What Is Salsa Music and What Is Its Origin?

Learn more about one of the more exciting styles of Latin music

Hispanic salsa dancers performing
JGI/Tom Grill / Getty Images

Salsa music seems to inspire an instant reaction in Latin music lovers everywhere. It is the rhythm, the dance, the musical excitement that sends millions of people to the dance floor—Latino or not.

Salsa Music

Salsa music borrows much from the Cuban music genre of son. Through the musicians' use of percussion instruments such as the clave, maracas, conga, bongo, tambora, bato, and cowbell—the instruments and the singers often mimic the call-and-response patterns of traditional African songs and then break into the chorus. Other salsa instruments include the vibraphone, marimba, bass, guitar, violin, piano, accordion, and flute, and a brass section of trombone, trumpet, and saxophone. As of late, in modern salsa, electronics are added to the mix.

Salsa has a basic 1-2-3, 1-2 rhythm; however, to say that salsa is just one rhythm or one set of instruments is deceiving. The tempo is fast, and the musical energy is exuberant.

There are many types of salsa, such as salsa dura (hard salsa) and salsa romantica (romantic salsa). There are salsa merenguesbalada (romantic) salsas, and much more.

Birthplace of Salsa

Much debate exists about where salsa originated. One school of thought claims that salsa is a newer version of older, traditional Afro-Cuban forms and rhythms, so the birthplace must be Cuba.

The other school of thought about the genre's history says that if salsa had a passport, the date of birth would be the 1960s and its birthplace would be New York, New York; it developed there over that decade and the next via Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians.

Many old-school Latino musicians adhere to the belief that there is no such thing as salsa. Famous American percussionist and bandleader Tito Puente, often credited with developing the salsa sound, was not convinced it was a musical style. He summed up his feeling succinctly when asked what he thought of salsa, by replying, “I’m a musician, not a cook.”

Evolution of Salsa

Between 1930 and 1960 there were musicians from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and South America coming to New York to perform. They brought their own native rhythms and musical forms with them, but as they listened to each other and played music together, the musical influences mixed, fused, and evolved.

This type of musical hybridization gave birth to the 1950s creation of the mambo from son, conjunto, and jazz traditions. Continuing musical fusion went on to include what we know today as the cha-cha, rumba, conga, and, in the 1960s, salsa.

Of course, this musical hybridization was not a one-way street. The music went back to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and South America and continued to evolve there. It evolved a little differently in each place, so today we have Cuban salsa (timba), Puerto Rican salsa, and Colombian salsa (dura). Each style has a driving, electric energy that is the hallmark of the salsa form, but it also has the distinctive sounds of its country of origin.

What's in a Name 

The spicy salsa sauce that is eaten in Latin America is added to give food zing. In this same vein, without going into the many apocryphal legends about who was first to use the term, DJs, bandleaders, and musicians started yelling "Salsa" as they were introducing a particularly energetic musical act or to spur the dancers and musicians on to more frenetic activity.

So, much in the same way that Celia Cruz would shout, "Azucar," meaning "sugar," to spur on the crowd in her way, the word "Salsa" was invoked to spice up the music and dancing.