3 deep-diving questions that salsa music often brings up, with example songs!
Welcome to the world of salsa music! Each portion in this blog post would be worthy of its own lecture, and the purpose is just to highlight the key themes behind each question.
WHAT SHOULD WE CALL IT?
Any dance enthusiast has certainly come across at least two terms for the music, salsa and timba, and is sure to be wondering why they are sometimes used even to describe the same songs! Why is this? Isn’t a waltz a waltz and a bolero a bolero? Salsa was born in New York in the 60’s and timba in Cuba in the 90’s, but the line between them is ambiguous at best!
The depths and more detailed history of this subject can only be reached with a few complete lectures, but in a nutshell: the world of Cuban popular dance music consists of several overlapping genres of music, with very similar structural parts and basic functions. Although salsa was born in the United States before spreading to Latin America, its Cuban roots make it work the same way. Because of this overlap, playing around between different genres and combining them in different ways is easy, natural, and produces the most amazing and diverse results!
Stereotypical salsa, son, timba, reggaeton, changüí, rumba etc. songs can be found, but a large part of the songs of Cuban popular dance music fall somewhere in the lovely middle ground!
For this reason, the term “Música popular bailable Cubana” is often used in academic literature, and “Cuban popular dance music”. It contains all possible combinations and variations of different rhythms and grooves, but still perfectly describes the musical basis of the end result and the social purpose of the music. However, salsa and timba terms work well in everyday conversations, and usually all parties are able to understand each other.
This example song combines, among other things, changüí rhythms on the bongos and the tres guitar, reggaeton vibes on the synth riff and the rap vocals, and songo rhythms on the drum set and the conga drums. Música popular bailable Cubana indeed describes this song better than any single genre title, even if it could be commonly called timba or Cuban salsa.
Example song: Elito Revé ft. Yomil y El Dany – El Corrientazo
HOW ARE SONGS STRUCTURED?
The structure of Western popular music is most likely familiar to the reader of this blog post, at least on an intuitive level. The stereotypical structure of a rock song could go as follows:
Intro | 1. Verse | Chorus | 2. Verse | Chorus | Interlude | Chorus | Outro |
Cuban popular dance music, on the other hand, works in a very different way! Traditionally, songs can be divided into two parts: the story section (cuerpo) and the chorus section (montuno). The story section is often calmer in energy and the latter is more energetic, and as the song progresses to the actual chorus section, there is no going back to new verses. Instead, the montuno lasts throughout the final piece and is usually modified with different sections. This classic structure is, of course, subject to constant change and play by composers, and a large portion of today’s songs break the mold at least in parts, even if the big arc remains the same.
In the following example the story section follows a traditional Western popular music verse / chorus / verse format, but the actual montuno begins at 2:11. The montuno lasts for the remaining four minutes, and there are modifications happening at a constant rate!
Example song: Havana D’Primera – Que Sorpresa
HELP! WHERE IS THE RHYTHM, HOW DO I FIND THE “ONE”?
Uncertainty with the rhythm of salsa/timba music is definitely a familiar feeling to everyone! In timba music in particular, the search for the famous “one” in the music can sometimes be a chore.
There are two reasons for this, both of which are built into Cuban popular dance music:
- Bajo anticipado
Bajo anticipado , or “anticipated bass,” means in practice that the most important moment in music is not the “one” but “four” or “eight” instead. Anyone who grew up around Western popular music is usually accustomed to the emphasis on “one” in music, and this new kind of groove can initially be hard to grasp! Although the name comes from the bass instrument, other instruments usually join in on this same groove, or at least play around it.
Polyrhythm, on the other hand, means that the rhythms of different instruments overlap and pass each other, and thereby create something larger than their parts. As a practical example, a cornerstone in the development of timba music was filling the musical “space”. It sought to create a rhythmic “carpet” where the different instruments fill in the “gaps” left by each other. On a larger scale, this tradition comes from very much further in history, of course.
If you’re not used to this kind of groove or polyrhythms in general, it may seem complicated, hectic, or even confusing at first. However, becoming aware of this difference is the first step in overcoming any rhythmic obstacles, and sooner or later you will find yourself in sync with the details and grooves in the music!
In the last example song there is a lot of stuff happening! As a listening exercise, put on your headphones and relax listening to the different instruments and their relations to each other. For example, how do the piano and guitar support each other’s rhythms and how do they relate to the rhythm section and the vocals? And what happens during the “fours” in this song?
Example song: Alain Perez – El tic tac de la Habana
There was a lot of stuff here, and don’t worry if some things are still unclear or even made your head spin a little! Special lectures aimed at dancers will probably help you along the way even more, and provide a lot of interesting information not suitable for a blog format. After getting to know Cuban music a little better, maybe check our what Johanna wrote about the relationships between expression and impression in dancing!
With MPBC playing on my headphones,