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Part I: The Afro-Cuban Era

by | Nov 26, 2018 | Articles | 0 comments

Salsa became known as an umbrella-term to represent the Afro-Cuban rhythms and dances popular in New York which have their roots in Africa and Cuba.

Afro-Cuban music made its way to New York during the first half of the 1900’s in-part by Desi Arnaz – a musician and actor famous in American television, and by Xavier Cugat – a musician from Spain who spent his early years training in Cuba – and after relocating to New York – became the bandleader of the resident-orchestra at the Waldorf-Astoria before and after World War II.

By 1945 – the Palladium Ballroom opened its doors to those Afro-Cuban rhythms and became known as the Home of the Mambo.

All of this happened way before the era of Johnny Pacheco and Fania.

Based on countless conversations, Facebook blogs, articles and comments, it is clear that many ‘salseros’ wholeheartedly believe that the history of the music and dancing which is today called Salsa – started with Johnny Pacheco, Hector Lavoe and Fania Records. But that is only half the story. 

Initially, the term Salsa grew to include rhythms specifically from Afro-Cuban origins: Son, Mambo, Son-Montuno, Guajira, Bolero, Guaguancó, and other Afro-Cuban rhythms along with their dances. But when Bugalú, Jazz, and Pachanga came to gain popularity – the term Salsa was expanded to include the modifications these rhythms underwent – popularized in New York, the greater US, Latin-America, and the Caribbean. The rapid growth of thisSalsa term and movement was towards the end of the 1960’s with Johnny Pacheco using Fania with Hector Lavoe and Willie Colón and Celia Cruz, Pete El Conde, Hector Casanova, and others to usher it into the mainstream worldwide.

Today, the term Salsa for many dance-studios can include Bachata and Kizomba. This article aims to fill in the blanks.

Benny Moré / Afro-Cuban Legendary Bandleader, Vocalist, and Arranger

Afro-Cuban Era

Arsenio Rodriguez / Afro-Cuban Legendary Bandleader, Inventor of Mambo, Son-Montuno, and Guaguancó Solar

The Afro-Cuban era was from 1923 to 1946 in Cuba – led by Arsenio RodriguezMachito,Israel ‘Cachao’ Lopez, Pérez Prado,Beny Moré, Casino de la Playa with Miguelito Valdés, Antonio Arcaño, and many others from Cuba.
The slave-trade from the late 1400’s to the late 1800’s caused that cultures and religious practices from individual tribes from within Africa were transplanted to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Jamaica, and other lands in the Caribbean and Latin-America.

Forced labor and enclosed living quarters forced slaves to interact and mingle, which led to musicians among them to be exposed to the many various, polyrhythmic patterns. These conditions led to the very early beginnings of two important Afro-Cuban rhythms: Rumba and Guaguancó.

Cuba outlawed slavery in 1888 which forced the desegregation of its schools from 1888 to 1923. Undereducated blacks and others were slowly integrated into the schools, mainly craftsmanship and music. Light-skinned symphonic musicians collaborated with dark-skinned Afro-Cuban musicians – and out of this racial, musical mixture came the development of standardized formats of rhythms and dances including Rumba, Guaguancó, Danzón, and Bolero among others, which are still standard to this day.

Rumba, as a dance, is strongly influenced by cultural and specific movements symbolic of some of the religions practiced at the time including Carabali, Orishas and Yoruba. A search on YouTube for Rumba de Cuba, may be help to listen and see examples of Rumba.

The syllabus for the Danzón was created in 1878 – shortly after the Rumba. Listening to a Danzón, one can clearly hear the European influences in the instrumentation, such as the European flutes and violins, followed by Afro-Cuban instrumentation. For example, often the first half of a Danzón is accentuated by flute and violin – and the second half is dominated by a prominent bass syncopation with more percussion. One of the pioneers of the Danzón was Israel ‘Cachao’ Lopez – an example of the Danzón rhythm here, featuring Cachao on the contra-bass and Hollywood actor Andy Garcia on vocals, is an excellent example of how lively Danzon can be. This is the famous song “Isora.”

The Bolero, as a rhythm and dance, had already been evolving over the years – but finally had a more developed format by 1903, which quickly spread throughout Latin-America – particularly to Panama because of the construction of the Panama Canal with the assistance of many laborers from around the Caribbean. The Bolero’s distinct 3-4-5, 7-8-1 footwork dance steps aligned with the prominent bass-line in the music which essentially made it the only dance of this kind, at this time. A modern example of Bolero, filmed very recently, helps to demonstrate the basic rhythm and footwork although remember that this is a modern example.

The Bolero, as a rhythm and dance, had already been evolving over the years – but finally had a more developed format by 1903, which quickly spread throughout Latin-America – particularly to Panama because of the construction of the Panama Canal with the assistance of many laborers from around the Caribbean. The Bolero’s distinct 3-4-5, 7-8-1 footwork dance steps aligned with the prominent bass-line in the music which essentially made it the only dance of this kind, at this time. A modern example of Bolero, filmed very recently, helps to demonstrate the basic rhythm and footwork although remember that this is a modern example.

By 1923, a new rhythm was born in Cuba, called Son, which musically consisted primarily of first guitar, second guitar, contra-bass, and clave sticks. As was mentioned in the award-winning documentary Part I La Epoca – The Palladium Era. the Son rhythm introduced changes into Afro-Cuban music which were new; the new upbeat (also known as the and-beat) syncopation of the contra-bass introduced a whole new feel for the music which had not been heard or danced to before, which revolutionized popular Afro-Cuban music of the time.

