Dancing in the streets: When Salsa’s Clave was the pulse of the movement (pt. 1)

This article from Liberation School was originally published on November 12, 2023.


A crowd of 40,000 fans rushed onto the field of old Yankee Stadium in August 1973, but it wasn’t caused by a Yankee win (the team had a horrible season that year and could barely sell seats). No, what propelled the crowd across the carefully-drawn baseball diamond and immaculate grass, up to the vibrating stage, was a world-historic conga duel between Afro-Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria and Puerto Rican giant Ray Barretto. During an electric performance of “Congo Bongo,” the conga drum battle reached a climax when Barretto slammed the bottom of his drums into the ground to finish an improvised solo. The far-away stands could not contain the crowd as they rushed to watch, feel, listen, and dance to the artists’ magnificent display of skill and rhythm.

The recording of the concert shows Alex Masucci, the brother of Fania Records’s founder Jerry Masucci, rushing to get the band to stop playing, fearful the stage would collapse. By then, the fiery crowd had already jumped the barricades and even onto the stage to dance to the beat of the drums. Santamaria and Baretto were one of the main acts in a live Fania All-Stars concert, “Live at Yankee Stadium” [1]. This year marks the 50th anniversary of this concert, considered by many Salsa aficionados and historians to be among the key events that led to the explosive popularization of Salsa music in the U.S. and around the world. What made Salsa so electrifying?

Salsa: A right of passage

Salsa—like jazz, hip-hop, or the blues—was born from the masses and out of struggle and has gone through various contradictory periods that both challenge and uphold dominant cultural ideas. While Salsa is not in itself revolutionary, it emerged during a historical moment characterized by a high degree of political consciousness and was influenced by the movements for Black liberation in the U.S. and anti-colonial struggles throughout Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. It reflected a growing consciousness among Nuyoricans, in particular, about the root cause of the poverty, exploitation, and oppression they faced in El Bario and Puerto Rico: U.S. capitalism and imperialism. Salsa, according to scholar Juan Flores, “is the sound that accompanied the teenage years of the Young Lords” [2].

I was born and spent the first 10 years of my life in Barranquilla, Colombia, located on the Caribbean coast of the country. Barranquilla is one of the Salsa capitals of the world. Salsa was present at every family get-together and party. My cousins and I would compete to be the best dancer in the family. I always came second to my older cousin who lived next to one of the hottest Salsa spots in the city.

As the years passed and I got older, I started to listen closely to the lyrics of some of the timeless classics I grew up dancing to. Go to a Latin dance club in any major urban center in the U.S. or Latin America and at some point in the night you will hear the classic “Rebelión” by Joe Arroyo. The song is an anti-slavery resistance anthem with a catchy Spanish hook that translates to: “Don’t hit the Black woman.” Arroyo, an Afro-Colombian Salsa legend, begins the track with a history lesson, “In the 1600s,” he sings while introducing a story about an enslaved African couple in the Caribbean city of Cartagena, Colombia. The husband had enough of the brutal beatings by the Spanish Slaver and decided to fight back. The song issues a warning: if the Black woman is not respected, Black people will seek vengeance [3]. The almost five-minute banger is famous for bringing people from their chairs to the dance floor. Arroyo’s hit came out in 1986, well into the era of reactionary political setbacks in the Americas. Salsa combined radical politics with accounts of working-class, Latin-American life set to the rhythms and music of the African diaspora.

Whether it was my compatriot Arroyo’s “Rebelión” or Panamanian Ruben Blades’ anti-imperialist anthem “Tiburón,” I picked up on the social and political questions their music asked and never missed a beat. Like a young Dilla digging through crates, I would beg my grandfather and uncle for their LPs to expand my search for hard-throbbing bangers with a conscious message—I was hooked! Every Salsa aficionado knows that a good Salsero/a can’t just name the song, but also the artist, personnel, composer, album name, and release year. My uncle would play a song in his car and quiz me; correctly naming the song within seconds was a rite of passage.

“The only Salsa I know is the one I put on my steak”

The Salsa born in the streets of New York City in the ’60s and popularized in the ’70s can be understood as urban folklore with a Latin beat. In those years, Salsa told stories about the conditions of the New York City ghettos and working-class neighborhoods of Latin America. The hard-throbbing sounds of Afro-Cuban music—infused with the upbeat and improvisational characteristics of African American musical forms, and further shaped by musical influences from the Caribbean, Latin America, and Puerto Rico—amplified the stories of Latin American working-class life across the world.

