By: Sheyla Paz - Cuba Travel Expert Cuban music can be heard almost at every corner of Old Havana, even at it’s beautiful beaches you’ll see a small group playing traditional music.
Cuban music is diverse, intricate and syncopated. When Tito Puentes, Tito Rodriguez and others heard the rhythms the makes Cuban music, they had no idea what to call it. But we do have different rhythms typical of Cuba such as Bolero, Rumba, Cha-Cha-Cha, Mambo, Danzón, Contradanza, Guaracha, Guaguancó, Mozambique, Montuno and Son. The mixture of all these rhythms became the new rhythm called Salsa. Salsa music has become a very popular dance music that initially arose in New York City during the 1960s. Latin jazz, which was also developed in New York City, has had a significant influence on salsa arrangers, piano guajeos, and instrumental soloists. Salsa emerged from New York City in the mid-1970s, then spread throughout Latin America and the Western Hemisphere. However, the music had already been going strong in the city for several decades prior to the use of the label salsa. New York had been a center of Cuban-style dance music since the 1940s, when landmark innovations by Machito's Afro-Cubans helped usher in the mambo era. Tito Puente worked for a time in the Afro-Cubans before starting up his own successful band. By the early 1950s, there were three very popular mambo big bands in New York: Machito and his Afro-Cubans, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodríguez.
Salsa is primarily Cuban son, itself a fusion of Spanish canción and guitar and Afro-Cuban percussion, merged with North American music styles such as jazz. Salsa also occasionally incorporates elements of rock, R&B, and funk. All of these non-Cuban elements are grafted onto the basic Cuban son montuno template when performed within the context of salsa. I remember those days when I used to perform with my band in Havana. We performed a set of 35 minutes playing a song from each genre. It was fun and the tourists watching the show enjoyed the music very much.
Salsa means 'sauce' in the Spanish language, and carries connotations of the spiciness common in Latin and Caribbean cuisine. In the 20th century, salsa acquired a musical meaning in both English and Spanish. In this sense salsa has been described as a word with "vivid associations". Cubans and Puerto Ricans in New York have used the term analogously to swing or soul music. In this usage salsa connotes a frenzied, "hot" and wild musical experience that draws upon or reflects elements of Latin culture, regardless of the style.
Now, let’s talk about the instruments that make all these different rhythms: clave, bongos, timbales, trumpets, piano, bass, guitar, congas, drums, trombone, flute, güiro, maracas, tres, chekeré and saxophone. Each rhythm has a different set of instruments.
Son Conjunto Salsa ensembles are typically based on one of two different Cuban instrument formats, either the horn-based son conjunto or the string-based charanga. Some bands are expanded to the size of a mambo big band, but they can be thought of as an enlarged conjunto. The traditional conjunto format consists of congas, bongos, bass, piano, tres, a horn section, and the smaller hand-held percussion instruments: claves, güiro, or maracas, played by the singers. The Cuban horn section traditionally consists of trumpets, but trombones are frequently used in salsa. The section can also use a combination of different horns. Most salsa bands are based on the conjunto model, but the tres is almost never used.
String charanga The traditional charanga format consists of congas, timbales, bass, piano, flute, and a string section of violins, viola, and cello. The claves and güiro are played by the singers. Bongos are not typically used in charanga bands.
Percussion New York based Machito's Afro-Cubans was the first band to make the triumvirate of congas, bongo, and timbales the standard battery of percussion in Cuban-based dance music. The three drums are used together in most salsa bands and function in ways similar to a traditional folkloric drum ensemble. The timbales play the bell pattern, the congas play the supportive drum part, and the bongos improvise, simulating a lead drum. The improvised variations of the bongos are executed within the context of a repetitive marcha, known as the martillo ('hammer'), and do not constitute a solo. The bongos play primarily during the verses and the piano solos. When the song transitions into the montuno section, the bongo player picks up a large hand held cowbell called the bongo bell. Often the bongocero plays the bell more during a piece, than the actual bongos. The interlocking counterpoint of the timbale bell and bongo bell provides a propelling force during the montuno. The maracas and güiro sound a steady flow of regular pulses (subdivisions) and are ordinarily clave-neutral.
Music structure Verse and chorus sections Most salsa compositions follow the basic son montuno model of a verse section, followed by a coro-pregón (call-and-response) chorus section known as the montuno. The verse section can be short, or expanded to feature the lead vocalist and/or carefully crafted melodies with clever rhythmic devices. Once the montuno section begins, it usually continues until the end of the song. The tempo may gradually increase during the montuno in order to build excitement. The montuno section can be divided into various sub-sections sometimes referred to as mambo, diablo, moña, and especial.
Clave (Pair of claves) The most fundamental rhythmic element in salsa music is a pattern and concept known as clave. Clave is a Spanish word meaning 'code,' 'key,' as in key to a mystery or puzzle, or 'keystone,' the wedge-shaped stone in the center of an arch that ties the other stones together. Clave is also the name of the patterns played on claves; two hardwood sticks used in Afro-Cuban music ensembles. The five-stroke clave represents the structural core of many Afro-Cuban rhythms, both popular and folkloric. Just as a keystone holds an arch in place, the clave pattern holds the rhythm together. The clave patterns originated in sub-Saharan African music traditions, where they serve the same function as they do in salsa. The two most common five-stroke African bell parts, which are also the two main clave patterns used in Afro-Cuban music, are known to salsa musicians as son clave and rumba clave. Son and rumba clave can be played in either a triple-pulse (12/8 or 6/8) or duple-pulse (4/4, 2/4 or 2/2) structure. Salsa uses duple-pulse son clave almost exclusively. The contemporary Cuban practice is to write clave in a single measure of 4/4.
Percussion and clave alignment Since a chord progression can begin on either side of clave, percussionists have to be able to initiate their parts in either half (a single measure in 2/2 or 2/4). The timbale bell comes from a stick pattern (cáscara) used in the Afro-Cuban folkloric rhythm guaguancó. Cuban music is very unique and diverse. You can read more about it in wikipedia. For now, you have enough here to get your rhythm going and start practicing some dancing for your Cuba tour.