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The U.S. and Canada (Salsa and Salsa Dancing)

And now...¡bailamos!    

Mis amigos, we are going to dance. Salsa is a transcendent musical genre that owes much to Cuban, Puerto Rican and other Latin music genres, but essentially developed in the 1970s in New York City. "Salsa music" actually began as a marketing concept by a record company that wanted to sell a lot records by creating a pan-Latin cultural movement. It eventually became a real pan-Latin cultural movement that just happened to sell a lot of records. What could be more American than that?   

Salsa first appeared as a distinct genre in the late 1960s and '70s when New York City-based Fania Records, which  specialized in “Latin music,” promoted its artists throughout Latin America as the bearers of a border-busting, pan-Latin, multi-ethnic sound. Salsa relied heavily on Cuban rhythms and instruments common in Cuban music, such as horns (trumpets, trombones) and hand drums like bongos, congas and timbales. It blended forms from around the region, such as Puerto Rican plena and bomba, and washed the whole invention in American jazz.   

At first many of the top Latin artists scoffed at the term--Tito Puente famously said, "The only salsa I know is sold in a bottle called ketchup. I play Cuban music"--but over time this marketing term morphed into an expansive yet actual cultural/musical movement. Did Fania take music that originated in many countries around the Spanish-speaking world, jumble it into a unified "Latin" musical form and try to market it internationally? All sign points to Yes. In doing so, did it ultimately manufacture a genre about which musicians such as trumpeter Willie Colón could make statements like, "Salsa was the force that united diverse Latino and other non-Latino racial and ethnic groups," and generally be telling the truth? Fania did that too. 

In class we sing:

We sing "We Are Happy," a hello song from Uganda, to open every All Around This World class. This week we sing hello as one may have (very informally) said hi in the New York Puerto Rican community in the '70s --  "¡Hola Mami"  "¡Hola Papi!"

Bailala” is a super-singable “plena” from Puerto Rico imploring us to dance – “I love to dance the plena, bailala!”(More.)  

Ma Teodora” is, legendarily, the first “son” song from Cuba, about a girl who goes out to collect firewood. (More.)  

"Rule Sonda” is a boisterous “bomba” from Puerto Rico in which dancers lead the drummers, not the other way. (More.)  

"Los Pollitos" is a children's song sung all over Latin America that tells the tale of a very nice mama chicken and her sleepy little chicks. (More.)


Salsa bands are exuberant, multi-instrumental ensembles, with blazing horns and an ebullient rhythm section. While we are generally familiar with the trumpets, trombones and saxophones that make up the salsa band's squad of horns, we should meet a few of the percussion instruments that make the music sizzle:

Are bongos "the most Cuban instrument?" That's what SalsaBlanca,com argues, and who's to say they're not right? The bongos, two small drums attached to one another that a percussionist can use to provide rhythmic accompaniment to most any Cuban music, originated in Cuba and became a staple drum for several Cuban genres, including son. Watch the bongos in action in Cuba, and see how they fit into Havana son.

For an instrument that's essentially just two sticks made of wood meant to be clicked together, the claves have had an disproportionate influence on the trajectory of global music. The claves have a distinct sound that can cut through almost any percussion ensemble, keeping everyone true to the clave/"key" rhythm. "Claves Afrocubanas.

A CONGA is an African-descended drum that is a staple of most Afro-Cuban percussion ensembles. Sets of congas usually come in threes: the quinto drum, which has the highest pitch, the segundo which is in the middle and the tumbadora, which is the lowest. [A bit about the congas and how to play them | Conga Masters Second Round!]

The guiro is a hollowed gourd with parallel notches cut in one side that make a sharp sound when scraped with a stick. The guiro may have originated in the Dominican Republic, but you'll also find a Cuban guiro, a Mexican guiro, a Puerto Rican guiro and even a Thai guiro shaped like a toad.

Timbales come in sets of two shallow, high-pitched drums, to which a percussionist often attaches other instruments like cymbals, cowbells and claves. Timbales appear in Latin musical genres from salsa to mambo to reggaeton. Sometimes a percussionist hits the top of the timbales, other time s/he keeps time hitting the sides. [Poncho Sanchez teaches us little bit about the timbales | Watch Tito Puente in the studio recording a timbale solo for "El Sabroso Son"]    


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