Salsa is like jazz – if you don’t like it, then it probably all sounds the same to you. Therefore horrible injustice will resort, like Kenny G and John Coltrane getting lumped into the same conception. Likewise, “elevator” salsa, characterized by extra cheesy vocals and artificial sounding synthesizers, might keep you from getting into some really sophisticated and exciting music.
Also like jazz, salsa is much better appreciated live. I don’t think that many people drive around bumping salsa (or jazz, for that matter). If you have traveled in Latin America and you are thinking of the bass and percussion heavy dance music you’ve heard on the bus, well that’s probably cumbia, not salsa. More on cumbia later.
Not only is salsa made to be heard live, it’s made to be danced to live. Huge woofers rattle with booming bass. Highly rhythmic drumming and percussion assaults you from all sides of the stage. Big piano strikes or chromatic lines hold it all together. Over it are wailing voices with lyrics of love and loss and a trumpet-led horn section.
Another master, fortunately still alive, is Ruben Blades. His most famous song is “Pedro Navaja.” I saw him live in a town square in Mexico last year and he puts on a great show. You can see a cool video of Jerry Garcia ripping a great solo while sitting in with him from a concert in Los Angeles. The video of the full concert is called Caliente y Picante – Hot and Spicy, with Celia Cruz and Santana (among others) on the same show, with collaborations abound.
A modern hit, which I fear might be just a bit on the cheesy side, is “Yo No Se Manana” by Luis Enrique. The lyrics are great – it means “I don’t know tomorrow,” and is about meeting a girl in (probably) a salsa club and wondering what the future will hold.
If you like this kind of music, please write a reply and I’ll give you some more suggestions. Adios!