Messages in Salsa

The topic of the current paper is messages in salsa music. Salsa was chosen as a topic of the research because this kind of music is a great mixture of different cultures, as well as religious beliefs. The music is also greatly connected with the eponymous dance. Salsa music and dance are often performed together. In the paper, I want to study the deep meaning of salsa’s lyrics. This topic is of interest to me, as salsa music has a great number of themes, including love, relations between people, different social and political movements, and religion. These themes are differently depicted in lyrics, creating a unique set of compositions. Ten credible sources were used to support the essay’s main idea. All of the authors have thoroughly studied salsa music in connection to culture and traditions of Latin American people.

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Salsa is a modern musical genre that emerged in the 70s of the XX century among Latin American immigrants in the United States. It is also an eponymous pair dance, characterized by extreme relaxed plasticity, a defined sequence of steps, and spontaneous combination of different dance elements. The main peculiarities of salsa music include the size 4/4, moderate or fast time, and a complex rhythmic pattern, representing a collection of patterns, executed by different instruments: claves, bass or bass guitar, piano, bongos, congas, and others, as well as the characteristic vocal style with the elements of improvisation and antiphonal singing. The roots of salsa go back to music of Hispanic countries of Latin America, especially the Caribbean, such as Puerto Rico and Cuba, as well as the coastal areas of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. In addition, music of jazz big bands also has had a strong influence on its appearance. The peculiarity of influences is associated with the cosmopolitan environment of New York. Being one of the largest cities in the United States, the sound of salsa coexisted with Latin American immigrants, black and white population. Specificity of the origin of this genre is reflected in the etymology of the name. Salsa is a Spanish special hot sauce, all the ingredients of which are mixed together and are impregnated with the general flavor. In the book Situating Salsa, it is stated that “in Spanish, ‘salsa’ literally means ‘sauce’, with a culinary metaphor that evokes images of a spicy concoction – somewhat mirroring the music’s own hybrid origins and infectious appeal”. The lyrics of salsa music also represent a mixture of various themes. Salsa is a kind of message addressed to the listener and concluded in the lyrics and, therefore, this topic is rather important. The purpose of the current paper is to study the message of salsa music.

Review Of Literature

Salsa music is a great mixture of themes, cultures, and people. The author Juliet McMains notes that “salsa music is characterized as an updated take on Afro-Cuban dance music developed by Puerto Ricans living in New York”. Therefore, the themes of lyrics in salsa are also greatly diverse. Different authors have studied a phenomenon of salsa music in relation to Latin American people, their culture, and traditions. In the paper, ten credible sources are used. All of them study the phenomenon of salsa music from different perspectives.

The first source is Aparicio, F. R. Listening to salsa: Gender, Latin popular music, and Puerto Rican cultures. The author proposes detailed information about history of salsa music. Another source is Laderman, G., & Leon, L. Religion and American cultures: Tradition, diversity, and popular expression. This source connects different religions in the US with music. The book Caribbean currents: Caribbean music from rumba to reggae written Manuel, P., Bilby, K., & Largey, M. studies the different styles of music in the Caribbean. McMains, J. E. Spinning mambo into salsa: Caribbean dance in global Commerce examine the role of salsa worldwide. The source Rondon, C. M. The book of salsa: A chronicle of urban music from the Caribbean to New York City examines how salsa music is widespread around the world. Another source written by Sfetcu, N. The music sound is about the lyrics in salsa music. The source Stavans, I. Latin music: Musicians, genres, and themes is about different musical genres widespread worldwide. Torres, G in the book Encyclopedia of Latin American popular music studies various genres and singers of music in Latin America. The source by Waxer, L. A. Situating salsa: Global markets and local meanings in Latin popular music reviews salsa songs and singers. The last source by Waxer, L. A. The city of musical memory: Salsa, record grooves, and popular culture in Cali, Columbia also examines salsa music from the global perspective.


Many people consider that the birthplace of salsa is Cuba. However, in fact, salsa music, along with the name “salsa” appeared in the 60s of the last century in the United States. In the late 60s - early 70s in New York, there was the real boom of salsa. Salsa and mambo music were playing everywhere. In these times, everyone knew that salsa was not just the sauce but also a kind of music and dance. Such groups as El Gran Combo and La Excelencia have made a great contribution in salsa music.


