Chapter One CUBA: The roots of salsa FOR THOUSANDS of American tourists in the decades between Prohibition and the Cuban revolution of 1959, entering the narrow port of Havana must have been like passing through the gates of heaven. As the port loomed into view, the colonnades and verandahs of the colonial houses came into focus, and the first strains of music from the bars and cafés which line the narrow streets stirred holiday-makers with the taste of pleasures ahead. This was the capital city with the reputation for the sexiest dance music in the world. The first part of the salsa story focuses on the Cuban styles that make up salsa. But it is impossible to understand either salsa itself or the various styles of music under the salsa umbrella without knowing something of the alliances between the Africans and the Europeans in Cuba. The same stretch of crowded river that carried American tourists into pre-revolutionary Havana greeted a very different cargo over the three hundred years prior to the full abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1873. During that time, nearly one million Africans were delivered to the island to be sold as slaves. Their input into salsa's history is as significant as that of the Spanish settlers who bought them. The first slaves, who came from Mozambique and the Congo, were sent to work in gold-mines, replacing the native Indians who had failed to survive the Spanish brutality. They went on to work the small farms where sugarcane and tobacco crops were being established and cattle raised. The rapid growth of these industries in the seventeenth century increased the need for workers, and the catchment area in West Africa expanded to an arc including what is now Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Cameroun. The majority of slaves came from the ancient Yoruba kingdom (now Nigeria), which had a sophisticated culture and a complex religious system. But there was another major group, the Congos, who came from what is now the Federation of Congo and Angola. Their culture was different from the Yoruba, and introduced new elements into the music evolving in Cuba. Even today, Afro-Cubans still identify with their ancestral groups, in music, dancing and their religious lives, down to the coloured beads around their wrists and the colours of clothes worn on certain days of the week. Once in Cuba, the slaves were originally divided into mixed tribal groups, to prevent communication and plotting, but this created such debility and depression and, more importantly for their owners, the loss of so much labour, that the system was rearranged along ethnic lines, enabling the slaves to preserve some of their traditional music and religions. The survival in Cuba of African religions -- santería, abakwa and palo -- is largely due to the fact that slaves were able to retain the languages of the sacred drums concealed in their religious ceremonies. The drum music and singing associated with each of these cults has trickled into popular music and forms a significant strand in the salsa story. In consultation with the Church, the Spanish government established mutual-benefit societies known as cabildos (chapter houses) or naciones (nations) which were founded on ethnic lines. These community centres enabled the slaves to maintain their religious rituals and also helped them to buy their freedom. For freed citizens, life in the towns and cities was increasingly autonomous and a sense of community developed. By the eighteenth century, meeting places, dancehalls, bars and places of worship had been set up and the cabildos had also opened their doors to poor Spanish and mulatto workers. The deal which enabled the Africans to maintain their religious music depended on their being baptized as Christians. But they did not entirely renounce their old faiths -- the remarkable similarity between the Catholic saints and the Yoruba pantheon of saints/gods, known as orishas, allowed the Christian saints to be twinned to African gods, so permitting Africans to pay homage to their own deities while also involved in the Catholic service. This Afro-Cuban religion became known as santería (or lucumi). Santería ceremonies (bembés) involve sacrifice, healing, invocation and possession. Orishas are summoned using several types of drum, but most important are the three egg-timer-shaped batá drums, strung with jangling bells. Each orisha has a complex set of rhythms associated with him or her called toques, which the drums play out to call the god down. At this point, one of the dancers in the room is possessed by the orisha's spirit and responds by walking, dancing and making gestures associated with that god, and singing or speaking in the appropriate tongue. The congregation knows instantly which orisha has come down and responds with appropriate songs. Until the early part of the twentieth century, santería was a close secret in the African community. But gradually the island's great percussionists and singers emerged from the neighbourhoods with the strongest santería and abakwa traditions, and brought their musical skills with them. In 1936 the musicologist and writer Dr Fernando Ortiz went on a lecture tour of Cuba, demonstrating the Afro-Cuban music and bringing the drums out of hiding. He made contact with several musicians, including a glamorous young Afro-Cuban singer called Mercedita Valdés, who