Before Salsa became a thing, Mambo was king on the dance floors of major cities in the U.S. The historic Palladium Ballroom located in the middle of Times Square was the place to be for the Mambo craze that began in the late 1940s and stretched well into the 1950s. Mambo was a Cuban rhythm so popular that it attracted a multinational crowd to dance to the sounds of Tito Rodríguez, Tito Puente, and Machito — known as the “Big Three” of Mambo. African American Mambo dancing legend Ernie Ensley even said that Mambo became so popular that on some nights, Latinos would be a small portion of the crowds packing the dance floors [4]. A rise in real estate prices and competition from new clubs forced the closing of the Palladium Ballroom that, combined with the U.S. embargo on Cuba, put an end to the Mambo era [5].

Salsa means “sauce” in Spanish. To make good sauce you need high-quality ingredients and Salsa has the best ingredients—the best instruments, styles, sounds, and dances. Put the ingredients together in a pot, add a pinch of the “rotten apple,” (NYC), stir it up, cook it, and bang: Salsa! A completely new thing that tastes like something most people know. Salsa was the musical and cultural form that Latin American artists from New York City, and later the rest of the world, took up to express the stories, struggles, and revolutionary resistance of poor, working, and oppressed people from the Bronx to Caracas, from Dakar to Port-au-Prince.

Today’s popular association of “Salsa” with general Latin musical genres is the product of the capitalist music industry. As the power of the music industry grew, they took over local recording studios and decided in 1987 to group all Latin musical genres under “world music” [6]. Popularized by Fania Records, “Salsa” was an umbrella term encompassing several Latin musics. Like “sauce,” there are a variety of recipes and ingredients that determine what one considers Salsa. Izzy Sanabria, Emcee and artist who designed some of the most iconic album covers in Salsa, used the term during a live TV presentation in 1973. But if you asked Puerto Rican Timbales legend Tito Puente about the term, he would famously say, “The only salsa I know is the one I put on my steak, I play Afro Cuban music” [7]. Like Puente, some scholars argue Salsa is the commodification of Cuban music by the U.S. capitalist record industry as part of their struggle to further isolate Cuba after the U.S. imposed embargo in 1961.

The significance of music and arts in the class struggle

If you ask me, the grandson and nephew of two of Colombia’s most famous salsa collectors and son of Hector Lavoe’s biggest fan, Salsa was my first introduction to political and social commentary on issues like racism, sexism, poverty, and war.

Our task as revolutionaries is to build movements and organizations capable of shifting the balance of forces to win the class struggle utilizing all the tools in our arsenal. Music is an important weapon in the battle for hearts and minds, as it combines lyrics, rhythms, and modes of being together in ways that can transform consciousness and build solidarities. As historical materialism demonstrates, neither music nor any other product or performance we might call artistic or cultural is inherently or inevitably revolutionary or even political. Instead, the political effects and utility of music are the result of the class struggle.

A foundational premise of historical materialism is that the class who own the means of material production also “has control at the time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it” [8]. While clarifying this is a general statement, Marx’s words written in 1845-1846 still hold relevance today. Moreover, there is no class without class struggle, which means there is always resistance. When Salsa emerged it was well after the invention of the phonograph, or record player, which was widely available in many countries across the continents and relatively affordable, too.

Early on, Marx wrote how our senses and what they can make sense of are the products of history and material reality. Even the idea that we listen to music with our ears is a historical product. Before the invention of the record or phonograph, people would listen to music through ears and eyes by live performances. Yet later inventions captured the music and separated it from the time and space of its production. As a result, when record players were first introduced, people would watch the record player [9]. What we hear, see, or feel as music is not natural or timeless but the result of class struggle and the entire history of production.

Colonization, rebellion, and the geopolitics of Salsa

Music makers across the African continent established the roots of Salsa decades and centuries before it emerged. From the clave—a Salsa instrument that acts as the “layering” of the music and keeps the structure of the arrangement together—to the conga drums that originated in the Congo, the instruments at the heart of Salsa come from Africa. All neo-African musical forms and what are known as “world musics” developed through the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonization—from the coastal cities of Havana to the streets of New Orleans. The history of many contemporary musical forms is tied to the history of colonialism and the anti-colonial struggles in which music played an important role.

