The sizzling sounds of salsa music that once blasted through the streets of the South Bronx during the 1960s and 1970s are making a comeback.
The recent openings of clubs such as The Tropicana, which opened on Valentine’s Day 2009, and El Morocco on Broadway and 145th Street, which opened in 2008, have contributed to a revival of the genre among young people in New York City.
John, an employee at The Tropicana who said he was unauthorized to give his full name, claimed that salsa has made a comeback because “the youth wants to hold on to their culture.”
Salsa music, which Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants brought to the Bronx in the ’60s and ’70s, has played a vital role in the creation of the Latino identity in the Bronx. Many young people choose to forego the more popular sounds of reggaeton and rap, and are instead reconnecting with the rhythms of illustrious salsa musicians such as Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe.
“I see a lot of clubs now where the young kids are learning how to dance salsa,” observed Ray Castro, leader of the salsa group Conjunto Clasico.
According to Castro, who was born in Puerto Rico and raised in the South Bronx, “Salsa has always been a part of the Bronx and the Latino identity. Most of the musicians that created this type of music were raised here.”
“The Bronx was like Puerto Rico to the north ... These guys were playing their music right there in the Bronx, in their backyard,” John said.
Salsa first appeared in performances by Cuban-style big bands by artists such as Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez in the 1940s. By the 1960s, many Latin clubs had moved uptown to the Bronx, and the sound of the music had become more raw and improvisational. “If you heard Latin music before, it was almost big band-ish, and all of a sudden you heard Hector Lavoe and it was so exciting,” John said. “It was almost like the room temperature rose 20 degrees and you could feel your blood pressure rising.”
The term “salsa” was first coined by Fania Records, established in 1964 by the Dominican bandleader Johnny Pacheco and Italian-American lawyer Jerry Masucci. The term has been met with much controversy from Latin musicians like Tito Puente, who believe that the word is merely a loose term to describe a huge variety of vibrant styles, and that it does injustice to the diversity of Latin music.
“Salsa was just a word put out by Fania to make it easier for people who were not familiar with the music,” Castro said. John, on the other hand, believes that the term accurately expresses the “blend” of styles and “merging of cultures” from which salsa has formed.
Whatever you call it, there is no denying this musical form’s recent comeback. “There’s been this huge phenomenon where people want to dance,” John said. “The rooms at The Tropicana are continuously full and you can’t move,” John said.