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Salsa Music – What is it?

Salsa Music – What is it?

Salsa music is a symbol of possibility. When people from different countries were combining the rhythms and voices of their cultures, something was bound to happen. Eventually one sound was heard. In a place where freedom drew crowds to the streets and in a time of uncontrollable expression, the music came to life in New York City during the 60s and 70s.


The beginning of salsa music is marked by The Fania All-Stars live performance at the Cheetah in 1971. A couple years later, The Alegre-Tico All-Stars Live at Carnegie further spread the music. With help of the media and Fania Records, a Latin music record label founded in New York, salsa quickly became popular dance music. The dance movements are traced back to the guaguancó, an African ritual between a man and woman. The theme of the dance is sexual possession, when consent by a woman is symbolized by a vacunao (a pelvic movement usually involving a thrust), the ultimate goal of her admirer.

By the 80s partner dance movements became more structured, bringing the music of salsa to the ballroom. More recently salseros and salseras, like Marc Anthony, Rubén Blades, India, and Edwin Bonilla (just to name a few), have focused their careers on keeping salsa music in the club and on the dance floor.

A salsa band usually consists of multiple instrumentalists and one lead vocalist. Lyrics are usually improvised and sung in Spanish with themes ranging from the bolero (romantic style) to Latin pride or the dreams, sufferings, and frustrations had by the singers. The instruments used to achieve the music are tangible representations of the African ancestry, colonial history, and Spanish Caribbean traditions that are present in Latin music.

The conga, timbales, bongo, and claves give salsa the tropical sound, rooting back to the Cuban, African, and European influence on the music. The piano, bass, and horn suggest the Jazz and R&B effect on salsa music. The sound created by the trombone and trumpet, often transcending an impulsive energy, is what distinguishes salsa from other Latin music genres.

The mixture of African and Spanish Caribbean rhythmic patterns contribute to the sound of salsa. The son is the most widely used pattern, in fact, it is the basis of most Latin Music. The clave, either played by actual two wooden sticks or internalized by the instrumentalist, is crucial in keeping the musicians and dancers in sync. The montuno is the call-and-response pattern and the guajeo is the repetitive musical passage both commonly heard in salsa music. The Dominican meringue, African bomba, Puerto Rican plea, and Afro-Cuban rumba are just a few more of the many rhythms that influence the music.

Although it’s important to recognize the vast cultural influences that contribute to salsa music, dwelling on such details can prevent us from experiencing the poetics of the music. As musicologist Isabelle Leymarie wrote in Cuban Fire, “What matters most for musicians, dancers, and listeners is inspiration, heart, feeling. And, ¡gozar!”… meaning “to enjoy oneself,” a universal call in Latin music.


Leymarie, Isabelle, Cuban Fire: The Story of the Salsa and Latin Jazz, Continuum, 2002.

Washburne, Christopher, Sounding Salsa: Performing Latin Music in New York City, Temple University Press, 2008.

Latin Music USA http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/latinmusicusa/#/en/res/web

El Gran Combo!

El Gran Combo Group Picture

I’ve been fortunate enough to listen to this salsa group in person this July 3rd, 2006. They held a free concert on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, PA!

See a little bit of El Gran Combo here.

Featured Artists

Celia Cruz – Queen of Salsa!

Celia Cruz

View more about Celia Cruz

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