Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Echale Salsita: Cuba and the Roots of Salsa
While the 1920's saw the consolidation of jazz as a true American art form, the musical effervescence of Cuba gave rise to another lasting musical art form that endures today as an internationally recognized genre. Although the roots of "salsa" are difficult to pinpoint and speak to the complex interplay of African and Iberian musical forms, its initial recordings can be traced directly back to the decade of the twenties, a period characterized by active cultural interchange between the United States and Cuba. While Cuban music enriched the cultural landscape of the U. S., American influence allows for sugar monopolies and the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado in a climate of generalized corruption in Cuba, at the same time giving the island the sport of baseball, still venerated by most Cubans.
Most musicologists trace the origins of salsa to the Cuban Son, an African based music form that appears on the island in the nineteenth century. Perhaps the first exponent of salsa is the Afro Cuban bass player Ignacio Pineiro, who formed the famous Septeto Nacional in 1927 and performed with the group at the Apollo Theater and the Chicago World's Fair in 1933. It has been reported that he also recorded for Columbia Studios in the late 1920's, original recordings from the period are at a collector's premium. Noteworthy is that the origin of the name salsa - which now encompasses are rather wide range of styles from the Spanish speaking Caribbean - can be traced to the Pineiro composition "Echale Salsita, " roughly translated "spice it up." For a taste of the piquant sound, give a listen to this composition of the same song which appears to capture the spirit of the original sound. While the rhythms and percussion are identical to the more contemporary salsa sound, absent is the full orchestra sound that salsa incorporates as exchanges between American jazz musicians and Cuban musicians became more pronounced during the mambo craze of the 1950's. A more contemporary rendition of "Echale Salsita" can be heard here.
The explosion and popularity of salsa throughout the Caribbean and on the American music scene during the 1960's and 70's continues today and undoubtedly qualify it as form of American roots music of Cuban origins. Some have suggested that the term "salsa" actually speaks to the amalgam of Caribbean musical styles that coalesce in New York City after the great Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican immigration waves of the 1960's and seventies. Many great salsa artists have taken up residence in New York and performed in the flourishing dance scene in the city over the last few decades.
With the election of Obama, cultural exchanges between Cuba and the United States have been resumed to the levels they were enjoying during the Clinton years, a time that saw famous Cuban groups such as Los Van Van and Orquesta Aragon come to the U. S. to perform. This year, in memory of the legacy of Ignacio Pineiro and his marvelous Cuban roots music, the Septeto Nacional, which has not performed in the United States since the presidency of FDR, has been invited to return. The group is currently doing a tour of the U.S. and has performed in New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago. Eugenio Rodriguez, the groups leader, is proud to be a part of the Pineiro legacy and bring it to U.S. audiences, a little "salsa" that has been lacking on the scene for too many years.