombones specifically “in a way that always sounded sour and aggressive. The sound of the trombones could not reproduce the “sonoric buildings of the jazz bands” and “the music stopped being ostentatious to become rebellious, there was no pomp but violence. (Rondón,1980:25).

The creation of a musical style that is congruent with one’s life experience is fulfilling in an essential and deeply human way, as ethnomusicologist Stephen Feld explains:
Style is more than the statistical core reflection of the place or time, or patterned choices made within constraints. It is the very human resources that are enacted to constitute the reality of social life in sound. Style is itself the accomplishment, the crystallization of personal and social participation; it is the way the performance and engagement endows humanly meaningful shape upon sonic form. Style is an emergence, the means by which newly creative knowledge is developed from playful, rote, or ordinary participatory experience. (Feld 1988: 107)

And such an accomplishment of style is especially liberating for people who have little control over the cultural institutions and icons of their society. Stuart Hall points to the importance of style in black music (in distinction to repertoire), arguing that:
Within the black repertoire, style …has become itself the subject of what is going on. And mark how, displaced from a logocentric world…the people of the black diaspora have found the deep form , the deep structure of their cultural life in music.” (Hall 1996:470)

Salsa incorporated this stuff of everyday barrio life, la cosa cotidiana. In salsa we heard our rumba [4], our plena, our bomba, our seis, our son, our guaracha, our cumbia, our gaita, our daily problems of love and social life, as well as the joy and fun of living. This was heard all over the world and it was our stuff, with our music, with our dancing. When salsa took front stage, scores of Puerto Ricans and Latinos everywhere recognized ourselves in its sound, its style.


2) Liberation from oppressive hierarchies of cultural and musical forms.

This led to the second type of liberation—the validation of our style through recordings, videos, and community events that freed us from the oppressive hierarchies of cultural and musical forms. On August 17, 1971 at the Cheetah Night Club in New York hundreds of people, mostly Latino/as and African Americans, danced to the sounds of the Fania All Stars’ salsa, with a line up that included some of the best Latin musicians in the New York scene. Fania recorded and videotaped this event, named it “Our Latin Thing,” released it internationally, and little did they know the ramifications of their product. Because as Calvo Ospina put it: “Fania had succeded no sot much with the film, but more with a social document, the joyful expression of a harsh reality.” (Calvo Ospina 1995:79). What was extraordinary about the 1971 show at the Cheetah was its “ordinarity”, for this show objectified, commodified, and iconicized our latin thing, our daily stuff, la cosa cotidiana.—Through this show and film of this show, salsa gave form and recognition to the culture of the barrio. A recognition that was further affirmed by its international acclaim, as salsa was played in recordings in millions of homes and promoted through international tours of the Fania All Stars reaching as far as Australia.

Through this representation of urban barrio life, la cosa cotidiana, salsa challenged an oppresive value system that ignored (and still does) the worth of such experience. I remember practicing my Kavalevski piano sonata while studying music at the University of Puerto Rico in the mid 1970s, and being scolded for slipping into a salsa montuno. More than once I heard a knock on the door, saying, “now, now Marisol, don’t get distracted with that salsa stuff, concentrate in the music.”

In adition to validation salsa allowed the formation of new alliances. It challenged cultural hierarchies not only by opposing Latino culture to Anglo culture, but also by embracing African style in defiance of a racist society. The popularity of salsa followed close on the heels of the Civial Rights and Black Power movements, and appealed to Puerto Ricans who actively rejected the racism that had sometimes turned white and black Puerto Ricans against each other in the dog eat dog world of New York City. Those who actively rejected racism affirmed and cultivated the bonds between Latinos and Blacks, through musical genres that preceded salsa, like the boogaloo and Latin soul (see Flores 2000).

Two Puerto Rican innovators whose music paved the way to the new racial inclusiveness of salsa were singer Ismael Rivera and timbales player Rafael Cortijo, who took the Afro-Puerto Rican bomba and plena they had grown up with in the island and incorporated them in the Cuban-style conjunto ensemble. They were from Santurce, the largest and one of the most important Puerto Rican Barrios. Ismael Rivera remembers how the black power movement reverbrated in that community in the 1960s:

…we played for huge crowds on weekends and there we did our thing…and people went to see us and they liked it… I don’t know, they said we played differently… I don’t know… I guess it was the hunger….
… I said hunger because it sounded angry, with a strength, desperate to escape the ghetto, unconsciously…you understand… That was the time of the revolution of blacks in Puerto Rico… Roberto Clemente… Peruchín [5]… Romaní [6]… The blacks entered the university…Paff… And Cortijo and his group accompanying that hunger, that movement… I mean, it wasn’t something we planned, you know, they are things that happen sometimes and in Puerto Rico this is what was happening.. It was all a people’s thing, of the blacks, it was like they were opening our cages, and there was anger, and Clemente began to rack up the hits [in the big leagues] and we entered there, you know, with our music. (Berríos-Miranda 1999:23) (quoted in Figueroa Hernández 1993:17)

In embracing the music of Ismael and Cortijo, and salsa generally, Puerto Ricans engaged in a new relationship with their African heritage, a heritage salsa has cultivated and fascilitated.

