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Salsa music

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Stylistic origins Primarily Cuban son, mambo, rumba and Puerto Rican music
Cultural origins 1960s and 70s New York City Latin melting pot
Typical instruments piano, conga, trumpet, trombone, bass guitar, claves, cowbell, timbales, guitar
Salsa erótica - Salsa gorda - Salsa romántica
Fusion genres
Charanga-vallenata - Mereng-house - Salsa-merengue - Songo-salsa - rock-salsa - vallenato-salsa- Salsaton
Regional scenes
Colombia - Cuba - Japan - Mexico - Panama - Puerto Rico - United States - Venezuela
Other topics
Salsa dancing - Musicians - Timba

Salsa music is a diverse and predominantly Spanish Caribbean genre that is popular across Latin America and among Latinos abroad. Salsa incorporates multiple styles and variations; the term can be used to describe most any form of popular Cuban-derived genre, such as chachachá and mambo. Most specifically, however, salsa refers to a particular style developed in the 1960s and '70s by Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants to the New York City area, and stylistic descendants like 1980s salsa romantica. The style is now practiced throughout Latin America, and abroad. Salsa's closest relatives are Cuban mambo and the son orchestras of the early 20th century, as well as Latin jazz. The terms Latin jazz and salsa are sometimes used interchangeably; many musicians are considered a part of either, or both, fields, especially performers from prior to the 1970s.

Salsa is essentially Cuban in stylistic origin., though it is also a hybrid of Puerto Rican and other Latin styles mixed with pop, jazz, rock, and R&B. Salsa is the primary music played at Latin dance clubs and is the "essential pulse of Latin music", according Ed Morales, while music author Peter Manuel called it the "most popular dance (music) among Puerto Rican and Cuban communities, (and in) Central and South America", and "one of the most dynamic and significant pan-American musical phenomena of the 1970s and 1980s". Modern salsa remains a dance-oriented genre and is closely associated with a style of salsa dancing.

The word salsa

Salsa means sauce in the Spanish language, and carries connotations of the spiciness common in Latin and Caribbean cuisine. More recently, salsa acquired a musical meaning in both English and Spanish. In this sense salsa has been described as a word with "vivid associations but no absolute definitions, a tag that encompasses a rainbow assortment of Latin rhythms and styles, taking on a different hue wherever you stand in the Spanish-speaking world". The precise scope of salsa is highly debatable. Cuban immigrants in New York have used the term analogously to swing or soul, which refer to a quality of emotionally and culturally genuine music in the African American community. In this usage salsa connotes a frenzied, "spicy" and wild musical experience that draws upon or reflects elements of Latin culture, regardless of the specific style.

Various music writers and historians have traced the use of salsa to different periods of the 20th century. World music author Sue Steward has claimed that salsa was originally used in music as a "cry of appreciation for a particularly piquant or flashy solo". She cites the first use in this manner to a Venezuelan radio DJ named Phidias Danilo Escalona; Max Salazar traced the word back to the early 1930s, when Ignacio Piñerio composed "Échale Salsita", a dance song protesting tasteless food. Though Salazar describes this song as the origin of salsa meaning "danceable Latin music", Ed Morales has described the usage in the same song as a cry from Piñeiro to his band, telling them to increase the tempo to "put the dancers into high gear". Morales claims that later in the 1930s, vocalist Beny Moré would shout salsa during a performance "to acknowledge a musical moment's heat, to express a kind of cultural nationalist sloganeering [and to celebrate the] 'hotness' or 'spiciness' of Latin American cultures".

Some people object to the term salsa on the basis that it is vague or misleading; for example, the style of musicians such as Tito Puente evolved several decades before salsa was a recognized genre, leading Puente to once claim that "the only salsa I know comes in a bottle. I play Cuban music". Because salsa can refer to numerous styles of music, some observers perceive the word as a marketing term designed to superficially categorize music in a way that appeals to non-aficionados. For a time the Cuban state media officially claimed that the term salsa music was a euphemism for authentic Cuban music stolen by American imperialists, though the media has since abandoned this theory.