The smooth fluid sound of Son inspired the dance, by the same name, equally as smooth. An example of Son performance could be valuable to see although it is important to note that dancing Son as a demonstration or performance is not the same as dancing Son, socially. Son has traditionally been dancing with a sidestep and with the timing of the steps accentuating the prominent accents of the bass, which was a new concept, at the time, yet remains a standard form of dancing Son, today.


In 1937, the blind musician/bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez had already transformed Afro-Cuban music. He invented a new rhythm called Mambo, which is often mistakenly credited to Orestes Lopez, Cachao, and/or Antonio Arcaño. The confusion over who the inventor of the Mambo really is was documented in this video and write-up. 

Arsenio Rodriguez invented the Mambo which energized dancers in Cuba and around Latin-America from 1937-1947. In the beginning however, due to racism, Rodriguez was not allowed in the Cuban recording-studios, therefore other musicians who were not subject to racism as much, listened to him performing in the nightclubs, and created their own renditions of Mambo which they recorded in the recording-studios, thus, becoming incorrectly credited as the inventors of Mambo.

Israel ‘Cachao’ López / Cuban Legendary Bassist, Composer, and Arranger of Afro-Cuban music

The Mambo rhythm is based on the Son rhythm with modification which distinguish them both from each other, although the Mambo rhythm gave dancers new inspiration which went through another transformation once it arrived in New York. Dancers of today may be familiar with the word Mambo as its used as titles of two distinct dance-styles. One is titled Palladium Mambo (aka Classic Mambo or Classic On2) which is the original style of the Mambo danced at the Palladium pioneered by dancers such as Pedro “Cuban Pete” Aguilar, Andy Jerrick, Carmen Cruz, Augie and Margo, Freddy Rios and Mike Ramos, Millie Donay, among others, as was wonderfully presented in a documentary about the Palladium. This style has the lead’s first step forward on beat 2 – essentially it is 2-3-4, 6-7-8. However, a new style correctly titled as Salsa On2 but often mislabeled as Mambo was pioneered by Eddie Torres – who modified the direction and timing of the footwork.

Three of the musicians who were instrumental in popularizing Mambo around the world were none other than the great composer and bassist – Israel ‘Cachao’ López whose example of Mambo includes Mambo Cambió de Swing, which he recorded within years of his passing in 2008, plus the skilled composer, arranger, and natural-dancerPérez Prado with his rendition of Mambo, as well as the amazing arranger and musician Tito Puente. Examples of the Mambo rhythm which dancers would recognize most today include Ran Kan Kan and Mambo Gazón and Babarabatiri – all three popularized by Tito Puente.


Arsenio Rodriguez also invented an amazing rhythm which is perhaps the most popular of all, still today, called Son-Montuno. From the days of Rodriguez in Cuba during the early 40’s all the way to 05:00 in the morning at any Salsa festival around the world today – the Son-Montuno was and still is the most popular rhythm for dancers.

The explicit details of the Son-Montuno are presented through a popular academic program, but the simplest description of the rhythm is that Arsenio modified the Son rhythm by changing the musical chord-progression which is interchangable between 3/2 clave and 2/3 clave, on top of that he added a small touch of the Montuno rhythm with its influence of repitition, and he gave various tempos which mean the Son-Montuno can be slow for Cha-Cha-Cha and Son-Montuno dancing as well as fast for Mambo dancing.

Examples of the Son-Montuno rhythm include Hang on Sloopy and the very popular La Yuca – both by Arsenio Rodriguez, a song still popular with Salsa instructors today is Sopa de Pichón by Machito as well as El Manicero by Mario Bauzá. The rhythm has given power to great musicians of today to create great songs, for example El Gran Combo’s Arróz Con Abichuelas, and Castellano Que Bueno Baila Usted by Oscar D’Leon (the original is by Beny Moré), and Johnny Pacheco’s El Faisán performed by Quinto Mayor.


In 1941, Arsenio Rodriguez also revolutionized Rumba – creating a new rhythm called Guaguancó Solar. Although he had been experimenting with Rumba and Guaguancó from the early 1930s, ten years later – dancers were more free to gather together at night-clubs which gave musicians more inspiration, which brought more musicians who began experimenting themselves. Arsenio’s Guaguancó was unlike anything anyone had ever heard or danced to before! He carefully and brilliantly added the musical structure of Son along with its melodic progression to Rumba and combined these with heavy percussion of earlier versions of Guaguancó – thus creating an entirely new sound called Guaguancó Solar. The dancers went wild, according to interviews conducted for Part I La Epoca – The Palladium Era.

Examples of the beautiful Guaguancó rhythm include his most famous – Fiesta en el Solar, although a very commercialized version of Guaguancó which dancers would perhaps recognize most is Aguanile performed by Marc Anthony. For dancers, however, Rumba and Guaguancó beautifully merged history, religious symbolism, and self-expression and improvisation into the dance art-form. An example of dancing Guaguancó would be helpful.

In addition to this, he was the first to replace the guitar with a piano, he was the first to add congas into Afro-Cuban as a permanent mainstay in orchestras, and he was the first to add multiple trumpets, and he was the first to add saxophone into Afro-Cuban music. Clearly, he was a pioneer with whom every single musician hoped to aspire to meet and perform/record with. Most did not acquire that level of musicianship.

By early 1940’s, many musicians began relocating mainly from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Panama – all to New York – to ballrooms and night-clubs around New York including the most-famous The Palladium Ballroom, plus Roseland Ballroom and the Birdland, El Corso’s Nightclub, Havana San Juan Club and Havana Madrid Club, and Hunts Point Palace, among others.

This brings us to a fantastic and explosive era for music and dance – called the Palladium Era. This is the subject for the new page of this article, coming soon. Part I La Epoca – The Palladium Era is an amazing award-winning documentary was produced with interviews with some of the pioneering musicians and dancers who made possible was we do, today.


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