Salsa also spoke to an urban experience that cut across racial boundaries, that united blacks and whites through the shared experiences of deracination, alienation, deprivation, and cultural worthlessness. When Puerto Ricans migrated to New York to better their lot, their shock was a brutal one. New York was nothing like Puerto Rico, and much less the image that was painted of what they would encounter. For this encounter became one of the most degrading experiences that Puerto Ricans have had to endure in their history as a people. Under these circumstances music became not only important but essential, “a way of surviving” (Calvo Ospina 53). All they had in their favor in this struggle was their pride and their Barrio, plus a great desire to get out of this circle of human misery. In this context, salsa became part of the ‘salvation’ equation.

3) Salsa liberated Puerto Ricans from their dependence on, and identification with the United States, a cultural freedom that also resonated with musicians and audiences in cities all over Latin America.

Despite the commonalities of urban life throughout Latin America, and the shared joy that barrio dwellers took in seeing their life and their cultural style represented in salsa, the relationship of Puerto Ricans to salsa was unique because of their colonial status. The Puerto Rican experience of urban migration was aggravated not only by the loss of their native surroundings and familiar faces, but most importantly by the loss of a familiar language. Their feelings of uprootedness and worthlessness were particularly excruciating. During 100 years of colonial domination by a very different culture, however, the Puerto Rican people’s passion for music and dance helped them retain and reinvent a distinct identity. Thus the third type of liberation I will discuss is the most obvious kind—political liberation for a colonized people.

During the 1960s the world was witnessing a series of international events: the Cuban revolution, the rise of the Civil Rights and Black Pride movements in the United States, the Cold War against the countries of the Eastern Bloc, the process of decolonization in Africa and the English Caribbean, and the proliferation of liberation movements in Latin America. Inspired by these events, Puerto Ricans independentistas sought to bring Puerto Rico’s colonial case to the consideration of the United Nations Assembly. Puerto Ricans in the island mobilized during the 1970s to protest colonialism and to claim better living conditions, as urban growth accelerated. And in New York many Puerto Ricans identified with the fight of Black Americans for the end of segregation and social equality.

At this cultural crossroads and with the creation of salsa and its following unprecedented international popularity, Puerto Ricans felt they did not need to identify with the foreign colonizer’s music. Puerto Ricans were Puerto Ricans, fun, excellent musicians, rich culture, not the colony of the US, not the small island with no natural resources [7], not the poverty-unemployed- drug ridden underdogs of the big metropolis. Puerto Ricans created salsa and the world loved it.

While the political connotations of salsa were particularly important to Puerto Ricans, they resonated powerfully with other Latin Americans as well. In addition to “the most exciting rhythms in the entire world”, in the words of pianist Eddie Palmieri puts it, salsa featured lyrics about political and economic injustices, social and racial inequalities, exploitation, oppression and enslavement. And because people could listen to these messages while they they were having fun—this mode of listening while having so much fun penetrated the souls and conscience of the Latino population. Salsa lyrics raised Latino consciousness with an exhilerating spirit. Ruben Blades, for example, warned of American imperialism when he sang, “Si lo ves que viene, palo al tiburón, En la unión está la fuerza, y nuestra salvación”(if you see him coming, beat that shark; in unity we will find our strength and our salvation); Tite Curet Alonso celebrated black pride: "Las Caras Lindas de Mi Gente Negra, son un desfile de melaza en flor, Que cuando pasan frente a mi se alegra, de su negrura todo el corazón”(The lovely faces of my black people, are a parade of flowering molasses, which, when pass before me, my heart rejoices at its blackness).

Salsa was liberating in all these ways—as an exhilerating experience of synchrony in movement, as an icon of barrio life and Latino cultural pride, and as a statement of political resistance and independence—and its special power was to bring all these experiences together at one moment, as it did that night at the Cheetah nightclub in 1971. The experience of salsa as liberation was at the root of salsa’s popularity throughout Latin America, but it was particularly important for Puerto Rican nationalists and independence advocates caught in the vice of colonial control.