Some doubt that the term salsa has any precise and unambiguous meaning. Peter Manuel describes salsa as "at once (both) a modern marketing concept and the cultural voice of a new generation", representative of a "crystallization of a Latino identity in New York in the early 1960s". Manuel also recognizes the commercial and cultural dichotomy to salsa, noting that the term's broad use for many styles of Latin pop music has served the development of "pan-Latin solidarity", while also noting that the "recycling of Cuban music under an artificial, obscurantist label is but one more example of North American exploitation and commodification of third world primary products; for Latinos, salsa bridges the gap between "tradition and modernity, between the impoverished homeland and the dominant United States, between street life and the chic night club, and between grassroots culture and the corporate media".

The singer Rubén Blades once claimed that salsa is merely "a concept", as opposed to a definite style or rhythm. Some musicians are doubtful that the term salsa has any useful meaning at all, with the bandleader Machito claiming that salsa was more or less what he had been playing for forty years before the style was invented, while Tito Puente once responded to a question about salsa by saying "I'm a musician, not a cook" (referring to salsa's original use to mean sauce). Celia Cruz, a well-known salsa singer, has said, "salsa is Cuban music with another name. It's mambo, chachachá, rumba, son ... all the Cuban rhythms under one name".

Music writer Peter Manuel claims that salsa came to describe a specific style of music in the mid-1970s "when a group of New York-based Latin musicians began overhauling the classic big-band arrangements popular since the mambo era of the 1940s and '50s", and that the term was "popularized" in the late 1960s by a Venezuelan radio station and Jerry Masucci of Fania Records. In contrast, Ed Morales cites the use of salsa for a specific style to a New York-based editor and graphic designer named Izzy Sanabria. Morales also mentions an early use of the term by Johnny Pacheco, a Dominican performer who released a 1962 album called Salsa Na' Ma, which Morales translates as "it just needs a little salsa, or spice".


Though the term salsa music is not necessarily precise in scope, most authors use the term to refer specifically to a style created in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Author Ed Morales has said the obvious, most common perception of salsa is an "extravagant, clave-driven, Afro-Cuban-derived songs anchored by piano, horns, and rhythm section and sung by a velvety voiced crooner in a sharkskin suit".

A trombone, sometimes considered a defining characteristic of salsa

At it's root, however, salsa is a mixture of African and Spanish music , filtered through the music histories of Cuba and Puerto Rico, and adapted by Latin jazz and Latin popular musicians for Latino populations with diverse musical tastes. The basic structure of a salsa song is based on the Cuban son, beginning with a simple melody and followed by a coro section in which the performers improvise. Ed Morales has claimed that the "key staples" of salsa's origins were the use of the trombone as a counterpoint to the vocalist and a more aggressive sound than is typical in Cuban music; the trombone also carries the melody, while the rhythm is most generally provided by bongos, congas and timbales. Peter Manuel notes how New York and Puerto Rican salsa differs from the 1950s Cuban ""son"" in various ways, such as the greater use of timbales and trombones, the occasional use of Puerto Rican elements like the declamatory exclamation le-lo-lai, its frequent lyrics about barrio life in New York and elsewhere, the "smooth" sound of the salsa romántica" style that emerged in the 1980s, and salsa's role as a soundscape for the Latino identity movement of the 1970s

Songs and instrumentation

A modern salsa band lineup including less traditional salsa instruments such as a saxophone and a full drumset

Salsa bands play a wide variety of songs, including pieces based on plenas and bombas, cumbia, vallenato and merengue; most songs, however, are modern versions of the Cuban son. Like the son, salsa songs begin with a songlike section followed by a montuno break with call-and-response vocals, instrumental breaks and jazzy solos. In the United States, the music of a salsa club is a mix of salsa, merengue, cha-cha-cha and bachata, whether sourced from a live band or a DJ. Some salsa clubs also add reggaeton to the mix due to its popularity with youth.

