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Prologue
Part One:
One Man's Word
Part Two:
Turning Westward
Part Three:
An African Movement
Part Four:
Cuba
Part Five:
Revolution
Part Six:
Puerto Rico
Part Seven:
Borinquen NYC
Part Eight:
Who Owns Salsa?
Part Nine:
Salsa in the UK
Resources

About the Author

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Revealing Items

A History of Salsa
Part 3: An African Movement

The Saint Domingue / Haitian contribution to the birth of new Cuban rhythms cannot be fully quantified, but is probably significant since the blacks had more freedom to retain their cultural heritage. It's more than mere coincidence that two important musical developments emerged from Oriente at the same time as arrivals from Hispañola. But conditions in Cuba themselves had to be right to foster these developments. And they were. The remoteness of Sierra Maestra from Havana allowed the blacks more freedom to practice their customs in the east.

The vocal and drumming tradition is central to the religious and social practices of the African people. A key aspect is the idea of co-operative musicianship, where groups of people are involved in an activity. A fine example is the drumming, where particular patterns are identified with particular deities.

An individual drummer would play a specific and unique rhythm; and several drummers, called a battery, would play together to produce a polyrhythm. Each part of the polyrhythm can be complex, and drummers play in a highly syncopated environment, so it's easy for them to lose their place. Every drummer is kept on the right track by being aware of how his own pattern fits with a master pattern called the “key”. As long as the key is present, the drummers are synchronised and the polyrhythm holds together. It acts like a rhythmic “glue”. The large number of African deities required a large number of polyrhythms; which could be easily achieved by varying the parts of just a few drummers.

African polyrhythms are a key component of salsa, and so follow a “clave” [Spanish for key or code] of some form. Common keys are the son clave, rumba clave, samba clave and cua; all descended from the African key. The cinquillo [five beat] and tresillo [three beat] are not claves themselves, but rhythmic motifs that conform to part of a clave.

In an example of polyrhythmic change in salsa, a chachacha can be changed to a pachanga simply by altering the pattern on the congas from “tumbao moderno” [modern rhythm] to “a caballo” [horse gallop]. The difference is quite subtle, and it is understandable why people find Latin rhythms confusing.

Another artefact comes from African ceremonial gatherings where group chants were cued by individual religious / social leaders. Known in Latin music as coro-pregon [call and response], lead singers and group vocals sing responses to each other in alternation. Non-drummers at these ceremonies would still actively participate by stamping on the ground with their feet, knees flexed to absorb shock. The resulting leverage was used to move the hips in counterpoint. The hip action, though toned down to varying degrees, is easily seen in salsa.

Author's Note:
Early in my dancing years, a friend of mine Luis recounted an anecdote that poignantly encapsulates the spirit of salsa. At that time I was having trouble keeping rhythm because my steps were too big.

Salsa was described to me as being originally a slave's dance. They couldn't take large steps because of the short chains between their ankles that prevented them from running very far. So in the evenings when they came together to dance, they did the only thing they could do to keep the dance interesting - they increased the speed of the rhythm.

I was appalled. Until Luis explained that we weren't parodying their misfortune, but celebrating a phenomenon that made great suffering bearable. For a slave, dance was a light in a very bleak existence.

I don't know how much truth there is in the story, I hope there is. Because I still feel the weight of his words in the bitter lyrics and sweet melodies of “El Preso” [The Prisoner] and “Rebellion”.

 

 
1999 Salsa & Merengue Society
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