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Taylor Haycock
Professor Ed Austin
Dance 477
Salsa and Colombian National Identity
Around the world, in almost every country in the world, people nearly always find some
way of celebrating their own national identity. Some of the more well-known dances that have
been considered nationalistic are the Ukrainian hopak, the Filipino tinikling and Irish hardshoe
and softshoe. Salsa music and salsa dance, while both fairly recent artistic innovations, have had
a similar influence on many countries, Colombia in particular. Salsa, as both a musical genre and
a form of dance, has brought a sense of national identity to Colombia and has brought worldwide
recognition to both the country and the dance form.
In order to truly understand the effect that salsa, referring to both the style of music and
the style of dance, has had on Colombia, one must first examine both the origins and the history
of salsa itself. Salsa first started as a form of music originating first in Puerto Rico and Cuba and
drawing many of its roots from Cuban son and from other Afro-Cuban origins. Many immigrants
from primarily Cuba fled to New York for political and social reasons in the 1930s and sought
to continue on with their traditions. They formed their own communities in New York, and when
the Cuban Embargo was put in place in 1960 they lost all contact with their homeland causing
them to have to fend for themselves in this foreign country. This event was the primary catalyst
for the spread of salsa in New York. Johnny Pacheco, the creator of Fania Records, is generally

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credited now for popularizing and modernizing salsa music in New York in the 1960s and
1970s. While in New York City, salsa music also incorporated many aspects from jazz and rock
in order to both modernize itself and to adapt to its new home. However, even though the origins
of salsa music have been fairly well established, there is still controversy amongst certain groups
that claim that salsa music originated in their country.
During this time period, salsa music was still relatively unheard of in Colombia as they
already had a national style of music, la msica tropical. This is probably one of the main
reasons why salsa did not immediately rise to popularity in Colombia. As well as already having
a national style of music, Colombia in this time period had very few trained musicians and
schools of music, making it very difficult for anyone to be able to learn more about music and to
possibly experiment with new more Colombian styles of music. During the 1960s Colombias
first salsa artist emerged: Julian Angulo or Julian y su Combo as his band was known. He was
the first Colombian artist to truly compose an authentically Colombian salsa. He was successful
due to the fact that he was able to combine salsa music of the time with the already popular
msica tropical. He was also featured many times on national television which caused him to
gain popularity and led to his music being played in night clubs and in fiestas. Around this same
time other groups, that are still well-known today, started to emerge such as Grupo Niche and
Joe Arroyo and Fruko y sus Tesos, a band that he joined. However, even though more salsa
bands started to form, none of them truly had much national success and none of them were able
to record anything and just settled for live performances.
Throughout this time period, the lack of formal musical training truly influenced the rise
of salsa. As one salsa artist and his brother put it,

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Hermes Manyoma: We have to speak of a process that began more or less
thirty years ago, we've lived here since 1962, we lived in this house. That part
where you see the kitchen was a terrace. It was a terrace where we had a washtub,
where we had some pots, and where we had things that we used to replace the
instruments that we didn't even know about. Because at that time I didn't know
what, more than having seen them on a record jacket, what timbale drums were. I
didn't know what timbales were, but I wantedWilson Manyoma: Nor a trumpet.
Hermes: Nor a trumpet, becauseWilson: We used a hose! [they laugh]
Hermes: So, there we began to interpret and try out, me as a timbales
player because I didn't sing, and Wilson played his tube, and sang the tunes from
that time, of Cortijo and his Combo [sings refrains of various tunes]. And we
spent every afternoon and night playing those tunes until Sefiora Esneda [their
mother] said, "Please stop!" But in any case, when she went to work [washing
laundry in the evenings] we kept going at night. That's where we started to make
music, assimilating what we might have heard on the radio, or on the 78 r.p.m.
records that friends had picked up, that we never had. (Waxer 122)

As one can tell, the lack of any formal musical training prompted future and aspiring musicians
to invent ways of playing music that would sound the same but that would be played with
different instruments. The fact that there was a lack of formal musical training had a large
influence and has continued to have a large influence throughout the history of salsa in Colombia