The most important instrumentation in salsa is the percussion, which is played by a wide variety of instruments, including claves, cowbells, timbales and conga. Apart from percussion, other core instruments are the trumpets, trombones, and bass guitar. Other melodic instruments are commonly used as accompaniment, such as a guitar, the piano, and many others, all depending on the performing artists. [The tres guitar was used in a particular style of band known as a conjunto but that format is nearly extinct and it is indeed a rarity to find a band that uses a tres.] Bands typically consist of up to a dozen people, one of whom serves as band leader, directing the music as it is played. Two to four players generally specialize in horns, while there are generally one or two choral singers and players of the bongo, conga, bass guitar, piano and timbales. The maracas, clave or güiro may also be played, typically by a vocalist. The bongocero will usually switch to a kind of bell called a campana (or bongo bell) for the montuno section of a song. Horns are typically either two trumpets or four trumpets or, most commonly, two trumpets with at least one saxophone or trombone.

A cowbell, an important percussion instrument

Salsa essentially remains a form of dance music; thus, many songs have little in the way of lyrics beyond exhortations to dance or other simple words. Modern pop-salsa is often romántica, defined partially by the sentimental, lovelorn lyrics, or erótica, defined largely by the sexually explicit lyrics. Salsa also has a long tradition of lyrical experimentation, with singer-songwriters like Rubén Blades using incisive lyrics about everything from imperialism to disarmament and environmentalism. Vocalists are expected to be able to improvise during verses and instrumental solos. References to Afro-Catholic religions, such as Santería, are also a major part of salsa's lyrics throughout Latin America, even among those artists who are not themselves practitioners of any Afro-Catholic religion.


A pair of claves, commonly used to play the clave rhythm by the clavero.

Salsa music traditionally utilizes a 4/4 time signature. Musicians play recurring rhythmic accompaniments often in groups of eight beats (two measures of four quarter notes), while melodic phrases span eight or sixteen beats, with entire stanzas spanning thirty-two beats.

While percussion instruments layer several different rhythmic patterns simultaneously, the clave rhythm is the foundation of salsa; all salsa music and dance is governed by the clave rhythm. The most common clave rhythm in salsa is the so-called son clave, which is eight beats long and can be played either in 2-3 or 3-2 style.

The 2-3 clave        The 3-2 clave
..*.*...*..*..*.     *..*..*...*.*...

Even when the clave rhythm is not played by its own, it functions as a basis for the instrumentalists and singers to use as a common rhythmic ground for their own musical phrases. The instrumentalists emphasize the differences of the two halves of the eight-beat clave rhythm; for example, in an eight-beat-long phrase used in a 2-3 clave context, the first half of the phrase is given more straight notes that are played directly on beat, while the second half instead contains notes with longer durations and with a more off-beat feeling. This emphasizes that the first four beats of the 2-3 son clave contain two "short" strikes that are directly on beat, while the last four beats contain three "long" clave strikes with the second strike placed offbeat between beats two and three. Salsa songs commonly start with one clave and then switch to the reverse partway through the song, without restarting the clave rhythm; instead, the rhythm is shifted four beats using breaks and stop-time.

Percussion instruments have standard patterns that reoccur in most salsa music with only slight variations. For example, this is a common rhythmic pattern called the cáscara based on the 2-3 clave, and is played on the shells of the timbales during the verses and less energetic parts of a song:

Timbales cáscara rhythm in 2-3 clave   (beats)
*.*.**.**.**.*.*   (* = cáscara strikes)

During the chorus and solo parts, the timbalero often switches to the following rhythm, which is normally played on a cowbell (the mambo bell) mounted on the timbales set:

Timbales mambo bell rhythm in 2-3 clave   (beats)
+.*.+++*.++*+.+*   (+/* = weak/accented cowbell strikes)

The timbales pattern above is often accompanied by a handheld cowbell (the bongo bell) also played during the chorus but by another person, using this simpler rhythm:

Handheld bongo bell rhythm in 2-3 clave   (beats)
+.*.+.**+.**+.**   (+/* = low/high-pitched cowbell strikes)

