By Michael Akinde
Making a top-anything list of salsa music or musicians is a difficult task; the problem being that not only is there so much salsa music out there, but there is also so much great salsa music out there. However, there is also a lot of truly awful salsa music out there (at least from the point of view of dancing), and as a result of this, the non-spanish speaking salsero or salsera may often find that buying salsa music is like going on a jungle expedition. Since the question of “What music should I buy?” is so frequent, here is a short Salsa Music Survival Guide.
In general, salsa compilations of the past have tended to be of very poor quality. Of the CD’s produced pre-2000, you’ll often be lucky to find more than one or two decent songs on such CD’s, making it better to buy a non-compilation CD. No rule without an exception however, and the exception is “Salsa Fresca - Salsa Hits of the 90s” (Rhino - Sony Music Special Products) is the exception. If you’re only ever going to buy 1 Salsa CD, this is the one you should try to get, containing as it does 15 salsa tunes, each and every one of them eminently danceable. The first 5 numbers on this CD are pure classics. Two other compilations that are worth getting (and which can be found quite easily) are “More I Love Salsa” and “I Love Salsa” (Mantaceca) which between them contain some great Salsa tunes (note that the second CD contains a good deal of alternate latin music). For an excellent Timba compilation, search out “Salsa Timba” (Mantaceca).
If you wish to venture into the world of Salsa compilations, the “Salsa en La Calle Ocho…” and “Salsahits…” series (issued yearly) are more recent series that hold to a fair standard.
If you are more adventurous, however, read on.
No discussion of Salsa can be considered complete, without mentioning the (now deceased) King and Queen of Salsa.
The “Queen of Salsa”, Celia Cruz is without a doubt the most prolific female performer in the Salsa world, with more than 70 album recordings beginning back in the 1950s to her death in 2003. While there are, obviously, a good deal to choose from, “Mi Vida es Cantar” (RMM) is the best of her recent albums. The album “Irrepetible” (RMM) is also very good.
“El Rey del Mambo” (the King of Mambo), Tito Puente, has thrilled the music world since the 1950s , resulting in 128 album recordings prior to his death in 2000. “El numero cien” (RMM), containing as it does a parade of Salsa stars for the celebration of his 100th album, remains one of his best CDs. “Mambo Birdcage” (RMM) can also be recommended, though it contains less straight-out Salsa. His last album, “Obra Maestra (Masterpiece)” (RMM), a collaboration with Eddie Palmieri that was released posthumously is classic salsa of the very finest vintage.
The Cuban Connection
Salsa has its roots in Cuba, and not surprisingly, some of the very best Salsa music - as well as the “Timba” music-movement (a salsa-like music form often played at salsa parties) come from the island. Probably the best-known band is…
Los Van Van
Los Van Van are a Cuban salsa legend, and the band has been playing now for more than 30 years. One of their best recordings is their 1999 album “Llego…Van Van – Van Van is here” (Havana Caliente); an album that should be in any salsa-lover’s collection. There also exist many compilations of their greatest hits though - as is to be expected when trying to compile songs from a 30-year band history - the quality of the compilations is highly variable.
Among other Cuban musicians worth looking for are Maraca, Charanga Habanera (and the many sub-groups of that band), Manolito y su Trabaco, and Paolito FG y su Elite that all provide excellent, danceable music.
Salsa Swing - the Colombian influence
Grupo Gale is one of the best Colombian groups writing and performing original music. Their absolutely best CD is “Internacional” (Codiscos), also sometimes sold under the title of “En su sitio”. Unfortunately, they can be very hard to get hold of.
Sonora Carruseles is another very popular Colombian group. They have much the same sound as Grupo Gale, which is not surprising since most of the musicians in the two groups are the same. Sonora Carruseles trade-mark is taking old Latino classics (often Cumbia) and turning them into fast, danceable salsa tunes. The most recommended CD is “Heavy Salsa” (Discos Fuentes).
Fruko y sus tesos
Fruko and his boys rank among the best Colombian Salsa bands, and are a guarantee for hardcore, Swing-inspired Salsa music of the best quality. Their recent recording “Power Salsa” (Discos Fuentes) is a great CD, including a new version of their Salsa hit “El Preso”.
Salsa Reggae and R’n'B
DLG (Dark Latin Groove) took the salsa world by storm when they first arrived, with their innovative mixture of hip-hop, R&B, and latin rhythm. Their third (and final) CD, “Gotcha” (Sony), is the best to get hold of, but all three are worth getting. “Greatest Hits” (Sony) is a good compilation from all three CD’s.
“Yo si me enamore” (Sony) is the solo debut of the lead singer from DLG. The CD has more of an R&B style than the old DLG songs, but it still contains some phenomenal salsa dance tunes. This is excellent New York Urban style Salsa with a touch of Samba and Bolero.
Salsa Romantica - the Crooners
In the more “romantic” corner of salsa, we find the crooners such as Victor Manuelle whose Greatest hits compilation “Exitos de Victor Manuelle” (Sony) is an excellent introduction, as well as Gilberto Santa Rosa. The albums tend to be typified by slower paced songs (at least initially), but always contain some snappy tunes worth dancing to.
Some of the others
Among the other musicians to keep an eye out for:
Africando represents the meeting of African musicians with Cuban and Puerto Rican music. Over the year’s, this has resulted in some unforgettable tunes and dance floor hits. Probably their best album is “Baloba!” (Stern’s Africa) containing the singles “Aiicha” and “La vie en Rose”, both of whom must rank among the all-time classic Salsa tunes.
Puerto Rican Power
Puerto Rico ranks alongside Cuba as the home of Salsa, and Puerto Rican Power ranks among the best of the country’s salsa bands. Apart from superior dance music, the Salsa band is probably most noted for the way its CD covers spoofs Will Smith movies; both “Wild, Wild Salsa” and “Men in Salsa” (Sony) are good records.
The list of fabulous salsa artists could continue for pages, could go on, but must necessarily reach an end. Among the many prominent artists that one can recommend are names such as: Johhny Polanco and LA Amistad, Wayne Gorbea and Salsa Picante – ambassadors of Salsa Dura (Hard Salsa), the sonero Domingues Quinones, Puerto Rico’s answer to Buena Vista Social Club the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Salsa legends El Gran Combo, and free-style singer George Lamond. One can also mention mainstream cross-over singers with some Salsa on their repetoire such as Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, and Gloria Estefan if you find it difficult to find a shop with a good selection.
Hopefully, this page will have been of use to you. Next time you are in a record store, take a look in the “World Music” section, and see if you can find something nice. Good luck.