While some respected cuban music historians have popularized the myth that salsa originated in Cuba the earliest evidence of it was in the Puerto Rico with Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera. Salsa started having as background the rich heritage of the Plena, the Afrocaribean form of music that that evolved in Puerto Rico and the influence of more melodic rhythms brought in and developed by mainline Puerto Rican musicians that lived in the United States during the 20's, 30's and 40's and began returning to Puerto Rico after the second world war. These arrivals not only gave the newer Puerto Rican musicians a rich treasure of sounds from all over Latin America, including the Cuban Son and the Guaracha, but also placed on them the responsibility of being creative before those that knew the difference between talent and gimmickry. So the emerging Puerto Rican musician generation began to experiment in new combinations and ways to improve the established styles such as plena.
It is here as in other times across the history of Cuba and Puerto Rico that music met. The presence in the island of a group of Cuban exiles product of the Batista dictatorship together with the return to the island of seasoned Puerto Rican musicians that were versed in , among others, Cuban music meant that the Cuban rhythms, and in particular the "Son" also made his presence and were accepted and adapted to the mix. The young generation of Puerto Rican musicians in Puerto Rico had all the ingredients for a "sauce" of musical forms or "salsa" as it came to be known. However, the music genre itself wasn't born at the time. It was still in the womb of the puertorican musicians' community.
Cuban music was instrumental in the development of the salsa. There is no salsa as we know it without the Cuban Son. The elements of the Son are visible at every turn of the salsa's first ten years of history. But from this to imply that salsa originated in Cuba by Cuban musicians is a stretch of the imagination in light of the evidence.
This new attitude towards music and willingness to experiment that took shape in Puerto Rico in the late 50's was transplanted to New York in the early 60's when puertorican musicians started moving to this city that they viewed as the place to make their talent known. And this transplanted generation meet in this city with a new generation of puertoricans ready to take up the labor of creativity and give birth to Salsa. Again New York became for young puertorican salsa musicians what it was for puertorican quartets and singers in the 30's.
This new attitude towards music and musical creativity also moved to Cuba with the arrival of the revolutionaries. They brought with them not only a political revolution but also a cultural revolution. And this accounted for Cuba easily adopting salsa when it came to itself. This music that they saw as coming from US friends of those that came down from Oriente was the next logical step in the evolution of the cuban music. For them it was easy because the cuban afrocaribean musical background and the strong presence of elements of the Cuban Son in salsa made it feel as a new format for their own music. Thus, by the time of the formation of the anti Castro Cuban exile community in the US salsa was already a new musical form in Puerto Rico that had moved to Cuba.
Incidentally, this is not the first time that something like this happens. While many historians say that the latin american bolero started in the early 1880's in Cuba this type of bolero actually developed from the andaluzan bolero via Puerto Rico. The andaluzan bolero that arrived to Puerto Rico in the XIX century underwent a transformation in structure as well as in tempo. However, it did not saw its discovery to the outside world until it arrived to Cuba in the early 1880's. There it kept its new structure but its tempo was further accelerated. It came to Cuba after the Lares uprising with the arrival in Cuba of exiled Puerto Rican revolutionaries fighting against the Spanish rule.
In the early 60's this new form of Puerto Rican music later called salsa was born in New York to satisfy the demand for things Puerto Rican from the now established community that developed as a result of the migration of almost half a million Puerto Ricans to New York during the 50's. At the same time, however, a new massive migration, this time of Cubans, was taking place. But their main goal was the city of Miami in Florida.
The need of the Cuban exile community to develop a new "Cuban American" personality acceptable for all in the US moved them to adopt some modes of other groups that preceded them. They took as they see fit and claimed as their creation some popular cultural trends that had not been claimed by others before. Hence the myth that salsa started in Cuba. This was aided in part by a slew of excellent refugee writers that came to the US as a result of the closing of several Cuban newspapers in the island. Some of these writers were , and still are, respected chroniclers of the Latin entertainment scene that have produced very valuable historical documents. However, they tend to have a certain Cuban bias that produces a distorted interpretation of facts as it pertain with creations that have some elements of Cuban influence.
Also some ascending Cuban musical performers headed further up north, to New York and found that acceptance was easier if they adopted the music of the dominant hispanic community. The cuban singer La Lupe, for example, was accepted not for guarachas or other distinctively Cuban sounds but for performing the same music that the Puerto Ricans played and danced to at the time of her arrival.
However, the strongest evidence of this was Celia Cruz which at her arrival to the New York Metropolitan area was known as "La Guarachera de Cuba" or the guaracha singer from Cuba. Within a few years she came to understand that her music did not have a future among the new musical generation in the north and by 1971, half a decade after Hector Lavoe and Willy Colon, she began to sing salsa. Finally the cubans had somebody that could claim salsa as their property and didn't waste time in promoting her to the point that this guaracha singer which found so much help from the puertorican musician community in New York soon began to be called "la Reina de la Salsa".
Hence the myth that salsa came from Cuba comes from the fact that it has strong elements of Cuban music, especially of the Cuban "Son", the over zealousness of the Cuban writers that can not come to terms with the fact that some other people took the Cuban Son and other styles and created something as impacting as salsa and the adoption of it into the acts of arriving Cuban performers.
The evidence, however, points in another direction. Not only there is evidence that the elements that gave birth to salsa came together in the late 50's in places like Santurce, Puerto Rico but there is also ample evidence that the ones that helped to transport it to the international arena were for the most part Puerto Ricans and in particular Puerto Ricans that were from New York or that at a certain point of their life lived in New York. If salsa had originated in Cuba its spread would have been from Miami on out and not from New York on out.
The point at which we find the Puerto Rican musicians at fault is at failing to claim their creation as their own. They were too busy "making salsa" to care about taking proper credit for their creation.
As a final note we have to mention that Ismael Rivera, the person also named by the handle "Sonero Mayor" can also be considered the "Father of the Salsa", the person that set the patterns to follow by the salsa for the following 40 years.