What is Salsa?
 Where and How Did it Start? 

by Izzy "Mr. Salsa" Sanabria
Publisher of Latin NY Magazine 1973-85

This page will provide historical facts and information about the people and events that contributed to the Salsa Explosion of the 1970s.
This was the beginning of a movement that spread world wide and established New York as the Salsa capital of the world

These are the very same questions journalists from around the world repeatedly asked me during the 1970s and they are still being asked today. Other questions also being asked are:
“How did Salsa get its name?’
‘What were the events and people that started the Salsa Explosion?”

In recent years there's been an abundance of knowledgeable musicologists, music collectors and even college professors (world-wide) all "attempting" to answer those very questions. I said "attempting" because with a few exceptions, most are misinformed! I know I will be getting a lot of flack for my statements, so I will try to justify and give reasons for my opinions.

Suddenly everybody is an expert on Salsa, each coming from their own perspectives and sometimes perhaps even their own agendas. Don't get me wrong, most of what appears in print or television documentaries, etc., seems to be well researched, informative and I suppose accurate. However, a few things that bother me are the points of view and agendas I see coming through. But then again, I also have my own agenda which is to get recognition for the contribution of Latino New Yorkers. I will do this by providing to those that are unaware that the cradle of Salsa as we know it today was New York city during the 1970s. The reason most Hispanic music historians have such little information of the 1970s (and its movement) is because the Spanish media completely ignored that era. More on this topic later.

First, I'm quite sure I know a great deal less about the histories of our music (or music in general for that matter) than most of those writers do. However, if you weren't a part of the music and cultural movement in New York during the 70s, you cannot feel or fully understand what it was like to paint an accurate picture with the right information. I lived it, I helped create it and was in the center of it all seven days a week. So no matter how well they may have researched this period, it is still second-hand information. There were just too many details that even those in the music industry weren't aware of. Musicians for example were busy creating the music but played no role in promoting the name Salsa. In fact, as the term Salsa started to catch on, most serious musicians resented and resisted having their music labeled as such.

Before I continue, perhaps I should first define from where or from whome the different points of view are coming from. For example, there are the two Cuban perspectives. The first was during the late seventies and the second is the nineties.

One of the first Cuban reactions to the term Salsa as a name for New York's Latin music came from Machito, "There’s nothing new about Salsa, it is just the same old music that was played in Cuba for over fifty years. And they play it badly."

Another coming out of Cuba was that Salsa was a scheme by the record companies to negate giving credit to Cuban music, in essence, stealing their music. Though it wasn't like that, I understood them because from their point of view it certainly looked that way.

With the world now completely accepting the term Salsa (which in essence is Afro-Cuban music), everywhere you turn, another name pops up that long ago coined the word Salsa, or was somehow the first to use the word. Even Cuba is now using the term and in fact I saw one of their TV shows called Salsa.

Just to set the record straight, I never claimed to have coined the word Salsa, or used it first (I’m too young). My claim to fame is being first to see the potential of the word as a marketing tool to promote New York’s Latin music (and hopefully my magazine "Latin NY" along with it). I had always felt that “Latin Music” was too broad a term (for the sound being created by Latino New Yorkers) and that it needed its own name like Jazz, Rock & Roll, Disco, R&B, Blues, etc., in order to define and identify it as an entity unto itself. A new name and image was needed that people could get excited about and be able to relate to. Salsa was easy enough for anyone to pronounce and, remember. I thought Salsa was just perfect.


Its fire fanned by the Newyorican fervor, the Salsa scene was bursting at the seams. Like dynamite waiting for a spark to ignite- it, Salsa was ready to explode. Then in 1973, I hosted the television show "Salsa" which was the first reference to this particular music as Salsa. That year I also launched Latin NY Magazine. But the spark igniting the explosion came in the form of Latin NY's First Salsa Awards in May 1975. The Latin NY Music Awards received greater (pre and post) mass media coverage than was ever given to any Latin music event at that time and thus gave Salsa its biggest push and momentum.

Two factors made the awards (by media standards) a “News Worthy” event that merited their attention. The first is that we publicized the event as “Latinos finally honoring their own with the first Salsa Awards Ceremonies.” The second factor was our intense public criticism of NARAS for ignoring our repeated requests to give Latin music its own separate category in the Grammys.

