"Salsa," a universal term used to represent
Latin music and dance, is said to have been formed because of
division in the live Latin music scene in New York City
during the 1960's; this division is still in full-effect 40
Although Latin dancing is no longer made up
of the same texture that it once was, its current form is a result of the basic fundamental
it underwent. These changes in the music stem from a
combination of influences, for example, Rock-and-Roll - which was in
full swing across the west during the 1960's, and the commercialization of
Latin music for economic gain.
"Before that night in the Bronx in '65, we musicians loved playing
this music that our dancers loved," shared Nestor Torres, who was a pianist for the
Tito Puente Orchestra, and for groups featuring Kako Bastar and also
"Even though we were paid for our work, it wasn't about the
money as much as it was about the togetherness that we felt as musicians and
dancers," Torres said. "There was something there during rehearsals and it
became an energy that kept us playing this music for hours," he shared in an
interview while at the Johns Hopkins University for an awards ceremony.
Fania co-founder & Grammy-award winning
artist Johnny Pacheco
..."it wasn't about the money as much as it was
about the togetherness..."
"Salsa for us who know the history - symbolizes
separation because it divided friends and it robbed stellar musicians the
opportunity to continue playing together," Torres added. Chuito Valdés, who
recorded with Arsenio Rodriguez in Cuba and in New York,
was a sit-in member of
Johnny Pacheco's orchestra that May 1965 evening.
"It was the death of our hearts, and the birth of vanity,"
Valdés said. "You could see it in our faces that night. I never played with
Pete El Conde
again, or Pacheco, or Patato - and I loved them all. They were stellar
musicians and they were my friends but our hearts died that night" (2010, translated
from Spanish), Valdés
recounted during an on-camera interview with film
producer Josué Joseph of the "La Época" films.
"...struggle between mamberos and salseros..."
Torres emphatically explained the incident which he and
Valdés said took
place that one evening in May 1965 in the Bronx, N.Y:
struggle between mamberos and salseros started in 1965,
at a club in the Bronx, between Arsenio Rodriguez and Pacheco. I
remember it. I was there, Tito Puente was there, Mangual was there and
The club had
more dancers than usual that night. Dancers were there because
Arsenio's group was playing, and Pacheco's
group was on the same billing after us with Tito Puente. After our first
set, I walked with Kako outside the back and behind us were Arsenio and
Arsenio's brother (Raúl) was feeling sick - he asked to leave - Arsenio asked
Tito Puente to fill in for Raúl. Everything was set.
It was supposed to be one of those good evenings. We could feel it," (Torres).
Cuban Legend Arsenio Rodriguez
Torres continued, "We walked back for our second set and
Mangual (Jose Mangual Sr) was going over
the chart with Puente. They played that section just a couple of times
because it wasn't easy that part - not even for Puente because the rest of us
had rehearsed it already. Puente asked Arsenio to signal the change that we
made to the chart and Pacheco leaned in from the side and says that the problem
isn't the chart but it's that the conga and the bass are playing too many
There aren't many
musicians still living who are fortunate enough to say that
they knew Arsenio Rodriguez and played with him. Even
musicians who did not play with him but had seen him
performing have said that Rodriguez was a man who was
self-confident and demanding; he expected others to keep up
with him even though few could.
"Arsenio always was
short with his words, and he had little patience for
people's mistakes," Torres said. "I didn't ever
see Arsenio angry before then. That night he was. At
just 2 words, 'Es mio!' ("This is mine!") - and that was it. All the musicians heard it and
we all stopped and looked at each other. Puente told me
later that Arsenio was protecting his brother Quique because Quique was known
to be short-tempered and Arsenio wanted to keep his brother out of trouble. It
was a lot going on there," he shared.
"...he could make Rodriguez's music easier for
other musicians to play..."
Valdés said that Pacheco often talked of how he thought he
could make Rodriguez's music easier for other musicians to play
before that evening, but that he hadn't ever, to his knowledge,
actually expressed it to Rodriguez.
Valdés said, "Quique had a bad temper and I remember none of us said
anything - we were all - all of us were confused - why this was
happening - why Pacheco would say this. But, Quique remarked to
Pacheco, 'Don't tell us how to bake our cake because we have
different ingredients.' Tito took Pacheco behind the stage to
mediate" (2010, translated from
Valdés continued, "From then on, Pacheco and
separate and so did the rest of us because our bands didn't
play together anymore. We were making music for love before
then. But, then, it stopped. We lost our friends. There
began the divide. We had to choose sides. Arsenio - who we knew as the
originator of the mambo, son-montuno, and guaguanco rhythms, or side with
Pacheco - who was a master-musician himself. Palmieri (Charlie
and Eddie), Cachao, Santiago Ceron, Alfonso Panama - many of us - we
knew the history - we were it - we are it - so joining Fania was against our
ways. We know the music. We could not betray it. But, we should
acknowledge that salsa has brought languages and cultures together and for
that - it has its place. But it is not us - we who know the music and the
According to Torres, Rodriguez and his brother wrote a song
titled Kiko Medina about the incident later that year in 1965, with
lyrics that say, "I don't play like a boy, so why do you disrespect me?" Then,
in 1966, Pacheco wrote a song in response called La Esencia del Guaguancó
where he inserted the following lyrics, "Con Pacheco no hay quien pueda; es el rey del guaguancó" - translated into English says, "With
Pacheco there is no one that can keep up; he's the king of the guaguancó."