The piano has many roles in salsa, being an important solo instrument and providing harmony, rhythm and sometimes even the lead melody. During the montuno section, in which the singers and chorus engage in a call and response pattern of singing, the piano player plays a repeating ostinato figure known as a guajeo or tumbao which serves as a backbone for the rhythm section. The piano always respects the clave. The montuno patterns have many variations, but are basically highly syncopated two-bar vamps made to match the clave. For example:

Piano montuño rhythm in 2-3 clave   (beats)
*.**.*.*.*.*.*.*   (* = key strikes)

The bass pattern often follows a distinct salsa rhythm pattern known as the tumbao which alternates between the fifth and the root of a chord. One side of the tumbao will be in near unison with the clave, while the other side is syncopated against the clave:

Bass tumbao rhythm   (beats)
...5..8....5..1.   (5 = fifth of chord, 8 = high octave of chord, 1 = low octave of chord)


Salsa lyrics range from simple dance numbers with little lyrical innovation and sentimental romantic songs to risqué and politically-radical lyrics. Music author Isabelle Leymarie notes that salsa performers often incorporate machoistic bravado (guapería) in their lyrics, in a manner reminiscent of calypso and samba, a theme she ascribes to the performers' "humble backgrounds" and subsequent need to compensate for their origins. Leymarie claims that salsa is "essentially virile, an affirmation of the Latin man's pride and identity". As an extension of salsa's macho stance, manly taunts and challenges (desafio) are also a traditional part of salsa.

Politically and socially activist composers have long been an important part of salsa, and some of their works, like Eddie Palmieri's "La libertad - lógico", became Latin and especially Puerto Rican anthems. Many salsa songs use a nationalist theme, centered around a sense of pride in black Latino identity, and may be in Spanish, English or a mixture of the two called Spanglish.


In the 1930s, '40s and '50s, Cuban music within Cuba was evolving into new styles derived primarily from son and rumba, while the Cubans in New York, living among many Latinos from Puerto Rico and elsewhere, began playing their own distinctive styles, influenced most importantly by African American music. Their music included son and guarachas, as well as tango, bolero and danza, with prominent influences from jazz. While the New York scene continued evolving, Cuban popular music, especially mambo, became very famous across the United States. This was followed by a series of other genres of Cuban music, which especially affected the Latin scene in New York. Many Latin musicians in New York were Puerto Rican, and it was these performers who innovated the style now known as salsa music, based largely off Cuban, and to a lesser extent, Puerto Rican music.

The diasporic nature of these Cuban and Puerto Rican communities in New York, which set the foundation for the expansion, and eventual creation of, the genre now known as salsa. With the influx of Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants in America since the 1950s, a unique Afro-Caribbean diaspora was in play. Artists such as Willie Colón, amongst others, were well known for traveling back and forth between The Bronx and his homeland of Puerto Rico. In his travels to and fro, Willie Colón collected influences of the Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Nuyorican communities and demonstrated these through much of his music. Alongside another Salsa pioneer, Héctor Lavoe, both artists combined musical traditions in a manner that showcased and in many ways reflected the culture and soundscape of their New York barrios while still paying homage to their beloved Puerto Rico.

Salsa evolved steadily through the later 1970s and into the '80s and '90s. New instruments were adopted and new national styles, like the music of Brazil, were adapted to salsa. New subgenres appeared, such as the sweet love songs called salsa romantica, while salsa became a major part of the music scene in Venezuela, Mexico and as far away as Japan. Diverse influences, including most prominently hip hop music, came to shape the evolving genre. By the turn of the century, salsa was one of the major fields of popular music in the world, and salsa stars were international celebrities.


Salsa's roots can be traced back to Spanish immigrants and Africans that were brought to the Caribbean by the Spanish as slaves. In Africa it is very common to find people playing music with instruments like the conga and la pandereta, instruments commonly used in salsa. Salsa's most direct antecedent is Cuban son, which itself is a combination of African and European influences. Large son bands were very popular in Cuba beginning in the 1930s; these were largely septetos and sextetos, and they quickly spread to the United States. In the 1940s Cuban dance bands grew much larger, becoming mambo and charanga orchestras led by bandleaders like Arsenio Rodriguez and Felix Chappotin. In New York City in the '40s, at the centre for mambo in the United States, the Palladium Dancehall, and in Mexico City, where a burgeoning film industry attracted Latin musicians, Cuban-style big bands were formed by Cubans and Puerto Ricans like Machito, Perez Prado, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. New York began developing its own Cuban-derived sound, spurred by large-scale Latino immigration, the rise of local record labels due to the early 1940s musicians strike and the spread of the jukebox industry, and the craze for big band dance music.

