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Legend has it that Tito Puente, upon seeing firsthand how vocalists came to dominate the identity of the bands they fronted, vowed not to let it happen to him when he had his own band. True to his word, Puente's band and music did not come to be centred on any vocalist - a testament to his skill as musician and bandleader. His independence from a regular lead vocalist is more the exception than the rule; and he did eventually relent a short time later.

The human voice is the most articulate and expressive of all instruments; communicating the entire spectrum of human emotions deliberately or inadvertently. It is the instrument we most intimately familiar with. So it's not surprising that vocalists, especially good ones, are important, as the voice is the most effective means of communicating the message of a song.

Although coverage of the general skill of singing is well beyond the scope of this section, I can advise that you do four things:

  • Gain access to a singing instructor or coach, who would first and foremost provide the all-important "external ears" for your endeavour.
  • Develop your own skills and technique base, using some of the excellent material already out there. I recommend Jeffrey Allen's "Secrets of Singing". Record yourself as necessary so that you can evaluate yourself critically.
  • Develop your ability to troubleshoot and manage your "off" days to achieve greater consistency. Richard Alderson's "Complete Handbook of Voice Training" is a good place to start.
  • Be kind to yourself. The voice is an instrument like any other. No-one I've met so far was born knowing how to play the saxophone, so is it reasonable to expect everyone to be able to sing well without at least some form of instruction?

What to play
The first step is to provide a context; and for this you'll need a song and its lyrics. Albums often have their lyrics in the liner notes, otherwise there might be royalty free versions available on the net. Sing along to your favourite songs to start getting a grasp of salsa phrasing.

The next logical step is for you to be able to sing the song independently of the original vocal. For that, you'd probably need some form of musical accompaniment, provided by fellow musicians or yourself. If printed music is available then great. Otherwise you'll have to figure out the key, chords, and rhythms as well.

The most important skill for a salsa singer is the ability to phrase the vocals to clave. For this, you should try singing to the clave plus conga tracks, then the clave only tracks which can be found in the Salsa: Ear Training Index of Tracks webpage. You would do well to cover the tutorials on the basic conga pattern and the clave.

Listen to the original song again and clapping clave, note how the singer accents and phrases the vocal to it. Work out how you yourself would phrase to clave.

Doing all of these things will stand you in good stead for your on-going development as a salsa vocalist.

Recommended Resources

Secrets of Singing by Jeffrey Allen. Available for male and female voices. A meticulously well-planned instructional course that will take your voice to the next level. Complete with well integrated exercises and practice CDs. (Available from

Complete Handbook of Voice Training by Richard Alderson. A little dated perhaps in terms of writing style, and can be sometimes dry, but those are negligible faults in the face of the wealth of knowledge and solid approach to singing that is contained therein. (Available from

Singing Salsa / Cantando Salsa, Techniques, Traditions and Applications by Willie Torres. Currently the only instructional DVD in existence which deals with singing salsa. Although it is valuable as such, don't let your enthusiasm run away with you. Caught between teaching singing as a general skill, and the more specific demands of the genre, Mr.Torres ends up doing barely enough of both. (External link)

Salsa: Ear Training by Loo Yeo. (Link to section)

Printed music can be found under the Instructional > Charts & Songbooks category of (External link)


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society