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Salsa can be a blanket term to describe the dance music that comes out of Latin America and the Caribbean, but more precisely, salsa music is a Cuban-influenced genre created in New York City in the 1960s.

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What Is Salsa Music?

Salsa is a musical style rooted in son Cubano, an Afro-Cuban music genre created by Cuban musicians of Bantu descent. The salsa genre took form in the United States, and it may feature elements from all sorts of Latin American styles. In addition to Cuban son, salsa draws from Cuban danzón, rumba, guaracha, cha-cha-chá, mambo, and son montuno, as well as cumbia to Latin jazz. Many of the early salsa players in the United States were Puerto Rican, which led it to feature elements of the plena and bomba genres popular in Puerto Rico. Other renowned salsa musicians hail from Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil, among other Latin American countries.

What Are the Origins of Salsa Music?

Salsa owes its roots to several forms of Latin music, but son Cubano is at the core of all salsa music.

  • Precursor: Son Cubano began in the Sierra Maestra of Cuba's Oriente Province, spawning from folkloric musical styles including cumbia, rhumba, changüí, nengón, kiribá, and regina. By the early 1900s, son Cubano found its way to Havana, and from there it would spread throughout the North American and South American continents.
  • Emergence: By the mid-twentieth century, prominent bandleaders, songwriters, and performers like Tito Puente, Frank Grillo (better known as Machito), Héctor Lavoe, Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barretto, and the Cuban-born Celia Cruz developed the genre that would become salsa music America's popular culture.
  • Popularity: Throughout the 1960s Pacheco's Fania Records (and the Fania All-Stars) released many of the top salsa recordings; the record label became a touchstone in the history of salsa. The style reached its zenith in the 1970s, when salsa spread from New York back to the Caribbean and Latin America.
  • Legacy: While salsa's popularity has waned with time, it has inspired various forms of pop, Latin American jazz, and hip hop. For instance, timba is a present-day Cuban musical genre that combines salsa, funk, and R&B. What's more, famous performers like Marc Anthony, Víctor Manuelle, Gloria Estefan, Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colón, and Rubén Blades have helped keep modern salsa songs playing on dance floors from Miami to New York—Anthony even played Héctor Lavoe in a biopic.
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6 Characteristics of Salsa Music

Salsa music overlaps heavily with son Cubano. Some of its defining elements include:

  1. Bell patterns: Percussionists play bell patterns on handheld claves while other instrumentalists reference the rhythm in their playing. The son clave and rumba clave rhythms are the most popular bell patterns in salsa music.
  2. Afro-Cuban rhythms: In addition to bell patterns, salsa features a wide array of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean rhythms that trace their roots to both Central and West Africa. Salsa rhythm sections include bongos, timbales, and conga drums, all of which are versions of West African instruments.
  3. Ostinato patterns known as guajeos, moñas, or montunos: The piano montuno is nearly as synonymous with salsa music as clave patterns. Moñas are guajeo ostinato melodies played by the salsa band's brass section.
  4. Bass tumbaos: This idiomatic bass pattern is based on the tresillo pattern. It is clave neutral, which means it can align equally well with a 2:3 bell pattern or a 3:2 bell pattern.
  5. Spanish-language lyrics: Vocalists known as soneros elegantly sing these lyrics. The Puerto Rican salsa genre known as salsa romantica emphasizes love and romance in its lyrics. Colombian salsa hits like "Cali Pachanguero" celebrate local culture in their lyrics.
  6. Influence from an array of Latin American styles: Styles influential on salsa include merengue, rumba, Brazilian samba and bossa nova, cubmia, and bolero.

14 Classic Salsa Instruments

Salsa ensembles are famous for their percussion instruments and large group of percussionists. The key salsa instruments are:

  1. Vocals (salsa singers are typically called soneros)
  2. Piano
  3. Guitar or tres (a Cuban musical instrument similar to guitar)
  4. Trumpet
  5. Trombone
  6. Saxophone
  7. Double bass
  8. Congas
  9. Bongos
  10. Timbales
  11. Claves
  12. Cowbell
  13. Maracas
  14. Guiro

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