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Oye como va: New York is getting a museum dedicated to salsa music

Eddie Torres Jr. and Princess Serrano dance with two young salseros at the first pop-up of the International Salsa Museum
Willy Rodriguez
Eddie Torres Jr. and Princess Serrano dance with two young salseros at the first pop-up of the International Salsa Museum

The heart of salsa - the fast-tempo, horn-heavy music and its hip-swinging dance style - has beat loudly and strongly in New York for decades. The Bronx even earned the title of "El Condado de la Salsa," or "The Borough of Salsa."

Now the city is home to the first museum dedicated to the music that traces its roots to Africa.

Unlike other museums around New York teeming with displays and hushed voices, the International Salsa Museum promises to be lively and flexible, with plans to eventually include a recording studio, along with dance and music programs.

The museum is also evolving, much like the music it is dedicated to. It currently hosts large pop-ups while its board seeks out a permanent home, and the museum is not expected to occupy its own building in the next five years.

For a permanent space, the museum founders have their heart set on a decommissioned military facility called Kingsbridge Armory in The Bronx.

The legacy of salsa should be held in the place it was popularized, said board member Janice Torres. Having the museum in The Bronx is also about providing access to a community that is often overlooked, she said.

"We get to be the ones who help preserve history – meaning Afro-Latinos, meaning people from New York, from The Bronx, from Brooklyn, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic," Torres said. "We get to help preserve our oral histories."

Puerto Rican and living in New York, Torres calls herself a descendant of the genre.

Even people who don't share a common language speak salsa, she said, with salsa events attracting people from all over the world.

Shawnick Rodriguez, who goes by ArtbySIR, showed her visual art at the museum's first pop-up. She associates salsa with old-school Puerto Rico.
/ Shawnick Rodriguez/ArtbySIR
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Shawnick Rodriguez/ArtbySIR
Shawnick Rodriguez, who goes by ArtbySIR, showed her visual art at the museum's first pop-up. She associates salsa with old-school Puerto Rico.

From Africa to The Bronx, and then beyond

"The origins of salsa came from Africa with its unique, percussive rhythms and made its way through the Atlantic, into the Caribbean," said the museum's co-founder, Willy Rodriguez. "From there it became mambo, guaracha, guaguanco, son montuno, rumba."

And from there, the music was brought to New York by West Indian migrants and revolutionized into the sounds salseros know today.

"If we don't preserve this, we're definitely going to lose the essence of where this music came from," Rodriquez said, adding that salsa is "deeply embedded in our DNA as Latinos and as African Americans."

The International Salsa Museum hosted its first pop-up event last year in conjunction with the New York International Salsa Congress. Fans listened and danced to classic and new artists, among other things.

Visual artist Shawnick Rodriguez, who goes by ArtbySIR, showed a painting of band instruments inside a colonial-style Puerto Rican home.

"When I think of Puerto Rico, I think of old school salsa," she said. "Even when it comes to listening to salsa, you think of that authentic, home-cooked meal."

The next pop-up is planned for Labor Day weekend in September.

Part of the museum's mission is to influence the future, along with educating the present and preserving the past. That could include programs on financial literacy, mental health and community development, Rodriguez said.

Already, the museum has teamed up with the NYPD's youth program to help bridge the gap between police and the community through music.

"It's not just about salsa music, but how we can impact the community in a way where we empower them to do better," said Rodriguez.

Ally Schweitzer edited the audio version of this story. The digital version was edited by Lisa Lambert. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 25, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a previous version of the web story, an early form of salsa was incorrectly referred to as borracha. It is guaracha.
Shelby Hawkins