Mambo was very jazz-influenced, and it was the mambo big bands that kept alive the large jazz band tradition while the mainstream current of jazz was moving on to the smaller bands of the bebop era. Throughout the 1950s Latin dance music, such as mambo, rumba and chachachá, was mainstream popular music in the United States and Europe. The '50s also saw a decline in popularity for mambo big bands, followed by the Cuban Revolution of 1959, which greatly inhibited contact between New York and Cuba. The result was a scene more dominated by Puerto Ricans than Cubans.


The Latin music scene of early 1960s New York was dominated by bands led by musicians such as Ray Barretto and Eddie Palmieri, whose style was influenced by imported Cuban fads such as pachanga and charanga; after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, however, Cuban-American contact declined precipitously, and Puerto Ricans became a larger part of the New York Latin music scene. During this time a hybrid Nuyorican cultural identity emerged, primarily Puerto Rican but influenced by many Latin cultures as well as the close contact with African Americans.

The growth of modern salsa, however, is said to have begun in the streets of New York in the late 1960s. By this time Latin pop was no longer a major force in American music, having lost ground to doo wop, R&B and rock and roll; there were a few youth fads for Latin dances, such as the soul and mambo fusion boogaloo, but Latin music ceased to be a major part of American popular music. Few Latin record labels had any significant distribution, the two exceptions being Tico and Alegre. Though East Harlem had long been a centre for Latin music in New York, during the 1960s many of the venues there shut down, and Brooklyn Heights' Saint George Hotel became "salsa's first stronghold". Performers there included Joe Bataan and the Lebron Brothers.

The late 1960s also saw white youth joining a counterculture heavily associated with political activism, while black youth formed radical organizations like the Black Panthers. Inspired by these movements, Latinos in New York formed the Young Lords, rejected assimilation and "made the barrio a cauldron of militant assertiveness and artistic creativity". The musical aspect of this social change was based on the Cuban son, which had long been the favored musical form for urbanites in both Puerto Rico and New York. By the early 1970s, salsa's centre moved to Manhattan and the Cheetah, where promoter Ralph Mercado introduced many future stars to an ever-growing and diverse crowd of Latino audiences.

The Manhattan-based recording company, Fania Records, introduced many of the first-generation salsa singers and musicians to the world. Founded by Dominican flautist and band-leader Johnny Pacheco and impresario Jerry Masucci, Fania's illustrious career began with Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe's El Malo in 1967. This was followed by a series of updated son montuno and plena tunes that evolved into modern salsa by 1973. Pacheco put together a team that included percussionist Louie Ramirez, bassist Bobby Valentin and arranger Larry Harlow. The Fania team released a string of successful singles, mostly son and plena, performing live after forming the Fania All Stars in 1971; just two years later, the All Stars sold out Yankee Stadium. One of their 1971 performances at the Cheetah nightclub, was a historic concert that drew several thousand people and helped to spark a salsa boom.

Salsa quickly spread outside of New York City, to Miami, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Colombia. The city of Cali, Colombia became that country's major centre for salsa in the late 1960s, when salsa became a major part of the local Feria de la Caña de Azucar. Salsa also established itself in Guayaquil, Caracas and Panama City.


From New York salsa quickly expanded to Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, and other Latin countries, while the new style became a symbol of "pride and cultural identity" for Latinos, especially Puerto Ricans. The number of salsa bands, both in New York and elsewhere, increased dramatically in the 70s, as did salsa-oriented radio stations and record labels. Popular performers like Eddie Palmieri and Celia Cruz adapted to the salsa format, joined by more authentically traditional singers like Willie Colon and Ruben Blades. Colón and Blades worked together for much of the 1970s and '80s, becoming some of the most critically and popularly acclaimed salsa performers in the world. Their lyricism set them apart from others; Blades became a "mouthpiece for oppressed Latin America", while Colón composed "potent", "socio-political vignettes". Their 1978 album Siembra was, at that time, the best-selling Latin album in history.