"Quique, just after Christmas of that same year, told me
about Kiko Medina and he explained to me that it is a Congolese dialect; Kiko and Medina are words of insult and that they matched the syllables to
Pacheco's name - 2 syllables for Johnny and 3 syllables for Pacheco.
Arsenio was known for inserting hidden
Mambo legend Tito Puente
messages in his lyrics. That's where the struggle began. Pacheco
thought the music should be played differently than how Arsenio was
playing it. So, that's what he did; he created salsa by removing what he
didn't like from the traditional format and replaced that with his own
standards; even though Arsenio was the one who invented those key
rhythms and composed those very songs," Torres explained.
"Pacheco thought the music should be played differently..."
Josue Joseph is the son of
the legendary Palladium mambo bassist 'Alfonso
Panama' (bassist of Johnny Pacheco, Tito
Puente, Arsenio Rodriguez, Machito, and substitute bassist of Israel "Cachao" Lopez);
he is a film director and a producer of the award-winning La Epoca
a collection of his films, music, and teachings on the history of Latin
music giving a voice to the old-school and new-school artists of
Latin music and dance.
Joseph shared, "I think
that it's important to note that there's nothing wrong with the
whole umbrella of 'salsa.' I don't want to minimize
Pacheco by any means; he's an accomplished and an award-winning
recording artist. He is a master-musician and he did a lot with
the music - a lot of good for the general public. Salsa has
brought musicians and dancers together from all parts of the
globe. It's an amazing, fantastic experience. Like anything,
there is positivity and negativity. Being educated about both
polar-opposites gives us more to apply in our dancing, what we
listen to, and our conversations. This is my opinion" (2010).
Valdés agreed, "I loved him (Pacheco). He was my
friend. He is a creator. He helped many to become musicians
after us. By creating 'salsa,' he lowered the standards of the
music to make it easier for more musicians to play. But it also
brought many newer and younger musicians together to share their
interpretations of what we started with. It's nice for them" (2010, translated from Spanish).
Isaac Rosenbaum, who danced at the
Palladium Ballroom during the late 1950's, said that the days of
Joseph's father, Alfonso, were the good 'ole days before the divide between
loyalists-of-tradition and the loyalists-of-money broke out.
"It was a time when Jews,
Italians, Blacks and the rich and poor left their problems at the door
and came in to dance and to watch the greatest dancers in the world,
like 'Cuban Pete' and Millie Donay, The Mambo Aces and others. It wasn't
like it is today, where dancers only dance in line forward-and-backward steps
with a hundred turn-patterns or where start-up bands make a living
without knowing how to play even the basic rhythms that were played
during our time back then," Rosenbaum said in a phone interview.
Rosenbaum explained that in the
late 1960's, Johnny Pacheco and Fania Records, in their ever-living
battle with traditionalists who favor rhythms such as mambo, son-montuno
and guaguancó, opened an umbrella under which they threw all the rich
rhythms of Afro-Cuban music. He said they did it to commercialize the
music for money - to make it more user-friendly, but that in doing so,
the roots of the music and rhythms became of no importance and the
result is that in today's society, dancers are limited only to the same
watered-down copies of the origins.
Przemek Wereszczynski & Josue Joseph (Photo by
Nikodem Maszota (Poland)
"...there's nothing wrong with the whole umbrella
thing with 'salsa'..."
Rosenbaum added, "There's no
more appreciation for tradition. Most orchestras, now,
fill their repertoires with music by Willie Colón, Hector Lavoe or any
one else from the salsa era. But, salsa came after the mambo era, during
which many of the masterpieces were composed. But, what they don't
realize is that the majority of the songs in so-called salsa, are only
re-arrangements of what the legends of the previous era wrote. So, what you have is Johnny Pacheco and
his clan borrowed the ideas of the mambo legends - the ones who have an
appreciation for tradition, they re-recorded the originals but they left
out anything that was 'afro' or anything that had to do with Black, like
the basic rhythm instruments. They took it out."
"...watered-down copies of the origins..."
"And now, the kids and the orchestras think that these re-recordings are
the originals. That is exactly what happened. The originals come from
the era before salsa. We
have tradition on one side and shortcuts on the other. If the starting
point for young men these days is with shortcuts, then what you get is
exactly what we have now: salsa."
