The first salsa musicians were found in New York City nightclubs during the period following World War II, performing for the mass of Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants who arrived in that area at the time.
These musicians combined elements of the Cuban Son with the styles such as the rumba, mambo, African roots music, Puerto Rican music, and jazz, to create a unique Latin American art form.
While the salsa bands originally played traditional salsa exclusively for the benefit of the dancers, they are now featured at concerts in which they combine elements of rock, pop, and rhythm and blues as well as mixing in other styles like meringue, cumbia, Latin jazz, and the plena.
The Perfect Metaphor
Some of the most famous salsa musicians include the percussionist Tito Puente, pianist Eddie Palmieri, trombonist Willie Colon and many others like Perez Prado, Tito Rodriquez, Ray Barretto, Arsenio Rodriquez, and Machito.
The term salsa, which means sauce in English, is a perfect metaphor for these musicians who come from a variety of nations and ethnic backgrounds.
The music of these musicians who became famous in 1960’s New York, spread and soon became popular in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, the Dominica Republic, Venezuela, and Mexico.
Salsa musicians generally follow a song structure derived from the Cuban Son which starts with a simplistic melody that always goes to a solo section called a coro.
They improvise frequently throughout a song and utilize techniques like syncopation and call and response.
The Lifeblood of Salsa
Percussion is the lifeblood of salsa, and therefore a typical band has one or more musicians playing instruments like the timbales, congas, bongos, claves, maracas, vibraphone, marimba, and the cowbells.
These percussionists provide multiple poly rhythms derived from the music of Africa and the Cuban son, to give salsa its unique rhythm, perfect for dancing.
The other musicians in a band play instruments such as the piano, accordion, violin, bass, electric guitar, flute, trombone, saxophone, and trumpet.
Soneros and Soneras
Singers at the forefront of a salsa band are not the norm as salsa music is generally played primarily for the dancers, not an audience.
However, many salsa singers have made a name for themselves including Celia Cruz, Ruben Blades, Hector LaVoe, and more recently Jose Alberto, Gilberto Santa Rosa, and Marc Anthony.
Male salsa singers are often referred to as soneros and female singers as soneras.
While Elvis may be the king of Rock and Roll, there is only one musician referred to as “El Rey del Timbale”, “The King of Mambo”, and “The Sultan of Salsa”. These are all the deserving nicknames of the legendary percussionist, bandleader, and composer, Tito Puente.
Buena Vista Social Club
The recording of the album Buena Vista Social Club was an unexpected commercial and Grammy winning success. It became the best-selling release of Cooder's long career.
Africando is a unique musical group featuring West African singers joined by New York based salsa musicians. Together they formed this popular Afro Cuban band.
Africando became a worldwide phenomenon by drawing on the popularity of salsa music in Western Africa as well as its popularity in Latin countries.
Gilberto Santa Rosa
Gilberto Santa Rosa also known as "The Gentleman of Salsa”, is a renowned salsa singer. He is famous for his versatility with both the tropical and romantica style.
Eddie Palmieri is a Puerto Rican pianist and bandleader who is known for his unique blending of traditional Latin music with jazz and funk rhythms.
He has over fifty years of experience in music including multiple tours around the world and nine Grammy Awards.
La India is a Latin singer of intensely emotional songs. She is also knows as “The Princess of Salsa”.
She is a multiple Grammy Award nominee and Billboard chart topper known as much for her outward beauty as her beautiful salsa voice.
Jerry Rivera comes from a very talented family. He successfully crossed over to the American charts in 2006 when Wyclef Jean and Shakira sampled his song “Amores Como El Nuestro” in the chart topper “Hips Don’t Lie”.
Oscar de Leon
To each performance, he brings a mix of his rich tenor voice, the nasally singing of the Cuban son, and a charismatic stage presence which often includes frantic dancing while playing his upright bass.
After winning the Major Bowes Amateur Hour Contest at the age of 12 Terry Gibbs began his career. After many years, hundreds of compositions and 65 albums in his name, Gibbs is still going strong.
Ray Barretto is a Latin Jazz conga player and bandleader of Puerto Rican descent who is known as “The King of the Hard Hands”. He is a Grammy Award winner and thought to be largely responsible for the birth of Latin Jazz.