Salsa Music Basics

Latin Music Roots

Salsa music’s roots stem from Cuban and Puerto Rican rhythms during the 1940’s and 50’s in the New York City area. During this time, the Latin sound was catching fire and moving into the local mainstream as immigrant musicians played to nightly crowds throughout Harlem and Manhattan. As new Latin musicians entered the music scene, many others attended the Juilliard School of Music to master their skills. The robust and collaborative environment helped to evolve the music, which eventually became what we know as “salsa” music.

The Salsa Era

The term “salsa” was popularized in the 1970’s when a record company named Fania gathered a group of superstar Latin musicians named the Fania All-Stars. The record company’s promotion of the All-Stars paid off and salsa music exploded across the world. If you only know a few artists from the epic 1970’s era, you should know: Johnny Pacheco, Celia Cruz, Ray Barretto, Willie Colón, Bobby Valentín, Eddie Palmieri, and Héctor Lavoe. There are, of course, many other salsa musicians who you will hear in every salsa club.

When you first walk into a salsa club, you might be surprised that most of the music being played spans the decades of 1950 to 1980, rather than today’s popular music. Salsa dancers tend to find a romance with the older music largely due to its originality, structure and core rhythms; auto-tuning, electronic bass and sound sampling are enough to make many dancers walk off the floor. This doesn’t mean that “salseros” don’t like today’s Latin music; rather, you will simply find that heavy bass and bouncing electronic sounds don’t fit with fluid salsa movements.

Latin Music USA

The Counts

Salsa dancing is based on eight counts. If you don’t know what that means, just count from one to eight out loud and do it at a steady, rhythmic rate: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Congratulations! You’ve just counted your first salsa step!

Let’s count the numbers at the same rhythmic rate again, but this time don’t say “four” or “eight”. Instead of saying those two numbers, say “pause”: 1, 2, 3, pause, 5, 6, 7, pause. Great.

Finally, let’s count one more time, but don’t say “pause”. Instead of saying “pause”, say nothing, but allow a gap of time as if you were saying pause.

Why do we pause on the four and eight? Because our movement will pause on the four and eight. This simple fact is critical to learning salsa, so go ahead and count 1, 2, 3, …, 5, 6, 7, … about 1000 times or more. Count while you walk; while you listen to music; while you drive; while you’re at lunch… count while you sleep.

Let the rhythm become a part of you. It sounds funny, but I’m so not joking.

Counting is absolutely, positively critical to learning to dance salsa. Yes, many people who will tell you “I don’t need to count. I just feel the music.” B.S.!!!! In time, you’ll learn that those people aren’t very good.

Every professional salsa instructor will tell you that you MUST count if you want to learn to salsa dance. Period.

Despite counting it for years, many seasoned dancers count every dance, every time, in their head.

Notice the pause during the 4 & 8.

The Clave

One of the most common rhythms in salsa music is the clave. It’s a simple rhythm that is sometimes prominent in the music and sometimes quiet.

If you train your ear to hear the clave, it will be a guide to understanding the timing of every salsa song.

This clave example is called a “three-two” clave; meaning, the first part has three beats and the second part has two beats (as opposed to a “two-three” clave). In a three-two clave, the first sound that you hear is one the 1 count. Knowing this, listen to the clave again (or several times) and try to count the salsa timing (1, 2, 3, …, 5, 6, 7, …) along with it.

Ha! Not easy, is it??? Even though we’re listening to a single instrument, it’s actually difficult to count along. Don’t be discouraged. Many long time salsa dancers struggle with the same exercise. In fact, it becomes easier to count when there are more instruments. However, training yourself to count with any number of instruments will make you that much better of a dancer. Try it a few more times.

If you’re able to count along, you’ll quickly start to hear a rhythm in your voice and feel it inside your body.

The Tumbao

The tumbao is probably the next most common rhythm in salsa music and is commonly played on the conga drums. There are many variations to the tumbao, but a basic tumbao is fairly easy to hear in the music. As you learn to dance salsa, the clave and tumbao are the two rhythms you’ll easily recognize.

The Martillo

Martillo means “hammer” in Spanish and its the primary bongo rhythm in Afro-Cuban music. The martillo can be difficult to distinguish in a song, but you’d notice if were taken away. When you listen to a song, you’ll likely hear the martillo rhythm during the moments when other instruments are silent. The martillo fills the music with life, movement, and almost constant sound.

Other Rhythms and Instruments

There are many other rhythms, variations, and instruments that make up salsa music and it’s part of what makes the music so exciting. If you ever see a live salsa band (I highly recommend it), you’ll immediately notice there are more musicians on stage than a typical pop music band.

You’ll find that a good salsa band can produce a live sound that’s as good as a studio album without the need of music samples, drum machines, pre-recorded vocals, etc. The experience is truly exciting.

Putting It All Together

Now listen to Pedro Navaja by Willie Colon & Ruben Blades. Based on the little bit of knowledge from this article, you can hear the different rhythms that make up this popular Latin song. Of course, this is only the beginning of your journey, so much of Latin music is based on these simple rhythms. Time to start dancing!