Music Salsa
Sean Bellaviti
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0274


While it has broad popular appeal, an instantly recognizable sound, world-famous performers, and is the subject of sundry books, articles, and movies, the music called “salsa” is, nonetheless, remarkably difficult to define or even to describe. Much that makes salsa meaningful as a musical category—including the origins and meaning of its name, the significance of its Afro-Cuban roots, the importance of Latin and especially Puerto Rican New York to its emergence, and its role as a symbol of ethnic or national identity—turns out to be hotly debated and often contested by its fans and musicians, not to mention the various scholars and journalists whose written work is cited and summarized here. We know that the use of the term “salsa” (literally “sauce”) as a marketing label first became widespread in 1970s when it was applied to a new brand of Cuban son-inspired dance music taken up predominantly by Puerto Ricans living in New York’s hardscrabble East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem or “El Barrio.” That the term gained popularity only after fulfilling its function as a marketing tool for music that had clear Cuban roots is a key question that few authors fail to address—namely, whether salsa is merely a rebranded version of Cuban music or is, in reality, a new musical form that owes its provenance to the efforts of Nuyoricans, Puerto Rican New Yorkers. That many salsa performers of note including Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and Rubén Blades have credited Cuba as the source of the music they played has unquestionably solidified the position of the Cuba camp. At the same time, many scholars have argued that salsa is different from Cuban son. This is particularly true with regard to the subject and message of salsa’s lyrics, the breadth of the musical genres on which it draws, and the social context of Latin Americans in New York City, all factors that, scholars sustain, underpin the features of salsa that are fresh, innovative, and so passionately loved by its creators and fans. The intense Cuban-or-Puerto Rican origins debate notwithstanding, some contemporary salsa scholarship has focused on the ways in which the genre has become a representative music of Latin Americans of diverse national, ethnic, and social backgrounds. These studies have examined salsa practices and performance scenes in places far removed from New York City such as Colombia, Mexico, Spain, and even as far afield as Japan, all of which has expanded our understanding of the various meanings attributed to salsa as it has spread internationally and into increasingly diverse social and cultural settings. This list of resources presents a full picture of the various positions articulated in the debate described here as well as the different theoretical foci taken up by salsa scholars, historians, and writers.

General Overviews

Almost invariably, general overviews of salsa focus on the 1960s–1970s New York City scene, frequently branching out to look at developments of the music in Cuba and Puerto Rico and, less frequently, in other parts of Latin America. For this reason, studies that are presented as an “overview” of the genre could also be regarded as a “city study.” An historical outline of the key events in salsa’s formative history can be found in Boggs 1992, Flores 2016, and Rondón 2008. Leymarie 1993, Morales 2003, and Roberts 1999 all trace salsa’s evolution in relation to broader Latin American musical developments. Calvo-Ospina 1995 and Steward 1999 offer useful introductions of the genre for the general reader.

  • Boggs, Vernon, ed. Salsiology: Afro-Cuban Music and the Evolution of Salsa in New York City. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.

    This anthology combines a wide range of topics (Caribbean genres loosely connected to salsa, US popular Latin American musician biographies, instrumental and performance techniques, and sociological analysis) with contributions that range from scholarly essays to journalistic pieces and interview transcripts. While errors in both form and content call for attentive and careful reading, readers will nonetheless benefit from the insights offered by formative musicians and industry personnel working in New York City during the early years of salsa.

  • Calvo-Ospina, Hernando. ¡Salsa! Havana Heat, Bronx Beat. Translated by Nick Caistor. London: Latin American Bureau, 1995.

    Translated from the Spanish, this book offers an outline of salsa’s history beginning with its Cuban and Puerto Rican roots, its development in the New York’s (multinational) barrios, and its eventual spread throughout Latin America. Written in a highly accessible journalistic style, this book also features narratives by imaginary onlookers, interspersed with interviews with actual salsa musicians.

  • Flores, Juan. Salsa Rising: New York Latin Music of the Sixties Generation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199764891.001.0001

    Flores’s book (published posthumously) offers a history of Latin American music in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s that emphasizes the achievements of musicians and audiences from El Barrio—“the historic Manhattan neighborhood of the Puerto Rican community.” By highlighting the musical lives of working-class Nuyoricans, Flores’s brings to life salsa’s history during its formative and most productive period—that is, an entire decade before salsa even came to be called salsa.

  • Leymarie, Isabelle. La salsa et le Latin jazz. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1993.

    Brief (128 small pages) outline of the development of salsa and Latin jazz, beginning with a synopsis of the history of the performers and the key musical features of the antecedent Cuban musical genres, the rise of Latin music during the first half of the 20th century, and salsa’s rise in New York City and Puerto Rico. This French-language book also includes several notated examples of standard instrumental patterns.

  • Morales, Ed. The Latin Beat: The Rhythms and Roots of Latin Music from Bossa Nova to Salsa and Beyond. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003.

    A highly readable, sweeping overview of “Latin music” that provides the vocabulary and social history necessary to enhance the reader’s understanding and enjoyment of this music. The “Story of Nuyorican Salsa,” like the other chapters devoted to other genres, is organized around the breakthrough contributions of salsa’s best-known practitioners along with very helpful coverage of the salsa music industry.

  • Roberts, John Storm. The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin American Music in the United States. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    A pioneering work first published in 1979, this book offers an account of Latin American music that spans the greater part of the 20th century and includes all the important “rages” and “crazes” that marked the ascension of this music in the US popular consciousness. Praised for its breadth and criticized for its inevitable lacunae and, at times, less-than-scholarly treatment of the subject, the 1999 edition of this book updates the discussion, confirming the importance of Roberts’s contribution.

  • Rondón, César Miguel. The Book of Salsa: A Chronicle of Urban Music from the Caribbean to New York City. Translated by Frances R. Aparicio with Jackie White. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

    The first social history of salsa, this book, originally published in Spanish in 1980 (Caracas, Venezuela: Merca Libros), could rightly be regarded as the single most important source, beginning with its account of the growing appreciation for Afro-Cuban music in the 1950s, its examination of salsa’s development in the New York City barrio in the 1960s, and its exploration of the genre’s commercialization and hemispheric-wide appeal in the 1970s and 1980s.

  • Steward, Sue. Salsa: Musical Heartbeat of Latin America. London: Thames & Hudson, 1999.

    This textbook is part history and part “illustrated guide” to salsa as it includes 228 illustrations (seventy-four in color). Taking “salsa” to cover “most kinds of Latin dance music,” Steward offers a wide-ranging outline of some of the major trajectories of Latin American (especially Cuban) music, with the life and achievements of self-identified salsa musicians making up a limited part of the history presented in this book.

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