Understanding Salsa Rhythm For Absolute Beginners (Youtube)

Frequently Asked Questions
Transcript of the Video

Link to the Video

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What are good Salsa songs that you would recommend to absolute beginner?

For an absolute beginner, I would recommend songs by Gilberto Santa Rosa — they are beautiful, not too fast, and often play the clave explicitly, which helps with the understanding of all these concepts. Also, the “Greatest Hits” compilations are very inexpensive since most songs are quite old. Here is a link to Amazon where you can preview the songs right on the webpage.


2. Can you hear the difference between 2-3 Clave and 3-2 Clave?

The short answer is yes. The reason you can hear it is that the context of the song tells you whether the 2 part of the clave starts on the “1″ side or on the “5″ side of the 8-note bar. Remember that independent of the clave, the salsa song has a downbeat (the 1), and in a 2-3 Clave song, the 2 part of the clave will be in the first half of the 8-note bar, while the 3 part will be in the second half. The reverse is true for the 3-2 Clave.

Again, as we saw in the video, there may not even be (and usually isn’t) an explicit clave that is played with the clave sticks, so it is essential to remember that saying that a song is written in 2-3 or 3-2 clave is really just a way of talking about how the musical accents in the song are *arranged*.

People can debate this point endlessly. Someone would often come up with a logical argument as follows: “If you had just the 2-3 clave playing and you walked into the room right after the “2″ part played, you would here the “3″ part first then the 2 part of the next count and so on — so to you it would sound like 3-2 clave.” While this sounds logically irrefutable on the surface, it is beside the point: you don’t just listen to the clave sticks played on their own — it is played in a song, and the song always provides the context to know where the “1″ is and thus shows the relative arrangement of the Clave with respect to it.

Note: The vast majority of the Salsa songs are written in the 2-3 clave where the 2 side of the clave falls on the same side of the 8-note as the 1 downbeat of the song. Technically, this 2-3 Clave is referred to as the Reverse Son Clave. Telling the difference between the two Clave arrangements is definitely a more advanced topic, and given that most Salsa songs are in 2-3 Clave anyway, it is not the most important aspect for absolute beginners.

3. Which one is Salsa and which one is Mambo?

Sometimes, to make things easier, instructors say that Salsa is the music and Mambo is the dance. I have also heard the assertion that Salsa is when you break on 1 and Mambo is when you break on 2; while other dance schools talk about Salsa on 1 and Salsa on 2. In reality, the meaning of these terms vary significantly based on where you are located. For instance, I’ve also heard the term Mambo used to refer to the more instrumental version of the Salsa music or even the instrumental part of a salsa song.

I would say the most common definition that I’ve heard is that Salsa is danced on 1 and Mambo on 2. It’s best to be aware that there is no universal definition and that people can argue endlessly which definition is correct; just use the one that is common in your area.

The above applies to the terms Salsa and Mambo when they are used as terms for dance. When they are used to describe the music, salsa is really the common term for a variety of Latin-based rhythms. For instance, according to Wikipedia: “Salsa music is a genre of music, generally defined as a modern style of playing Cuban son, Son Montuno, and Guaracha with touches from other genres of music. Originally, Salsa was not a rhythm in its own right, but a name given in the 1970s to various Cuban-derived genres, such as Son, Mambo and Son Montuno. These days salsa is a rhythm of its own and can be defined as a very syncopated son.” Many sources continue to say that Salsa is an umbrella term that is used to give a common name to many varieties of Clave-based Latin music.

Transcript of Understanding Salsa Rhythm of Absolute Beginners

This video covers a few essentials necessary to align your salsa moves with the music as quickly as possible. It is designed for those with no background in either dance or music, so everything will be explained from the very beginning.

We are going to talk about some important differences between the salsa music and the regular popular music; we’ll take a look at some of the easiest ways to hear the salsa rhythm; we’re going to demystify the Clave; and we are also going to discuss some common pitfalls that the beginning salsa dancer should avoid.

Ok, let’s look at some of the differences:

In pop music, the rhythm is typically expressed by one dominant drumming pattern, which stays relatively constant and can be heard clearly throughout the song. It sounds something like this:

{Audio of of drumming pattern at 00min:43sec}

You will find a drumming pattern similar to this in the vast majority of popular songs, from Britney Spears to Rick Astley; we are so accustomed to it that sometimes we think of it as the rhythm, and one of the difficulties for the salsa newcomer is that your brain automatically tries to find something like this in salsa music; it tries to find the beat. The problem is that there is no such beat in salsa, so the first step on the road to improvement is to stop looking for it.

Instead of having one dominant rhythmic pattern, salsa music has many different rhythms that often play at the same time. Also, it is common for different rhythms to play in different parts of the song. Let’s look at some of them.

Here is the Tumbao pattern that is played on the Conga drums:

{Audio of the Tumbao at 01min:27sec}

Here is the repeated pattern called the Montuno that is typically played on the piano or the keyboard:

{Audio of the Montuno at 01min:39sec}

And here is one of the rhythms that is played on the cowbell instrument:

{Audio of the cowbell at 01min:50sec}

The challenging thing is that these are just three of at least a dozen or so commonly used rhythms, and each of them has its own variations. Given such a variety, it will certainly take time and practice to achieve a solid understanding. The best place to start is with the Tumbao rhythm, which we will review in detail in just a moment.

