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Salsa: The Music
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Salsa: The Music
(from “Teaching & Salsa” by Loo Yeo)

Note: The ensuing discourse contains numbers in square brackets that cross-referenced with musical examples found in the musicography. The author accepts that many concepts have been greatly simplified in the interest of clarity. For more detail, please consult resources listed elsewhere in this site.

What is salsa music? That is a matter of opinion, musicologists included. You could apply salsa footwork to a number of songs with common (4/4) time of the proper tempo. Some would argue that you would be dancing salsa, others would not. Should you really care if you were all having fun?

What is regarded as salsa music would seem to satisfy loosely, a number of criteria. Salsa is played in common time, that is four beats in every bar. The music is played in two bar phrases, thereby forming an eight-count.

Music Graph

Bass Rhythm
An eight-count is usually played on a tall narrow drum called the conga. In the diagram a chachachá rhythm, played by a number of percussion and bass instruments (including the conga) is used as an example [1]. The chachachá rhythm is quite common, but is by no means the only one. The first beats of every bar, numbers 1 & 5 of the eight-count, are louder as represented by the larger dots. Occasionally beats 1 & 5 can be differentiated from each other as well. The second beat of every bar, numbers 2 & 6, usually bears an accent caused by striking the conga skin sharply. The fourth beat, numbers 4 & 8, is a clear “double tap” (two syncopated beats) played on a different conga resulting in a different tone, as represented two dots off the line. The double tap is part of the signature rhythm of the chachachá that lends the rhythm its name.


Another give-away is the speed at which the music is played. The chachachá is sometimes described as mid-tempo music whereas songs that fall under the up-tempo category would be considered salsa. That’s like asking how long a piece of string is. There is no sharp dividing point between them. Suffice to say that the faster the track, the more likely it is to be salsa.


As yet the most robust criterion for defining a piece of music as salsa music is that it should obey the clave. The clave is a rhythm that is played by striking one wooden stick against another. The sticks are called clave too. The clave (rhythm) comes in two flavours: 2-3 and 3-2. The 2-3 clave has two beats in the first bar of the phrase, and three beats in the second bar: beats 2, 3, 5, &, 8 (where & is equidistant between beats 6 and 7) [2]. The 3-2 clave is the converse [3].

Musicians and singers alike should obey the clave, playing notes or stressing syllables to highlight most or all of the clave beats. They should do this even if no clave rhythm actually being played, performing to an imaginary beat. Songs used to be of only one clave flavour; with musicians and singers tending to get a bit upset if a song changed clave intentionally or if cued in incorrectly by the band leader. This is no longer the case. Songs containing changes in clave are becoming increasingly common and musicians are becoming more adept at playing them [4]. The changing clave lends to the dynamism of the song, but renders it less accessible to the novice dancer.


Percussion layers
The beats of the eight count are usually determined by a number of percussionists playing in together using smaller instruments. This includes non-percussion instruments assuming a percussive role; a percussion instrument like the conga can skip beats, with other instruments filling in the gaps. The non-percussion instruments would be playing on an imaginary beat. The cooperative role of the musicians are a reflection of the African roots of the music. Consequently, listening to the music as an entire piece instead of any one particular instrument is the most reliable way of deriving timing.

In my experience non-Latin Americans/ non-Africans tend to encounter more difficulty in “picking out the beat”. This is not because they lack the “rhythm” gene. More likely they are used to listening for an obvious beat, played on a whacking big drum, by a specialist drummer. Once they understand that there is no one beat to pick out, and to listen to layers instead, all notion of the phantom rhythm gene is exorcised (Hurrah).


Heritage and influences
One of salsa’s most recent and discernable predecessors is the Cuban Son. The son is the music of storytellers; where the troubadours would sing about anything that took their fancy: how good the harvest was, what they had for dinner that night etc. They would improvise with lyrics and voice to keep in the clave of the song. The technique of improvising, called soneo, is still evident today and is a reason why particular artists are well regarded [5].

The son played in the older-style without the brass line-up, reveals its roots more readily [6]. Smooth African rhythms roll in the bass lines, headed by lyrics sung co-operatively: lead singers backed by other singers simultaneously, or they might sing separate pieces in alternation. The phenomenon of lead and backing singers taking turns is known as call and response, and is evident in the majority of salsa music, though it is found in other music forms too, like gospel. Andalusian melodies complete the partnership. Arguably most of the Hispanic influence in Latin America came from southern Spain.

Another undeniable influence is the impact of jazz. Introduced into Latin music via the barrios (Latin neighbourhoods) of New York, jazz notes played on piano and brass are testament to the days when the big jazz bands of Machito and his peers played at the Palladium theatre in the ’50s. The African / Spanish / jazz mix is no longer localised to the first point of fusion that is New York, but has spread to Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and as far as Japan. But jazz is not the only flavour, the evolution of the species and its diversification can observed, where charanga line-ups featuring flute and violins [7] can be found alongside pop and rap [8] movements in salsa.

Trends suggest that salsa is beginning to establish an identity in its own right, instead of being considered as a generic term for songs bearing a number of Cuban rhythms. As an example, some works by Colombian artists are now sent to New York where they are “finished”. This is done by adding extra instruments and/or remixing during the final production stages, to ensure that they comply with a salsa formula.


Cousins and the accidental salsa
The cumbia and the vallenato deserve mention as cousins of salsa, and generally fit the criteria that define salsa. The former is distinguishable by its slower reggae-like rhythm (apologies for not exploring this any further), while the music of the latter is accordion-led. Indeed many people dance salsa to them, to the dismay of purists. The cumbia, a music form and a dance in its own right, has an immense following in Latin America but is often overlooked elsewhere, possibly because dance instructors don’t perceive it as being as marketable.

When applying the criteria, you might find that Latin America does not have a monopoly of salsa music production. “Accidental” salsas can be found in the halls of Nouveau Flamenco, Ambient Native American chants, Irish Folk, and African music [9].

I am of the opinion that it is the inclusion, not the exclusion, of different musical influences that has been responsible for making salsa the phenomenon it is today. And it will be the continuing inclusion of musical and cultural influences, such as those accidental salsas above, that will rejuvenate and ensure its longevity tomorrow.



1. Strong chachachá rhythm.
Slower: Mi media mitad by Rey Ruiz.
Quicker: Soñando by Erick.
2. 2-3 clave.
Played: Que mala corriente by Son 14.
Not played: Pegaso by The Latin Brothers.
3. 3-2 clave.
Played: Plaza Herrera by Rubén Blades.
Not played: Amor mío by Orquesta Pasión Juvenil.
4. Changing clave.
Cali Pachanguero by Grupo Niche.
Aïcha (Wolof version) by Africando.
5. Vocal improvising technique called soneo.
Son Matamoros by Celia Cruz.
6. Son without brass.
Chan chan by Compay Segundo.
7. Charanga: line-ups with flute and violin.
Quien sabe sabe by Orquesta Aragón.
8. Pop and rap influences.
Sueltame by Dark Latin Groove.
9. Accidental salsa.
Nouveau Flamenco: Mario Takes A Walk by Jesse Cook.
Ambient Music: Thunder Cloud Mountain by Raindance.
Irish: The Bonny Swans by Loreena McKennitt.
African: Epuguzu by Pierre Akendengue.



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©1999 Salsa & Merengue Society