Salsa! An Inside View into this Summer’s Hottest Music and Dance

There is an alluring rhythm playing in Westside Los Angeles. It is called the clave. For those who salsa dance, they can no more resist moving to it than a ship can resist the persuasive sway of the sea.Whether salsa is “agua” for you or you are learning about it for the first time, here’s an inside perspective on the dance, music and history of this genre. Also, included below is a list of outdoor venues showcasing live salsa bands and deejays where you can satisfy your salsa cravings this summer in or near Westside LA.

A Brief History of Salsa

Salsa was born in Africa, raised in Cuba and educated internationally. It is sophisticated and compelling. Undeniably, modern salsa music has been shaped by various countries including Columbia, Venezuela, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, the United States, and territories such as Puerto Rico. But, as Rebeca Mauleón, author and musician, notes,

“When studying the roots of salsa, we must turn to Cuba because of it unparalleled contributions to this type of music.”   Salsa Guidebook for Piano & Ensemble, 1993

Cuban music, and specifically its rhythms, has had a major impact on music across the world. Howard Goodall, an award-winning composer and acclaimed broadcaster, called Cuba the 20th century hub of rhythm. The Cuban son, an undeniable predecessor of salsa, was profoundly influenced by the music brought from Africa by the slave trade and Spanish settlement. These African rhythms and European influences can still be clearly heard in the music we now call salsa.

During the early 1900s, when jazz and blues were blossoming in the US, son was becoming popular in Cuba. The introduction of radio and silent films, people traveling back and forth between Cuba and the United States, emigration, and other cross-cultural interactions planted the seed of Cuban music in the US in the 1920s through 1940s. During this same time, North American styles such as ragtime, charleston, two-step, and tap dance were finding their way into Cuban dance halls.

It wasn’t until the late 1940s, however, that a promoter named Federico Pagani persuaded the owner of the Palladium Ballroom in New York city to open for a Sunday matinee to help mitigate some of the Palladium’s financial burdens. These Sunday matinees dismissed the Palladium’s white-only policy and allowed an eclectic group of dancers and musicians to come together to build a Latin music and dance party that would become world-renowned. It was in the 1950s at the Palladium that Mambo (later in the ’60s to be lumped together with other Latin music under the commercial name Salsa) took shape and center stage.

Through the golden-age of the Palladium, on any given Sunday, the ballroom would pulsate with the energy of some of the best Latin dancers and musicians in the world. The three legends, Machito, Tito Rodriguez, and Tito Puente, led the battle of the bands and would transition seamlessly from one set to another. Just down the street, Jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie were performing, and would drop-in to play at the Palladium. The Cuban son and rumba, Puerto Rican bomba and plena, and American jazz and blues — amongst other genres — intermingled as did various dance forms such as tap, son, ballet and swing, to name a few. To this day, salsa — the dance and the music — continues to honor its Cuban roots while accommodating various influences.

Recently, at the Los Angeles 15th Annual Salsa Congress, people from Japan, Switzerland, Venezuela, Columbia, France, Africa, and numerous other countries gathered for workshops, performances, concerts and social dancing. For five days, this international audience conversed through the common language of salsa and celebrated their love of the music.

Similar to many languages, Salsa has dialects. Different interpretations of the rhythm have lead to different schools of dance such as the more traditional Casino that has a distinct Cuban feel; Classic Mambo that conjures up feelings of the Palladium; New York On 2 that has a distinct groove and funk; and LA On 1 that has the flash and flair expected of a dance influenced by Hollywood. There are other styles as well such as the fast-footwork of the Columbian stage performers and Miami’s own version of Casino. Still, most these dancers and musicians are united by their common passion for the music.

The Rhythms of Salsa
In the salsa scene, there are dancers, musicians and observers. They are all connected through the music.

Salsa has a seductive quality created by the vitality of its polyrhythms and the anticipation of its downbeats, a characteristic inherited from the Cuban son. Salsa is complex and rich. It is this very nature that draws people in and sometimes challenges them in learning to dance to it.

There is a key to understanding salsa, however; and it is the clave. This rhythmic pattern is what all the other elements of the music align to. If you are at an outdoor concert or suddenly the speakers go out in a club, you might hear people clapping a syncopated pattern that consists of two beats grouped together and another three beats grouped together. Which group comes first depends on the song.

The clave is the same for dancers and musicians, but salseros, salsa dancers, usually count the music differently than the musicians by counting 8-beat musical phrases. The style of salsa dance can often be determined by the emphasis given to these beats. Imagine taking a step forward with your left leg and them rocking back onto your right. If you are the lead and doing this on beat 1, you are dancing “On 1.” This is a popular interpretation of the music in LA. If that change of direction happens on beat 2, you are dancing “On 2,” a popular interpretation in NY.

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In western pop music, it might feel natural to clap to each beat; or in more soulful music, perhaps, your tendency might be to clap to every other beat. What would it sound like, however, if you clapped on beats (2,3) and (5, 6 1/2, and 8)? It would sound like the 2-3 son clave, the rhythmic backbone of an array of salsa songs.