Salsa Music

James' Introduction to Salsa

When you get into a new music, it is often a little confusing, there are lots of new artists, different styles of music, unusual rhythms with funny names - how do you begin to find your way, recognise classic salsa from son from merengue, and not confuse Johnny Ray with Ray Barrato, Charlie and Eddie Palmeri and so on.

The best thing to do is buy a few compelation albums from your local record store (most now carry a reasonable selection), and surf around some of the pages listed on the Web links pages to get histories, reviews, play lists etc.

Origins and Rhythms of Salsa

Salsa is a music that came out of New York in the 60s and 70s, as the carribean disapora, especially from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican republic started to expand and mix their own music with North American music - jazz, blues, rock. With a potentially huge market for latin music, commerical companies played an important role in promoting salsa. Jerry Masucci, the director of Fania Records claims to have hit on using the word 'salsa' as a catch all term like jazz or rock to describe and sell a whole range of Caribbean rhythms, and the new mixes coming out of New York and elsewhere.

The origins of the music and culture lie on the islands, Mexico, Central America, Venezuela and Colombia, with the mixing of African, European and indigenous music. In Cuba, for example, different music and dances developed inthe countside and in the cities, the cities being more European (habanera, contradanza, danzón) , the country more african (e.g. rumba, son). These musics developed with fashion, and the economy, and were exported in waves. The habanera for example was a strong influence on the Argentine tango. The basic 3 cuban styles are danzón, son and rumba. Over the years these developed in rhytm and style into mambo (up tempo danzón, 30s), son-montuno (40's), guaracha, charanga, guajira, conga, bolero, Cha-Cha-Chá, pachanga (50's), guaguancó, songo (funky son), mozambique (60's) etc. As well as cuban influences in modern salsa there are also Puerto Rican rhythms, such as bomba and plena. The style is of course still evolving under the broad term of salsa.

The basic rhythm of the salsa is the Clave which is interpreted in kick in the dance, and is the strict basis of all salsa music. In its African roots it is fundementally different to the square rhythms dominating much European music, which is why it takes quite a long time to get it under your skin. Just as folk/rock musicians tap their feet on the 1st and 3rd of a 4 beat bar, jazz musicians on the 2nd and 4th, salsa musicians tap the clave, which is a synchopated rhythm across 2 bars in European 4/4 notation. Listen out for this rhythm when you dance, and try and feel the distinctive second beat, called the bomba. Whether you mark this beat or the 3rd depends on the regional style you dance. The rest of the music is built round the clave, adding complex rhythms on the congas, timbales, bass, güiro, bells, bongos etc.


Salsa is not the only music that we listen and dance to in salsa clubs. Other popular rhythms are merengue, a fast two step from the Dominican Republic, and cumbia (Columbia, Mexico). These are sometimes refered too as salsa - and modern salsa is considerably influenced by them. Maybe one day I will write something on this music too!

Political dimension of Salsa

Salsa is more than a music or a dance. On its emergance it acted as a unifing force across a fragmented and uprooted population of latin America and North America. It also acted as a common force against assimilation into US culture that united the diverse immigant population. Although salsa is certainly not the only musical expression of latino culture, it success first in latin american, and now around the world can be seen as a reflection of the cultural strength of the 'latino' world.

Salsa today

Today salsa is a very dynamic music, and with the rise of latin pop, and a generation of musicians and listeners more in tune with 80s and 90s popular music, artists are creating something that is much more modern sound and feel. DJs are playing this modern music too, as it appeals to a younger night club audience, so many of the 'salsa' clubs appear not to be play much 'salsa'. Many say that commerical musicians are loosing touch with traditional elements of salsa and its historic roots, and are proclaiming the 'death of salsa'. However with a parallel resurgence of interest in older music, such as cuban son etc, with astounding commerical success this is by no means a one way street. Music always needs to change to keep its vitality and audience, and the new music it serves as an introduction to the great music of the past (and present) that many people may never have otherwise heard.

Listening to Salsa and Buying CDs

If you are looking to buy some CDs, look out for the names below. they are a mix of classic salsa - such as Celia Cruz, Eddie Palmeri, with more recent artists, such as Ruben Blades and Marc Antony. Also try classic cuban artists such as Arsenio Rodriguez, and the members of the infamous Buena Vista Social Club for son and other cuban styles. More recent upbeat salsa/son artists include Los Van Van and Cubanismo. Tito Puente ( the mambo king) is a great musician who has explored the jazz side of salsa, as has Paquito D'Riviera.

If you want to know what salsa is you should listen to everyone on this short list for a start!

Classic and Modern

Celica Cruz

Eddie Palmeri

Fania All Stars

Ruban Blades

Louie Ramirez

Oscar D' Leon

Ray Barrato

Beny Moré

Orchestra Harlow

Willie Colón

Tito Puente

Johnny Pacheco

Marc Antony

Cuban (although some from the other list are cuban too!)

Los Van Van


Ismael Rivera

Manolin 'El Medico De La Salsa'

Arsenio Rodriguez

Afro Cuban All Stars

Eliades Ochoa

Israel "Cachao" Lopez

Merceditas Valdés

More jazzy

Paquio D'Riviera


Information on buying salsa music in Edinburgh and on line

Some record reviews

On-line resources for salsa

Books on salsa