Colonial forces brought distinct musical traditions across the ocean as they circulated commodities and people—both slaves and wageworkers—through the “cruise lines” of the bourgeoisie and the cargo carriers of the proletarians. As historian Michael Denning shows, there were three global routes: one uniting “the territorials of the Atlantic and Caribbean,” another threading “the coastal towns of Iberia across the Mediterranean and through the Suez Canal to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean,” and the third connecting Honolulu and China to “the Strait of Malacca to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.” The fusion of different local or national musical vernaculars took place through colonial ports that, unlike today’s highly mechanized ones, required intensive labor and thus “depended on a circulating pool of male maritime workers” who spent time together (and often remained at their destinations), bringing each other’s musics into conversation [10]. This was part of forming the international collective working class; the class capable of overthrowing global capitalism.

The period of anti-colonial, national liberation, and socialist struggles of the 20th century entailed music. Yet this music was not music to the colonizers, but merely “noise.” It wasn’t always the politics of the musician, or the content of the words sung or spoken that made it a weapon of the oppressed, but the fact it was heard as noise. This music “disrupted the hierarchical orders and patterns of deference that structured colonial and settler societies” as they “were such a noise—disruptive and unsettling—and were heard as violation of the musical order, an active challenge to the social “harmony” [11]. The colonizing powers heard the musics of the global working class as such a noise, something disruptive and unsettling that violates not only the musical order but the social order as well [12].

In other cases, colonial sounds were subverted for revolutionary purposes. During the Chinese Revolution, for example, Liu Liangmo, a Chinese Revolutionary trained in European and Christian music, transformed what he learned from the Europeans to help create a form of “mass singing” that “could be used as a protest instrument.” For Chinese revolutionaries the mass singing of patriotic and anti-imperialist songs demonstrated how people were resisting Japanese encroachments “through both the numbers involved and the power of the songs themselves” [13]. A similar phenomena happened in Puerto Rico, where enslaved Africans would use a Neo-African musical form born in the fields called “bomba” as a way to distract the overseers on the eve of an uprising.

What makes music (or noise) political are not the sounds they contain, but the class context in which they intervene. There is always a struggle between the political utility of music for the oppressed and the capitalist and imperialist class’ ability to capture that sentiment once it becomes popular. Fans of “politically conscious” hip-hop or Salsa, for example, may bemoan the political content of these traditions today or that they have been commercialized and co-opted by the capitalist music industry. But this process is not linear, inevitable, or without contradictions. Art forms—and the same art form—can be used by both the oppressed and the oppressor; they can be tools of liberation and tools of subjugation. The countercultural and often explicitly political music of the 1960s-70s in the U.S. helped raise political consciousness against the war against Vietnam, racism, and other key political issues but, at the same time, brought immense profits to the capitalist record industry [14]. In sum, Salsa—like all forms of cultural production—was and can be a key weapon in the class struggle.

Salsa and the Cuban Revolution

At any given moment, the questions we must ask are: Whose class interest does this art form serve at this particular time and, more importantly, can we make it serve the interests of working-class and oppressed people?

The history of Salsa highlights the insights a Marxist analysis generates. Most of Salsa’s DNA blends Afro-Cuban musical forms like Mambo, Son, and Rumba with African American jazz, soul, and funk. What accounts for this particular fusion was the revolving door of exchanges between Cuban and African American musicians before the Cuban Revolution.

Musical exchanges between Afro-Cuban and African American musicians became a cultural laboratory for several new musical forms like Latin Jazz, Latin Soul, Boogaloo, and finally Salsa. One example of this exchange was the relationship Mambo pioneer Mario Bauza facilitated between jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and Afro-Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, who became the first conga player to perform in a jazz band. Although neither Gillespie nor Pozo could communicate verbally, since neither one knew the other’s language, Gillespie often said they spoke African through the music. Their collaboration produced records like “Manteca,” an early version of what became “Latin Jazz” where Gillespie begins singing, “I’ll never go back to Georgia,” to protest Jim-Crow segregation [15]. This connection between Latin and African American musicians created a long-lasting solidarity that emerged from but transcended the music itself. It is no wonder that U.S. imperialism found Cuban culture and musical exchange to be a threat.

