A Gringo’s Guide to Salsa

Alternate Title: Salsa Para Los Que Saben

When I lived in Arequipa I fell in love with Peruvian cumbia. When I moved to Bogota I started listening to salsa. This post isn’t about dancing salsa, but appreciating the music. Dig it before dancing it. Use these videos as a playlist until you’re ready to go out on your own.

“Shingaling” by Jean-Claude Ames and Vincent Thomas

This salsa-techno remix by a European duo was our group’s theme song when I visited Girardot. The techno parts annoyed me but actually helped me appreciate the horns and how the sounds differ from cumbia. This track is a primer for the gringo ear. (Song starts at 17 seconds).

“Sandra” by Angel Canales

Angel Canales sings this one in English so it’s easy to get stuck in your head. Pay attention to the freestyle format. Gringo music, even rap, has a strict structure. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, end – something like that. Salsa songs change choruses as the song goes on, and the orchestra jams out how they want.

Canales is one of my favorites. You won’t hear “Sandra” in a bar, but you will hear Nostalgia.

“Las tumbas” by Ismael Rivera

Ismael Rivera gives us this starter for once you appreciate the horns, getting used to the faster beat. We’re not dancing yet, but imagine the faster steps than your gringo dance music, and the twist of the hips. If you don’t feel this sound then you have no soul and might as well stop reading. Go watch American Idol.

“Ahora me da pena” by Henry Fiol

Many people don’t know that while being Puerto Rican or Cuban in origin, salsa was mostly cultivated in New York, where Henry Fiol was born and raised. His singing is easy to understand for English speakers. Fiol would be a Nuyorican (Puerto Rican born in the US), as opposed to a Boricua (born in Puerto Rico). “Ahora me da pena” is about social injustices in New York, and the video features bad-ass footage of old-school NYC.

Like Fiol? Check out Oriente.

“Juanito Alimaña” by Hector Lavoe

Hector Lavoe AKA “La Voz” had the best voice in the history of salsa – quite an accomplishment given many salsa singers are black. Lavoe was the subject of biopic El Cantante, starring Marc Anthony as Lavoe and Jennifer Lopez as girlfriend Nilda Perez. “Juanito Alimaña” is about a young thug’s life.

Lavoe may be the biggest salsero of all time so too many exitos to list here. An underrated one for me is Trucutu, and one of the first songs my boy danced to was La Murga.

“Lamento de un guajiro” by Ismael Miranda

Hector Lavoe had the best voice, but Ismael Miranda was the “Pretty Boy of Salsa.” This song has a bad-ass flute.

If you like Miranda, listen to No me llores.

“Yamulemao” by Joe Arroyo

Colombia has contributed some kick-ass salsa. The city of Cali considers itself the world capital of salsa. It hosts an annual salsa fair and even innovated its own Caleño style of salsa dancing. However, the best Colombian salsero, Joe Arroyo, is from Cartagena. “Rebelión” is his most famous song but it’s played the fuck out so I’m sharing with you another favorite, “Yamulemao”. Arroyo is a hardcore drug user and I imagine he was mad out of his head for this live performance.

It’s played out to me, but listen to Rebelión if you haven’t heard it. It’s about a slave standing up to his Spanish master for hitting his girl.

“Buenaventura y Caney” by Grupo Niche

Also wildly popular from Colombia is Grupo Niche. ‘Niche’ is Colombian slang for a black guy – like ‘brother’ in American slang. This song’s about the Pacific port town of Buenaventura, which is 85% black and that is who dominates salsa for the last few decades.

“El Preso” by Fruko y sus Tesos

Another Colombian hit, this one is the anthem for convicts. My father-in-law said this song would be played all day long on Day of the Prisoner during his time as a prison guard. An interesting kind of pseudo-holiday, one which even he and the cops would sympathize with the people they locked up.

“Ya no queda nada” by Angeles ft. Jimmy Saa y Junior Jein

Everything I’ve given you so far is classic salsa. I haven’t delved into new-school salsa because most of it sucks. But this was a good one from the last 10 years, which is brand-spanking new on salsa standards.

“Yo no sé mañana” by Luis Enrique

While new-school salsa sucks mostly because it’s “romantic salsa,” which is never cool. Except this song. Long-time readers know I’m a sucker for ballads. Luis Enrique is a Nicaraguan singer who’s won two Latin Grammys.

Going Further

Well, if you’ve made it this far then you have potential. Watch the documentary above for the genre’s historical context. A more obscure one is Politics of Rhythm, which focuses more on the current state of salsa. It will be hard to find but watch the trailer on YouTube.

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6 comments

  1. I got to catch groupo niche at the colombian independence day festival in miami – and between the music, the aguardiente, the food and the ladies from barranquilla/medellin/cali dancing…such a great time. good post colin

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  2. That was a fun little ride, great post Profesor de Salsa, lots of good stuff for this gringo to get into, Gracias. I am also a sucker for that Luis Enrique song.

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  3. b.ortiz – It’s a testament to the power of the US Dollar when Colombia’s hottest act, on Colombia’s bicentennial, plays a gig in Miami.

    Miami is known as the capital of Latin America. I was there overnight before coming back here and I ate at a Honduran restaurant. Probably not many of those outside Honduras.

    Matt – thanks for the props and I hope you spread the salsa gospel.

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  4. coiln- i’m going to be in medellin pretty much monthly from here to the foreseeable future, i’ll shoot you a message on facebook when i’m coming down, maybe we can meet up. peace

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  5. I always preferred Joe Arroyo over Groupo Niche. He tends to have more upbeat stuff. If I’m going to listen to Latin music I like it upbeat.

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