The coverage by mainstream media such as The N.Y. Times, Newsweek and Time magazines, created an incredible worldwide avalanche of interest in Salsa. The unprecedented coverage and its impact caught everyone in the industry completely by surprise and unprepared. It prompted Harvey Averne from Coco records to comment, “I wish this would go away and return next year so we can get ready for it.”

Though still largely ignored by local Spanish media, the rest of the world took notice. From Europe (Holland, Germany, France, Italy, England, etc.) and as far away as Japan, journalists and TV camera crews came to New York to comment on and document Salsa; what they perceived as a new phenomena of high energy rhythmic Latino urban music, its dancing and its lifestyles.

They started with Latin NY as their central source of information and by interviewing me, Salsa’s most visible and articulate (self appointed) spokesman. I must emphasize self appointed because it is an important fact that punches holes in the “conspiracy to obscure Cuban music” theory. This world-wide attention established Latin NY as “the bible” of Salsa (its primary source of information). And as its most visible spokesman, earned me the title of Mr. Salsa.


If you have any general understanding of publicity or advertising, you can appreciate the way I sold Salsa to the media, thus getting millions of dollars worth of (Free) publicity (you couldn’t buy or pay for). The concept had to be presented in a way that was interesting, easy to understand and based on enough truth to give it credibility (see Promoting Half Truths).

My idea was to sell Salsa as new music (which it was) and as an integral part of the cultural life-styles of young Latino New Yorkers.


The questions journalists most often asked me were, “What is Salsa?” and “Where and How did it start?” By then I had developed a concise simplified definition of Salsa specially prepared for the media.

Directly translated, Salsa is sauce. it is what gives Latino cooking its flavor. Like in Italian cooking. What’s spaghetti without the sauce? Traditionally, in American music like Jazz (and Latin), when a band was really swinging, people would say, ‘They’re cooking’... in Spanish--‘Cocinando!’ And when all the ingredients were cookin' just right--the music hot and spicy, Latinos would say, ‘It had Salsa y Sabor’ (sauce and taste). So what it really denotes is music with flavor and spice.”


My prepared stock answer was, “Salsa is Latin Soul. Salsa is Flavor and Spice. Salsa es Ritmo! Rhythm, the basis of Salsa. African slaves brought their rhythms to the Caribbean, mixed with the Indian, European melodies, Spanish lyrics and gave birth to Latin music. The sons and daughters came here, mixed in the high energy of New York, the influence of Jazz, added in some brass, and Salsa was born!" (I always added that Salsa’s rhythmic origins were Cuban, but that it was the young Puerto Ricans that developed and kept it alive in New York City).


"Salsa, in reality, was any musical form, cultivated in New York by Latinos, upon a Cuban base, but inventing and adding something new...”


As Salsa's self appointed spokesman, I devoted all my talents and energies on a crusade to popularize the music and have it recognized and respected as an art form. A task made more difficult by the strong opposition from the very musicians it was meant to benefit. I was resented and opposed in an environment of inflated egos and misguided traditionalists.

To help you understand what I was up against, I offer the following anecdotes.

After the media interviewed me, took down my definitions, historical overviews and names of most prominent important musicians, it was only natural that they'd want to interview them; the real source of the music. And believe it or not, the following Machito and Puente quotes are typical of what they and most older musicians told the media again and again.

Tito Puente: A New York born Puerto Rican that modernized Cuban based music thereby creating what I've always called the New York Latin Music. The sound that turned generations of Newyoricans (including me) from Rock & Roll to Latin music. Yet, despite his achievement, a thirst for recognition and an ego the size of a house, Puente had a favorite ( and humble?) witty anti-Salsa comment he consistently gave the media, “I am not a cook, I am a musician!”

Machito: "Salsa is nothing new, its the same music I have been playing for over 40 years and these young people don’t even know how to play it."

Now let me ask you, suppose I had said that Salsa was not new, but just the same old music Cubans had been playing for over 40 years. Do you honestly believe the media would have bothered to give it any coverage? I just had to laugh at their naiveté when it came to promotion and publicity. These were proud musicians that took their music very seriously with great respect for it, but were so deeply entrenched in its traditions that they resisted change. Deviations (like the Boogaloo) were seen as compromising, bastardizing or diluting the music.

