The term “Salsa” (simply the Spanish word for “sauce” but used in the Spanish Caribbean to connote spicy flavor) was first used in New York to describe the rich blend and high energy of the Latino-Caribbean music and dance that Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans brought to the city throughout the twentieth century, but the chief ingredients of the sauce began to blend in Cuba as far back as the late nineteenth century.
As agricultural production diminished in the wake of slavery and colonialism, Cuba’s multicultural population converged on the island’s urban centers where the rhythms of West African drumming, the guitar-playing of Spanish troubadours, French country dance, and the call-and-response rituals of former slaves formed the ingredients of a new sound and a new dance style that spread throughout the Caribbean, picking up more influences and evolving a variety of styles. When the Spanish-American War increased U.S. involvement and influence in the region, Latin music spread farther, brought north by Puerto Ricans who were made citizens by the U.S. takeover of the island and encountered by southbound U.S. tourists who fled Prohibition for the nightlife of nearby Havana.
Cuban Salsa and American Jazz influenced one another throughout the mid twentieth century, and the dances inspired by the Cuban sound – rumba and mambo – were mainstream crazes in this country at the same time that swing dancing was growing out of jazz. But where jazz music and swing dancing suffered a great diminishment in the late sixties and through the seventies, Salsa only grew stronger, evolving toward a more modern and urban-edged sound with the emergence of Latin record labels in the U.S. and strong dance scenes in Los Angeles, Miami, and, of course, New York City – each with its own distinctive style.
Today salsa is more popular than ever, with Latin dance clubs in cities throughout the world attracting dancers of every background to move to a mix of Dominican Merengue and Bachata, Columbian Cumbia, and Cuban-style Salsa along with emerging new styles of music that blend salsa beats with Jamaican Reggae or contemporary urban Hip Hop. It’s this embrace of diversity and openness to innovation that keeps the dance alive, the sauce spicy and fresh.