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as will be explored even more in depth later. Even though salsa at this time had started to grow in
prominence in Colombia, and especially in Cali, it still had not grown to be accepted by the
mainstream populace until a couple of bands from Cali finally started to stand out.
These groups, while not originally from Cali, but from a region called Choc, really
started to define Colombian salsa in the 1980s. They were known as Grupo Niche and
Guayacn. Some of the musicians in these two bands had also received some formal musical
training at the hand of Father Isaac Rodrguez, a Catholic priest that tried to train more musicians
to be able to play at the local Catholic mass. He never did approve of his students involvement
in popular music of the time, but this did not dissuade these aspiring musicians and this formal
training gave them the groundwork they needed to be able to prosper as musicians. These groups
also rejected the current style of Colombian salsa that had been mixed with rock and was
described as being eclectic. (Waxer 131) These groups brought back more of the crisp,
authentic salsa style that had for so long been seen in Puerto Rico, and as a producer and
arranger of salsa music, Jesus Chucho Ramrez once said about the style of Grupo Niche,
Colombian salsa took on the style of Niche and Guayacan, which is a style that,
since they're Chocoanos, they had some classic tunes. Even though Jairo Varela
has made many changes, the percussion has always identified who we are. Why
is the percussion different from that of Puerto Rico or New York? Because we've
become-musicians from here haven't played salsa exclusively. They've played
Colombian music, and that's why the attack is different from those from over
there. (Waxer 134-5)

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As Ramrez pointed out again, the musicians that originated from Colombia were not specialists
in salsa music, and many drew from their backgrounds in other styles of tropical music when
they went to compose salsa for the first time. Much of this can also trace back to an overall lack
of formal musical training, especially in the field of more popular music. While some of the
members had received some formal training at the hands of a Catholic priest, they had to
eventually teach themselves how to play the popular music of the time by mainly listening to
recordings of the major bands of the time, which could contribute to the reason why these two
groups had a more Puerto Rican sound. These groups helped to usher in a new era of salsa music
that was more crisp and laid-back than the fast, eclectic nature of Colombian salsa in the 50s,
60s and 70s.
It is worthwhile to mention, that as salsa music evolved, so did the dancing that
accompanied it. Due to the frenzied tempos and the combination of more traditional salsa with
rock and jazz, salsa dance in the 50s, 60s and 70s had taken on the same feel as the footwork
was extremely fast. In the next era of salsa music, the 80s, Grupo Niche and Guayacn ushered
in a new, calmer, more traditional version of salsa, and the dance responded in kind. The tempos
slowed down to on average less than 200 bpms which allowed for a much more relaxed style of
dance. This also helped to contribute to salsas more sudden rise to popularity throughout these
years: the people could actually dance along to the music without feeling frenzied and rushed.
Another contributing factor that helped salsa rise to popularity in this time period was
that various salsa groups started to compose songs that were dedicated to certain cities, the first
of which was Grupo Niche writing a song called Buenaventura y Caney, a song dedicated to the
coastal city of Buenaventura. Another landmark hit by Grupo Niche that is still popular today is
entitled Cali Pachanguero, a song dedicated to the third-most populous city of Colombia, Cali.

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After the popularity of this song, which reached far beyond Colombia itself, local radio stations
started to host competitions for a salsa group to write the best song, but the catch was that that
song had to be dedicated to Cali.
One of the bands that came to be renowned nationally as well as internationally as
a result of this radio competition was known as Guayacn. The members of this group also
originated in Choc, and thus had many of the same influences as Grupo Niche. They composed
a song, Oiga, Mira, Vea that was a contender for the radio competition that had been started as a
result of Grupo Niches popularity. It was released in 1992, and started to mark yet another
change in the overall musical style of Colombian salsa. As Lise Waxer explains,
Guayacan's overall sound is lighter than that of Niche. The rhythm section is
characterized by a crisp, dry-almost "clipped"-attack in the timbales and congas,
with patterns placed squarely on top of the beat. Tempos are also a bit slower than
that of Niche, ranging from about [164 bpms to 208 bpms]. (Waxer 145)
As one can see, the tempo of the music started to slow down even more, and with the rise in
popularity of another musical group, La Misma Gente, salsa music and dance in general took
another fairly drastic turn.
Beginning in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, many bands, including the
aforementioned ones, turned to start playing more of a romantic salsa, salsa romntica, or salsa
balada. This changed the focus of their songs and music away from scenes of everyday life and
praise for cities to more of an erotic romanticism. (Waxer 155) Colombian salsa artists did not
write many sexually explicit lyrics like their contemporaries in Puerto Rico and other places in
the Caribbean, but seemed to focus on an amor corts, or a courtly love. Along with this switch

