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.