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Salsa Musicality Via Percussion

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

Brief Salsa Music History

· Salsa (music) came from a cross between jazz clubs and latin clubs in the 1930s depression in New York. Latinos came from Puerto Rico & Cuba etc, and migrated up the US coast. Jazz musicians would pop over to the clubs during their breaks just to jam, as the atmosphere was still in party mode.

· Salsa is a very hard style to play. Musicians find salsa hard. It needs attitude, energy, and an ability to play slightly off the beat (perfect timing doesn't really work for salsa).

· Many of the Latin percussion rhythms come from the land, etc. Cumbia has an updown beat, which means mountains. Caballo means horse.

· Strong bass lines indicate afro-origin styles of music. Weak bass lines indicate a traditional Latin origin. ..... more about history here >

Salsa Percussion Basics

· On-beat vs offbeat (cowbell is on off-beat). Off-beat happy, on-beat sad. Use the cowbell for spinning the lady.

· Off-beat cowbell, then filled offbeat cowbell, then timbale cowbell pattern

· Basic bongo pattern. This is played in Bachata as well as Salsa.

· Difference between 2-3 and 3-2 conga. Clave dictates pattern.

· Music is fundamentally in bars of four beats. Salsa is considered 4/4, (four equal beats per bar). But, Salsa the dance, is over eight beats... so it is always in two bars. If you listen to salsa, each phrase is over two bars or eight beats (the conga pattern, the clave, one sentence of lyrics, the melodic rifts, the bassline, etc).

· The Timbalero normally controls the band (or at least the percussion section). He will swap around instruments, including using the cowbell, side of the timbales etc. The cowbell drives the song forward and can make the whole band play faster. (As Pictured above)

· Congas, cowbell are the base percussion instruments. Bongos and timbales are important, but don't set the key. They just overlay really... they give the spice/flavour.

· Other instruments: shakers, clave (only actually played about 10% of the time). Guero.

· Different rythms: Tumbao, Rumba (guaguanco), Cumbia, Caballo, Son, Bolero. Salsa is a mix of all of these rythms.

· Three main types of conga drums: quinto, conga, tumbao

Dancing with the percussion

· Rumba and caballo are similar. I say to either do shines or rumba step.

· Slow songs are more likely to break from one to the five. Always a trap when teaching a beginners class with slow music.

· Can't think about percussion beat by beat when playing... same for dancing, even for shaking your hand.

· Watch out for one bar breaks... this stuffs up the salsa timing. Solution: listen for the break... sometimes you can hear it coming. Otherwise, count the number of bars until the next break, and you will probably find the same thing happens N bars again. Also, the lead into the break is often identical each time.

· Tip: You can get timing music from Salsa Latina

The Clave

· Most of the instruments all tie into the clave pattern, including the bass and the piano.

· Slower songs tend to have a 3/2 clave, while faster songs have a 2/3

· Rumba clave is often in the rumba section of a song.

· The foot strikes the clave three times during a full basic. Regardless of 2/3 or 3/2

· Salsa music is based around the clave (the "key"). English songs with either just an 8 beat (4/4), or an english song with a Salsa beat added just doesn't work. This works, as the 2/3 is hit all the time by the other instruments, and the breaks work in time with the percussion.

· Salsa (son) clave vs rumba clave. (slight delay/sway on third beat of 3-2)


· Finding the break: often has a lead up, and this may be the same through the rest of the song. Or... count the bars (16 or so)

· Focus on key beats in the basic when dancing... 1234, not each and every beat and step (practice listening just to the one)

· For a slow intro, dance to it... sway to it, step side to side to it, or slow side taps. Don't just stand their waiting!

· Interpretation and styling comes from within... by recognising and moving to the music, and then just letting your energy flow

· Some people recommend listening to heaps of Salsa to get the feel and understanding of it. For more left brain thinkers, break it down and understand how it works.

· For slow song, start with a sway/merengue step, then go easy until music builds up. Go back to sway on slow breaks, then maybe do rumba side step on caballo bit, then go back into main bit with matching of moves to tempo.

· Following the lead with musicality is difficult: you need to hit the breaks, do body rolls, etc, but also in time with the breaks that your partner hits. You shouldn't just do something because you hear it... particularly if your partner is half way through a move, etc.

· Good looking combos look good because they are done with musicality. Learning the move won't make you look good... dancing it with style and timing will.

· Light and shade

· Types of salsa songs include romantica, Charanga, Cuban, mambo(ish), Reggaeton, linear, pop/english,

Cha Cha

· Cha is just slow Salsa with the cowbell on all beats and no clave (normally). There are a few other differences such as the Guiro, but this is the main one to listen for.

· Cha is mambo but with a chasse in the middle.

· For slow songs, focus on the 2/3 of the 2-3 clave, emphasise these steps and ignore the others. Put body movement into it too. Makes it romantic. - Cha also known as the "Tripple Mambo"


· Mambo is just the main musical jam part... often just after the chorus, and near the end of the song. Great place to do big moves.

· Pop songs have a “mambo” section… listen for it next time you turn on the radio!

· In dancing terms, Salsa danced on two is known as Mambo. However, traditional Mambo is much different.

Dancing Salsa On2

· Dancing on2 is dancing is breaking on the up beat.

· The offbeat is more obvious in the song, so good for performing. Dancing on the two is more of a feel than a look (“the dancers’ dance”). On1 dancers dance “to the music”. On2 dancers dance “with the percussion”.

· Listen to the conga slap. The slap will hit on all bars

· Conga bits to listen for... slap on two, double hit on 4, 4and.

Learning to dance Salsa isn't easy, we recommend learning in dance classes that teach the musical side and usually Salsa On1 to On2 classes or conversion classes cover this side of the music. Look out for these classes on our newsletters.

This Document was orginally written by Cark Cook 2009 re-edited by Reuben 2018

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