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THE BEGINNINGS OF "SALSA"

Article by Angelina Puente and Victoria Tarova (Interviews October 2009 and January 2010)

 

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"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 years later.

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 modifications 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 Mongo Santamaría.

"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:

"The 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 Kako, too. 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 Quique. 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 notes."

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 Pacheco he yelled 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 Spanish).

Valdés continued, "From then on, Pacheco and Arsenio stayed 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 history."

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..."

International artist 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..."

Rosenbaum continued, "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," Valdés said. "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 from Spanish).

Music, like every language, has a structure; its structure is based on intervals and mathematics.

Joseph said, "These very changes in the music are one of the inspirations behind the La Epoca films."

Valdés shared:

"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 bodies. 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 they do."

He continued, "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 he said 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.

 

Part II Re-Edited Trailer

Official Music Video in HD  "Dónde Te Encuentro?"

   
Part IV :La Epoca - Salsa, 50 Years Ago" Trailer

Part V :La Epoca - This Thing Called Kizomba" Trailer

   

Update: This article was first written in January 2010, and was last updated in February 2016. Updates include: (1) Chuco "Chuito" Valdés past away just two weeks after his interview at the age of 86. Part II Original La Epoca - The Lost Rhythms in Salsa and Part II Re-Edited La Epoca - The Lost Rhythms in Salsa and the award-winning song "Veras" were all produced in dedication to Valdés in honor of his tremendous contribution to music, and dance.

 

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