Nestor Torres agreed.
Today, the division in the Latin music and dance scene
seems to be commercialists versus old-school purists;
commercialists prefer the format by Fania Records which
was co-founded by Johnny Pacheco in the 60-70's or Salsa-Romantica from the
80's and 90's, and purists
prefer old-school style Latin music which is the format of
percussion-heavy music such as that of Beny Moré, Israel "Cachao"
Lopez, and Arsenio Rodriguez. There is no question, according to
Torres, that there is a distinct difference in the fundamental
structure of these two formats of music.
"You could hear Pacheco changing the music,"
"He started taking instruments out, and it still sounded good,
but it was different after that - missing something. He formed
Fania with our musician friends but he took Arsenio's music,
removed certain things, and he called it 'salsa.' Pete El Conde
was a gentleman who wanted to continue playing with us but it
wasn't allowed. We all suffered this loss," said Valdés (translated
Music, like every
language, has a structure; its structure is based on intervals
Joseph said, "These very
changes in the music are one of the inspirations behind the La
"Tito Puente knew the originals; he played with
Arsenio for many years.
Many don't know that Puente was the executor of Arsenio's estate - that's how
close they were. When you hear Puente's rearrangements of Arsenio's music, it has an
authentic sound. That's the sound; the element. Not so with Pacheco or
most groups of that time. I'm at the end of my life so I can say these things because I was
there when all of this went on. Salsa to us is missing something; if we can
feel that there's something missing from today's music then it should be
understood how we also feel that there's something missing from today's
dancing. It is not the same. No guaguancó from Fania has ever included the African element of the
guaguancó by its creator - Arsenio. Ever. I was there - I was
with him when he combined African tumbaos together in a unique format which he
named guaguanco. That music was created with our
hearts and when you take away from the music you are taking away from our
hearts. But, our loss can't be understood by anyone who didn't experience what
we went through. Our loss could appear as bitterness to some, but unless you
can find me a younger musician today who can play a guaracha or a guaguancó -
unless you can keep up with me - and I'm 87 and they can't keep
up with me - then our loss can't be understood. That timbalero
was my right hand. That singer was my left. That bass player was
my right foot. Losing our friends was like losing parts of our
We're not bitter - just lonely. You can't keep playing domino's
with a player who you have to always teach to play; at some
point you want to play with someone who can match your skills
and challenge you. Musicians today are very good for what they
know - but they don't know what we know" (translated from Spanish).
"...there is a distinct difference in the
fundamental structure of these two formats of music."
Joseph noted, "What
Pacheco and Willie Colón contributed to Latin music is of great
importance and of great value. Hector Lavoe was certainly inspirational
in some of his lyrics. They created an entirely new era which
still exists today - the Fania-era. That word 'salsa' has brought together cultures and
has done so much good. They are very talented; they're masters at what
"La Epoca was founded to shine the
light on musicians and dancers who contributed to the history of what is known
as 'Salsa' - by allowing them to speak for themselves since many wonderful
dancers and musicians have such huge interest in this. There are others who
present what they claim to be the history of Mambo & Salsa - and while there
is room for everyone - and of course since I believe any information students
can gain access to serves the greater purpose of encouraging dancers and
musicians to know the history - it is important to note that my vision was to
create a platform upon which the legendary artists themselves
could tell their stories and share their experiences. Some 'The History of
Salsa' lectures and presentations are out there by others - however
- and I think it's great that there is such interest in this subject, however
with La Epoca - we can hear from the musician & dance pioneers of Salsa
as well as many of the respected
dancers of today such as Eddie Torres, Frankie Martinez, Adolfo Indacochea, Oliver
Pineda, Johnny Vazquez and Luis Vazquez, Franklin Diaz, Alien Ramirez, Alberto
Valdes, Jimmy Anton, Delille Thomas, and plenty others, and the Palladium's
legendary artists including Pedro "Cuban Pete" Aguilar, Freddy Rios, Mike
Ramos, mambo pioneers Israel 'Cachao' Lopez and Alfonso Panama, and Fania artists such as Luis Mangual,
Jose Mangual Jr, Charlie Rodriguez, Carlos De Leon, and plenty more.."
Updated in November 2016: Valdés was in the last stages of inoperable cancer. He
shared in our interview that it has been music that has kept him on this earth, and
that his dreams bring back music so intensely that at
times he thinks he's died and gone to heaven to see his friends
but when he wakes up - he realizes he was only dreaming. He said
he's cried himself back to sleep countless times. He lived
a quiet life just north of Charlotte, North Carolina. He passed
away in February of 2010.
Torres, who retired in
Baltimore, Maryland, past away on December 26, 2009. Only 12
attended his funeral; only one was a musician friend who knew of
his contributions to Latin music.