The Cuban Revolution is perhaps the clearest example of the struggle between U.S. imperialism and the forces of liberation, and not only because that struggle lives on today. The Cuban Revolution posed a threat such that, before it announced its socialist character but after it started enacting socialist measures, the U.S. imposed a series of embargos, including a cultural blockade. Recognizing the need to reclaim the various cultural histories and legacies of the Cuban people, the new revolutionary Cuban government officially deployed culture as an essential part of the revolutionary process, beginning with education and extending to literature, film, architecture, and more [16]. This was the political and historical context from which Salsa was born; Cuban-U.S. musical exchanges brought together the main elements of Salsa: the U.S., Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

The Bronx: A social laboratory for political and cultural resistance

The many factors that resulted in Salsa were shaped and sharpened in the Bronx. To understand the conditions that led to the birth and popularization of Salsa music, we need to understand the history of the Bronx and the experiences of its Puerto Rican working class. Among the most significant events to shape the political and economic landscape of the Bronx was the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway in the 1950s. The impact of this project in the community was devastating, in part because it led to the relocation of 60,000 Bronx residents, mostly middle- and working-class Italian and Jewish families. This migration profoundly impacted the economy of the borough. The mostly Black and Brown, poor and working-class people that remained in the Bronx were relocated into overcrowded newly built high-rise apartment buildings, some of which housed as many as 1,700 families.

The Expressway, pioneered by racist, capitalist urban planner Robert Moses, not only further segregated the Bronx but also destroyed 600,000 manufacturing jobs; youth unemployment skyrocketed to 80 percent in some areas. Perhaps the final blow to the community was when slumlords took control of the new buildings. They used coercive measures—like threatening to shut off heat and water unless tenants paid more money—and even committed arson in pursuit of insurance money. The “Bronx Fires,” as they came to be known, killed numerous families, and destroyed entire city blocks [17].

In 1971, Puerto Rican band La Sonora Ponceña, popularized an arrangement by Afro-Cuban Mambo and Son creator Arsenio Rodriguez, titled “Fuego en el 23!” [18]. The song was inspired by a fire Rodriguez managed to escape while staying in New York City. Rodriguez himself demonstrates the internationalist roots of Salsa. His family originally came from the Congo but were enslaved by the Spanish and brought to Cuba; Rodriguez cut his teeth on a variety of African musics and went on to translate them into instruments and intonations popular in Cuba [19].

The Bronx fires were only one symptom of the post-World War II systemic conditions affecting poor, working-class, and oppressed people not only in the Bronx but throughout the United States. This was a period of urban unrest and racist Jim Crow laws in the South, characterized by widespread unemployment, slum housing, police brutality, and massive cuts to education and social services. At the same time, the U.S. had emerged from World War II as the world’s foremost imperialist power and was using this position to expand its presence in and dominance over Latin America. In Puerto Rico, U.S. corporations executed a plan they called “Operation Bootstrap,” transforming Puerto Rico from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy [20]. The result was a massive, forced migration of Puerto Rican Jibaros (peasants) into New York City and several other major urban centers in the U.S. starting in 1947.

If you were a displaced jibaro family living in NYC in the 1950s, you were a first-hand witness to and victim of the widespread exploitation and oppression of “El Barrio.” Families watched GIs come back from the war shooting dope as war-time jobs got cut amidst rampant racial discrimination and violence from white gangs and the police. Women in El Barrio worked low-paying jobs as seamstresses in the garment industry or as house cleaners, only to come home after a long day’s work to overcrowded housing and rat-infested, deteriorating buildings. Pedro Prieti in his famous poem, “Puerto Rican Obituary,” wrote, “They worked, they worked, they worked, and they died” [21]. Rather than explain the root causes of the oppression and exploitation Puerto Rican people were experiencing every day in New York, the racist and corporate mass media regularly stigmatized and stereotyped Puerto Rican culture as a whole with movies like the racist 1961 West Side Story, where all but one of the Puerto Rican characters were played by white actors in brownface.

It was under conditions of imperialist expansion, forced migration, and poverty that first-generation Puerto Rican salsa artists like Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri grew up. In many ways, their lives represented the “Nuyorican” experience. The construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway brought Puerto Ricans into direct contact with their African American neighbors, both of whom realized their common status of subjugation under white supremacy and capitalism. They worked the same jobs and lived in the same slum housing conditions. They began to interact with one another in almost every aspect of life. Their kids went to the same schools, played stickball together, and often frequented the same clubs—just like the short-lived era of the Palladium, where both Black and Latin bands played [22].

Young Nuyoricans in the 1960s, like many first-generation migrants, lived a double life. Typically, they spoke English at school and with their African American friends, who listened to Jazz, soul, and doo-wop. At home, they spoke Spanish with their parents and listened to Mambo and Bolero records, on top of a rural Puerto Rican genre known as Jibaro music. A sort of cultural marriage and bond began to form amongst these two working-class and oppressed communities.

