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, which we’ll introduce
below. A bit about the claves and, if you follow to the next video and then the next, how to play them
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”]
SALSA is all about “THE CLAVE”
At the heart of salsa is a fundamental rhythmic building block–“the clave.” The Latin/Caribbean/Afro-Cuban “clave” is the pattern of beats that lays the foundation for many genres of Latin music, from Cuban son to Jamaican mento to salsa and beyond. But the clave is much more than a pattern–it’s a feeling, a motion, an unspoken sense. One may say the clave “originated” in Cuba due to the fact that Cuban son music was the first to feature a full manifestation of a syncopated rhythm that mixed syncopated African 6/8 beats with the Spanish 4/4 (look at All Around This World’s “Everything is a Drum rhythmic overview” if you have no idea what those numbers mean), but really the clave is a pattern that developed in Africa over hundreds if not thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years and just happened to accompany African slaves on their forced
passage to the colonized West. (MamboCity’s introduction to clave, “Clave: the African Roots of Salsa,” seems to lay out the West Africa to Cuban son [via Cuban “rumba”] history well.)
There are four basic clave patterns. Click on the links to listen. (This Rhythmweb page lays it out fairly clearly and provides the audio examples linked below.)
— the 3-2 son clave: within two 4/4 measures the 3-2 son clave has three beats in the first measure and two in the second. Try counting, putting emphasis on what’s in bold and in caps
ONE and two AND three and FOUR and,
one and TWO and THREE and four and. (Go
ahead, count it out. Don’t be afraid.)
— the 2-3 son clave: two beats in the first measure, three in the second: one and TWO and THREE and four and, ONE and two AND three and FOUR and.
— the 3-2 rumba clave: three beats in the first measure, two in the second, with a slight pause before the third beat in the first measure.
ONE and two AND three and four AND, one and TWO and THREE and four and.
— the 2-3 rumba clave: two beats in the first measure, two in the second, with a slight pause before the third beat in the second measure one and TWO and THREE and four and, ONE and two AND three and four AND.
Whether a song’s clave is 3-2 or 2-3 depends on the way that particular piece of music feels. If musicians don’t find the right rhythmic essence of a song and start off on a 2-3 clave when the song is 3-2, they risk being “out of clave,” which is, to passionate Latin musicians, a dreadful sin.
The basic clave pattern does have its roots in Africa, where the syncopated rhythm appears as “the bell pattern” (often played on the gankogui bells) that is the cornerstone of many rhythms. For example, a common West African bell pattern is very much like son clave–listen to the 1-2-3, 1-2 pattern this drummer uses to start his lesson, using a kpanlogo drum.
[A side note: What’s the difference between salsa and Latin jazz? The two are similar, but not exactly the same. The distinction is actually one more of function than of form. Basically, salsa is a kind of music developed with the express purpose of getting people to dance, selling records in the process. Salsa songs may feature short instrumental improvisations, but for the most part musicians follow a pre-planned arrangement. Latin jazz artists want to sell records too, and often their listeners get up and dance, but when playing Latin jazz,musicians leap headfirst into a part of a composition known as a “descarga,” which is an improvised section that can last from a short eight measures to a several minute full-on improvisational jam. [Read Chip Boaz’s take on “Distinguishing Between Latin Jazz and Salsa,” as well as his discussion of “The Blurry Line Between Latin Jazz and Salsa“]