Puerto Rican Music - Mambo Kings and the Birth of Salsa

Willie Colon & Ruben Blades. Courtesy Fania Records

In the overview of Puerto Rican Folk Music, I mentioned that Puerto Rico and Cuba shared a similar history of Spanish domination and imported African slavery, both of which made a had a major impact on their musical style. But their history was about to diverge.

The War of Independence – Spanish American War:


In 1898, with the aid of the U.S., Cuba and Puerto Rico both gained their independence from Spain.

The islands called this their ‘War of Independence’; in the U.S. we called it the Spanish-American War. But at the end of the war, there was a difference between what happened on these two islands. Finally rid of Spanish rule, Cuba was free to follow its own direction. Puerto Rico, however, was quickly occupied by the U.S.

The 1917 Jones Act made U.S. citizens of the Puerto Rican people and allowed them free access to the mainland. (Of course, they were not allowed to vote even though they had to serve in the armed forces.) This free access, together with a plantation system that the U.S. introduced, forced thousands of farmers into the cities and resulted in a migration northward – especially to the New York barrios

Post World War I:


Between WWI and the 1950s, many Latin musicians headed to New York and Broadway, wanting to ride the wave of their music’s popularity. As famous names from Cuba, Mexico, Colombia and other Latin American countries came to perform at the now celebrated N.Y.

Latin nightclubs, they often didn’t (or couldn’t afford) to bring their entire orchestras with them. But that was no problem, as they found many talented Puerto Rican musicians already stateside and willing to stand in for the originals.

Of course, they were making their mark on their own. At that time, one of the most influential Puerto Rican musicians was Rafael Hernandez.

Hernandez established the Trio Borinquen in 1926. Influenced by jazz, Afro-Cuban music and his native Puerto Rican music, he played a major part in the evolution of the bolero. But his biggest talent was that of a composer. Composer of Puerto Rico’s informal anthem, "Lamento Borincano", he also penned classics like "Silencio", "Preciosa" and "Cumbanchero".

Tito Puente and the Mambo Kings:


The 1950s were not only the era of the Mambo Kings, but the years that signified the birth of salsa. Puerto Ricans Tito Rodriguez, Ismael Rivera and Rafael Cortijo all played major roles and garnered plenty of the limelight, but the name everyone identifies with this era is Tito Puente.

Tito Puente, a percussionist at a time when vocalists held front stage, overcame this obstacles by putting his timbales in front, and dancing around them, making his musicianship look easy. Spanning genres of music from Cuban, Puerto Rican, jazz and everything he heard in between, he made over numerous albums until his death in 2000. For a good sample of his music, read about and listen to Tito Puente: The Complete RCA Recordings -a good place to start.


Puerto Rican Salsa:


Tito Puente is often credited with setting the stage for the 1960s and salsa (although he would often say there was no such thing as salsa).

But the 'Latin Motown' record label, Fania Records, is usually associated with early salsa and the 1960s and 1970s were the golden age of salsa. There is no point in talking about that time and Fania records without bringing up Willie Colon.

Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe:


New York born Willie Colon was a pivotal player at Fania Records. A trombonist who emulated Puente by placing the trombone center stage, Colon found and brought to Fania some of the most talented voices of the day. His two most notable collaborations were with Hector Lavoe, and later with Ruben Blades.

Colon and Lavoe recorded their first album, El Malo in 1967 when Colon was just 17 years old. They went on to make 10 more albums before Lavoe’s problems with drugs forced him to leave in 1973. Colon replaced him with Panamanian Ruben Blades and they went on to form one of the great musical partnerships of the time.

Siembra is the most famous album of the collaboration, and one of the best-selling albums on the Fania label.

Lavoe went on to form his own group as well as performing with the Puerto Rican All-Stars. His first solo album, La Voz, was a hit, giving him new confidence as a solo artist. Lavoe, known as “El Cantante” and considered one of the great voices of his time, went on to form his own group along with performing with the Fania All-Stars.

Tito Puente

Willie Colon & Hector Lavoe