To better understand the true meaning of salsa music, the interview with the salsa musician was conducted. His name is Pablo Guera and he is from Cuba. He is 35 years old and 20 years of his life he has devoted to salsa. He does not only sing salsa music, he also dances salsa. He is a member of the salsa musical band in Los Angeles. According to Pablo, a mixture of music and dancing really create sauce of emotions and feelings. Pablo believes that salsa music reveals the most secret parts of the human soul. Lyrics of salsa are of extremely importance as the texts tell the listeners an interesting and exciting story. Pablo Guera states that salsa music is extremely popular in his city. They give concerts several times a week in the local club. The audience listening to their songs is highly diverse. Pablo Guera affirms that “in the concerts, there are both very old people and teens and all of them enjoy our songs”. Thus, this music is for all ages.

Messages Of Salsa Music

The author Lise Waxer confirms that there are several image-plot areas represented in both the samples of classic salsa of 1960-1970-ss and modern compositions. The first sphere is love and it is the most popular. In songs, the attention is usually drawn to the feelings that are a part of the author’s life – passion, sufferings from unrequited love, and enjoyment with the moments of happiness. The next sphere is music and dance. The songs’ message is about the music and its place in the lives of Latino-American people. There are also songs on the socio-political themes; these songs show a look at the political situation in the world, the problem of immigration, crime, prostitution, wars, and social insecurity. There is also a domestic theme in salsa songs. They are like an original musical short film, representing the scenes from everyday life. The main theme in domestic songs is a situation, an incident, and an action of the hero. Another extremely important theme is religious one. Songs are associated with Santeria - a syncretic religion that is prevalent in Latin America and in the United States. This religion represents pagan African beliefs and Catholicism. Compositions of this type reflect the intimate lives of the creators and personal faith, connected with the traditions of the region.

A love story sphere in salsa has many faces. It includes songs about separation or break ups, the joys of physical love and seduction. There are lyrical compositions with the elements of social problems and comic sketches. Among the many songs dedicated to love, the ingenious compositions of the Puerto Rican band El Gran Combo are also extremely popular. In the book Encyclopedia of Latin American Popular Music, it is affirmed that “EGC’s song lyrics encompass themes from Puerto Rican folklore, as well as love, food, drinking, and partying”. Music of this band is characterized by the special solar coloration and the ease of perception of the world. In the famous song No Hay Manera, a singer laughs at the dual female nature. The hero tells his friends what happened to him at the dance party. The girl, whom he invited to dance, ignored his invitation. Her subsequent apology, a new invitation, and a new refusal become the basis for the plot of the composition. Embarrassment, feigned despair, surprise, and sneer are heard in replicas of the singer. As soon as a quiet story turns to the expressive speech, the range of melodic phrases increases.

The basic idea is contained in the refrain opening of the second section of the composition: “It is impossible to understand what is going on in the soul of the woman” (“No hay manera ni forma de entender / Lo que guarda en el alma una mujer”). The instrumental accompaniment unfolds in full force. A saxophone and a trumpet echo the theme of the refrain. The chorus of musicians is performing in this role play, but an interlocutor’s role is supporting the view of the hero.

El Problema Esta En El Coco is another example, where the hero laughs at “bipolarity” of his beloved wife. The word ‘El coco’, the main meaning of which in Spanish is a coconut, has another meaning in colloquial speech – a head with a characteristic ironic overtone. The word ‘El Coco’ could be matched with the meaning “a blockhead”. In this song, it is sung about the wife of the hero who disputes with her husband absolutely about everything. Sufferings of the husband force him to act. He decides to take his wife to a psychiatrist. However, even the doctor cannot help her.

Sometimes, the meaning and nature of the text of love songs is dictated by unusual genre and style decisions, when elements of other genres are found in salsa, such as Dominican bachata, bolero, and rumba. For example, Vendio Su Corazon by La Excelencia tells a story of a young man who loves a girl from the high society, ending with the betrayal of the girlfriend and her imminent marriage of convenience.

The plot sphere is associated with music and dance images along with love, which is also one of the most important themes in salsa. Besides, both movement and sound are often perceived by the authors as a phenomenon that is vitally necessary for a person, as well as air, water, and food. A similar example is found in the lyrics of Arroz con Habichuela by El Gran Combo. In terms of the genre, it is not salsa but cha-cha-cha, as evidenced by the characteristic rhythmic formula. Nevertheless, the content of the composition represents the opinion of the collective that is preparing salsa for Latin American people for four decades. Salsa, rumba, and sleep in the song are compared with rice, beans, and vegetables – the basis of the diet, as opposed to the dietary salad. These genres in the text are opposed to ballad and rock music, as something special and important for Latino people located in the same row with a full meal, the alphabet, and family. Looking at the lyrics, another curious detail can be seen. A singer enumerates genres, such as salsa, sleep, rumba, and captivity in the same row. He/she does not seek to isolate each one as a unique, individual, and, on the contrary, highlights their natural unity, community, and close relationships.

