Septeto Nacional

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The Cuban musical sound ? el son Cubano ? was born in the 1800s. It mixes instrumental styles from the Spanish conquest with the tones and rhythms of descendants of African slaves. That son Cubano evolved into a music we now think of as from all of Latin America ? salsa. But as reporter Lonny Shavelson found out at a rare U.S. concert of the Cuban band Septeto Nacional, some Cuban musicians want the credit for salsa back.

MS. JEB SHARP: Finally today, the musical origins of salsa. It's a touchy subject actually. Musicians in many places help develop what we now know as salsa. Those places include Cuba, Puerto Rico and New York City. But one thing is for sure. A legendary band from Cuba played a key role in salsa's creation. Recently the band was allowed to tour the United States for the first time in decades. Report Lonnie Shavelson caught up with them in San Francisco.

MR. LONNIE SHAVELSON: Ever wonder how this music came to be called salsa? Well go no further than the Cuban band Septeto Nacional. It was started in 1927 by Ignacio Piniero. He died in 1969, but new generations of musicians have kept Piniero's band and his music alive. These days Ricardo Oropesa represents the band.

INTERPRETER: [Mr. Oropesa speaking in Spanish] Ignacio Piniero is the creator of the danceable Cuban sound, what we call today salsa, mambo, whatever you call it, Piniero did it.

MR. SHAVELSON: In the 1920's the hottest Cuban music was played by sextets, six musicians on guitar, vocals, percussion. Unsatisfied with that sound, Piniero added a trumpet. One of the band's first hits was Echale Salsita, throw a little sauce on it, or spice it up. From that, some musicologists say, came the name salsa. But Ricardo Oropesa says when people in the U.S. use salsa to refer to just about any Latin American music, that's just one more insult to Cuba. Salsa, he says, is really Cuban music. And he says the U.S. blockade of Cuba is to blame for the mistake.

INTERPRETER: Because of the situation of the blockade that Cuba suffered, and still suffers, Cuba was closed to the world. And for the time the voices of Cuba in the world didn't have much echo, or resonance. And what happened? They changed the name of Cuban music; they made it salsa.

MR. JOHN SANTOS: I think it's fair Cubans to feel offended when people do not recognize the Cuban roots of the music.

MR. SHAVELSON: John Santos is an Afro-Latin musician and music historian. He agrees that salsa's roots are in Cuba, but he says it goes beyond that.

MR. SANTOS: Music is not just all from one place. It doesn't have one root. It doesn't grow up in a vacuum. Salsa music is super-complex and it has a complex evolution.

MR. SHAVELSON: That evolution, says Santos, means that salsa has become a mix of musical traditions.

MR. SANTOS: It's exploded out of it's borders. Not only non-Cubans, but non-Latinos, it's a movement that you find everywhere, in Asia, in Europe and throughout the States. But right now, Venezuela and Colombia are arguably the centers of the salsa world.

MR. SHAVELSON: Septeto Nacional recorded an album in New York in 1927 and played the Chicago World's Fair in 1933. Since then, they've performed in 32 countries. But for a variety of reasons, including the embargo, they never performed again in the U.S. until now. Last year the Obama administration opened a small window of cultural exchange with Cuba and the band was let in.

INTERPRETER: For us to come in this moment is something very important. It's emotional. What makes life beautiful is what we have in common, not the differences. Look. culture is the soul of the people and music is the heart, and for that we came here to San Francisco to throw a little salsa on it.

MR. SHAVELSON: For the world, I'm Lonnie Shavelson, San Francisco.

MS. SHARP: You can see and hear Septeto Nacional playing at Echale Salsita at the world dot org. That's our program today. We're back tomorrow from the Nan and Bill Harris Studios at WGBH. I'm Jeb Sharp, thanks for being with us.