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of theme, they also had to switch their style of playing, and they changed to make this salsa
variant much more subdued than previous varieties, and tried to [convey] romantic intimacy,
not dynamic energy. (Waxer 156) In order to still make their music danceable, however, they
had to refrain from slowing it down too much, and so composed their music to keep it at more of
a mid-tempo, so that it was neither too fast nor too slow for dancing, showing also the influence
that dance had on the music.
After this somewhat shorter era in which the emphasis was on romantic salsa, and as the
potential for international communication grew, so did the desire to fit in internationally so
that one could increase their audience. Due to this, Colombian salsa in this period took many
things from other already more popular styles of salsa and incorporated them into their own. The
main style that they drew from was Puerto Rican salsa. Colombian salsa in the decades that they
were left to themselves had, probably also due to the lack of formal musical training in related
disciplines, gained a reputation for being somewhat sloppy and for not observing many of the
conventions that were observed in many other countries. One such change is that while in the
past there was a strong emphasis on vocals and catchy lyrics and they somewhat pushed the
instrumentalists to the side, with the influence of Puerto Rican salsa, the parts for the
instrumentalists became more elaborate and there was a greater desire to make sure all of the
instrumental parts were very tight and precise in order to form a cleaner, more polished sound.
(Waxer 157) International expectations has also started to limit the variety of salsa produced,
now that these groups have to please a much larger audience, but in addition to this, there is a
relative dearth of both arrangers and producers of salsa music in Cali, also most likely due to a
lack of formal musical training. This has led to a uniformity of salsa music that has come out of
Caleo musicians as most of these producers have to work together in order to get an album out.

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In spite of all of the impediments for variation, some has managed to happen due to
demand and due to outside influences. After the romantic era, many producers of salsa turned to
the popular Caribbean merengue and the vallenato of northeastern Colombia and created hybrids
of these styles of music and dance. In addition to merengue and vallenato, many salsa composers
also tried to hybridize salsa with other style of music such as cumbia and currulao. In fact, when
Lise Waxer asked Chucho Ramrez, a salsa producer/arranger about the current state of salsa in
Colombia he replied by saying fusiones or fusions, thus showing that Colombian salsa is not a
pure form of dance or music, but that it is in a constant state of flux and adaptation in order to
survive both nationally and internationally. (Waxer 161) In addition to being influenced by
outside influences, Colombian salsa has now started to influence those styles from which it was
initially influenced. For example, many arrangers of salsa music in New York and Puerto Rico
have drawn some of the more traditional percussive aspects of Colombian salsa and have tried to
integrate it with their more romantic style. In this way salsa has started to have an influence
abroad, and has really brought recognition to both Colombia and to salsa music and dance itself.
The influence that the dance form has had on Colombia is especially evident in both
recent international competitions and in the lives of normal Colombian citizens. Recently (within
the last ten years or so), they have begun to host international Latin dance championships. From
the very start of these competitions in 2005, Colombia has been very well represented. The very
first year of the competition, a couple from Colombia was able to come home with the overall
champion title in the Cabaret category. Since then Colombia has never failed to place within the
top three, and some years has even swept the stand in this event, the only such country to do so
in this event. In addition to cabaret, Colombia also regularly places and occasionally sweeps the
Group category as well. (Young 1-52220) These triumphs for Colombia on an international stage

