Jacob E. Osterhout writes for the New York Daily News.
The Bronx has long been known as “el condado de la salsa,” or the borough of salsa.
Since the fast-paced rhythm and melodies first arrived in the United States from Cuba in the 1930s, no place in the world has done more to advance the musical genre than the Bronx.
But the times, they are a-changin’.
While salsa’s popularity has exploded globally in the 21st century, the Bronx no longer has the dozens of massive clubs that spurred the music’s growth in the 1950s and ’60s.
That does not mean, however, that the borough has lost its love of salsa.
On Friday, the Bronx Tourism Council will begin the first-ever Bronx SalsaFest with concerts and activities meant to celebrate and share the music with future generations.
“Salsa music is an integral part of the Bronx identity,” says multi-Grammy-nominated percussionist (and Bronx Walk of Fame inductee) Bobby Sanabria. “You can’t mention the Bronx without talking about salsa. So even though there are no big salsa ballrooms in the Bronx anymore, the love of the music is still there. And it’s important to keep that part of our character.”
The 54-year-old Bronx native believes his younger neighbors would benefit from the salsa tradition.
“We need to get young people inspired and prideful of their Afro-Caribbean roots,” he says. “Salsa gave this borough its identity and that’s a very positive thing. It provided unity and community when times were tough.”
The music now referred to as salsa comes from the folk music and drumming traditions of Cuba, but was popularized mainly by Puerto Ricans in the Bronx after the Cuban Revolution and the ensuing embargoes in the early 1960s.
According to Angel Rodríguez, a percussionist and salsa historian, the name “salsa” derives from Spanish slang.
“It’s an umbrella term that was first created to market the music,” says the 57-year-old, who lived in the Bronx in 2007. “The actual word comes from the fact that musicians used to tell each other, ‘Man, you’re playing with sauce,’ which was like people these days saying, ‘That’s hot!'”
He remembers when the Fania All-Stars, who have been referred to as the Beatles of salsa, played Yankee Stadium in 1974.
“Over 50,000 people were there to hear them play,” Rodriguez says. “That was our Woodstock, and 90% of the musicians onstage that night lived in the Bronx!”
Through the years, even the character of New York City managed to seep into the music.
“When this type of music arrived in New York, it went into hyperdrive,” says Sanabria. “In this city, everyone is in a rush and that kind of attitude permeates the way we play the music. It is very aggressive and in your face.”
But as the nearly two decades of construction on the Cross Bronx and Bruckner Expressways uprooted middle-class families in the Bronx, the great salsa clubs of the mid-20th century — like the Hunts Point Palace, the Tropicoro Club and the Embassy Ballroom — started closing or shifting musical genres.
Rodriguez notes that at one time “the Bronx had close to 70 clubs and dance halls primarily for salsa, more than Manhattan, and now there are none, really.”
That doesn’t meant that salsa is dying in the Bronx.
“Salsa didn’t leave the Bronx, it just went underground,” says Sanabria. “Now it’s all in small clubs and restaurants. The spirit certainly lives on even if there are no more large venues and the great salsa orchestras can only afford to play out of town.”
He says he’s not worried about the future of salsa, but is concerned about the role that the Bronx will play in that future.
“It is important for us to be united and know who we are so that nobody can take away our contribution to this great experiment,” he says.
“This music is about pride and we have to instill this pride in the younger generations and allow them to understand the majestic evolution of salsa so that they can really appreciate their heritage and their musical roots.”
Melissa Rosado has been grooving to salsa since she was 9 years old. Now, as a 32-year-old professional salsa dancer, the Bronx native teaches New Yorkers to dance in her spare time.
“There’s a big difference between street salsa dancing and technical salsa dancing,” she says. “The music is the same, but the dance moves are much more structured and the names of the steps will be foreign to anyone who hasn’t taken a class.”
So let’s take a class! Below, Rosado breaks down the basics of dancing salsa.
“The beats in dancing salsa are all the same. It’s always eight counts and dancers hit six out of the eight beats with a two-beat pause. But, not every foot is hitting the same beat in each style.”