became popular as a singer of quasi-religious songs, including her hit song `Babalú' (a distortion of babalao, or priest). Valdés's first album, Toques de santos , released in 1946, introduced the sacred rhythms to the dancehall. It contributed to santería's exotic respectability and inspired a wave of songs based on the chants. Gradually, even the most sacred instruments found their way into the dancehalls. The guitarist Arsenio Rodríguez revolutionized dancebands when he added a conga drum in 1938, and Dizzy Gillespie stirred New York audiences to a frenzy by introducing the Afro-Cuban drummer Chano Pozo into his band. Pozo accompanied his conga-playing with fragmented abakwa chants. In the 1960s Celia Cruz released two classic albums based on songs to the orishas -- Homenaje a los santos (Homage to the Saints) -- though she denies being an initiate. In the abakwa religion, an assortment of sacred drums, rattles and bells are used. Abakwa is the most secretive of the Afro-Cuban religions; women are still kept at a distance from it. The holiest drum, the ekue, is never seen, only heard howling its holy messages from behind a curtain. Abakwa dances involve frightening masked figures known as diabolitos (little devils) who represent the gods and whose costume looks like a flamboyant version of Ku Klux Klan dress. Latin music is littered with abakwa clues, as it is with hints of santería. The diabolitos gave their name to a new rhythm invented by Arsenio Rodríguez in the late 1930s (he called it diabolo -- it was later renamed mambo). Santería's batá drums have been incorporated into dance groups. In New York in the early 1980s, the newly arrived Cuban percussionist Daniel Ponce hooked up with the venerated percussionist and initiated santero Milton Cardona in batá drum jam-sessions, and in nineties Havana the ultimate taboo was broken when several all-women batá groups were established. The older generation of salsa singers still incorporate gestures and dance steps derived from santería dancing -- a flick of the hand, a swish of a white handkerchief, a shudder of the shoulders, or a thrust of the pelvis. After the revolution, Havana's tourist-oriented cabaret shows presented `authentic' Afro-Cuban vignettes featuring leading singers and percussionists associated with santería. In the dollar-starved nineties, santería was put on official tourist itineraries; for an inflated fee, visitors can be guided through a genuine bembé, though parts of the ceremony remain secret. A key to the most significant orishas BABALU-AYE the god of illness, equivalent to St Lazarus, walks with a crutch and bears open wounds on his legs. Casts infectious diseases when offended. His colours are lavender, beige and black. CHANGO symbol of fire and thunderbolts, passion and lust. A great warrior, he lives in the tops of palm trees, talks through batá drums, and is paired with St Barbara. His colours are red and white. ELEGGUA Obatala's son, also known as Elegba. He represents good and evil. Elegguá's shrine, kept behind the front door of family homes, is a grey stone studded with cowrie shell eyes and mouth. He dances like a hopping monkey, with outstretched fingers and arms. His colours are red and black. Twinned with St Anthony. OBATALA symbol of peace and justice, associated with creation, death and dreams. Dressed in white and represented as a bent old man, Obatala is the father of the orishas. His dance is a shuffle. OCHUN loves children, protects marriages and is responsible for arts and rivers. Married to wild macho Chango and paired with La Caridad del Cobre, Cuba's patron saint. Colours are yellow and gold. OGUN powerful warrior god, associated with accidents, bloodshed, surgery. Colours are green and black. OLOKUN the original owner of the earth; also represents the depths of the oceans. Olokún appears as a mermaid or a merman in sea blues and greens. ORUNMILA commutes between heaven and earth but never takes possession. He works more subtly and in a different form from the other orishas. Paired with St Francis of Assisi. OYA guards the gates of death and governs the winds and storms (essential to placate in these hurricane territories). Also the keeper of cemeteries. Oya's colours are gaudy floral patterns. YEMAYA symbol of motherhood, and protector of women. Mother of the orishas, and queen of the seas, she dances fast, twirling and flicking the blue frills of her skirt like the curling foam on the waves. Her colours are blue and white. `Salsa is son' The music of salsa is directly descended from the tradition of `son', born and nurtured on the Eastern end of the island during the period of its liberation from Spain at the end of the nineteenth century. Son is the first truly homegrown, Afro-Cuban style, a rolling syncopated song and dance music, a collision of African rhythms with the poetry and guitars of Spain. It lives on in many guises -- traditional and modern, and everything in between -- and is continuously being reinvented with every new twist of history. `Salsa is son' is a mantra repeated all over the salsa world. The original son strongholds in the Eastern towns still resound with the names of the pioneers and the rhythms and instruments associated with them. At their son festivals one can sample the full spectrum of son nuances and see first-hand some of the original instruments -- the quaint horses' jawbone rhythm-shakers, the