However, their pure and noble beliefs prevented them from realizing they were undermining publicity that could greatly benefit them by exposing them to new markets, new fans and, Financial Gains. Benefits reaped from a new interest in old Cuban music with a new name....Salsa!

Years later, Puente told me, “Izzy you remember how much I hated and resisted the term Salsa? Well I’ve had to accept it because wherever I travel, I find my records under the category of Salsa.”

So despite all the opposition, the name Salsa caught on. Today, Salsa is known world-wide as New York's Latino music. Ironically, as Salsa became a household word, I looked around one day and suddenly realized that everybody around me had made a fortune from Salsa except for me. To add insult to injury, there's only one musician I know of that has publicly given me any kind of credit in print, and that was Willie Colon.

So why should you accept what I written so far as being true and accurate? Well for one thing, aside from having lived the Salsa experience, I have it all documented with American and international print media, Latin NY magazine and television coverage on video (dating back as far as 1971).

A Final Note on Who is Really Responsible for Salsa's Explosion

When evaluating or analyzing the 70s explosion and the people most responsible for it, there are some important factors to be considered (especially if looking for unbiased viewpoints to arrive at historical accuracy). The reality or truth is that a great number of people made viable contributions to Salsa, its popularity and recognition. The musicians who developed Salsa, as well as the people behind the scenes such as journalists, radio jocks, the record companies, the promoters and most important of all, the fans. In other words, nothing can be attributed to just one person.

In the long run, it doesn’t matter who said or who did what first, but rather who or what developed it. In fact, if we were to honor the person most responsible for spreading Salsa world-wide during the 1980s and 1990s, that distinction would belong to Salsa’s greatest promoter and certainly the most prominent non-musician and central figure in Salsa today, Ralph Mercado....... But that’s another story.
The Most Important Dates, Events & Occurrences that Contributed to the Salsa Explosion during the 1970s
Salsa, like every major social or cultural movement starts with people.

Starting in the late 60s and into the 70s, Latino music, fashions and lifestyles had a major cultural impact on New York City. The new Latino lifestyle
started emerging in the 1960s with Latin Soul music (The Boogaloo) in places like the St George Hotel in Brooklyn. In the 1970s, the world famous Cheetah
Discotheque became the showplace of these young Latinos.
Then, following the massive gatherings in Central Park of the Flower Children, during the 60s and early 70s, the new generation of New York Puerto Rican baby boomers took over and gathered by the tens of thousands every Sunday in the park. Their immense presence literally Latinized Central Park as well as New York City itself with a new look and a new sound.

The Fania All Stars are filmed at the Cheetah (August)

(Puerto Rican Organization for Latin American Music), started by 17 year old Nancy Rodriguez who came to Izzy Sanabria for help in promoting her idea to get Latin music recognized and played on the radio. This was to influence Latin NY magazine's continuous crusade.

PREMIER of the movie: OUR LATIN THING (July)
Years later, it would have a greater impact than when originally released.


LATIN NY MAGAZINE is launched from The Cheetah (January)

FANIA ALL STARS Sell-Out Yankee Stadium & it is Filmed (August)
Later Released in 1976 as the film "Salsa"

SALSA TV SHOW hosted by Izzy Sanabria is taped at The Cheetah (November)
First radio or TV show to start calling the music Salsa, thus helping to establish Salsa as the name of New York's Latin Music.

The event that catapulted Salsa to international status.Being a First, the Awards received the
widest mass media coverage ever given to any Latino event. This in turn attracted international media
coverage, that established Salsa and Latin NY magazine.*



PREMIER of the movie: SALSA (March)

* Once the curiosity in Salsa was aroused, the films "Our Latin Thing" and later "Salsa" which were Pre-Music Videos, provided the world with authentic visual images of New York's Salsa Scene--the musicians, their music and the people.
This established The Fania All-Stars as the world's ultimate Salsa group.

The Fania All-Stars' world-wide concert tours organized by Fania President,
Jerry Masucci and promoter Ralph Mercado, followed-up the interest generated by the films.

RMM's Annual New York Salsa Festivals reinforced New York as the Salsa capital of the world, and continues attracting world-wide media attention.


 Salsa Magazine  - A publication by Izzy Sanabria. No reproduction allowed of any material on this website without the expressed written permission of Izzy Sanabria Productions. To contact us click here. © 2005.