A salsa orchestra usually has the same instruments as in a jazz band: baritone, tenor and alto saxophones; a trumpet section; a trombone section; piano; an electric or upright base; and the percussion part, which may contain conga drums, bongos, claves, cowbells, cascaras, cymbals and timbales.
Salsa has lit up the globe. It was always popular in areas populated by Latin American Caribbean people, such as New York City and Miami. But Latin America has embraced salsa and done it itself. Places like Venezuela, Peru, Panama, Chile, Mexico and Colombia have adapted salsa, sometimes adding extra percussion and speeding up the core rhythm, and other times the beat varies to make room for singing and soloists. Japan also has several highly regarded salsa ensembles.
You see the strongest parts of salsa music’s African influence in different types of drums that play musicians. Conga gives the music’s driving rhythm and comes in four different sizes: tumba, conga, quinto and requinto. Bongo emphasizes specific parts of the rhythm. The timbalas, which are a derivative of timpani, consist of a loud series of instruments, including the chachacha bell, the salsa bell, the wooden block and the cymbal. Other parts of the rhythm are created with shells (casacara) and crafts such as maracas, guiro, shaker, clave and chekere.
Salsa is an umbrella work for various Latin American and Cuban music forms. Cuba’s early prototype of salsa music is son, which contains a conversation and response structure between the vocalist and the choir. The Contradanza form complicates French and Spanish roots. Habanera is Havana-inspired song and dance. Danzon marks a transition to African influence, and is heavily dependent on congas. Mambo, a term that refers to a Haitian voudou priestess, marks a bridge between salsa and jazz-sized bands.
To see how salsa musicians coordinate their brass sections with the rhythmic happy percussion section, it’s best to visit the place that inspired the original shapes. Havana, Cuba has a plethora of hands spots, from the clubby Cafe Cantante Mi Habana and the big time Casa de la Musica de Centro Habana to the afternoon venue Salon Piano Bar Delirio Habanero and the outdoor Salon El Chevere. Instruments used in salsa music vary depending on the specific genre and geographical influence, but the basic salsa setting requires a brass section, piano and a rhythm section. From these elements, musicians create a singular sound that represents a fusion of African and Spanish traditions. The key to salsa instrumentation is beat, so percussion instruments are different and often numerous.