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have brought Colombian salsa international fame for incredibly fast footwork and tight spins
and many times Colombian salsa is looked at as being one of the most refined, intricate and
exciting styles of salsa dance in existence. (History of Salsa Music & Dance 4)
As well as international fame, salsa dance has been engrained into almost every
Colombian, even though it has only existed in Colombia as a popular style of dance and music
for 30-40 years. Through a series of interviews that I was able to conduct in various parts of
Colombia, I was able to gain a sense for how much salsa means to these people.
First, when I asked them when they had learned to dance salsa, the ages ranged between 8
and 17, with the vast majority of responses falling between 8 and 12 years of age. This was not a
sample of merely teenagers that have grown up since salsa became popular, but it also included a
few adults that are in their 40s and 50s. I believe this shows that even when salsa was still
young it took the country by storm and by the 80s, almost every Colombian knew how to dance
salsa. Another question that I asked, for which I got intriguing responses, was when they
believed that salsa arrived in Colombia. There was a wide variety of responses for this question
with some saying La salsa siempre ha existido en Colombia1, . . . supongo que existi por all
en el siglo XVII o algo as2, and Desde la poca de la colonizacin es decir ms de 200 aos3.
Answers like these made up a majority (75%) of the answers that I received with only 25% of the
respondents guessing a date within a reasonable range of the actual date. This shows that even
though salsa has relatively recently arrived in Colombia, it has already been firmly cemented in
the minds of many Colombians so firmly that many believe it has existed there for over 200
Salsa has always existed in Colombia (Farfn 1)
I would suppose that it came into existence around the 17th century or so (De la Torre, Marcela 1)
3 Since the time period of the colonization, or around 200 years ago (Aguilar 1)

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Another question that I asked that relates directly with the thesis is if and how salsa dance
has contributed to their national identity. The answers for this question were not nearly as diverse
as the answers for previous questions with only one person stating that salsa had not contributed
at all to his national identity. Many of the other respondents said things such as Creo que s
porque los colombianos nos sentimos identificados con la salsa, es un ritmo que despierta
sensaciones patriticas en nosotros; adems en comn que en el extranjero nos reconozcan como
portadores de este tipo de msica, prueba de esto es esta encuesta4, . . .creo que siempre la
salsa va a identificar al colombiano, un extranjero no baila la salsa como un colombiano por eso
es la identidad que nos apasiona5, and S, porque de la cultura colombiana uno de los aspectos
ms representativos . . . es precisamente el tema de la salsa, as que de alguna forma u otra
siempre a un colombiano lo van a relacionar con la salsa6. Almost every respondent mentioned
that no matter where a Colombian goes internationally, people are always going to relate them
with the salsa, and so in that way it has contributed to their national identity. Another common
response was that when a Colombian hears salsa music it awakens in them patriotic feelings and
that that music also makes them feel passion.
Colombian salsa, as both a style of dance and a style of music, has brought a sense of
national identity to Colombia as well as bringing both Colombia and salsa recognition
worldwide. It has been able to do this through innovations in the fields of music and dance as
well as through giving the people of Colombia a style of dance and music that is constantly
evolving and changing to meet their needs and desires.
I believe so, because Colombians identify themselves with salsa; its a rhythm that awakens patriotic feelings in us; also
it is common that in a foreign country they recognize us as bearers of this music, and proof of that is this interview.
(Castillo 1)
5 I believe that the salsa is always going to identify Colombians; a foreigner is doesnt dance salsa like a Colombian and
this identity makes us passionate. (De la Torre, Marcela 1)
6 Yes, because of Colombian culture, one of the most representative aspectsis precisely the theme of the salsa, because
in one way or another, a Colombian is always going to be associated with the salsa. (Triana 1)

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Works Cited
Aguilar, Angie. E-mail interview. 1 April 2014.
Carvajal Triana, Hans Andrey. E-mail interview. 30 March 2014.
Castillo, Natalia. E-mail interview. 31 March 2014.
De la Torre, Crhistian. E-mail interview. 30 March 2014.
De la Torre, Marcela. E-mail interview. 30 March 2014.
Farfn, Norma Constanza. E-mail interview. 31 March 2014
"History of Salsa Music & Dance." Salsa Gente, n.d. Web. 19 Mar 2014.
Janson Perez, Brittmarie. "Political Facets of Salsa." Popular Music. 6.2 (1987): 149-159. Web.
4 Feb. 2014. <>.
Reina, Lucero. E-mail interview.6 April 2014.
"Salsa History." Salsa Dance Professional. Salsa Dance Professional. Web. 19 Mar 2014.
Triana Vargas, Luisa Fernanda. E-mail interview. 31 March 2014.
Wade, Peter. "Music, blackness and national identity: three moments in Colombian
history." Popular Music. 17. (1998): 1-19. Web.
Waxer, Lise. "En Conga, Bonga y Campana: The Rise of Colombian Salsa." Latin American
Music Review. 21.2 (2000): 118-162. Web.
Young, Takeshi. "World Latin Dance Cup 2013 Results."Salsa by the Bay. Salsa by the Bay, 14
Dec 2013. Web. 8 Apr 2014. <>.