Right now, let’s look at one more important distinction between pop music and salsa music: The dominant ingredient of a pop song is typically the melody, it’s all about that having that catchy tune. In salsa music, which has its roots in African drumming, the rich and layered rhythmic structure is just as important as the melody, if not more.

One of the things that make the salsa rhythm so difficult to understand is that it places the rhythmic accent in a way that is very unusual for a Western listener. This is the Clave rhythm that you probably heard so much about — the underlying rhythm that makes salsa music feel so different. It sounds like this:

{Audio of the Clave at 03min:01sec}

Notice that the Clave rhythm is not symmetric: two beats that are relatively quick are followed by three beats with slightly more distance in between. The musical phrase in a salsa song is written over eight beats, and the Clave rhythm emphasizes counts 2, 3, 5, the count between 6 and 7, and finally the 8 count. This lack of symmetry in the Clave rhythm creates two unequal halves in each musical phrase. This gives salsa music that pulsating feeling of a rubber band that gets extended and tense and then contracts and releases the energy.

The wavy motion of a salsa dance is a reflection of this non-symmetric structure that the Clave provides. So, in a way, you already feel the Clave subconsciously as you move back and forth during the dance.

Clave Demystified

The Clave rhythm is sometimes played explicitly using and instrument that is also called Clave — this is what we just heard earlier. More importantly, though, the Clave is the implicit rhythm around which all the other musical accents are arranged. In most salsa songs, it is not played outright, but it is more of underlying driving principle that governs and interrelates all the other rhythms that you actually do hear.

This is a source of endless confusion for beginners since they are often told to listen for the Clave, and then they start thinking that they may be having hearing problems or lack musical talent when they cannot hear the Clave no matter how hard they try to strain their ears. Hearing the Clave, or, more precisely, feeling the Clave — since it’s often not played explicitly — is something that takes a lot of dedicated practice. Fortunately, to start dancing to the rhythm, you don’t need to learn all of this right away; as long as you can hear the Tumbao, which is much easier, you’ll be able to understand the rhythm most of the time.

Tumbao Rhythm (Conga)

Right now, you are seeing and hearing the same thing — the Tumbao rhythm, which is played on the Conga drums. It consists of two deep strokes, one right after another, and then a single sharp click a little bit later.

The two deep strokes occur between the counts 8 and 1, just before the count 1; or between the counts 4 and 5, just before the count 5. In practical terms, if you are dancing on 1, when you hear the two deep strokes, that’s when you break forward or back. The sharp clicking sound occurs on 2 and on 6, and that would be the main signal for all of you dancing on 2.

Now I will count out all the beats a couple of times, so that you could double-check your understanding.

{Audio of Tumbao with voiceover counting at 06min:04sec}

So, this seems simple enough: anyone can hear the deep double stroke and the sharp click. Why is it so difficult, then, to hear the Salsa rhythm? The problem is that even the Tumbao, strong as it is, often gets overwhelmed by everything else that’s going on in a typical Salsa song. Listen to this, for example:

{Audio: excerpt from a Salsa song with a lot going on besides the Tumbao 06min:40sec}

In the fragment you just heard, the Tumbao rhythm is clearly audible. But it can be quite difficult for a beginner to discern because it is pushed into the background by all the other instruments. Let’s try a simpler example; I will provide the count again, so you can hear how the Tumbao sounds in the context of a Salsa song.

{Audio: excerpt from a chill Salsa song 07min:10sec}

Note how in the previous example the musical phrase always begins in count 1. This is important because, in reality, the Tumbao rhythm sounds the same for the click that occurs on 2 and 6, and for the double deep stroke that occurs just before 1 and 5. So, if you are dancing only to the Tumbao, you may be dancing on 6 instead of on 2, without realizing it. To fix this, you would need to pay attention to where the musical phrase begins. This may take some practice; the best thing is to focus on being able to hear the Tumbao rhythm reliably and then refine your understanding a little bit later.

Now let’s review some of the common questions and problems that salsa beginners face. The first item we are going to discuss maybe slightly controversial, but as an absolute beginner, it is very important to focus on dancing only to the rhythm, and not to the melody. In fact, you can often see that the person really likes the song when they get too much into it and fall out of step with the music.

At more advanced levels in Salsa, there are many ways of expressing the melody through styling vocabulary and learning how to match the intensity of figures to the music that you are hearing. And, of course, a really experienced dancer is able to improvise the movements on-the-fly to express the melody. However, to get to these more advanced levels, the sense of Salsa rhythm has to become fully automatic like walking — your body should be able to follow the rhythm completely without thinking.

Which brings us to the topic of shines: A shine is an open footwork that the dancer executes on their own, without a partner. Many beginners feel bored during the shines part of the class, thinking, “I’m never going to be part of any type of dance-off on the middle of the floor.” This, however, is a misunderstanding of one of the main purposes of shines, which is to help the body internalize the rhythm, not necessarily to have a John Travolta moment, dancing by yourself to amaze the crowds.

There is simply no way that as a beginner you can develop a good sense of Salsa rhythm if you only dance in pairs. It is absolutely essential to learn at least three or four shines well, so you can practice at home to internalize the rhythm.

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