Salsa as a Movement of Social and Politcal Change

Some Cubans have characterized salsa as “Música cubana mal toca’a,” (Cuban music poorly played)(cit. Cabrera Infante, Nat Chediak) and Cuban claims to the music have been strengthened by the works of some American ethnomusicologists in the late 1980s and 1990s. Most recently, Cubans in South Florida have put their financial and media power behind the effort to reclaim salsa as a Cuban music, a force that is epitomized by the crossover success of Cuban American singer Gloria Estefan, and by the fascination many Anglo-Americans have with Cuban history and culture, as witnessed recently in the popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club CD and movie. I have come to believe, however, that this promotion of salsa as Cuban, and the resulting resentment in the Puerto Rican community, is not simply a contest for credit between two nations. It is, perhaps more importantly, about specifically discrediting the salsa of the 1970s—not just because it was Puerto Rican, but because it was liberatory.

Several recent incidents have flamed Puerto Ricans’ resentment of the Cuban-American musical establishment in Miami. In 1997, for example, a performance by Puerto Rican salsa singer Andy Motañez in Miami’s Calle Ocho festival was cancelled because the organizers were offended by Montañez’ friendly relations with Sylvio Rodriguez, a famous nueva trova singer from socialist Cuba. Puerto Ricans, in retaliation, came out in throngs to the Muñoz Marin International Airport in San Juan to heckle Celia Cruz (who had previously claimed that salsa was nothing new, merely a version of traditional Cuban dance music). In 2001 salsa pioneer Willie Colón published a letter in the New York Times (cit) denouncing the establishment of a separate Latin Grammy awards ceremony as a Miami Cuban plot to marginalize Puerto Rican musicians (the 2002 Grammies seem to have prooved him right).

These recent developments in the Latin music world have saddened me, but not surprised me. One can understand the antipathy of Cuban exiles towards salsa songs of the 70s whose lyrics expressed sympathy with the ideals of a socialist world (PRINCIPLES) that proposed justice for the underprivileged— Ruben Blades’ Siembra, Eddie Palmieri’s Justicia, and La Libertad Lógico, Ray Barreto’s Indestructible, and so many other salsa songs. Salsa, as a creation by the underprivileged and for the underpriviledged, gave voice to an international community of people who sympathized with many of the social changes that Cubans fled from after the Cuban revolution. It is not surprising, then, that wealthy and politically conservative Cuban exiles, for whom salsa’s message of anti-imperialism and class consciousness is threatening, would attempt to discredit salsa in favor of the “real” Cuban music.

Whatever salsa has become through its comercialization, its crossover, and its reappropriation by Cubans, it will always remain a force for liberation for Puerto Ricans, and for many other Latinos who, through salsa music have made alligiances that support and speak loud an proud for their manera de vivir.



[1] Afinque is the noun that defines the concept of rhythmic tightness.

[2] Afincao is the adjective that describes the quality of the performance among musicians or between music and dancers.

[3] The’old Latin sound’ refers to the sound of Latin orquestras like Billo’s Caracas Boys, the Orquesta of Cesar Concepción, the Sonora Matancera, Orquesta Casino La Playa, and Orquesta Aragón, among others. These orquestras had more weight put into the melodic and harmonic aspects of the songs, while the new salsa sound was definitely going to emphazise the rhythmic aspect. Also these orquestras were much larger in terms of its members than the new salsa bands.

[4] Rumba is a terms of several meanings. It can denote a musical genre as well as a party, a fiesta. It is quite common in Latin American cities to say “vamos pa’ la rumba’ meaning “lets go to the party.”

[5] Clemente and Cepeda were black Puerto Rican baseball stars whose accomplishments in the U.S. Major Leagues were a source of intense pride for Puerto Ricans (I don’t know who Romaní is).

[6] My mother told me that Romaní was a Black criminalist lawyer who won important cases dealing with Afro-Puerto Ricans civil rights.

[7] This dogma taught in Puerto Rican schools from 1st grade on. This I heard many times “Repeat after me: “Puerto Rico is a small island with no natural resources.”


About the author
Marisol Berríos-Miranda holds a PhD in Ethnomusicology from the University of California, Berkeley. A native of Puerto Rico, she reserches and publishes on salsa music and dance on issues of identity, musical style, and music and dance as every day practices and as expressive liberation. Her writings include The Significance of Salsa Music to National and Pan-Latino Identity,PhD Dissertation 1999, “Is Salsa a Musical Genre” in Situating Salsa 2002, and “The Influence and Reception of Puerto Rican Salsa In Venenzuela” in Musical Migrations 2003.



© Médiathèque Caraïbe / Conseil Général de la Guadeloupe, 2003