“The term salsa is an insult to the rhythms we play; they have their proper names,” explains Palmieri. “Out of the rumba comes el guaguancó, el yambú, la columbia, danzón, la danza, el changüí, you have guajira, the bolero, the mambo, the cha cha cha. That’s why the kids don’t know how to play our genre anymore, and it’s a total disaster what you have, rhythmic disaster and harmonic disaster because the arrangements are so bland that if you’re dancing with your partner you should bring a little mini-pillow because you’re going to fall asleep on her shoulder.”
If you go back to Palmieri’s early conjunto, called La Perfecta, the track listing on their 1962 debut album categorizes each song: “Conmigo” is a pachanga, “Mi Isla Preciosa” a cha cha cha, “Mi Pollo,” a guaguancó, and so on. But despite Palmieri’s aesthetic leanings, La Perfecta was one of the bands that gave birth to what we have come to know as salsa.
While salsa is at heart a marketing term, one that doesn’t refer to a particular rhythm or style, its emergence reflected something very new in Latin music. With the end of the big-band Palladium days—Palmieri says his band closed the club in 1966—came smaller bands that featured an instrument that gave Afro-Cuban music a new attitude: the trombone.
After seeing an Anglo-American trombone player named Barry Rogers playing with John Coltrane at Birdland, and then again in a Latin dance club in the Bronx called Triton’s, Palmieri knew what his new sound would be. “Nobody had ever seen two trombones up front,” he recalled. “Trombones were certainly in the orchestras, but only in a section, and instead of a big band we had eight men, and those eight men sounded like 16 when we came barreling down like a Mac truck from the bandstand.”
Rogers and Brazilian born José Rodrigues formed the two-trombone team that gave the music a sour, edgy sound that distinguished it from the relatively genteel mambo and danzón outfits that attracted ethnically mixed crowds and celebrities like Marlon Brando and Kim Novak to the Palladium.
Inspired by La Perfecta, younger players like Willie Colón, mixed in jazz, rock, and R&B influences, appealing to the children of the mambo-niks taking over the uptown ‘hoods, a stripped-down sound called salsa. The mixing of musicians from different Latin American countries, as well as African- and Anglo-American musicians, was essential to creating the new sound.