An Introduction to Latin Music: Salsa History

No discussion of Latin music is complete without the mention of salsa.

Salsa is one of the most influential and far reaching genres of Latin music, with huge popularity not only throughout Latin America and the United States, but also across Europe and the rest of the world. Skyrocketing to prominence in New York City in the 60s, at its core salsa is a fusion of traditional Cuban - predominantly son but also chachacha, pilon, and guaracha amongst others - and Puerto Rican styles such as plena and bomba with North American pop, rock, and jazz music.

This article will look at some syncretic Latin styles that came out of New York preceding salsa, before discussing some of the key musicians, bandleaders, albums, and songs that any Latin music enthusiast should know.

Mambo and Latín Jazz in New York City and Mexico City

While the term salsa didn’t become common until the 60s, there were many syncretic Latin styles which preceded salsa. An early example of this was Machito and his Afro-Cubans, a band led by Mario Bauzá who kick-started not only the New York mambo craze (not to be confused with the earlier Cuban mambo played by Israel “Cachao” Lopez) that came out of the 50s, but also the Cubop/Latin Jazz trends that followed. Mambo was a fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms - driven by a percussion section consisting of congas, bongos, and timbales - and North American big band dance music. It was the first example of Afro-Caribbean instruments being used in a popular North American context and inspired a generation of mambo bands and musicians, such as Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez.

However, New York wasn’t the only city paving the way in mambo music. In 1949, Cuban born bandleader Perez Prado moved to Mexico City and, with the help of Cuban born singer Benny More, started a mambo craze which would span throughout the 1950s. Mexican mambo was similar in many ways to New York City mambo, both were a fusion of Afro-Cuban percussion instrumentation and rhythms, with North American big band arrangements. However, the close proximity that New York mambo had to jazz musicians of the time meant that it had a more jazzy, improvised sound.

Machito also inspired a generation of Jazz musicians to incorporate Afro-Cuban percussion instruments into their music. Such musicians include:

  • Dizzy Gillespie - Trumpet player who played with Cuban conguero (conga player) Luciano “Chano” Pozo and collectively wrote the well known Latin Jazz classic “Manteca.”
  • Charlie Parker - legendary saxophonist who was a key figure in the development of bebop in the 1950s. Parker collaborated with Machito in the classic Cubop (Cuban Bebop) song “Mango Mangue.”
  • Stan Kenton - pianist and bandleader who was influenced by Machito’s music and began incorporating mambo into his big band sets.

While the term mambo refers to the styles of music above, it can also refer to a specific section of a salsa song as well as a rhythm played on the cowbell. These will be discussed in more detail later.

Key Figures

Below is a list of some of the most important figures in Latin-American music that preceded salsa.

  • Xavier Cugat (1900-1990) - Spanish-American bandleader who played a key role in bringing Latin American music to a mainstream American audience.
  • Machito (1908-1984) - Cuban musician and one of the pioneers of Latin Jazz. Was the first to gain popularity by fusing Afro-Cuban rhythms and percussion with American Big Band jazz arrangements.
  • Mario Bauzá (1911-1993) - Cuban musician and bandleader who, like Machito played a key role in the development of Latin Jazz. Bauzá was bandleader for the band Machito and his Afro-Cubans.
  • Israel “Cachao” Lopez (1918-2008) - Cuban double bassist and bandleader who is considered the inventor of the Cuban mambo. Cachao composed “Chanchullo” a song which would later inspire Tito Puente to compose “Oye Como Va.”
  • Tito Puente (1923-2000) - American percussionist and bandleader of Puerto Rican ancestry. Puente was a key exponent of New York mambo music as well as Latin Jazz. His most famous composition was “Oye Como Va,” a song inspired by Israel “Cachao” Lopez’ song “Chanchullo” and his prolific career earned him the nickname “The King of Latin Music.”
  • Tito Rodriguez (1923-1979) - Puerto Rican singer and bandleader who contributed to the success of New York mambo music throughout the 50s.
  • Chano Pozo (1915-1948) - Cuban born conga player who famously composed “Manteca” with Dizzy Gillespie.
  • Perez Prado (1917-1989) - Cuban bandleader, pianist, and composer who was the leading figure in the Mexican mambo trend of the 1950s.

Mambo later led to the popularity of other Latin fusions such as boogaloo, and it was the generation of musicians who were at the tail end of this movement that would help give rise to an exciting new style of Latin music, salsa.

The Fania Label and the Rise of Salsa

Just as soul music was driven by the success of the Motown label in the 1960s, salsa was driven by its own record label, Fania Records. While salsa was being played before Fania’s existence (though not by the same name), without Fania, salsa music would never have taken off like it did. Founded in New York in 1964 by Dominican composer and bandleader Johnny Pacheco and Italian-American lawyer Jerry Masucci, Fania was effectively a collection of the most influential salsa musicians of the time, all performing and releasing music under the “Fania” umbrella. Here is a list of popular artists on their roster:

  • Willie Colón - Nuyorican (a New York-born Puerto Rican) trombonist, singer, and songwriter who rose to fame as a teenager through the success of his 1967 album with Hector Lavoe, “El Malo.”
  • Ray Barretto - American conga player of Puerto Rican Ancestry. Unlike Colón, Barretto was an established name on the New York Latin music scene prior to the emergence of salsa, having played extensively with legendary timbalero and bandleader Tito Puente, as well as jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker. Barretto was a key exponent of boogaloo and pachanga.
  • Celia Cruz - Cuban born singer known as the “Queen of Salsa.” Cruz left Cuba for the United States while Cuba was still controlled by the U.S. backed Fulgencio Bastista regime. After the Cuban Revolution of 1958, Cruz was forbidden from returning to her homeland by Fidel Castro, and thus became a United States citizen. As well as collaborating with Tito Puente, Cruz was also part of the Fania All-Stars supergroup.
  • Ruben Blades - Panamanian singer and songwriter. Notable albums include the hugely successful 1978 collaboration with Willie Colón, Siembra.
  • Hector Lavoe - Puerto Rican singer
  • Bobby Valentin - Puerto Rican bass player who, prior to his career with Fania played with mambo musician Tito Rodriguez.
  • Cheo Feliciano - Puerto Rican singer, composer, and percussionist. Feliciano played percussion in Tito Rodriguez’s orchestra prior to his success with Fania.

Fania All-Stars

While Fania was already an established label with many successful albums being sold globally, it was the supergroup Fania All-Stars that took salsa music to a new level. The Fania All-Stars were essentially a supergroup which enabled salsa fans to see all of their favourite musicians performing at once. They toured extensively through the Americas and the rest of the world. The All-Stars filled the New York Yankee stadium with a capacity of more than 40,000 and other huge stadiums and arenas all over the world, much like pop and rock bands do to this day.


In our next article, "An Introduction to Salsa Drumming: Rhythms and Applications," we will look at some of the let rhythms played in salsa, the makeup of a salsa percussion section, and how to apply these patterns to the drum kit in a less traditional context.

Between reading the two articles try to familiarise yourself with the music mentioned in this article, after all it was this music which inspired the creation of salsa.

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