‘On two’ style
“There are quite a few different styles of salsa. New York is known for the ‘on two’ style, which basically means your feet touch down on the second beat. That’s where the transition is happening from one direction to another. The West Coast has an ‘on one’ style, so they start with their left foot on the first beat and then transition.”
The basic step
“The foundation of the entire dance is a combination of six steps. In the ‘on two’ style, the lady starts with the right foot breaking forward on the very first beat. Then the left foot will take a longer step forward, which is on the second beat. Then on the third beat, the right foot will step right in place, and then you hold the fourth. So the first step that you took will also be your third step. That’s the first half, then the second half will pretty much mimic the first steps but on the other side. It’s a quick, quick, slow rhythm.”
Cross body lead
“We refer to this as a CBL. It’s when you take your partner around a half circle from one side to the other. It’s like a transition step that you do in between all the different patterns. The very first thing that you learn is a right turn. Then it progresses to a left turn, then a one-and-a-half turn and then a double spin.”
“After the guy has led his partner in a few turn patterns, then there is usually a point where they break apart and dance toe to toe with each other. That’s called ‘shining.’ This is the moment where both dancers can do any kind of steps that they want independent of each other. It’s very playful, but they still maintain a connection since they are facing each other.”
“The Suzie Q is a fundamental shine move. You start with the right foot crossing over the left foot. The left foot will step in place and then the right foot will step in place. You do a rocking motion with the foot already crossed for three beats. Then take the left foot that is already behind, pick it up and over, and then do the same pattern with the other foot. Add a little twist into it for fun.”
“Styling comes after you have mastered the fundamentals and you feel comfortable with your turns and shines. Styling is basically adding a little seasoning to your dancing. It’s like decoration. Ladies like to add a lot more decoration with their arms. The guys might drop their head, chin to chest.”
SALSAFEST 2011 EVENTS
Here are a few of the events included in SalsaFest, which runs Thursday through next Sunday. See the complete calendar at ILoveTheBronx.com.
Bronx SalsaFest KickOff Celebration at the Pregones Theater
571 Walton Ave.
Thursday, 7 p.m., free.
Enjoy a screening of “From Mambo to Hip Hop,” 2007 winner of the National Council of La Raza ALMA Award for Best Television Documentary. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Elena Martinez, the film’s co-producer and a folklorist with City Lore, and percussionist Bobby Sanabria. Afterward, there will be a professional salsa dance demonstration and group lessons to get salsa dancers warmed up for SalsaFest weekend.
BRONX SALSA TROLLEY
Departs from the New York Visitors Center at 810 Seventh Ave., at 52nd St.
Friday, 11 a.m., $55.
Hop aboard the Bronx Salsa Trolley to enjoy live music and as you head uptown for a bilingual tour of Yankee Stadium, which will focus on the contributions of the team’s Latino players.
Live Latin jazz at PeaceLove Cafe
617 Melrose Ave., between 151st & 152nd Sts.
Friday, 8 p.m.
Enjoy live Latin jazz and healthy food meant to rejuvenate the body and soul at this South Bronx spot.
Narrated tours of Woodlawn Cemetery
Webster Ave. & E. 233rd St.
Saturday, 3 or 4 p.m., free.
Salsa lovers are invited to make a pilgrimage to the final resting place of the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz, who is buried at the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery. Narrated tours throughout the afternoon will include other musical greats interred at Woodlawn such as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. At Celia Cruz’s site, percussionists will perform in tribute to the groundbreaking singer who died eight years ago.
Jose (El Canario) Alberto & Andy Montanez Concert
Lehman Center for the Performing Arts, 250 Bedford Park Blvd.
Saturday, 8 p.m.
El Canario celebrates his 35th anniversary in the music business at the Lehman Center. He’ll be joined by the Godfather of Salsa, Andy Montanez. Also performing are Master Isidro Infante, Alfredo De La Fe, Luisito Quintero and the Dance-On-2 Dance Company.
Tickets range from $40 to $55.
Nelson Gonzalez, Live at the Orchard Beach stage
Pelham Bay Park
Sunday, July 10, noon-6 p.m.
Live music returns to the Orchard Beach stage as acclaimed Tres guitarist Nelson Gonzalez gives a free concert.