The identity of the first person to use the word “salsa” to describe music or dance is unclear, and conflicting claims abound. Many give Jimmy Sabater of the legendary Joe Cuba Sextet credit for coining the term to describe up-tempo Latin music. On Sabater’s 1962 song Salsa y Bembé, the singer asks his partner to add a bit of “salsa” to her dance steps. Others point to Ignacio Pinero’s 1930s composition “Échale salsita”, supposedly a musical protest against bland food.
Whatever the origin of the name, though, there’s no doubt that the essential elements of modern salsa dance, music and culture can be traced to Cuba. French visitors to Cuba from neighboring Haiti in the early 1800s brought traditional country dances, which soon became intermingled with those of the Yoruba, Congolese and other peoples of West Africa for whom the island was a point of transit on the way to lives of bondage on distant plantations. African drum sounds also joined those of the clave (a pair of hardwood sticks seen in Afro-Cuban ensembles).
But it is the uniquely Cuban sound known as the Son Cubano that makes up the musical DNA of what is today called salsa. Thought by some to have originated in the melody of a mysterious (and possibly mythical) 16th century song about a freed slave and songstress named “Ma’ Teodora”, son was heard for the first time in the clubs of Havana in around 1910. It represented a marriage between Spanish folk song and African rhythms. Though known on the island for centuries, African music was still regarded by many as primitive and unstructured, or even vulgar. The son’s popularity thus provided a new opportunity for Afro-Cuban musicians, particularly percussionists, to earn a living from performing. Their energetic rhythmic phrases were combined with the instrumentation – particularly the guitar and a close Cuban relative known as the tres- with repeating melodies and phrases called guajeos, descended from traditional Spanish folk melodies.
By the 1920s, couples in Havana nightclubs had stirred into the dance mix generous helpings of tango, mambo, and flamenco, and the style began to spread throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Meanwhile, ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution had ushered in the era of prohibition, and the short boat trip from Miami to Havana provided a refuge for thirsty Americans. Many returned to the mainland with a newly acquired taste for both Caribbean rum and Latin music and dance. Soon, the rhythms of the rumba and the guaracha could also be heard on American radio stations, as jazz musicians as diverse as Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Kenton explored what pianist Jelly Roll Morton recognized as jazz’s “Latin tinge”.