cumbersome marímbula thumb piano basses, the hurdy-gurdy organs and various customized Spanish guitars and Arabic lutes, sometimes overshadowed by the electrified salsa-son big bands. As with most styles of music, experts fail to agree on son's origins. Many trace it to `Má Teodora', a song about a slave called Teodora and her sister Micaela, who sang around Santiago in the 1550s. But the style of son played today can be traced to the time of Cuba's triumph in its War of Independence with Spain in 1868, when people streamed into Havana from all over the island. Soldiers who had served there drifted to the capital and are thought to have taken son with them, carrying its basic instruments -- claves, maracas and guitars -- in their pockets and on their backs. The bass was easily improvised with an empty oil jug (botija), similar to those used by blues singers in American jugbands. The simplest, and for many the perfect, embodiment of son was Trío Matamoros, founded in Santiago in 1912 by the guitarist Miguel Matamoros, with Rafael Cueto (guitar and voice) and the virtuoso maracas player Siro Rodríguez. They set the standard for guitar trios all around the world and became one of Cuba's greatest musical exports, touring Latin America and Europe and recording in New York. In Havana, the early son trios expanded to cater for larger, more sophisticated audiences. In 1925 the popular Trío Oriental upgraded to Cuarteto Oriental, drawing in a bongo player. Bongos, until then, were played only in Afro-Cuban rumba sessions; their tight, bubbling tone added extra capital-city zip to the son. The expansion continued as quartets grew to sextets, establishing a standard line-up of guitar, tres, marímbula or upright double bass (contrabass) and bongos, as well as claves and maracas played by the first (primero) and second (segundo) singers. The last arrival was the trumpet, which transformed the band into a septet, a combination that brought greater volume in parks, beer gardens and other outdoor venues. At son's core is the motivating lurch provided by the bass playing a pattern known as `anticipated bass' which pushes dancers into movement. The original jug-bass was initially replaced by the cumbersome wooden box bass, the marímbula, which broadcast fuzzy, booming notes. This wonderfully archaic African instrument is still played by some remote country bands, and adds authenticity to a recent wave of neo-traditionalists. It was superseded by the more sophisticated and versatile upright double bass (contrabass), which was better suited to more sophisticated, indoor venues. The sharp-and-sweet, catchy tunes are played on guitar and tres, both of which double as rhythm instruments. Initially they were strummed in time with the leading rhythm, but by the 1920s they were plucked and picked and used for improvised solos. Several guitarists, including Compay Segundo, the leading light in the Buena Vista Social Club, customized their guitars, adding extra strings to give more harmonic possibilities and volume. In the trios, two guitarists and a tres player or three guitarists harmonized and worked against each other. The lead singer needed a powerful tenor voice and skill at adlibbing the fast-rapped verses about local goings-on, political intrigues, dreamy love sagas. Compay Segundo's cigar-smoked baritone was a second (segundo) voice. The two singers worked against each other's chorus (coro) in the African call-and-response pattern. The harsh swish of the third singer's maracas and the bubbling of the bongo further complicated the rhythms, while the claves kept them on course with the piping 1-2-3, 1-2 beat. The last -- and optional -- instrument in a line-up was the raucous Chinese cornet (corneta China) which played the lead tunes in the comparsas, the carnival bands. This was soon almost entirely replaced by the more powerful and versatile trumpet. The bass player Cachao insists that his brother Orestes introduced the first trumpet into a son group in 1926, when he was running Sexteto Apollo, and around that time a trumpet solo was built into the son repertoire. The story of son is a legacy of formidable trumpeters, all of whom pay tribute to the most significant, `The Cuban Louis Armstrong', Félix Chappotín. Following him was Alfredo `Chocolate' Armenteros, who played lead with the premier singer Beny Moré before moving to New York. The son proved to be one of the most versatile styles: derivatives called sucu-sucu, guajira-son, pregon-son, son-rumba; afro-son, son-montuno and guaracha all had moments of glory, and have been rehabilitated by young Cuban bands. The guaracha emerged in the twenties and thirties from Havana's raucous music halls, many of them men-only venues. It was performed on guitars, percussion and Cuban lute (laoud), and its sly, bawdy lyrics encouraged the most skilful vocal improvisers. In the 1940s and 1950s Celia Cruz and Beny Moré both sang guarachas in the dancehalls, to knowing, rapturous applause. Son is the basis of modern salsa, but almost unrecognizably transformed from the original trios. Right from the beginning, the guajira guitar music of the Spanish peasant farmers and the Afro-religious music of the former slaves enriched the son and brought in new instruments. Once in Havana, foreign influences were absorbed, particularly from American jazz and popular music heard on the radio. Throughout the twenties, the