The 1970s saw a number of musical innovations among salsa musicians. The bandleader Willie Colón introduced the cuatro, a rural Puerto Rican guitar, as well as jazz, rock, and Panamanian and Brazilian music. Larry Harlow, the arranger for Fania Records, modernized salsa by adding an electric piano. By the end of the decade, Fania Records' longtime leadership of salsa was weakened by the arrival of the labels TH-Rodven and RMM. Salsa had come to be perceived as "contaminated by fusion and disco", and took elements from disaptare styles like go go, while many young Latinos turned to hip hop, techno or other styles. Salsa began spreading throughout Latin America in the 1970s, especially to Colombia, where a new generation of performers began to combine salsa with elements of cumbia and vallenato; this fusion tradition can be traced back to the 1960s work of Peregoya y su Combo Vacano. However, it was Joe Arroyo and La Verdad, his band, that popularized Colombian salsa beginning in the 1980s.


The 1980s was a time of diversification, as popular salsa evolved into sweet and smooth salsa romantica, with lyrics dwelling on love and romance, and its more explicit cousin, salsa erotica. Salsa romantica can be traced back to Noches Calientes, a 1984 album by singer José Alberto with producer Louie Ramirez. A wave of romantica singers, mostly Puerto Rican, found wide audiences with a new style characterized by romantic lyrics, an emphasis on the melody over rhythm, and use of percussion breaks and chord changes. However, salsa lost popularity among many Latino youth, who were drawn to American rock in large numbers, while the popularization of Dominican merengue further sapped the audience among Latinos in both New York and Puerto Rico. The 1980s also saw salsa expand to Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Europe and Japan, and diversify into many new styles.

In the 1980s some performers experimented with combining elements of salsa with hip hop music, while the producer and pianist Sergio George helped to revive salsa's commercial success. He created a sound based on prominent trombones and rootsy, mambo-inspired style. He worked with the Japanese salsa band Orquesta de la Luz, and developed a studio orchestra that included Victor Manuelle, Celia Cruz, José Alberto, La India, Tito Puente and Marc Anthony. The Colombian singer Joe Arroyo first rose to fame in the 1970s, but became a renowned exponent of Colombian salsa in the 1980s. Arroyo worked for many years with the Colombian arranger Fruko and his band Los Tesos.

1990s to the present

In the 1990s Cuban salsa became more prominent, especially a distinct genre called timba. Using the complex songo rhythm, bands like NG La Banda and Los Van Van developed timba.

Salsa remained a major part of Colombian music through the 1990s, producing popular bands like Sonora Carruseles, while the singer Carlos Vives created his own style that fuses salsa with vallenato and rock. Vives' popularization of vallenato-salsa led to the accordion-led vallenato style being used by mainstream pop stars like Gloria Estefan. The city of Cali, in Colombia, has come to call itself the "salsa capital of the world", having produced such groups as Orquesta Guayacan and Grupo Niche.

Salsa has registered a steady growth and now dominates the airwaves in many countries in Latin America. In addition, several Latino artists, including Rey Ruiz, Marc Anthony, and most famously, the Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan, have had success as crossovers, penetrating the Anglo-American pop market with Latin-tinged hits, usually sung in English.

The most recent innovations in the genre include hybrids like merenhouse, salsa-merengue and salsaton, alongside salsa gorda. Since the mid-1990s African artists have also been very active through the super-group Africando, where African and New York musicians mix with leading African singers such as Bambino Diabate, Ricardo Lemvo, Ismael Lo and Salif Keita. Salsa is only one of many Latin genres to have traveled back and influenced West African music.


  • 1979 - Salsa: Latin Music in the Cities. Directed by Jeremy Marre.
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