A Visual History of Salsa in New York

Jessica Lipsky and the Museum of the City of New York chronicle the key figures and enduring significance of the pan-Latin musical genre

Salsa is more than music. A movement born abroad and nurtured by immigrant communities in the heart of New York City, the uptempo, percussive and horn-driven music combined Latin and Afro-Caribbean rhythms to create the first pan-Latin musical genre that reflected the people who performed, enjoyed and danced to its beats.

“Salsa was never really pure because it always combined so many different sounds. They called it salsa, but [artists such as] Willie Colón, who worked with Héctor Lavoe, made music for Puerto Ricans. Other musicians focused on Cuban sounds,” said Dr. Derrick León Washington, a curatorial postdoctoral fellow who developed Rhythm & Power: Salsa in New York, an exhibit at The Museum of The City of New York. “The musicians were listening to other types of music – the boogaloo and R&B in the late ’60s, English language soul and and disco in the ’70s.”

Major record labels such as Fania, and the artists signed to them, took those influences and focused on making music in Spanish but without targeting any culture in particular. The inclusive nature of salsa music created immense social power and pride among its listeners, who used salsa as a springboard for activism.

“Salsa tells the complexity of Puerto Rican people, Latinos, people of color, the good, the bad and everything in between,” Washington said. “[Salsa music showcased] a pride in the people – not that they were better than any ethnic group, but almost a redistribution of power in a better way for everyone that showed they’re not just a problem or minority, but just as good as everyone else was.”

In Rhythm & Power, the curatorial team at MCNY use concert photography, ephemera, video and album art to showcase a New York culture whose influences have touched the world. Here, the museum shares select images that showcase how salsa music influenced activism in 1970s New York City, as well as the unique dance culture that continues to define the genre today.

Palladium Ballroom Dancers, 1961
Photographs by Frank Bauman for LOOK Magazine

New York’s specific style of salsa dance has its roots in the Latin dance crazes of the early 1960s, including mambo, charanga and the pachanga.
Photo: Museum of the City of New York, LOOK Collection / Text: Jessica Lipsky
Charlie Palmieri and Eddie Palmieri perform at the Palladium Ballroom, c. 1964
Courtesy of Edward Palmieri

There is controversy on what salsa is and where it began – in Puerto Rico or in Cuba. “I make the argument that what salsa is is an industry, a huge industry that started during the mambo craze in the 1950s,” Washington said. Bandleader Eddie Palmieri created heavier, more danceable Latin sounds in the early ’60s by replacing violins with trombones – which would later influence salsa.

However, Palmieri has called salsa a “misnomer and a lack of respect” to the different rhythmic patterns. “You’ve got to start with rumba. Out of that comes yambú. You have guaracha, mambo, cha-cha-cha. They all have their proper names,” Palmieri said.
Photo: Courtesy of Edward Palmieri / Text: Jessica Lipsky
Lower East Side is Ours, 5th Street and Avenue C, April 1988
Courtesy of Marlis Momber

Salsa erupted from New York’s streets and clubs in the ’70s, a time when the city was facing bankruptcy, crime was skyrocketing and many low-income and working class neighborhoods were under social and economic siege. In El Barrio, the South Bronx and the Lower East Side – places with large Latino populations and where many musicians lived – the exuberance of salsa music served as a soundtrack for activism and reclamation.
Photo: Marlis Momber / Text: Jessica Lipsky
Ray Barretto in concert, March 1976
Courtesy of Lee Marshall and Pablo E. Yglesias

While salsa may be thought of as simply dance music, its musicians and lyrics spoke to the realities of daily life. Conguero Ray Barretto (whose influence can be felt in boogaloo and jazz as well as salsa) was the musical director of the Fania All-Stars, a salsa group featuring Joe Bataan, Willie Colón, Mongo Santamaría, Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez and others. He was one of many salsa artists to take a political stance in his music.

“Ray Barretto is an activist focusing on sociology, what’s happening with New York City, why are there drugs and so much violence,” Washington said. “[Trombonist and singer] Willie Colón’s ‘La Gran Fuga’ is an FBI image on the cover. It’s kind of a joke, putting on a persona of a bad guy, but it also resonated with the people when NYC was about to hit bankruptcy.”
Photo: Lee Marshall / Text: Jessica Lipsky
Couple Dancing Together, Central Park, Summer 1976
Courtesy of Robert Iulo and the Museum of the City of New York

“Dance is important – it’s a party that brings people together, it’s also a proper way of learning, keeping people healthy and challenging the way people live,” Washington said of his movement-heavy exhibit. “Through the power of dance, people challenge political systems, poverty.”
Photo: Robert Iulo / Text: Jessica Lipsky
Tito Puente’s patent leather shoes, 1990s
Courtesy of Margaret Puente and the Museum of the City of New York

New York salsa dancing is its own style, pioneered by Eddie Torres at the Corso nightclub on East 86th Street and inspired by the music of Tito Puente. New York salsa dancers make their movements on the second count (also called “Salsa On Two”), with the female beginning by moving forward. Torres – who still teaches and has inspired countless other salsa instructors – contrasts his style with Los Angeles-style salsa, which starts on the first count.
Photo: Museum of the City of New York / Text: Jessica Lipsky
Dancers, Randall’s Island, c. 1974
Courtesy of José “Yogui” Rosario and Pablo E. Yglesias

When Eddie Torres began codifying his style, he looked to ballroom dancing and gave different moves names. Trying to “sophisticate” street style can be problematic, Washington noted, because New York dancers have so many regional and historical influences: “We can never say how we dance salsa in New York City. No other country is dancing like us because there are so many other influences – from Puerto Rico to Broadway.”
Photo: José “Yogui” Rosario / Text: Jessica Lipsky
Jimmy Anton Social, 2012
Courtesy of Hazel Hankin

Following the evolution of ’70s “salsa dura” into the softer, slower orchestrations of “salsa romantica” in the ’80s and ’90s, salsa culture today centers around reunion bands and recorded music that mixes “salsa dura” with merenge and bachata. Locally, there is a huge market for salsa classes, socials and ballroom dances. Worldwide, many Latin countries have developed their own affinity for the music.

“It was mostly Cubans before the rise of the Cuban Revolution, and later Puerto Ricans after the embargo. Now people from Colombia, Ecuador [have salsa scenes]. Salsa is the voice of different Latino ethnic groups; other music is not that voice,” Washington said.
Photo: Hazel Hankin / Text: Jessica Lipsky

By Jessica Lipsky on June 14, 2017

On a different note