Music, in general, and salsa, in particular, as a subject of universal Latin American pride uniting people, has become a topic of more than one song. For example, the New York band La Excelencia dedicates one of its songs to Colombia. The composition is extremely simple due to the imitation of a boogaloo of the 1960s. Salsa is not so much a symbol of protest or political actions, although, the socio-political theme is not alien to salsa. It is primarily dancing music created for public entertainment and fun. In many compositions, salsa figures as music and dance are able to deliver fun to the audience, forget about the hustle and bustle of everyday life and current problems. In the same vein, the Cuban “cousin” of salsa, rumba, is perceived. In many texts, it is mentioned as a symbol of holidays and fun.

In addition to numerous songs about love, separation, betrayal, enjoying life, music, and dancing, the socio-political theme is also present in salsa. It was first introduced in the work of the Panamanian composer, actor, and public figure, Ruben Blades. He was one of those who tried to express his citizenship and awake the consciousness of his countrymen through salsa. With his songs calling for unity to fight poverty, hunger, false promises of politicians, and preservation of national pride and identity, Ruben Blades has created a new way of salsa. Together with Blades, Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colon, Larry Harlow, and Ismael Rivera have applied to these topics. In modern salsa, social problems are also present.

The patriotic lyrics of the songs are straightforward and filled with appeals to unite and fight for integrity and preservation of Latin American identity. They resemble the slogan of the political poster instead of a dance song. A singer becomes a speaker at a political platform. He/she speaks directly to Latinos, his people, with whom he feels the togetherness. In salsa, a kaleidoscope of images and stories is complemented by sketches of everyday life. The criminal chronicle, snatches of everyday conversations, and everyday life scenes could be the frames of material for them. The heroes of these songs are colorful characters, including a fancy to criticize, a mad person, a gossip, a dancing mulatto, a resident of the troubled region, and others. The melody of such compositions usually covers only a small diapason. It circles around one level, creating a feeling of monotony. It is perhaps mostly associated with the fact that the author of the composition pays attention to the text, neglecting the melody.

The overview of plots in salsa would not be complete without taking into account the religious sphere. A number of songs dedicated to Afro-Cuban Santeria are rather short, especially if compared to the lyrical or socio-political patterns. Nevertheless, perhaps there is no other music genre in which one can feel such a deep connection with the culture of salsa and Latin America, as well as with its black, African tradition. As it is known, Santeria – the Afro-Christian syncretic religion is highly widespread in Cuba, as well as among Afro-Cuban emigrants in the United States and other countries. This religion represents a compound of African beliefs of yoruba people and Catholicism. The veil of mystery of Santeria has been removed a long time ago. These days, there are many articles dedicated to this religion. For example, there is a book of the Cuban scientist and Santero Raul Canizares. In an exciting form of art-documentary narrative, the author reveals the evolution and preservation of Santeria in the modern world, religious hierarchy, a pantheon of gods, and the sacred role of music in religion. The book is directly connected with the biography of Raul Canizares.

The author Cesar Rondon also turns to the problem of the Afro-Christian cult from the point of view of art. Among other things, she touches an important issue of the role of music in syncretic ceremonies and rituals. The subjects of interest of Cesar Rondon are the hierarchy of musicians, a special, sacred role of drums, and strict regulation of motets and rhythms. In addition, the researcher mentions the desecration of rituals as the most important factor that is partially conducive of the cult survivability. To hear and see the fragments of ceremonial songs and dances, it is unnecessary to be a witness of the ritual. People can visit the concert of ensembles Rumberos De Cuba or Folklorico National, who carefully preserve the musical heritage of the region and in the form of small musical-theater items show it to the indifferent spectators.

With the help of rhythmic percussion, singers perform the fragments of sacred chants, and dancers in bright costumes are transmitting movements of each character of gods and the history of their relationship, mythology of the Yoruba African civilization alive on the concerts. On the one hand, entertainment, beauty, and unusual theatrical performances inevitably attract the attention of new fans, and are likely to provide an increase in followers of the cult. On the other hand, the phenomenon of desacralization greatly contributes to the fact that religious motives find their way in popular music, particularly in salsa. 