The bond of solidarity between African American and Puerto Rican migrants did not only manifest itself culturally but also in the streets. Young Puerto Ricans followed the example of their Black counterparts, fought back, and organized. After the explosion of rebellions in the cities and the birth of the radical Black liberation movement in the late 1960s, Puerto Rican youth formed the Young Lords Party, a revolutionary socialist organization fighting for socialism and for a free Puerto Rico, in Chicago and New York. People were fighting back in the streets, and they were dancing in the streets! Every revolution needs a soundtrack, and Salsa was about to become the official sound of the Puerto Rican fightback, the first Nuyorican music. Barretto, the Salsa legend who caused the commotion at the historic Yankee Stadium concert, even performed at an East Harlem fundraiser for the Young Lords, one of their many street festivals and concerts [23].


Salsa’s early beginnings were molded in the hot cauldron of struggle of the late 1960s and 1970s. The post-war deteriorating conditions of El Barrio gave a new generation of artists what Mao Zedong, at the famous Yenan forum, called an “inexhaustible source” and eternal “mine of the raw materials” for the production of a popular art form of resistance [24]. The coming together of Afro-Cuban and African American musical forms in the 1950s mutated into new musical forms played and danced by a multinational crowd that laid the foundation for Salsa. After the explosion of the revolutionary movements of the late 1960s and the forced migration of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans into the U.S. mainland, this new generation of Nuyoricans resisted against the ruling class that was not only exploiting poor and working-class Latinos but also using the media to stigmatize and stereotype Latin culture.

Having explored some of the historical processes that birthed and popularized this art form, one that became the official soundtrack of a revolution, the next installment examines some of Salsa’s revolutionary and politically impactful records and artists, as well as its contradictory relationship with Fania Records, the Cuban Revolution, the watering down of Salsa as a politically effective weapon, and proposing Salsa’s significance for revolutionaries on the cultural battlefront today, 50 years after the famous Yankee Stadium concert.

Photo: The “Fania All Stars” in 1980. Credit: Judy Morales


[1] Thomas Muriel, “‘Live at Yankee Stadium”—The Fania All-Stars (1975),” Library of Congress National Registry, 2003. Available here.
[2] Juan Flores, From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 80.
[3] Joe Arroyo Y La Verdad. CD. Rebelión. Discos Fuentes, 1986.
[4] Vernon W. Boggs, Salsiology: Afro-Cuban Music and the Evolution of Salsa in New York City. Greenwood Press, 1992), 145.
[5] Ibid., 129.
[6] Timothy D. Taylor, Music and Capitalism: A History of the Present (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016).
[7] Peter Lamarche Manuel, Kenneth M. Bilby, and M. Largey, Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), 9.
[8] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology: Part One, trans. C.J. Arthur (New York: International Publishers, 1932/1970), 64.
[9] Mark Katz, Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 24.
[10] Michael Denning, Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution (New York: Verso, 2015), 38-39.
[11] Ibid., 155.
[12] For an example of how the Soviet Union mobilized music to overcome national oppression and build unity, see Noah Leininger, “Music, not Muddle: Re-Examining Soviet Sounds and the Socialist Project,” Liberation School, 08 September 2020. Available here.
[13] Eugene Puryear, “Liu Liangmo: China’s Anti-Imperialist, Anti-Racist, Christian Revolutionary (Pt. 1),” Liberation School, 20 March 2023. Available here.
[14] Taylor, Music and Capitalism, 41.
[15] Boggs, Salsiology, 100.
[16] See Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, “Art and the Subject in Revolutionary Cuba,” Human Geography 10, no. 3 (2017): 41-53.
[17] Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (New York: Picador, 2005), 10-15.
[18] Puerto Rican revolutionary Filiberto Ojeda Rios was killed by the FBI in 2005 and got his start as the band’s trumpet player in the 1960s. See En Profundidad, “Todas Las Trompetas Para Filiberto Ojeda,” Telesur, 23 September 2021. Available here.
[19] Jan Hendrik Hinzel, “Honoring a Legendary Salsa Musician in the Bronx,” The Bronx Ink, 27 October 2012. Available here.
[20] Liberation Staff, “PSL Resolution on Puerto Rico,” Liberation News, 11 June 2007. Available here.
[21] Pedro Pietri, “Puerto Rican Obituary,” Monthly Review 56, no. 2 (2004): 48-52.
[22] Flores, From Bomba to Hip-Hop, 80.
[23] Johanna Fernández, The Young Lords: A Radical History (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020) 119.
[24] Mao Tse-Tung, “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,” in Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung (Vol. 3) (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1965, 81.