When it comes to the evolution of salsa music, there are almost too many incredible and influential musicians to name. Artists like Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, Tito Puente, Ismael Rivera, Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, and even modern names like Marc Anthony top the list and will be instantly recognized by anyone who loves salsa dancing and Latin music.
Then there are lesser known artists in the salsa music arena that drove the genre forward. Xavier Cugat may not be as well-known these days as he was during his prime, but the Spanish bandleader is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in spreading Latin music in the United States.
Xavier Cugat (1900 – 1990) was a musician, arranger, and bandleader who was born in Spain but grew up in Cuba. As a result, his musical tastes tended toward Latin music, and salsa in particular. In an era when ballroom dancing (waltz, foxtrot, etc.) was the norm, he introduced the American public to an alternative rhythm and dance style.
Cugat is best known for his role as the leader of the Waldorf-Astoria’s resident band before and after WWII, a position he took over after famed bandleader Jack Denny. Prior to this, his band appeared in several Hollywood films.
Cugat’s style encompassed a traditional, Cuban salsa sound that is different from the contemporary salsa music created today. Whereas you might expect to hear Cugat’s work in a ballroom dance studio, you’re not likely to catch it on the dance floor at your local salsa club.
The salsa of today has taken on a different structure, with faster rhythms and the adoption of outside influences. In fact, modern Cuban salsa is often referred to as timba. Although it has strong roots in traditional salsa, it is often considered its own, distinctive style.
The components of these two types of salsa are roughly the same. You’ll hear drums, brass, and strings in both, but the styles are distinct. For those unfamiliar with the evolution of salsa dancing who are taking adult dance classes for the first time, the most noticeable difference is in pacing.
However, the Cuban salsa style introduced to the U.S. by Xavier Cugat and his contemporaries was influenced by North American styles over time, such as jazz. Salsa, developed independently in Cuba, adopted more of the flavor of Afro-Cuban music and rumba.
Whether you’re listening to modern Cuban or American salsa music, it’s not going to sound the same as the traditional style that first came to the U.S. with Xavier Cugat and other musicians of the time. However, both traditional and contemporary salsa sounds can provide wonderful rhythms to dance to.