The connection of religious motives and secular popular music was well known before. For example, it refers to the samples of spirituals and Christian rock. In this regard, spirituals are particularly demonstrative with its syncretism and a compound of the African and European origins. It is reflected in improvisation, the important role of the rhythmic component, antiphonal singing (the roll-call of the soloist and choir), as well as a strong emotional lift. However, in contrast to the tragic as in spirituals or inspiring and ecstatic glow, dances inherent to salsa are rarely overcome. Therefore, from a musical point of view, the religious songs do not stand out amongst other amorous or political songs, while spirituals and gospel music have a bright personality and genre. In addition, individual quotes from Santeria chants were used in Latin American popular music before salsa. For example, Peter Manuel, Kenneth Bilby, and Michael Largey note that references to Santeria are observed even in sones Ignacio Pineiro and Sexteto Habanero.

The substantial aspects of salsa texts are of great interest to researchers. In salsa, the quotes of traditional chants in the language of Yoruba, fragments of religious hymns dedicated to the Orisha, and special comparison and treatment are used. Without knowing these features, an uninitiated listener will perceive them as ordinary dance music, while a person practicing Santero or a competent researcher will be able to decipher the elements of spiritual message, pledged by the author. Those musicians who appeal to this figurative sphere are usually the adherents of the religion for many years. Religion is not perceived as an abstract philosophical idea but as a factor that is directly related to everyday life and a personal experience. Therefore, if a singer pleads God for intercession or tells about the Orisha, a confidential tone and simplicity of expression are always maintained.

The heroes of these songs are seven African forces. In the book Religion and American Cultures, the authors Gary Laderman and Luis Leon describe these forces. The first one is Obatala – a pattern of wisdom and the Lord of heaven. He is considered a giver of peace and tranquility. The second is Orunmila – a witness of the creation of the world and God-prophet opening the gates of the past and future. The next force is Chango. He is considered the god of thunder and one of the most revered Orisha in Santeria, being the patron of dancing and drumming. He is endowed with special masculinity, attractiveness, and sexuality. As a rule, Chango is portrayed wearing red and white clothes. He has a constant attribute – a small hatchet. The image of Chango is also expressed in choreography. Oggun is an eternal rival Chango. He is the god of war, being warlike and aggressive. His symbolic colors are green, black, purple, and blue. Raul Canizares calls Ogguna a divine smith because it was he who taught mankind to forge iron. In his hands, there is a machete, and movements in dances are more impetuous than the Chango. Elegua is an unpredictable and cunning god of crossroads, opening roads and destroying obstacles on the path to success. He is dressed in red and black and holds a short sheephook. Yemaya is a sovereign of the seas and oceans and the mother of the world; she is dressed in blue and white. Ochun is the goddess of female attractiveness and sensuality and the lady of the river waters. Her colors are yellow, amber, and gold.

Songs of salsa dedicated to seven forces include joyful and upbeat or mystical sketches of ceremonies, prayers and praises, narratives about gods, and monologues. A sincere pray, full of passion and fire, is most likely to occur in the second section of the compositions. It leads to certain parallels with the course of a religious ceremony when the Santero entered into a trance with rhythms of sacred drums refers to the god-patron. If the request is quite eloquent, the supplicant will be given the most simple but necessary gifts, such as good luck, prosperity, health, and love. These modest gifts are also the themes of religious salsa songs. The motive of prayers in salsa is sometimes intersected with others, in particular, with the theme of career of the musician and the singer. Request is an important but not the only motive. Other songs on the nature of the text are rather reminiscent of a sermon than a dance composition. In many texts, with the relative simplicity of the language constructs, special passion and grandiloquent is still felt.

Samples of salsa, associated with Santería, are rich in sacred symbols. Firstly, it is color symbolism – a yellow fan of Ochun, a crimson scarf and a sword of Chang, and blue water of Yemaya. Secondly, it is subject symbols, including seven shells of snails for Yemaya. Sugar, cinnamon, and honey are symbols of Ochun. Four green bananas, a red apple and a glass of wine are for Chango, as well as garlands of flowers, four coconuts, and an apple – for Chango.


Summing up the results of the research, it should be noted that salsa is an independent musical genre that emerged in the United States in the 60s of the XX century, the plastic expression of which is self-titled dance. The content of the songs and a certain shaped circle that is typical for the genre extends from the household sketches and romantic songs to the serious political, religious stories and texts related to social issues. Lyrics of salsa created in Spanish can be either short (3-4 lines) and rather deployed. At the same time, there are simple grammar structures, elements of the spoken language, plenty of adjectives and interjections, as well as appeals to musicians and listeners.


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