son septets and trios were involved in a frenzy of recording sessions. The American record companies, led by RCA Victor, talent-scouted South America and the Spanish Caribbean as thoroughly as any ethnomusicologist. In Havana they set up studios in radio stations and nightclubs. Record-players, known as `Victrolas' (after RCA Victor), became an essential piece of furniture, and records spread the capital's music all around the island, and back to the exiled communities in New York. Radio talent contests became a way in for impoverished and untrained performers. Both Celia Cruz and Beny Moré were `discovered' through winning a slot on radio. The arrival of radio also took son and its related styles across social boundaries, and changes became necessary to suit the larger dancehalls and meet the requirements of middle-class venues. Pressure was put on bandleaders to tone down the skin colour of their players. Rubén González remembers playing piano for Los Hermanos Castro (The Castro Brothers -- no relation) in the 1930s: `They always tried to have white musicians, but they had to accept us because of the way we played.' Sexteto Habanero were among the first to cross the racial divide. In 1926 President Machado (a mulatto) invited the group to play at the Presidential Palace in Havana, after which son was soon accepted into high society. General Machado -- `The President of a Thousand Murders' -- had taken control of Cuba in 1924 and clamped down on any opposition. When students rioted, he closed the university. His reign coincided with Prohibition in the US and was linked to American crime syndicates who used Cuba as an offshore money-making resort for American tourists. Prohibition (until 1933, the year of Machado's assassination) boosted trade and produced a crop of new hotels, nightclubs and casinos, owned and run by the Mob. Hollywood got in on the act, with a host of musical films in which Cuban musicians -- light-skinned, and not too `authentic' -- provided the soundtrack. Tinseltown's favourite Latin musician was the Spanish-born and Cuban-bred composer and bandleader, Xavier Cugat, who introduced America to a rhythmically simpler big-band version of son which became known as rhumba or rumba -- and which had little connection with the deep roots rumba performed in the black neighbourhoods of Cuba's towns and cities (see below). In 1931 bandleader Don Azpiazu rearranged one of the most enduring son songs, `El Manicero' (The Peanut Vendor) -- a hybrid son-pregon based on a streetseller's call, `Ma-Ní!' (Peanuts!) -- written by the young Havana pianist Moises Simón. In the process, Azpiazu also turned the son into a `rhumba' to suit American tastes. His arrangement exploded onto Broadway and unleashed a global passion for Cuban music. The turbulent thirties saw many dramatic changes as Havana became known to a world that had gone rhumba crazy. But in Cuba the musicians looked to New York for inspiration. A wave of new bands with Americanized names like Happy Happy and Swing Havana filled nightclubs and casinos. Jazz and the new Swing bands wielded the strongest influence. `New York was the place we all wanted to be, because of jazz. Chick Webb and Ella and Cab Calloway and all them Swing bands pouring off the radio back home,' the singer Miguelito `Mr Babalú' Valdés told Latin NY magazine in the 1970s. Valdés earned his reputation and nickname in the US with an act built around the success of his raunchy Afro-song, `Babalú' -- accompanying his ad-libbed chanting with conga drums. Unfortunately for him, Desi Arnaz took the same ingredients to New York's dancefloors and became a worldwide household name (he had the advantage of being married to America's favourite comedienne, Lucille Ball). Many of the Cuban bands which had grown up as sextets or septets had by the 1940s ditched their tres players in favour of a pianist, thus ridding themselves of the folksy, ethnic tag, and deriving the greater power volume of the keyboards. Tres virtuoso Arsenio Rodríguez held out; he also transformed his band with extra trumpets but kept the tres. The expanded son groups were referred to as conjuntos, big brassy bands, led by up to four trumpets, piano, stand-up bass, guitar, three singers, bongo and congas. The model was already closer to today's salsa bands. Son has proved its versatility throughout the century. In the 1970s, it was revolutionized by the singer/songwriter Adalberto Alvarez's band, Son 14, and La Original de Manzanillo, which features one of the great modern son improvisers, Cándido Fabre. In 1976 a group of Havana students set up a son preservation group called Sierra Maestra, complete with donkey's jawbone percussion, which contributed to a new wave of interest in the old masterpieces. In the late 1990s an utterly unprecendented interest in son suddenly erupted in the wake of the million-selling Buena Vista Social Club album and its companion-piece, Afro-Cuban All Stars , produced by former Sierra Maestra tres player Juan de Marcos González. These magical records and many that followed in their wake relaunched scores of musicians whose careers had begun with the acoustic, traditional version of son in the first half of the twentieth century and were ending in nightclubs and concert halls with a modernized big-band version of the same thing. (Continues...) Copyright (c) 1999 Thames & Hudson Ltd.. All rights reserved.